Theological and Pastoral Concerns with the Tridentine Mass Movement
In this section, we will outline the concerns that Traditionis Custodes and Desiderio Desideravi attempt to address. It is important to note that while some of the pope’s doctrinal and liturgical criticisms apply to the Tridentine Mass and the movement itself, others pertain only to certain individuals or groups in the movement. We understand that many who participate in the Tridentine Mass are obedient to the regulations set by competent Church authority and do not intend to upend Vatican II or to boycott ordinary liturgies or question their value. The concerns stated here are not intended to call into question the sincerity of such people or to subject them to the same critique as those who are more determined to undermine Vatican II and who reject the reformed liturgy as an authentic expression of the Roman rite.
In his recent book, Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius & Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass, Peter Kwasniewski implicitly reveals the distinction between the two. He not only describes the beauty of the Latin Mass but is dismissive of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Throughout the book, he speaks disparagingly of the reformed Mass, advising adherents of the traditional liturgy to avoid the Novus Ordo:
If at all possible, we should avoid participating in a form of prayer that deprives the Lord of the reverence that is due to Him. The Novus Ordo systematically does this by having removed hundreds of ways in which the Church showed her profound reverence for the Word of God and the holy mysteries of Christ.
Such critiques presume that the reformed rite must be an occasion of significant irreverence; there is little appreciation of the many celebrations of the reformed liturgy with profound reverence, feeding the souls of countless members of the faithful in parishes throughout the world. Across the continent of Africa, for example, celebrations of the Mass that are both vibrant and reverent attract thousands of people to the Church. Critiques such as this also imply a rejection of the Council and its subsequent magisterial reception, which is to set oneself up as an alternative magisterium.
Bearing this distinction in mind, a primary concern of the recent documents on the liturgy, following Vatican II itself, is the full expression of the baptismal priesthood of the faithful. There is an irony in the fact that many of those who participate in the Traditional Latin Mass today do so out of a postconciliar mindset. They are Vatican II Catholics who attend the Tridentine Mass. They want what Vatican II has taught them to want, an experience of active participation in something of surpassing beauty, namely, the Eucharistic sacrifice. Could it be that their experience of worshipping together, albeit with a self-selected group of enthusiasts who share the same ideal, is a large part of what it means to participate in the Traditional Latin Mass movement? But the liturgy, both the older form before the Council and the reformed rite now, is meant to accommodate all comers, no matter what their level of interest, faith, or attention span. There is bound to be a feeling of less intensely uniform participation. It can be easy to romanticize the celebration of the Tridentine Mass prior to the Council because of discontent over how the Novus Ordo has been celebrated. But those who remember know that generally, hardly anyone, including priests, thought in terms of participation, transcendent mystery, majestic rubrics, and reverential silence. Such may have been present to a degree because of the very nature of the Eucharist, but these aspects did not realize their full potential. The Mass had become very routinized and in many instances almost mechanically celebrated.
What was and still is absent in the Tridentine Mass is the full expression of the baptismal priesthood and its corresponding liturgical interaction with the ordained priesthood. The Tridentine Mass risks accentuating the ordained priesthood while undervaluing the priesthood of the faithful, so that neither the celebrant nor the laity fully enact their rightful liturgical roles in relationship to one another. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council must be understood as a retrieval of this common priesthood grounded in the single priesthood of Jesus Christ. In an ad limina address to bishops of the United States (1998), St. John Paul II stated, “The sharing of all the baptized in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ is the key to understanding the Council’s call for full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy.” When the priest and the congregation offer together the one sacrifice of the Mass, both celebrate in accord with their distinct indelible priestly spiritual marks. This is what the entire liturgical movement fostered and what Vatican II, in its renewal of the liturgy, ardently sought to restore. Benedict XVI in his Sacramentum Caritatis certainly warned the Church about confusing lay participation with that of the priest, but he also forcefully emphasized the importance of greater involvement of the lay faithful in the sacrifice of the Mass.
A second concern of the recent papal documents, especially Desiderio, is the nature of “mystery” when predicated of the Eucharistic liturgy. The mysteries of the faith have been divinely revealed so that we are able to know them. For example, the mystery of the Incarnation is that the only begotten Son of God exists as man, and the mystery of the Trinity is that the one God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, we do not fully comprehend the mysteries that we know; they infinitely transcend human understanding. The Mass is the sacramentally enacted mystery wherein Jesus’ once-for-all saving sacrifice is made present anew and we partake of its benefits. The reform of the liturgy was intended to make this mystery more available to the people, more indelibly imprinted on their hearts through prayers they themselves say in their own language and prayers they can hear and understand as the sacrifice unfolds. It is by entering more deeply into that mystery that the faithful directly and actively exercise the priesthood proper to their baptism. Priest and faithful together come to an ever more intimate acquaintance with the depths of divine love that the sacramental re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary expresses and makes present. Without prejudice to other approved rites and forms of celebration, it nevertheless seems to us that by beholding the sacramental signs through which the mystery is enacted on the altar, the faithful are more effectually drawn into the mystery as it is enacted.
Liturgical rubrics, by their very nature, are intended to allow the mystery that is being enacted sacramentally to teach and inspire and to draw the faithful into participation and communion. It is true that a less-reverential celebration of the Eucharist can distract from this aim, but it is also true that one can confuse a reverential and highly aesthetic ceremonial for the transcendence and mystery that properly pertains to the sacrifice itself. It can happen that the ceremonial itself and its meticulous observance take on a life of their own, as though they were the focus and source of the feeling of transcendence. The rubrics then lose their inherent purpose—to highlight the mystery of salvation that Christ the Head of the Body is enacting and in which we, as his members, are participating, and to engender in the faithful a holy wonder and reverential awe, not at our ceremonial but at the actions of Christ. As Sacrosanctum Concilium noted, many of the rubrics in the Tridentine Mass were superfluous, dated, or overly repetitive, and thus unnecessarily distracted from the mystery of the Eucharist itself. In the Novus Ordo, the rubrics are simplified in a manner that better allows the Eucharistic mystery to be expressed and enhances the faithful’s meaningful participation in it.
A final and paramount concern has to do with ecclesial unity. No matter what “camp” one might be in, there can be a danger of loving a form of the Mass more than one loves Jesus, whose saving sacrifice is made present and whose risen body and blood we receive. It must be recalled that the very “res” of the Eucharist, the “thing” of which it is the efficacious sign when duly celebrated by a priest in communion with the local bishop, is the unity of the body of Christ: “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being.” This means that to love the Eucharist is to love that of which it is an efficacious sign, the unity of the Church—not the ideal Church as we might abstractly imagine it or wish it to be, or a self-selected group of like-minded people within the Church, but the concrete, hierarchically organized Church as it exists locally and universally. Love of the unity of the Church means submission to duly constituted authority, particularly the local bishop, and to his directives, liturgical and otherwise. If one loves a particular rite at the expense of the unity of the Church, one does not have the proper “disposition” that allows the grace of the sacrament to bear its proper fruit in one’s life (see CCC §1128).
Some Catholics have come to identify themselves by rite preference, as “Latin Mass goers” in opposition to “Novus Ordo Catholics,” often with the implication that the latter are lesser Catholics than those who identify with the traditionalist movement. They tend to offer the worst caricature of the reformed rites, blaming the adoption of the Novus Ordo for the decline in religious vocations, the prevalence of divorce, and the rise of disaffiliation. The documentary film The Mass of the Ages, for example, makes the case that the “Novus Ordo” is the source of the Church’s present decline. The implication from the documentary is clear: either come join the real Mass of the Ages or continue attending a liturgy that has contributed to the destruction of the Church and world alike. The film shows little awareness of the actual state of liturgical practice prior to the Council, nor the vibrant Catholicism of the reformed liturgy existing in many parts of the world now, nor the vastly broader cultural, spiritual, pastoral and intellectual currents contributing to the present state of the Church in the West. The Savior, the cure for all that ails the contemporary Church and the world, is not a particular rite, but Jesus.
For many of these Latin Mass-goers their entire persona is constituted by this distinguishing characteristic, which demarcates and separates them from their fellow Catholics. They become an idiosyncratic liturgical camp within the Church. Pope Francis is rightly concerned about this kind of division. John Paul II was also fearful of such a rupture and, although Pope Benedict generously accommodated the Tridentine Mass, he too hoped that it would not be divisive. By exploiting Pope Benedict’s benevolence for its own agenda of proselytizing others to their liturgical cause, the more radical elements in the movement have, unfortunately, undercut Benedict’s wish that there be no division in the Church. Benedict XVI wrote in Summorum Pontificum, art. 1:
The Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI is the ordinary expression of the lex orandi (rule of prayer) of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite. The Roman Missal promulgated by Saint Pius V and revised by Blessed John XXIII is nonetheless to be considered an extraordinary expression of the same lex orandi of the Church and duly honoured for its venerable and ancient usage. These two expressions of the Church’s lex orandi will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s lex credendi (rule of faith); for they are two usages of the one Roman rite.
Benedict XVI was clear: Those who celebrated the Extraordinary Form needed to recognize not only the legitimacy of the Missal of Paul VI but its “ordinary” status. Fidelity to Summorum Pontificum required that a Catholic who desired to attend the Latin Mass also give credence to the reformed rite. Further, those who participate in the Novus Ordo should also not see those who participate in the pre-1970 rite as separated from them. After all, Pope Francis himself allows for some limited use of the pre-conciliar Missal, provided that such groups recognize the validity of the liturgical reform.
And yet, as the documentary Mass of the Ages shows, some who attend the Tridentine Mass regard themselves as separate from other Catholics, sometimes even to the point of thinking that they belong to a “different Church.” Thus, “Church” is now defined by which Eucharistic rite one attends. This has led to strange moments such as the ordination of Alcuin Reid, a traditionalist who once happily relied upon the papal authority of Benedict XVI, by an anonymous bishop in 2022 in disobedience to the local ordinary. The desire to celebrate the pre-conciliar rite led Reid to pursue ordination outside of canonical norms, in essence establishing his monastery as a church apart from the Church. This act not only manifested a certain elitism, in which traditionalists possess a higher liturgical culture than those who, in their spiritual mediocrity and liturgical ignorance, participate in the “new vernacular Mass.” It was also an act of disunity, ripping apart the communion of the Church in order to celebrate the pre-conciliar rite.
Of course, none of this is to deny that a reverse elitism is also possible, when those who prefer the pre-1970 rite, without intending to disobey liturgical authority, are scorned as having no legitimate concerns about the way that the liturgy is often celebrated. At times, there is a very real banality to the celebration of the reformed rite. For this reason, in the final section, we turn to what needs to be done to respond to these concerns, bringing the entire faithful to a deeper sacramental maturity desired by the Second Vatican Council.
The Way Forward
Given the present state of liturgical practice in the American Church, we would like to propose some positive ways forward. As our study has demonstrated, the initial implementation of Vatican II’s renewal of the liturgy was far from perfect. It had both positive and negative results. Perhaps it was impossible for the liturgical renewal to be implemented in an entirely satisfactory manner. The broader doctrinal and pastoral turmoil in the Church at the time, which reflected the social chaos in the world at large, did not provide an environment well disposed to facing the challenges that such a liturgical revival entailed. Some sixty years later, having grappled with the pastoral challenges, the American Church has matured in its approach to the liturgical reform. The time may now be ripe to make a new concerted attempt at implementing more fully the renewal that Vatican II so much desired. What would this new endeavor entail?
First, the liturgical revival ought to be set within the broader context of Vatican II, for the Council sought the renewal of the entire Church. This goal is particularly found in the Council’s two dogmatic constitutions: on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. The major themes in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, should also be noted, for the renewal of the Church was for the purpose of enabling it to proclaim the gospel more effectively in the contemporary world. Thus, we suggest that dioceses, seminaries, bishops and pastors provide catechesis on Vatican II. The generation of faithful who were alive during Vatican II have aged or have died. The succeeding generations know little concerning the Council, its teaching, and what it hoped to achieve. In the absence of catechesis, many of them are being led astray by those who denigrate the Council or even deny its legitimacy. This ignorance is especially found among those of the younger generation who are tempted to join the Tridentine movement. This impulse is completely contrary to the Council, and to act upon it is to impugn, even if unintentionally, the universal and ecumenical authority of the Council and its reception in the magisterial teaching of every subsequent pope. If bishops and pastors do not reclaim and promote the authentic teaching of Vatican II, the theological and liturgical vacuum will continue to be filled by those who promote the Tridentine liturgy as a way of disparaging the Council.
Second, in the context of catechesis and the teaching of Vatican II, bishops and pastors need to call the faithful to a deeper conversion—a more whole-hearted commitment to and love for Jesus and his Church. Without this profound conversion, the goal of a more vital participation in the Eucharist will always remain elusive, for the revitalization of the liturgy is not merely a matter of “doing it right,” but is predicated on the spiritual renewal of the hearts and minds of all involved—clergy and laity alike. Thus, a mystagogical catechesis on the doctrines of the faith is necessary in conjunction with a mystagogical catechesis on the Eucharistic liturgy itself. Yet even this will not suffice without a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the whole Church—the “new Pentecost” for which all the popes from John XXIII to Francis have ardently prayed. Only the Holy Spirit can awaken in the faithful the “Eucharistic amazement” that will enable them to enter fully into the liturgy and be transformed by it. The Eucharistic prayers themselves express this renewed descent of the Spirit in the epiclesis, by which the Holy Spirit is invoked not only on the elements of bread and wine but on the whole assembly, so that they may be transformed into Christ. “The Church therefore asks the Father to send the Holy Spirit to make the lives of the faithful a living sacrifice to God by their spiritual transformation into the image of Christ” (CCC §1109).
Third, this mystagogical catechesis should involve a presentation of the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist in their relationship to one another. Particularly important is the fact that the Mass makes present Jesus’ one saving sacrifice, a mystery of inexhaustible depth and richness that is revealed through the whole of salvation history and made known to us in the Scriptures. In communion with Jesus the great high priest, priest and people together offer the one sacrifice that he himself is, and so reap its saving benefits—forgiveness of sins and new life in the Holy Spirit. In this context, emphasis should be given to the priesthood of the faithful, for we have yet to appreciate fully the priesthood that was conferred upon us at baptism. Having participated in Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice of himself, the faithful are able to partake of his risen-given-up body and his risen-poured-out blood so as to abide in him and he in them. In this communion, the faithful are taken up into the very life of the Trinity itself as the Father’s Spirit-filled children. Equally, they must be taught that the present Eucharistic liturgy is a mystical participation in the liturgy of heaven and a foretaste of the wedding banquet of the Lamb that will one day be celebrated in the new Jerusalem (Rev 4–5; 21:1–7). The faithful need to be reawakened to the eschatological orientation of the liturgy itself and of the Christian life—to the fact that we are not at home in this world but are only sojourners, eagerly awaiting the coming of our King and the transformation of the whole cosmos. On that day we will be fully in communion with him, and so share perfectly in his risen glory, and thus be conformed into his true likeness as the Father’s Spirit-transformed children. The Eucharistic Revival promoted by the bishops will have limited success if it focuses too narrowly on getting the faithful to believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, without grounding it in the liturgy as a whole and in the all-encompassing divine mystery into which the liturgy leads us. Sufficient time and theological preparation are needed for such mystagogical catechesis to be fruitful. We suggest that adult classes be offered in parishes and that Sunday homilies attend to this for a designated period of time each year, in conjunction with the Eucharistic Revival.
Fourth, given the need for a deeper interior conversion, such conversion can be fostered by greater attention to the “ars celebrandi” (the art of celebrating) on the part of both ordained ministers and the laity. Priests need to ensure that every aspect of the Sunday liturgy—from the music to the vestments to the comportment of clergy and lay ecclesial ministers—enables the faithful to experience the beauty of the liturgy. Clergy and laity alike should be encouraged to show appropriate acts of reverence for the Eucharist. Upon entering the Church prior to the sacred liturgy, all should be encouraged to genuflect reverently before the tabernacle and keep a respectful, prayerful silence before Mass begins and during the parts of the liturgy in which the rubrics call for silence. Welcoming chatter should be limited to the vestibule or to the outer gathering space. Communicants should be taught to receive the Eucharist not casually but reverently—bowing or genuflecting before receiving their Lord and Savior. The laity should also be urged to wear clothing that is in keeping with the sacred Eucharistic banquet, avoiding immodest or overly casual attire that would never be considered appropriate for a wedding reception or social banquet (there may be legitimate exceptions, for instance wearing sport clothes when on vacation at the beach or a resort). While clothing and gestures may appear to be minor in themselves, they express an interior attitude—whether of unthinking casualness or of solemn reverence for the most sacred act that one can perform here on earth. Both clergy and laity must take personal responsibility for the sacred ambiance that surrounds the Eucharistic celebration. The cumulative effect of all these small “rubrical” acts would be that the whole congregation bears witness to one another that they are presently engaged in what pertains to the heavenly realm, and not to the mundane activities of this world. At the same time, we need to guard against the perennial temptation to so focus on external gestures that they become a substitute for true reverence of heart that God desires (see Matt 23:5–7, 25–28).
Under this category, we should mention some specifics. Language about the Eucharist (for example, in hymns and homilies) that emphasizes its character as a banquet should be balanced by language that emphasizes its character as a sacrifice, and that the table of the Lord is also, and predominantly, an altar. A steady diet of hymns that emphasize table fellowship to the exclusion of language about offering the sacrifice erodes a sense of the priesthood, both of the ordained and of the baptized, since priesthood is not needed for table fellowship per se, but for sacrifice. The riches of the expanded lectionary are also too often squandered by allowing lectors to read who cannot be heard or understood, or who seemingly have no understanding themselves of the word they are proclaiming. The reading might as well be in a foreign language. The same goes for responsorial psalms, where often one cannot understand what is being sung. Pastors do not take responsibility often enough. Also, while the worst of the iconoclasm that followed Vatican II, displacing statues from the sanctuary and throwing out racks for devotional lamps, has ebbed away, we should be doing more to recover the iconography and devotional furnishings that nourish the devotional life and help to localize it in place and time. One can understand the impulse to leave behind the reformed liturgy if the very reasons for which it was reformed are continually subverted by bad hymnody, incomprehensible Scripture reading and psalmody, and the seeming negation of the possibility of devotion, especially to Mary, to which Lumen Gentium exhorted us.
Fifth, as the Eucharistic revival progresses in dioceses and parishes, we recommend a renewed emphasis on the relationship between the liturgy and evangelization. As Vatican II taught, the Eucharist is “the source and culmination of evangelization.” Understood rightly, the liturgy is inherently evangelistic, not in the superficial sense that unbelievers ought to be introduced immediately to the Mass, but in that the liturgy reveals and makes present the heart of the gospel, the saving passion and resurrection of Christ. The faithful’s desire and ability to carry out their vocation of proclaiming Christ and imbuing the secular sphere with the spirit of the gospel springs from their active participation in the Eucharist, which conforms them to Christ in his self-emptying love. One way to foster this understanding would be by providing an opportunity for the faithful to bear public witness to their love for the Eucharist, perhaps in one or two brief testimonies after communion. While such testimonies may need to be monitored and even rehearsed, they would not only benefit the congregation but would also confirm more strongly in the speakers their own love for the Eucharist.
Finally, we hope that what we have suggested above contributes to the American bishops’ admirable initiative for fostering a greater Eucharistic faith. In light of the bishops’ proposals and Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi, we hold that it is time for those who have become part of the Tridentine liturgical movement to reconsider their position, and time for those responsible for overseeing the celebration of the Eucharist to get much more serious about reforming the reform, about addressing the legitimate concerns of those attracted to the Tridentine rite instead of turning a deaf ear to their complaints. Their concerns are often shared by those who frequent the ordinary form of the liturgy. If it is incumbent on those in the Tridentine movement, for the well-being of the Body of Christ, to return to the Church’s ordinary liturgical form, it is also incumbent on those who would receive them to work constructively to address their legitimate concerns. Now is the time for them to make their own significant contributions to the present liturgical renewal, a renewal that has been inspired by the Holy Spirit throughout the past century and a half. Now is also the time for us to receive them. Bishops and pastors should encourage the return of those who have been attending the Tridentine liturgy and wholeheartedly welcome them back encouraging a shared determination to continue the movement to contribute to the ars celebrandi and the dignity of the Mass.
Although the Mass is always perfect in its sacramentality, it is never perfect in its earthly celebration, for it is celebrated by those who, though saved, continue to struggle in their frailty and sin. Nevertheless, the renewal of the liturgy starts not with someone else out there whom I can blame for its demise and for our divisions, but with myself. If I want reverence in the liturgy, I have to start by putting it there myself, by a deeper and more absolute dedication to Christ and by entering into the mystery at every Mass with all the faith, love, reverence, and devotion I can muster. Such witness is my responsibility first and foremost. This is how cultural change begins.
At the same time, it must be kept in mind that the sacred Eucharistic liturgy here on earth only finds its perfection in the heavenly liturgy. Then, all nations, peoples, and languages will together, in communion with the glorious Lamb who was slain, give perfect Spirit-imbued praise and glory to the Father, forever and ever, Amen!
EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the fifth installment of five on the renewal of the liturgy. You can find a link to the fourth installment at the bottom of this page.
 Peter Kwasniewski, Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius & Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2020), 220.
 John Paul II, “Ad Limina Address to the Bishops of the United States,” no. 3.
 See Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, nos. 52–55.
 Pope Francis, Traditiones Custodes §3.