In recently writing on Beauty and the Catholic Mass, and consequently calling for more Beauty and less ugliness, more aesthetic excellence and less mediocrity, one might assume I have a preference for the traditional over the contemporary. Certainly many of the voices today that criticize contemporary Catholicism, and especially the more typical Novus Ordo liturgical practices, do so from a traditionalist framework. I do not blame them. Over centuries the Catholic Church incrementally built up a beautiful Mass that has largely been dismantled in the few years since the 1960’s. What replaced the traditional Mass has been a mixed bag, and not a few serious wrong turns. A few Catholics have rediscovered the traditional Mass and are championing its re-establishment as the Mass of preference and practice.
I am not yet prepared to be a champion of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass to the exclusion of the Norvus Ordo. But I do have sympathies with the traditionalist turn up to a point. As a classical Christian homeschooler who’s children are studying Latin, and as a Christian who sees the deep anti-human roots of modernity, I tend to look at the pre-Modern, even casting a glance back to the Middle Ages, and of course the early Church, with great affection and a strange kind of nostalgia (strange for not actually having lived during those times). I also prefer a Mass that has, as its primary focus, the worship of God, and thus is ordered that way. There is something about the old, and the Latin, that evokes the right kinds of feelings of worship. Plus, there is something good about linking our own experiences to the historical Church and not only to the present Church, however global and wonderful that is.
But, here’s the issue for me: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are not confined to a particular language or form. (I’m sure someone, somewhere out there is calling any Mass with a post-1569 style and form heretical – let alone post-1969.) I get that the stumbles and problems of the Novus Ordo Mass, and much of contemporary Catholic culture (at least in the U.S.), point to many deeper issues. And I do struggle with the sometimes poor aesthetics of the Masses I attend. However, we are not confined to reversing these problems to only “going back” to a more traditional, and supposedly more holy, era – which is probably a false, even though popular, idea. I believe the true solution is, rather, to place the right kind of emphasis on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Perhaps doing so will, in fact, lead us to a more traditional Liturgy. Perhaps doing so will have us all chanting, and praying in Latin, and smelling incense. Honestly I would love that. (I would also love walking in the door of a Romanesque style church, the interior lit only by candles, with a choir chanting from the choir loft. But I also want the place heated in winter and cool in summer, with good plumbing, and a sound system that allows me to hear the homily.) But we must not put the cart before the horse. I am convinced that a Novus Ordo Mass (or a somewhat altered version) can, in fact, be a Mass of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty if the Church so wills it to be so and acts accordingly.
The issue, as I see it, is that the Church (meaning the majority membership of the Mystical Body), especially in the west, became captivated (by degree) with the modern tendency to love a “truth” that is relative, a “goodness” that is so personal that it cannot be judged, and a “beauty” that is ugly. And this shift became popular and easy in a world that thought it was being profound, serious, and more authentic as it laughed at their parent’s generation for being uncool and out of touch (perhaps it was). In other words, many of the issues that have troubled the Catholic church over the last 50 years have not been issues arising from the Second Vatican Council, but have been Baby-boomer issues – that particularly unique generation that has been, and sometimes continues to be, somewhat of a blight on the earth (and not the only generation to do so – my own being a blight as well). The so-called (and falsely attributed) Spirit of Vatican II was, rather, the spirit of the age, blowing its way through the souls of the west and elsewhere. Everyone was affected. Modern Protestantism is just as much a result of this wind (I know this from experience).
The answer, however, is not to define a specific way of acting, dressing, speaking, eating, buying, walking, praying, etc. We must not adopt another form, yeah even a “costume” (however traditional), in order to become holy. We must not allow ourselves to believe a traditional Latin Mass makes us any more holy than a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a pair of leather chaps makes a middle aged CPA a Hell’s Angel on a Saturday afternoon ride with his friends. The only true answer is to turn toward God and to truly embrace Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. If that leads us to a more traditional Mass, or leads one to the Divine Office, or leads one to learning prayers in Latin, then it will be a true turn because it is born out of a turn towards God. If it leads us in another, perhaps non-traditional, direction, that will also be a true turn. The issue is how we stand before God, our reasons in worship, how we instill in our bodies the nature of worship, and the state of our hearts.
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.