“How could I have been so stupid.” – President John F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Some might argue that I have gone off half cocked here. I can’t say I disagree, but my question is a serious one. But please keep in mind, I am no disrespecter of Pope Saint Paul VI.
After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, with all its subsequent political fallout and public humiliation, various reports were issued as to why such a fiasco happened. One common view is that the Kennedy administration and CIA succumbed to the psychological condition known as “group think.” This idea of an influential and highly informed group of individuals moving forward on a known-to-be doomed plan, with no one seriously raising concerns to the commander-in-chief, and giving the go-ahead which resulted in lives lost, reputations forever sullied, and a country’s population reeling from humiliation on the world stage, made me wonder if there is a similarity to the post-Vatican II decisions regarding the Novus Ordo Mass.
I realize this sounds extremely harsh, especially to those who don’t have a problem with the new Mass. However, with the level of anger and vehemence raised by not a few towards Pope Paul VI (now Pope Saint Paul VI) and the Novus Ordo, and the claims by rather smart people that it has only caused catastrophic damage to the Church, I think it’s a fair question to ask.
So, did good intentions (however understood) snowball into far greater changes than most ever imagined? It is generally agreed that J.F.K. essentially inherited a plan that he felt somewhat obliged to execute. Did Pope Paul VI feel the same way when he “inherited” the Second Vatican Council and its “inevitable” outcomes, in particular the new Mass? Did too few bishops and cardinals raise concerns because they assumed everyone else was on board and they didn’t want to be the only one making a fuss? Was the feeling that the trajectory was already set and could no longer be changed? Was it group think?
I would not even consider such a comparison if there had not been the profoundly negative impacts in terms of Catholics leaving the Church, vocations going unheard and unheeded, monasteries closing, church buildings being razed, a significant loss of beauty and reverence in the Mass, and numerous other ramifications since the council, and especially since the promulgation of the new Mass. I do recognize this is more a correlative argument and not so much a causal one, but just as J.F.K. inherited the CIA plan and trusted his advisors, I have been wondering if a similar comparison can be made regarding Pope Paul VI. Did he inherit a plan, or perhaps a movement, that surged forward with a kind on inevitability? Was he “carried along” by that energy and excitement for change? Did Pope Paul VI go along as though he was unable to put the brakes on? Was he merely weak or perhaps unskilled at leadership?
One might think this was the case. Consider some of the things Pope Paul VI said at his General Audience, November 26, 1969, only a couple of days before the Novus Ordo Mass was promulgated.
He speaks of innovation: “We ask you to turn your minds once more to the liturgical innovation of the new rite of the Mass.” History tells us there has traditionally been great reticence in the Church towards innovation in such matters.
The pope continued by indicating that such changes affect the Church’s traditions: “A new rite of the Mass: a change in a venerable tradition that has gone on for centuries. This is something that affects our hereditary religious patrimony, which seemed to enjoy the privilege of being untouchable and settled.” He almost seems worried at the change, and even feels the need to call out that the Mass is actually unchangeable.
He points out tradition is valuable, and maybe now we will understand its value: “It is at such a moment as this that we get a better understanding of the value of historical tradition and the communion of the saints.” He seems to call out the need to retain what is valuable rather than move away from it.
He says some will be annoyed: “We shall become aware, perhaps with some feeling of annoyance, that the ceremonies at the altar are no longer being carried out with the same words and gestures to which we were accustomed—perhaps so much accustomed that we no longer took any notice of them.” Here it almost seems like he is offering a kind of apology. He also seems to say that now we will take notice of what we have accustomed to, which assumes that we then will not be losing those things, just appreciating them more, which assumes that they shouldn’t go away.
And he says many other things about the Novus Ordo being novel, inconvenient, and affecting, in particular, the pious and the faithful. He also says these changes will help wake us up, that it will “draw them out of their customary personal devotions or their usual torpor.” Which begs the question, once drawn out of one’s torpor do we go back with fresh eyes and eager hearts to our heritage? It also seems he is saying the purpose is to help us re-appreciate the traditional Latin Mass–as though we need to take a rough detour to help us love the smooth highway once again, or fast for several days so that we appreciate the nature of food again. Well… this is food for thought, especially if we take the long view.
One can almost get the sense that Pope Paul VI was trying to put a good face on something that he felt was not great at best, and maybe a big mistake at worst. Certainly there is a hint of trepidation. But…
I have come to the conclusion that Pope Paul VI was the movement, that these words from his general audience are, in fact, representative of his genuine excitement for the coming changes. Perhaps he later regretted how some of it played out, but I doubt he ever really wavered in his decisions.
I want to be careful with this next comparison. I have no intention to draw too close an analogy. Still, it is widely known that Martin Luther, the rebellious monk who became a catalyst and firebrand for the Protestant Reformation, and one who sought great changes for the sake of getting back to something more pure (so the argument goes), later regretted much of what was done in the name of his disputation. Though Luther did not regret his doctrinal positions, he somewhat regretted how politically explosive it all became, and how quickly fellow Christians embraced divisive and polarizing positions to the point of a continuing and pervasive disunity within the Body of Christ. Luther was troubled that many took his revolution much further than he thought appropriate. Of course, without political backing his “project” would likely have died or been relegated to a kind of heterodox strand within the history of the Church as so many other breakaway Protestant and heretical groups were. This has been basically true for all the main strands of the Reformation. Still, Luther was absolutely convinced of his path and what he felt was his clear calling.
It also seems clear such is the case regarding Pope Paul VI. It is clear he believed he was doing the right thing. He also was willing to have the Church suffer a bit as it went through this necessary change.
How then should we think of Pope Paul VI? I believe the answer to the question at the beginning of this post is no. The promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass was not Pope Paul VI’s Bay of Pigs. It was what he wanted, and he knew it would create a lot of turmoil. He was not “carried along” like a ship without a rudder, or a simpleton in a mob crowd. The Novus Ordo Mass was as much his idea and it was any of the other crafters of the Mass.
First, this quote from Giovanni Battista Montini, then Bishop of Milan and future Pope Paul VI, conveys his thinking in 1958, years before the council, about the need to radically change the Mass:
The Latin is not the only obstacle [to modern man’s participation]. The difficulty arises principally from the way in which the liturgy expresses the prayer of the Church and the divine mysteries. The variety of its forms, the dramatic progression of its rites, the hieratic style of its language, the continual use of sign and symbol, the theological depth of the words and the mysteries fulfilled—all seem to conspire to impede the understanding of the liturgy, especially for the modern man, accustomed to reducing everything to an extreme intelligibility…. [The faithful] will find themselves excluded from its inner spiritual precincts, whereas the progress of culture has accustomed them to understanding and knowing all about everything in their environment and field of interest. We must transform the difficulty posed by the liturgical rite into a help for the penetration of the hidden meaning contained in Catholic worship.¹
This shows that the “spirit of Vatican II” was strong in this bishop long before the council, not only regarding what we read in the texts from the council, but also regarding the radical changes that later occurred.
Perhaps most telling is the last line that speaks to the modernist desire to deny the actual reality of the mystery of faith. Mystery is presented as a problem to be solved, as though it can be solved. The faithful should now have worship of God be entirely understandable, that they would finally know the hidden meaning — as though the meaning was hidden in and by the old rite (because of the rite itself) rather than because of the very nature of God and of faith. Pope Paul VI was a true believer in the changes wrought by the new Mass. He thought it really would bring about an enormous rebirth and rejuvenation of faith within the Church precisely because the Mass would now be without any “hidden meaning” getting in the way. I know very little about this pope, and even less about his core ideas, but in this particular sense he strikes me as a modernist, a child of the Enlightenment: a Catholic Pope but, in some significant sense, having a non-biblical anthropology (in terms of the Mass, yet strongly biblical in terms of marriage and contraception — go figure).
This now leads me to why I believe the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass was Pope Paul VI’s Bay of Pigs. The failed Cuba invasion failed precisely because it did not do what its planners claimed it would do based on assumptions that, on later reflection were poor and very naive, and was executed because too few wanted to stand in the way of its momentum. The promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass, it is arguable (and has repeatedly been argued), has been directly responsible for great numbers of Catholics leaving the Church, many churches and monasteries closing their doors, parishes having to combine and downsize, Catholic schools closing or becoming in practice non-Catholic, very low numbers of new vocations, etc, etc, etc. Perhaps the only difference is that Pope Paul VI was not around long enough to see the full effect of the results and exclaim: “How could I have been so stupid.” (I mean no disrespect to the Holy Father.)
And yet, and yet… in a sense he had profound insight. Perhaps the old Mass, and pre-council Catholicism in the west was, in some way, dead or dying. Not because numbers were low, but because so many Catholics took the old rite for granted. He says just as much in his general audience address. Today we are seeing a resurgence of interest in the TLM, but this time with great passion and actual participation by the laity. Piety now seems to be combined with hearts on fire on the one hand and knowledge on the other. The laity are studying the old Mass, learning what it means, comparing it to the new. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back, driven by a renewed interest founded on a renewed understanding and thus aiming towards an authentic realization of the value and purpose of worship itself.
So… in conclusion, I have come to see Pope Paul VI in a new light. I think the results of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and let’s face it, a lot of crazy garbage happened in those years, will be a new flourishing of the Church. I can’t say Pope Paul VI saw all this, but it seems God used him to accomplish some important changes that only now may be coming to light. Of course this does not get him, or anyone else, off the hook for the damage caused, but it does help us see how God can and will work all things for good… eventually. What I pray and hope is that Pope Paul VI saw this too.
Like I said at the beginning, half cocked.
- Giovanni Battista Montini, “Liturgical Formation: Pastoral Letter to the Archdiocese of Milan for Lent 1958,” English translation in Worship 33 (1958–59), 136–64; at 153–54. Found in: Kwasniewski, Peter A., and Martin Mosebach. Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages. 2017. Page 19-20.