Clamoring for the Tridentine Mass?

TridentineOver the past quarter century or so, I have written my share of stories and columns about traditional Catholics who yearn for the return of the Tridentine Mass.

I realize that this is a very emotional subject, in part because of the tsunami of cultural changes that swept over the American Catholic Church — emphasis on the word “American” — at about the same time as the Second Vatican Council. For a nice summary of all of that, check out this post from Amy Welborn at open book.

There are Catholics who think the church went too far into modernism and there are Catholics who do not think the changes went far enough. Now here is the key to the emotions tied to this issue. Many of the people who yearn for the return of the Tridentine Mass are convinced that the leaders of the “we want more changes and we want them now” camp are actually in charge of the liturgy offices in many dioceses across the nation. There is some truth in this claim. There are people in places of power who shudder at the sound of Gregorian chant and traditional language in the Mass.

As the old joke goes: “What’s the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

Thus, temperatures rise all over the place at the slightest mention of bringing back the old Latin Mass. So I read, with interest, this Sunday’s Baltimore Sun report by Liz F. Kay titled “Enthusiastic Catholics clamor for Mass of past — Interest grows for rare 16th-century service.” I came away with the impression that there are, as the story sort of says, dozens of local Catholics clamoring for this 16th-century rite. Can you get a real clamor going with dozens of voices?

Anyway, why are they clamoring?

If the speculation around the Vatican is right, their prayers might be answered. Rumors have swirled for months that Pope Benedict XVI will formally grant permission to all Catholic churches to perform what’s commonly — though incorrectly — known as the Latin Mass.

… The move — if it happens — is seen as a way of reaching out to traditionalists who were alienated after the Second Vatican Council produced a new missal, or prayer book, in the late 1960s that streamlined the Mass.

“Identifying with the Tridentine Mass is a kind of a mild form of protest,” says Mathew N. Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross. “A lot of it has to do with a more aggressive assertion of Catholic identity and a feeling that that has been lost.”

Here is my problem. This is an emotional story, but is this a big story?

Frankly, I think it is a story hooked to a symptom rather than a root cause. And, besides, I haven’t seem much evidence that large groups of modern American Catholics clamor about much of anything at the parish level. They tend to live rather quietly in their doctrinal and stylistic niches like everybody else in mainline religion in this culture. They do like to clamor on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the Tridentine is not the only Latin Mass. It is perfectly legal for Catholics to celebrate the Novus Ordo liturgy in Latin (although, truth be told, there are bishops and liturgists who oppose even that — which is a story in and of itself). It is also possible to celebrate the post-Vatican II rite with a high degree of respect, dignity, beauty, pomp and, yes, glorious injections of chant and other forms of ancient and medieval Catholic music.

So the Sun story is good, but I think it confuses several issues. To use the Tridentine Mass as the symbol of conservative Catholicism in the Baltimore area, or America in general, is to miss the point and to hide some of the fascinating divisions in the modern church. The “worship wars” that ravage many churches are a big part of modern Catholic life. Trust me.

There are Catholics who yearn for beautiful worship — period. There are Catholics who yearn for their church and for their own priests and liturgists to defend the doctrines of the faith. There are charismatic, semi-megachurch Catholics who yearn for conservative doctrine, yet love the informal forms of worship and music that drive the traditionalists bonkers. There are liberal Catholics who love smells, bells and NPR classical music, yet who want inclusive language and female priests. There are priests who want to be talk-show hosts. There are parishes that are totally dead when it comes to liturgy and spirituality and have no idea what they are doing.

In other words, this story merely scratched the surface. In an old, complex Catholic city like Baltimore, the heart of Maryland, readers deserve more. Let’s hope that the Sun turns this one story into a longer and more worthy series of articles.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Roberto Rivera

    As my parochial vicar, Father Jerry Pokorsky, who is on the executive committee of Adoremus, a group working for the renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, says, there’s little need for the Tridentine Mass if the Novus Ordo is done well. At my parish, at least at the nine o’clock mass, it is done well. Thus, I feel no need to attend the 12:30 Tridentine Mass.

    Of course, I am aware that my parish is not typical in this respect.

  • Sean

    I appreciate your insight. Maybe it isn’t a big story. I don’t have enough life experience in the RC church to argue persuasively one way or the other (having been away from it most of my adult life), but small gestures may have large consequences. I was impressed by Eoman Duffy’s argument in “Faith Of Our Fathers” that the decision to make the Friday fast optional had seriously weakened catholic identity and unity subsequently. I think an important subplot in the whole thing is the ongoing argument over Vatican II within the church with the motu proprio being seen as a nod toward a particular interpretation of it.

  • Martha

    That picture makes me nostalgic – not for the Latin Mass, but because our parish church used to look like that.

    Perfectly fine altar, altar rails, statues, angels, you name it, ripped out and thrown on the dump for the sake of ‘change’ and the ‘spirit of Vatican II’. Now, where exactly in the documents of the Council did it say “Go out, wreck the churches, and replace the altar with a bit of wood on a tripod”? Don’t talk to me about what they’ve done to the side-altars…

    It’s not so much a protest as that the laity had all this kind of thing done around them, sllegedly in their name, yet no-one actually *asked* them “So, do you want the altar pulled out? The statues binned? The marble and wood replaced by felt banners?”

  • Jerry

    You used italics when you spelled out “Mary” in the word “Maryland,” leading one to conclude in the context of your post regarding Maryland Roman Catholics that the state is named after the Virgin (Saint) Mary. That is incorrect. Although the original land grant from Charles I went to Lord Baltimore, a Roman Catholic, the colony of Maryland was named after Charles’s Queen Consort, Henrietta Maria, not the Mary of the New Testament Scriptures.

  • tmatt


    I knew that. This is, however, about as establishment an old Catholic state as you can get.

    I’ll remove the ital if you think others would misunderstand….

  • http://www.renewamerica.uc BMershon

    To state that the Novus Ordo, when “done well” or “reverently” eliminates the need for the Traditional Latin Mass is to keep things as a surface issue.

    Of course, the entire liturgical calendar was changed, thus changing the theology, the prayers in the Novus Ordo were completely revamped, mostly to eliminate “negatives” such as sin and our own unworthiness in the sight of God.

    The fact that the Novus Ordo CAN be offered in Latin doesn’t mean that in more than a half dozen churches in the U.S. that it is offered in Latin, or with Gregorian chant.

    The Novus Ordo is a defective Catholic rite, theologically speaking. It is as simple as that.

    The fact that is so open to abuses and various “options” (13 Eucharistic prayers at last count–none other than No. 1 with Apostolic origins) makes one ask, “Which version of the Novus Ordo are you talking about?”

    It is Catholic, but barely…

  • Ed Snyder


    you have missed 3 main points in your analysis of the liturgical issues:

    The Tridentine Rite is a legitimate form of Catholic Worship that has 1,500 years of trial and error behind it. It is also a hybrid form of the Mass, combining as it does the Roman and Gallican rites into a sythesis that is unsurpassed in its theological richness. It was codified by Pope Pius V in 1570 in order to prevent catholics from becoming apostates.

    the New Rite of Mass was designed to attract low-church Protestants (it would never appeal to High Church Anglicans or Lutherans, whose litrugy makes the Novus Ordo look pretty poor, to put it lightly).

    THe success of restoring the freedom to celebrate the Tridentine Mass is being watched by the Eastern Orthodox; failure to do so by Rome is a signal to the Orthodox that liturgical tradition is incapable of being protected in the West; the Orthodox will never submit the Divine Liturgy of the East, which is virtually unchanged since apostolic times, to the forces of modernism, ecumenism (misplaced) and secularism which shaped the biases seen in the contemporary celebrations of the Roman Rite Mass.

    The few and far between permissions given for the celebration of the Tridentine Mass have produced an abundance of vocations, and have brought back to the practice of the faith innumerable “liturgical dropouts”; people who left the church in the 1970′s due to the liturgical destruction which took place in order to guarantee that the Tridentine Mass could no longer be celebrated in Catholic churches.

  • James

    The Tridentine Mass question is not whether it will fill the pews, from my experience in a conservative parish it does not do that (although reverently celebrated NO Masses may have cut down on the demand).

    The point is that the Tridentine communities seem to produce vocations out of all proportion to their tiny numbers. This is obvious to any of those with some contact with the movement (especially those of us who are outside of it). Their vocations also seem to stay in the priesthood for longer.

    Why does the press not cover this? If we continue to see these traditionalist priests coming in and staying it is bound to affect the long term direction of the church.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What needs to be done is to make the Mass in the various native languages as sacred and soul-touching as the traditional Latin Mass was. What destroyed this sense was many things happening at the same time as the Mass going over to the vernacular. Catholic churches suffered an iconoclastic binge– the ripping out of colorful art and the whitewashing of walls and statues as well as the tossing of vigil lights into the trash and the eliminating of incense -mostly the fault of Irish pastors who love to ape the Protestants of the English castle. Indeed,most ethnic Catholic parishes didn’t try to artistically become Congregational wannabes. Following this came Holy Communion in the hand, the tearing apart of altar rails, and standing-instead of kneeling as the posture for receiving Communion.
    The irony is that most of these changes which affected the way Catholics experienced the Mass were NOT mandated by Vatican II. All these changes turned the Mass into being perceived primarily a “head trip” rather than a holy ritual.
    The Catholic Church needs to learn from the Orthodox who have managed to keep the mystical aura which should properly surround the Mass while celebrating it in vernacular languages.
    Unfortunately, the media usually spins stories on the desire for the Latin Mass as being simply nostalgia for a dead language. But the problem goes much deeper.

  • George Conger

    The magazine, Inside the Vatican, has an interview with the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith on this topic — loosening restrictions on the Tridentine Mass.

    “It is not so much a matter of the Tridentine Mass or of the Novus Ordo. It is just a question of pastoral responsibility and sensitivity,” Archbishop Ranjith said …

    The Feb 21 article ties in nicely with the argument offered above.

  • Emily

    Wait. The Baltimore Sun, that bastion of journalistic integrity and witty, articulate phrasing, published a shallow and emotional story?

    Let me guess — the headline next to it read “A Puppy Who Brought Joy to a Grieving Family,” right?

  • AMDG

    Ed, good points but the Novus Ordo are also messing with the Divine Liturgy. The Maronite Rite is basically a mid-East Novus Ordo nowadays and the Ukrainians are also messing around with many liturgical elements that have alliented many priests to the point of the priest joining an SSPX “sponsored” group called the Society of St. Josephat.

  • Andrew Clearfield

    The yearning of many (not merely dozens, but thousands and tens of thousands) of Catholics for the Tridentine Mass is not merely a “symptom” of some other malaise; it is the best hope for the cure of the malaise which afflicts Catholics everywhere: the lack of verticality, of a sense of reaching for transcendence which used to be the most striking and fundamental quality of Catholic public worship. Even celebrated with due formality (which, admittedly, helps) the novus ordo mass is incredibly banal and earthbound. It was not written by poets and mystics, whose contributions were accumulated over centuries, but by a committee, with a deadline, and one with a hidden agenda as well. Instead of standing apart from, and patterning an escape from the banality and egoism of everyday life, it mimics and even exalts them. The language (in all the translations I know) is deliberately flat, the role of the celebrant largely reduced to chairing a prayer meeting, the ritual made as routine-seeming as possible. Celebration versus populum brings the eucharist out of the transcendental realm and firmly into the congregation’s world.

    All this was done so that Catholics could stop feeling ‘odd,’ ‘medieval,’ and ‘set apart’ in both pluralistic societies and in rigorously secular ones. The by-product of being like everyone else was to make many Catholics question the fundamental tenets of Catholic belief, and many others to feel that going to church was hardly worth the trouble. Church attendance fell, and the majority of e.g., American Catholics do not even understand the Church’s most basic teaching on the Eucharist. In short, the liturgical reforms of the post-Vatican II era have been a disaster for the Church.

    Ironically, these attempts to make the Chruch’s rituals more ‘relevant’ have helped the Church become as irrelevant as most other Western cultural institutions have become in the past forty years. This development reveals the true motive behind many of the calls for reform in the 60′s and 70′s: not to reinvigorate stale modes of worship, but to drag worship down to the level where it could be comfortably ignored whenever Church practice and Church teaching became inconvenient.

    It is for this reason that so many traditionalists wish to restore the Tridentine Mass. The new Mass has failed them, failed the Church, and failed Catholic teaching; in fact, it has probably failed most of the goals people have whenever they turn to religion in general. It is not a nostalgia for Latin per se, but a desire for the universality, historic rootedness, doctrinal solidity, and transcendental qualities of the ‘old’ Mass which raises its (at least partial) re-institution into Catholic life as the top priority for so many Catholics today.

    In fact, it is interesting that in my experience the majority of the worshipers at a Tridentine Mass are too young to remember when this was the one and only Mass. It is the older generation which includes most of the fetishists for everything post-Vatican II, including the new Mass. The young are either searching for the tradition their parents abandoned, or they are abandoning the Church entirely. It remains to be seen whether the Church hierarchy can admit it made a mistake and seek to ameliorate it, or whether it will stubbornly follow the same failed and failing ‘modernization’ down the path already taken by the ‘mainline’ Protestant churches into marginalization, irrelevance, and ultimate disappearance.

  • corita

    Hey, TMatt, glad to see you pick this up.
    That Liz Kay gets me every time; I read and squirm. She seems to want to report fairly on religion; but she seems uncomfortable dealing with Catholicism. She can’t stop herself from putting in statements about “controversy,” and “conservative stance” on social issues. Even when the story is about puppies – er, I mean- people who like the Tridentine mass.

    I wonder who picks her stories. Is it Liz Kay herself? I agree that there are many, many stories to be written about the types of liturgy, and who wants what, and why. But who has the cojones for that? Not the Baltimore Sun.

  • Dan

    Is it a big story? I’d say it’s not a story at all presently. It’s a rumor.

  • Danny L. McDaniel

    If you want the Tridentine Mass either find a church that still offers it or better, yet, start your own church. Since the late sixities all I have heard is the Tridentine is on its way back, it just around the corner. It has went the way of self service gas stations, rotary phones, black and white TV sets and nuns, never to return on full scale use, relegated to history.

    The Roman Catholic or “American” church is better off for it being gone. Most people who want it today were not alive during it use. Believe me, people get more out of the new mass. My late Grandmother for years went to mass and didn’t understand a word of it, prayed the rosary, alot of people did that. It’s gone and buried forever!

  • Conor

    The Roman Catholic or “American” church is better off for it being gone. Most people who want it today were not alive during it use. Believe me, people get more out of the new mass. My late Grandmother for years went to mass and didn’t understand a word of it, prayed the rosary, alot of people did that. It’s gone and buried forever!

    Typical American myopia. If it’s not easy and in English I’m not interested. The Tridentine Latin missal has a vernacular translation accompanying it for the laity to follow what is being said in the Mass. Claiming ignorance is extremely disingenuous. The traditional liturgy is neither dead nor buried nor a relic of the past. It is the true embodiment of our faith. Bad liturgy, of which the Novus Ordo is the primary example, leads to a defective (or worse heretical)understanding of the faith. The basic point of the Liturgy is

    lex orandi, lex credendi

    namely the law of prayer is the law of belief.