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What to Do about the Tridentine Mass?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 27, 2006

There is no question that the liturgy has a deep impact on both our religious perceptions and our spiritual comfort. Like it or not, the liturgy of the Mass is the Church’s primary message to believers. Those who possess a strong sense of their own Catholic identity will be very uncomfortable with a liturgical “message” which they believe undermines that identity. And those who lack that strong sense of identity will be slowly influenced by the liturgical “message” one way or the other—sometimes to good effect, sometimes not.

The complexities of getting it right are illustrated by the furor in France over Pope Benedict XVI’s plans to issue a document allowing broader use of the Latin Tridentine Mass. Following on the heels of the Vatican’s recent recognition of the Institute of the Good Shepherd (a group which has split from the Society of St. Pius X in order to come back into union with Rome), some bishops are concerned that if the liturgical “message” changes for the Church as a whole, the unity of the Church will be marred in a vain attempt to satisfy those who have been liturgically disobedient to the Holy See.

Many French bishops are upset enough to vigorously lobby the Pope to drop the proposed document. They fear that universal permission for the Tridentine Mass will send entirely the wrong message while providing no greater chance to reconcile the Society of St. Pius X, which also has doctrinal differences with Rome, especially over the Second Vatican Council's teaching on religious liberty. The Society is particularly strong in France, the home territory of its founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, so the French bishops are particularly sensitive on this point.

The hidden issue in all this is that Benedict XVI is hardly motivated by a desire to placate those who reject Vatican II. He may calculate, probably correctly, that many who attend SSPX chapels will not challenge recent developments in Catholic doctrine if only they can get what they regard as a decent liturgy. Nor is he driven by a desire to placate the disobedient (on this score, perhaps someone should write a monograph entitled How We Got Altar Girls).

As a cardinal, Benedict made it clear that he had reservations about the wisdom of certain aspects of the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council. While a reform of the reform resulting in a single superior liturgy might be a better goal, the Church has never in her history succeeded in achieving complete liturgical uniformity, let alone satisfying all parties. Recognizing this, Benedict may see a more widespread use of the Tridentine rite as salutary quite apart from its impact on Traditionalists.

I would submit that there is not and never will be a perfect solution to this problem. There is no question that the liturgy has a deep impact on both our religious perceptions and our spiritual comfort—but in very different ways for very different souls.

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