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The Liturgical Edsel

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 22, 2021

In previous posts this week, responding to the Vatican’s new restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass (TLM), I have argued that Novus Ordo worship is disfigured by widespread unbelief, and that the Vatican is effectively scuttling the prospects for authentic liturgical renewal. Today I want to address a different question: How might we measure the success of a liturgical renewal?

Before tackling that question, however, we need to address a preliminary question: Why all the fuss about the TLM? The answer is simple enough: many Catholics have grown to love the traditional liturgy, finding the ancient ritual, which taps into historic streams of worship that run back to the Old Testament, deepens their faith and devotion.

Unfortunately most Catholics do not understand this love for the traditional rite, perhaps because most Catholics are completely unfamiliar with the TLM. Rather than attending a traditional Mass, and forming their own opinions, too many accept the shopworn criticisms that have circulated through the Catholic media since the days of the Second Vatican Council.

Thus America magazine could make the curious decision to publish an article on the new Vatican document by a writer who admits: “I have never been to a Latin Mass, except as an infant and toddler…” The author, Kevin Clarke, tells us: “I do not miss the traditional Latin Mass, and I do not know anyone who does or who will likely miss it in the future.” In other words he does not know anything about the phenomenon on which he is reporting!

Catholic priests who have never celebrated the TLM may have trouble understanding the appeal of the old liturgy, too. A priest who celebrates the Novus Ordo, with its many options, can be confident that the Mass will suit his preferences. If he is reverent, the Mass will be reverent; if he follows the rubrics, there will be no liturgical abuses. If he is irreverent, or indifferent to the Church’s instructions, the Eucharistic liturgy will be irreverent and abuses will abound—but he will not care. In any case he rarely sees the liturgy from the perspective of the embattled laity.

My own perspective

A word about my own personal experience and perspective:

  • I am old enough to remember the pre-conciliar liturgy clearly; I was trained as a master-of-ceremonies for the Solemn High Mass. My memories of the old liturgy, frankly, are not particularly fond. Today’s traditionalists might do well to bear in mind that they are a self-selected group. The beauty of the ritual would be defaced if the TLM were celebrated by the same priests who preside at slipshod Novus Ordo Masses, and if the majority of the congregation was waiting impatiently, distractedly for the Last Gospel.
  • Over the years my personal circumstances brought me into contact with other Catholic rituals. I have frequently attended the “Anglican Use” Mass, and the Divine Liturgy of the Melkite and Maronite rites. I have been deeply moved by the beauty of these very rituals, and the marked differences among them have helped me to gain a new appreciation of the profound mystery that they share. I can easily understand why the faithful of different rites cherish the distinctive features of their own liturgical ceremonies. While I would oppose grafting parts of one ritual onto another—an approach that would dilute the historical purity of the rite—surely we can learn a great deal from each other.
  • Meanwhile, for almost 40 years now, I have attended the Novus Ordo Mass daily. The particulars of the liturgical celebration have not always been ideal (although I have been blessed to find parishes and chapels where the Mass is said with reverence), but the daily encounter with our Eucharistic Lord has been, and is, the backbone of my spiritual life. I have recoiled on those few occasions when someone seemed to be questioning the validity of the Novus Ordo; this was an attack on the “source and summit” of my faith.
  • Nevertheless, in the last few years I have gravitated toward the TLM, motivated at first by exhaustion with years of liturgical abuse in the Novus Ordo, but later by a growing appreciation for the beauty that so many other traditionalist Catholics have discovered. My own case, then, in a sense illustrates the “mutual enrichment” that Pope Benedict XVI hoped an acquaintance with the traditional liturgy would encourage. And I sense that in my parish—a Novus Ordo parish, but with many members who occasionally attend the TLM—the salutary effects of that same mutual enrichment are evident.

So I firmly believe, despite the new Vatican restrictions, that Pope Benedict was wise to unleash the power of the traditional liturgy. I fail to see how giving Catholics a choice between liturgical forms should undermine the unity among the faithful. Quite on the contrary, I would argue that by giving the laity a choice, Pope Benedict was advancing the cause of liturgical reform—the cause that the Vatican cites as the reason for withdrawing that choice.

The power of choice

Consider the Edsel. When Ford brought out its new model in 1958, the company’s marketing campaign told potential customers that this was the car they had wanted—the car with “more YOU ideas.” But it wasn’t. Consumers did not like the Edsel. Fortunately they had alternatives; car-buyers could cross the street to the Chevy dealership, or for that matter find less expensive and more attractive models in Ford’s own showrooms. The Edsel marketing campaign was a failure; the cars soon disappeared.

A few years later, Catholics were introduced to a dramatically different liturgy, introduced after Vatican II, and told that this “New Mass” was just what they had wanted. Whether lay Catholics wanted liturgical reform is debatable (as is the question of whether this new liturgy, the Novus Ordo, actually corresponded to the instructions from the Vatican Council). But unlike the Edsel, the Novus Ordo was never subjected to a market test. Catholics who wanted to attend Mass had no alternative.

Were the liturgical changes popular? We don’t know. Pastors told their people that the changes were good, and lay Catholics of the 1960s—especially pious, conservative lay Catholics—were not inclined to challenge their pastors. Yet soon a new trend emerged: a long, accelerating decline in Mass attendance that continues to this day.

Did the liturgical changes cause that exodus from the pews? That too is the subject of lively debate; the Novus Ordo was introduced at a time of upheaval in society, and no doubt other factors were involved (although I am convinced that the disruption of longstanding Catholic tradition was an important part of the problem). But certainly the Novus Ordo did not bring about the Catholic revival that its enthusiastic proponents had predicted. We have been told that the new liturgy allowed for more active participation by the laity. What constitutes “active participation” at Mass is yet another topic on which a great deal of ink has been spilled. But it’s a cinch that you aren’t participating actively if you aren’t even there.

Standards of judgment

In a recent interview Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley said that “young conservative clergy” are a problem for the Church. He was speaking generally about opposition to the agenda of Pope Francis, but his comments could apply to the liturgical debate as well. If “young conservative clergy”—the generation of “John Paul II priests”—are leading the move toward traditionalism, that trend would contradict the claim that Cardinal O’Malley (among other prelates) has made in the past: that the TLM is a concession made to older Catholics who have never adjusted to the post-conciliar changes.

Why are so many young priests, and so many young Catholics, attracted to the TLM? For years their pastors have told them that the traditional liturgy was unappealing. Yet at the same time, bishops have actively worked to suppress its appeal. If it were true that the TLM was unattractive—that the traditional liturgy was the Edsel—there would be no need for the latest Vatican restrictions. But the numbers suggest otherwise.

TLM parishes are growing, at a time when most parishes are shrinking. The pews of traditionalist parishes are full of large young families. Polls show that these traditionalist Catholics are far more likely to adhere to fundamental Church doctrines and moral principles than their counterparts in ordinary parishes. Perhaps most important, the young adults raised in traditionalist communities keep coming back to Mass and the sacraments, while other young Catholics drift away. Something is going right here.

A market test is not an appropriate means of judging the success of a parish; the Mass is not a consumer item. But a prudent pastor who knows his flock—who has the “smell of the sheep”—should be able to recognize within his own community which factors are helping, and which are hindering, the causes of Church unity and liturgical renewal. The diocesan bishop can make that assessment, far better than a bureaucrat in Rome.

If the goals are to encourage reverence and devotion, to evangelize, and to preserve unity in the faith, there is no need for concern about the TLM. If I owned a Cadillac dealership in 1958, I wouldn’t have worried about competition from Edsel.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mcdil01444383 - Dec. 31, 2021 11:20 AM ET USA

    And you didn’t even mention the number of times during the NO that the priest, facing the congregation, must stand and wait for the Cantor to finish the prescribed verses of song - beyond awkward to say the least. I grew up with the Latin Mass and I personally love the Mass in the vernacular but couldn’t we have accomplished that without deleting all the parts that raise it to a more reverent and majestically plane?

  • Posted by: TreeRing - Dec. 30, 2021 11:09 PM ET USA

    This is a good series. First, the TLM has enriched the NO in the way the individual priests celebrate the NO. We saw this when a young priest in our diocese began to celebrate the TLM--his parents and parishioners all noticed a difference in his celebration of the NO. Also, if the NO is the unique and only rite, which version? clown, liturgical dance polka, joy bottles flying, Fr. X's improvements on the prayers, Fr. Q's dramatic flourishes, Friar's insistence on standing for the canon...?

  • Posted by: dcnmthompson7484 - Dec. 27, 2021 12:30 PM ET USA

    In my experience as a deacon, I have noticed a handful of people very passionate against Latin or Greek in our parish. Any Latin word that rears it’s ugly head inside the church (building) is met with a nasty look or comment. Singing in Latin during adoration has caused a few to not attend. Even defining a latin word in my homily, Gaudete, to be specific, was met with a strong negative reaction by a vocal few. I suspect small vocal group of opponents are defining the issue for all of us.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Dec. 26, 2021 11:26 AM ET USA

    I am not a TLM advocate, but as did many of my contemporaries, I learned the Latin Mass by heart and am reasonably competent in classical Latin. I fully accept the Novus Ordnung, as imperfect as it is. What I cannot accept is the vindictiveness behind the current suppression of the TLM, contrary to prior popes AND Vatican II. My sister, who has not had an easy life, takes great comfort in the TLM. What kind of man would deprive her and others of the comfort the TLM?

  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 24, 2021 1:39 PM ET USA

    Outstanding series of articles on TLM! Thank you, Phil. Vatican used to be run by ordained men smarter than the current crew. Much smarter. And much more Catholic.

  • Posted by: frjt - Dec. 22, 2021 5:24 PM ET USA

    Good news: like it or not, the Volkswagen driven down the aisle & balloons & clowns are fading with the death of the 70's mod generation... People who live in fear that "Fr will turn his back on us" will be invited to pray together to the Lord, instead of each other, thus the death of our mammon. Can't come soon enough.