The Strange Case of the Missing Mass

By Diogenes (articles ) | Dec 19, 2005

In his 1981 book From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe mused on the compound ironies in the fact that America's leading capitalists were headquartered in "glass box" buildings that derived, ideologically, from radical socialist designs for proletarian worker housing. The very folks who could afford to build themselves Buckingham Palace knock-offs built low-ceilinged stack-a-prole chicken crates instead. As Wolfe writes of the flummoxed plutocrats: "It makes their heads hurt. They just can't understand it."

A similar sense of dislocation afflicts Roman Catholics in contemplating the liturgy they experience. They have an unsurpassably rich liturgical tradition. They have Joseph Ratzinger as their Pope. They have Francis Arinze as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Yet these heavyweights and that tradition seem strangely powerless to provide the faithful with the Mass the Church intends them to have. In a speech last year in Milwaukee, John Allen said even the Vatican's Office for the Celebration of Papal Liturgies is solidly in the hands of the Cage aux Folles crowd: "[Allen] joked that the liturgical office staff 'try to set a record for how many liturgical rules they can break in one papal Mass. These things usually have dance numbers that rival Cats.'"

If such things take place in the greenwood, what shall be done in the dry?

An oblique but telling indication of the sorry state of the Roman Rite is the interest in blogdom generated by the new Secretary, or number two man, at the Congregation for Divine Worship. It's an interest I share. But if the Eucharistic liturgy as we presently experience it were in good shape, there'd be no reason for ordinary folks to care who held the Vatican job. Why should they? Yet the rule-breaking that Allen cheerfully reports is at the heart of the problem: it deprives us not only of the Roman Rite, but of the possibility of ritual full stop.

C.S. Lewis once discussed the problem in terms I here paraphrase: During Mass I can exercise either a critical or a devotional faculty, and the two are mutually exclusive. If my critical faculty is alert, it interferes with worshiping God, and has to be "lulled to sleep" as it were. The eucharistic rite, when enacted properly, is precisely the instrument by which this faculty can be quieted and the devotional faculty engaged. However, this is dependent upon the expectation of participation in the Church's liturgy, not Fr. So-and-so's adaptation of it. For if I have reason to believe that the celebrant will depart from the text or the rubrics, my critical faculty is switched on whether I want it to be or not, because the celebrant's departures may be tendentious or heretical or imbecile or all three. And even if the celebrant's changes turn out to be within the bounds of orthodoxy and good taste, I still would have been forced, against my will, to engage in an activity of criticism rather than of worship. I will have been cheated of a Mass.

Characteristic of a rite is that it's uniform in such a way that the human variables, where they exist at all, become inconsequential. Yet massgoers know the contrary experience is all too common, and most of us -- at the announcement of a new pastor or bishop or CDF Secretary -- find ourselves groping for the handle of a (figurative) revolver: "OK, what's this clown going to take away from us ...?" Sometimes we're pleasantly surprised, sometimes unpleasantly. But few Catholics are indifferent.

The young woman who blogs at But I Digress has a post titled "It's never a good sign when you go to Mass and ..." -- completing the sentence amply from her own experience:

...the words of the Great Amen are interspersed with little tinkly piano riffs which build to a full-blown song in the "background" before Father's done.
...the Eucharistic Minister doesn't know what to do when you don't want to receive Communion in the hand.
...Father adds little phrases into the Eucharistic prayer. Nothing big enough to be a big deal, just stuff like "And then, we know that Jesus took the cup..."

Can you relate? I knew you could. Add to the list? I know you can. What's important to grasp is that these minor deviations are not random, they're of an entirely different order from the inadvertent blunders elderly or spacey priests commit -- rather, in each case an element of the self-consciously personal is used to intrude between the worshiper and his anticipated experience of worship, i.e., the experience anyone gets when the celebrant simply opens the Roman Missal, says the black words, and does the red ones. The problem, ultimately, is not what the liturgists want to give us, but what they want to keep us from getting.

So how is it that we, heirs-at-law of two millennia of authentic Catholic ritual, with every external circumstance in our favor, are still read out of the will? In Tom Wolfe's words, it makes our heads hurt. We just can't understand it.

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  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2005 10:50 PM ET USA

    Deacon Bart: About 75 percent of the substance of theTraditional Latin Mass was discarded or radically changed to create the Novus Ordo liturgy. Even the postures, gestures and adornments are very different. But you say it's the translation that's the major difference? Surely you can't believe that? And rest assured that Pius V absolutely intended for his Missal to remain unchanged. Even the most liberal and modern reading of Quo Primum will produce that understanding.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2005 8:35 PM ET USA

    And he said: Behold, it is one people, and all have one tongue: and they have begun to do this, neither will they leave off from their designs, till they accomplish them in deed. Gen 11:6 The Lord is very clear about the power of humanity united by one tongue. While he confused the tongues of those who sought to superceed him we who have come to serve him through his Son should see that a unified language is not the "irrelevant" thing so many have been led to believe.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2005 4:14 PM ET USA

    I believe the Mass is perfeclty valid in both Latin and the vernacular because the Church, which St. Paul instructs us is the pillar and foundation of the truth, says so. Is Christ present in the Eucharist? Yes, He is, no matter whether the words of consecration are said in Latin facing the altar or in the vernacular facing the people. But, like Diogenes, I totally agree that the Mass, in any language, must be said correctly and reverently.

  • Posted by: Brennan - Dec. 20, 2005 4:03 PM ET USA

    As far as the superiority of the traditional Latin Mass (while acknowledging the validity of the New Mass) one could start with this article by Dietrich von Hildebrand called, "The Case for the Latin Mass": A good book to read is: "Reform of the Reform?", edited by Fr. Thomas Kocik, Ignatius Press. Also, there's the translated foreward (from the french) to Msgr. Klaus Gamber's book (The Reform of the Roman Rite) by then Cardinal Ratzinger.

  • Posted by: Deacon Bart - Dec. 20, 2005 4:00 PM ET USA

    B_Anthony, the councils are equal & when teaching dogma both are inerrent. Trent never taught its mass as forever unchangeable. I assist weekly a Novus Ordo Mass in Latin, it is beautiful. I also attend a Tridentine Mass frequently, also beautiful. The big difference in the two (since my pastor follows the GIRM) is the abysmal translation for the N.O. My convert wife prefers the Latin to English for its beauty but prefers Trent for the soul lifting translation in my 45 year old missals.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2005 1:17 PM ET USA

    As a 1949 convert in total accord with the Council of Trent, the first few years after the council were the most traumatic religious experience I have ever endured. Only after I decided that if the Novus Ordo were wrong, the blame was not mine, was the anger replaced by a never ending deep sorrow for the chaos and liturgical abuse that will last until the Tridentine Rite again becomes the norm. Those that have not known the unequaled spiritual experience of this Mass deserve their heritage.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2005 12:27 PM ET USA

    When one of my sons was very young, for several years, would only eat certain foods, prepared a certain way, on certain plates, arranged on that plate a certain way, and would only eat that food with certain utensils. He would drink his milk only from blue cups. I humored him because those rituals seemed so important to him. My other children cared not one wit. Eventually he realized that the rituals did not alter the taste of the food, or how it nourished his body and satisfied his hunger.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2005 11:59 AM ET USA

    I stand corrected: "situation of separation...not formal schism" were the cardinal's words. Please help me: Where are "dogmatic" & "pastoral" defined & assigned to the councils? Why is "apostolic origins" applied to PiusV’s Mass but not PaulVI’s? And "liturgy du jour"? Hardly. Have you read the GIRM? Granted, some priests need a refresher course there. Isn’t the ability to understand & participate fully in the Sacred Mysteries reason enough to provide an alternative to the Tridentine liturgy?

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2005 10:39 AM ET USA

    B_Anthony: Yes, I’d say Trent (a dogmatic council) is more authoritative than VCII (a pastoral council) and, no, SSPX is not in schism (so says Card. Hoyos). But those are not issues here, this is: The Roman Catholic Mass of Pius V, the Mass of apostolic origins, was discarded (for no good reason) in favor of what we have now--what Uncle Di says is the "sorry state of the Roman Rite." What did folks think was going to happen when clergy were given a virtual free hand to create liturgy du jour?

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2005 9:10 AM ET USA

    Pope St. Pius V indicated that anyone that tried to change the Tridentine Mass would merit the wrath of Saints Peter and Paul. For 40 years it has been impossible to clearly separate VCII ecumenism from formerly recognized heresy. With the full deposit of faith, any concession to dialogue challenges the assertion of Jesus that He would protect his Church from error. Jesus did not go after those who rejected him because of His hard sayings. Discipline and de fide doctrine must be renewed.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2005 9:25 PM ET USA

    Isn't SSPX in schism? And "independent chapel" doesn't sound Catholic ("universal"). If you want Tridentine, find FSSPs; they have papal permission to celebrate it. Now help me understand why Tridentine is be-all, end-all. Is Trent more authoritative than Vatican II? Did Jesus speak Latin at the Last Supper? At Pentecost, were the apostles able to speak native tongues, or were their listeners given ears for Latin? The Roman Missal is beautiful and UNDERSTANDABLE when recited FAITHFULLY.

  • Posted by: Bernadone - Dec. 19, 2005 7:42 PM ET USA

    Not everything is all black or all white. One of our priests practically puts on a floor show. He has played the violin (actually, not at all bad) during his homily, he has brought in an onion to demonstrate the layers of a person, he reads poetry, etc. Strange behavior, perhaps, but some of the congregation seem to be getting benefit and learning from his examples. (Personally, he annoys me.) However, not all learning comes the same way. Should some be denied understanding at their level?

  • Posted by: Brennan - Dec. 19, 2005 7:29 PM ET USA

    I think the issue lies deeper than the keeping of the rubrics of the New Mass (though that would be good). It lies with the reform itself. Often, even when the rubrics are followed, we are faced with a banal liturgy. As Dietrich von Hildebrand said in regards to the reform in "The Devastated Vineyard", if someone wanted to screw up the liturgy, Screwtape could not have done it better. Yes, here's to making the old liturgy more widely available.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2005 3:34 PM ET USA

    Another classic by Uncle Di! As for "altar boy's" comment, dig your teeth into this one: "The Dark Side of Tradition":

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2005 2:44 PM ET USA

    Let's hope B16 makes the old Mass more widely available!

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2005 2:31 PM ET USA

    Your paraphrase of C.S. Lewis is an eloquent description of a problem that is all too often the rule in most churches. I've cringed at many departures from the text. The result of all this is, as Pope Benedict writes in "Spirit of the Liturgy", a community "closed in on itself."

  • Posted by: Sir William - Dec. 19, 2005 1:42 PM ET USA

    Well said. One member of our household leaves Holy Mass in disgust often because that critical faculty is fully engaged at our parish more often than not. Sad when Holy Mass becomes an act of penance. "at the announcement of a new pastor or bishop or CDF Secretary -- find ourselves groping for the handle of a (figurative) revolver: "OK, what's this clown going to take away from us ...?" " Ain't that the absolute truth? You'd think more care would go into the pickin' by now, wouldn't ya?

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2005 1:27 PM ET USA

    I think you are too ritually oriented-- and most of my ancient ancestors were Romans. As child, and being visually oriented, I think I absorbed more about religion and awe of God from the beautiful stained glass windows than correct rituals.I have always believed that God intended for us to get to the truth--some of us arrive there differently than others. Here's something to ponder--what happens when you go to mass and can't understand a word the Priest is saying because his accent is so thick?

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2005 1:14 PM ET USA

    "During Mass I can exercise either a critical or a devotional faculty, and the two are mutually exclusive." This sums up the dire situation perfectly. Unless I am at St. John Cantius where the Mass is celebrated in utter reverence, I am alert--and forced to be--to every eccentrcity, every self-focused droplet by the celebrant, the cantor, the music director, the (often)awesomely awful lectors, and the ladies (mostly) who congregate as if for a tea when serving as extraordinary ministers.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2005 1:03 PM ET USA

    Bonfire of the Inanities

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2005 12:38 PM ET USA

    Although this is slightly off-center of your topic, Diogenes, thank you for the heads-up regarding San Francisco Archbishop-elect Niederauer. I see (literally) that we can expect fidelity to neither the Vatican's instruction on homosexuality in the seminaries nor to the liturgical rules. Scratch the Cathedral as a "safe" place to attend Mass. Rome has been unable, unwilling, or both, to govern the Church for 40+ years. Without discipline from the top and revolt from below, expect no change.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2005 12:27 PM ET USA

    Regarding your riff on C.S. Lewis - I find myself in absolute agreement - it's been a bit of a mystery to me in the past, and sometimes I thought I was just being stuffy, but it's good to know someone else experiences the same thing. I recently attended a week's worth of Latin (Novo Ordo) Masses, and the 'getting used to it' was a much more spiritually reposing experience than the 'oh, Lord, what now?' that I sometimes get. I'll add: a weird homily (or bad homilist) brings much the same frisson.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2005 12:24 PM ET USA

    It’s a little late for this sort of hand wringing, Di. It ought to be obvious to Catholics that, since the wishy-washy Sacrosanctum Concilium was published some 40 years ago, the Church no longer wanted to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass but, instead, host a Gathering at the Table--a reenactment of the Last Supper. If you want the True Mass, you’ll need to seek out an SSPX or independent chapel that offers the Mass of Pius V. “Introibo ad altare Dei” or “Gather us in” -- take your pick.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2005 12:14 PM ET USA

    Why? Why? Why? We read the words of our Holy Father and Cardinal Arinze. and JPII. We see the new seminary document. The answer is that all we see are words words words. When we look for action to back the words, we see a new Archbishop appointed to Sodom by the Bay who is endorsed by Dignity and New Ways Ministries. Read and weep: or