Saturday, January 29, 2005

Why I returned to the Latin Mass:
a personal account

(A paper delivered at the Annual Conference of the
Campion Fellowship of Australia,
"Caritas Cristi", Sydney,
28-30 December 1990.)

Gary Scarrabelotti *

WHY have you gone back to the old latin Mass? That is a question which I have been asked many times recently by many a puzzled inquirer.

Not infrequently the most perplexed have been friends and comrades: people with whom I have shared a common cause - the defence and promotion of Vatican II understood in the light of orthodox Catholic teaching.

The reason why at least some of these old associates and natural allies are feeling uneasy is because they recognise - or suspect - that by returning to our traditional Mass I am signalling a change of mind over things about which we were once agreed.

The test of experience

Once we eagerly accepted the challenge - made by Paul VI and reiterated by John Paul II - to modernise Catholic life, to give the faith of our fathers a new expression in forms more attuned to the modern world. But now, it seems to me, things have changed. What once appeared to be an obvious, common sense course has been shown, I believe, to have been a road to destruction. For my part, I cannot any further tread this path.

The up-dating (or aggiornamento) in which we were engaged was an attempt to "inculturate" the Catholic faith into the secularist milieu of Western society. The key element in this ambitious project was the reconstruction of the liturgy. In reality, though, the "reform" was an act of cultural hubris carried out and endorsed by people who had already accepted that contemporary Western culture should serve as a norm for Catholic life. This assumption, moreover, was not merely something which activated the advance guard of reformers; it also deeply influenced mainstream Catholics and has gravely (perhaps fatally) weakened their defence of Catholic doctrine. On the liturgical level, the result has been the creation of a system of religious symbols more apposite for sowing confusion among Catholics than for building up their faith. What is particularly dangerous about this development, is that these symbols do not exert their influence upon Catholics, as it were, from without, but from within.

I had finally reached these conclusions by 1987, but at that time their implications were not clear to me. I was too preoccupied with other thoughts to give much attention to exploring where these new convictions might lead. My chief preoccupation at that time was how to remain a believing and practising Catholic in a Catholic world whose every nook and cranny - or so it seemed to me - had become an alien place. The religious culture in which I had tried to live the faith had been obliterated by policies approved by the Church's leaders and applauded by people like myself. It came as a shock to discover that this up-to-date, alternative Catholic world which we had eagerly constructed for ourselves was not one in which I could live.

Ukrainian interlude

All I could do was to take refuge - and so I did (during 1987-88), in the Ukrainian Catholic Church. I owe an eternal debt to Ukrainian Catholics. Thanks to them I was able to persevere. I also relearned many things from them: that God is a mystery to be worshipped; that to stimulate the attitude of worship, the cultus of God must be infused with a sense of his mystery; and that beauty is the doorway through which the mystery enters and brings man and women to their knees. And there was another thing too that I learned: that those who deny their past - those who make an idol of the present - are already like the dead; they are souls without a future.

It was while I was praying with the Ukrainians and under the influence of their liturgy, that I began to take stock of a store of ideas which I had inherited but whose significance and ramifications I had not seriously begun to evaluate. This did not occur systemtically. A store house tends to be a jumble and one assesses its contents randomly, taking up things as they come to hand and reburying them inadvertently as one rummages through the place. Interesting things turned up, however, as I began picking over my collected intellectual baggage.

There was, for instance, something Plato had said but which at a younger and vainer age - when I was eager to appear a man of his time - I could not have understood:

Change - except when it is change from what is bad - is always, we shall find, highly perilous, whether it be change of seasons, of prevailing winds, of bodily regimen, of mental habit, or, in a word, change of anything whatever without exception, except in the case I have just mentioned, change from bad. (Plato, Laws, VII, 797e)

True, Plato's horror of change had much to do with the kind of society he essayed in the The Republic, an ancient herald of twentieth century totalitarianism.

But that did not blunt the force of his original point and I was reminded that Aristotle (whose only vice as a philospher was his moderation) had said much the same:

...God, whose nature is one, enjoys one simple pleasure for ever. For there is an activity not only of movement but of immobility, like that of thought, and there is in rest a more real pleasure than in motion. Yet, as the poet says, "in all things change is sweet." It is sweet to us because of some badness in us. For a nature that needs change is bad, just as a changeable person is bad, and it is bad because it not simple or good. (Aristotle, Ethics, VII, Chpt 14)

Now that sentence - "For a nature that needs change is bad..." - struck me as an indictment of post-Enlightenment culture. Our need for change has become a relentless social force which has left nothing untouched. "Change is the only constant," we are told repeatedly. Nearly two hundred years ago Wordsworth wrote of his own day
Perpetual emptiness! Unceasing Change!
No single volume paramount, no code,
No master spirit, no determined road.
("England, 1802")

How much more apposite to our time than to his! And considering this, I asked myself whether the liturgical changes had been motivated by reform or driven by the "need for change". Given the optimism and naivety of the Second Vatican Council on the subject of modern culture, how many, then, who made the Council had been able to distinguish a real reason for reform from a mere prevailing cultural imperative? And what if the Council had, in its prudential judgements, been carried along on just such a current?

The gods of change: the gods of revolution

As this question rose in my mind I realised that, by some interior process of unconscious rumination, I had reached a crucial conviction: yes, that whatever had a need for change was indeed bad, and that any thing that was bad certainly needed to be changed, changed for the better. Then came a crucial step. The question occurred to me: The liturgy has been changed, was it bad?

I could think of many things that one might say about the traditional liturgy. It was obscure, it was inefficient, it was difficult, it was inflexible, but bad? How could the liturgy of the Church which had formed saints, consoled sinners, given joy to hearts, had filled with beauty everything it touched - the vessels, music, vestments, architecture, and above all the people - how could that be bad? And yet, it had been changed and, indeed, taken away.

I had a vague sense that something like it had happened once before - with terrible consequences which are with us still - and then I was reminded of something else I had read. It was by A. L. Rowse on the subject of Elizabethan England:

It is difficult for anyone with a knowledge of anthropology to appreciate fully the astonishing audacity, the profound disturbance to the unconscious levels upon which society lives its life, of such an action as the substitution of an English liturgy for the age-long Latin rite of Western Christendom in which Englishmen had been swaddled time out of mind. No doubt there were factors which aided such a daring breach with the timeless past....All the same nothing can detract from the revolutionary audacity of such an interference with the customary, the subconcious, the ritual element in life. (A.L. Rowse, The England of Elizabeth: the Structure of Society, p.17)

Two separate but related themes emerged here: the question of overturning a custom and that of reconstructing the religious symbolism to which a people had become attuned.

For a long time I had been clear about the implications of changing religious symbols. What struck me as curious, however, was the way in which consideration of the issue, initially of great importance to mainstream Catholics like ourselves, seemed to have dropped off the agenda. In these circles James Hitchcock's The Recovery of the Sacred had been devoured during the late 70's. But by the late 80's, it seemed as if it had never been written. Was it, I wondered, because the principles masterfully formulated by Hitchcock were like an armoury of modern weapons: good to have in reserve, but too terrible to contemplate using?

With such thoughts lurking in the background I went back, after a decade, to Hitchcock thumbing fast through The Recovery whose arguments and conclusions were instinctively all my own. In a book unusually quotable one long passage stood out:

...a crisis of style always masks a crisis of identity. If people suddenly began to find that the Latin of the longer spoke to them...this indicated not simply a need for that modern panacea - "better communication" - but a desire to rethink radically the very foundations of belief and worship...

As [the liturgical innovators] peeled away the layers of historical accretions to the liturgy, they found, sometimes with shock, sometimes with satisfaction, that the core of belief which underlay the traditional worship was not at all the same as their own, that what was involved in liturgical reform was nothing less that a profound revolution in the nature of belief. (James Hitchcock, The Recovery of the Sacred, The Seabury Press, NY, 1974, p.56.)

"A revolution in the nature of belief": now that is a hard saying, something we do not like to think about. So much easier for us to discuss a far away revolution which four centuries ago devoured the Faith in England than the one which at this moment is devouring us. To admit that we are in the midst of a revolution every bit as grave as the "reformation" of Henry and Elizabeth, that would raise hard questions, questions which perhaps our loyalties might forbid us from asking. For instance, who set these changes in motion and preserved their momentum, who protected them from criticism, and who, while wringing their hands about "unauthorised developments", subsequently gave them the patina of authority? And why? What kind of mentality had entered into Catholics that they would do these things or pretend that they had not happened? As I knelt among the Ukranians of a Sunday, profoundly affected by the beauty of their worship, I saw that with them, unlike with us today, the service of God was determined by custom. We prayed self-consciously and woodenly, according to "developments" contrived in a laboratory and enforced by legislation. They worshipped naturally and instinctively, according to a tradition lived out happily and unreflectively in the present.

Salvation by command

As a modern Roman Catholic habituated from birth to an authoritarian style of religion, with its higher authorities raining orders on the Christian soldiery, it came as shock to discover that traditionally the Church had placed great weight upon customary ways of doing things. Whereas in my own time the Church in the West has tended to operate as a "command economy" of salvation, in the past it tended to operate more out of habit, the customs which had been built in the course of history providing the foundations for Church law. In fact, according to St. Thomas, custom obtains the force of law:

Now just as human reason and will, in practical matters, may be made manifest by speech, so may they be made known by deeds...Wherefore by actions also, especially if they be repeated, so as to make a custom, law can be changed and expounded: and also something can be established which obtains the force of law, in so far as by repeated external actions, the inward movement of the will, and concepts of reason are most effectually declared; for when a thing is done again and again, it seems to proceed from a deliberate judgement of the reason. Accordingly, custom has the force of a law, abolishes law, and is the interpreter of law. (ST, Prima Secundae, Q.97, Art.3)

One corollary of this conclusion, St Thomas argued, was that a lawmaker should not make a law which is contrary to the customs of the people for whom he is legislating. As I picked up this text and read it for the first time, I was astonished. In his retort to the imperialism of laws and legislators, St. Thomas chose a maxim from St. Augustine which seemed providentially intended for the post-conciliar Church:

The customs of God's people and the institutions of our ancestors are to be considered as laws. And those who throw contempt upon the customs of the Church ought to be punished as those who disobey the law of God. (ST, Prima Secundae, Q. 97, Art. 3)

What then, I asked myself, were one to make of the case where the customary liturgy of the Roman Catholics - given, to be sure, in 1570 the form of a law - was replaced by another liturgy profoundly at odds with the traditional mentality and custom of worship? Now that opens a Pandora's Box of "natural justice" issues which no-one wants to mention - least of all those whose job it is to uphold the original decision. Why if Catholics had an inkling of the terrible problems posed by "reform", its credibility might be destroyed.

Meanwhile, I had decided reluctantly that the time had come to part company with those God-worshipping Ukrainians. A refuge can never be a home and it is a fatal psychological mistake to treat it as if is were. So, I had to go. The problem was, though - where to turn? I did not seem to have many choices.

Although my thinking on liturgical questions had undergone a significant hardening, and I had come to reject the present liturgical regime, I was still of the mind that the way ahead for the Roman Church was a reform of the New Order of the Mass activated by explicitly traditional principles. On the other, it seemed to me that in practice such a project was unrealiseable.

New Mass: new religion

For most of those who rule the Church today - people who have built ecclesiastical careers on aggiornamento - there is too much at stake in a genuine reform of the liturgy. As two Australian bishops have testified during recent table talk: if we had not changed the liturgy, we could not have changed the rest. Right throughout the Catholic world men like these realise that at stake in liturgical change is the very shape of Catholicism. Unlike the conservatives, these others at least understand that, in order to mould the Catholic identity, liturgy is tacticly more important than doctrine or theology.

Yes, in their own day the children of the world have been wiser than the children of the light. For while the children of the light have been trumpeting their defence of orthodox teaching - confident that Catholic identity can be preserved by right concept alone - the children of the world have taken charge of the Catholic consciousness chiefly by seizing control of the liturgy. Our would-be defenders, the Doctors of Divine Science, have been so preoccupied with the higher things that they have ignored the lesson of human science: that whoever controls the public rituals controls what people believe. Ultimately it is the cultic symbol, rather than the utterance of a creed, which touches the minds and hearts of men with the meanings which determine who they are. Understanding this, those who now control the Catholic liturgy are not going to release their hold on it without a fight. In Rome they understand this - or rather they fear it - and are paralised.

There is another factor and this relates to the Pontiff himself. Like almost all the rest of us, Pope John Paul is a victim of one of the great intellectual fashions of 1960's Catholicism. It is unquestionable that the Pope is an outstanding defender of orthodox Catholic doctrine and that to this task he brings the full force of a character stamped with impressive powers and accomplishments. However, like his predecessors John and Paul, whose work he has set himself to vindicate, the Pontiff still believes, apparently, what hardly any mainstream Catholic would dare to doubt: that one can manipulate the forms of religion to gain a "pastoral" advantage without harming the content of the faith.

It struck me forcefully that the Pope seems to operate on this principle when I reflected on the events of his visit to Australia. During his tour he gave, to the delight of every liturgical engineer, a public sanction to the introduction of dance into the liturgy, and this notwithstanding the facts: that in this country dance has played an insignificant part in our formal public ritual (whether secular or religious), and that in Western culture generally, from pagan times to the present, dance has served a principally erotic function.

Death of a pious fiction

This sad turn of events required an explanation and one frequently given was that the Pope had been tricked into presiding over these innovative liturgies by the tour's Australian organisers. Well, maybe. I was, however, too much reminded by this line of that fiction which conservative English parliamentarians once used to explain the policies of Charles I - the King was the victim of his corrupt advisers. Well, as it turned out, Charles I was no dupe and nor is John Paul II. The Pope can be as tough as nails when he wants to be - note how ostpolitick came to a dead end on Day I of the pontificate. No, the Pope did not come down in the last shower. He wasn't conned. There are other more plausible explanations.

One is that Pope John Paul is a convinced, if moderate, proponent of the view that liturgy should reflect the changing cultural forms of the societies in which Catholics live. Alternatively, he is not sufficiently interested in liturgy to make an issue of it when he has troubles enough on the doctrinal and moral fronts. Perhaps he believes that he can preserve some authority by allowing scope for liturgical innovation rather than risk losing everything by attempting to prevent it. I do not know which applies. But whichever does, it is clear that this Pope is not going to set in motion a reform of the new liturgy - not unless some drastic circumstance should force him to change policy. This was the conclusion I reached in 1987 and nothing has happened subsequently to make me think otherwise.

For those who go on suffering the new order of the Mass, this is a pretty grim outlook; and so I found it as I reluctantly contemplated having to leave the company of our Ukrainian brothers. Then something quite unexpected happened. Rome did a thing which went against a quarter-century of doggedly pursued pastoral policy. Faced with the Lefebvre schism, Rome decided to offer to all Catholics, who wanted to make use of them, the traditional Latin rites of the Roman Church which had been under de facto ban since 1971.

Officially, and genuinely, Rome was sticking to its guns: despite abuses in some places, the liturgical reforms which came in the wake of the Council have been a great achievement. No, this was not the liturgical reform I had been praying for. Nevertheless, Rome was now tacitly prepared to admit that a great many Catholics did not share its sanguine view of the "reform" and that it was possible for them to continue disagreeing about what was, afterall, a matter of "pastoral strategy" without breaking the unity of faith. Rome's decision on this matter took legislative form in the Ecclesia Dei Decree signed by the Pope on 2 July 1988.

For me Rome's move to allow Catholics the freedom to worship traditionally - a decision not without its irony - was the greatest spiritual boon. The Ecclesia Dei Decree, combined with local circumstances, prompted my ordinary, Archbishop Francis Carroll of the Canberra-Goulbourn Archdiocese, to provide for the weekly Sunday celebration of Mass according to the traditional forms. Straightaway I realised that there was, afterall, some familiar place into which a spiritual refugee could turn. But at the time I had no idea what an impact returning to the traditional Mass would have on me.

Encounter with mystery: encounter with truth

It was the First Sunday of Advent, 1988, after a break of more than 20 years that I went back to the Mass of our Latin heritage. On that day, as off I went, I had no thought other than that I was heading out to just another refuge - some place removed from the sickly atmosphere of the modern Catholic parishes I had known - where I could await, without losing my faith, the reform of the new liturgy for which I still hoped. A strange thing, however, happened. After the consecration of the host, as the priest raised the sacred species with, as it seemed to me, all the ancient solemnity and self-effacing dignity, I was struck with a powerful thought that I will never forget: "We've made a mistake - a dreadful mistake!"

It was completely unexpected. Obviously, the liturgical reforms had all been so reasonable and so completely in accord with what seems mere common sense to our modern minds. Obviously it was nonsensical to offer the Mass in an arcane language. Obviously the venacular would create a quantum leap in participation. Obviously strict rubrics fossilised the Mass. Obviously worship should be offered in a friendly communal atmosphere. Obviously...

All of sudden, however, all the obvious unaswerable objections to the traditional forms of Catholic worship which still lingered in my convictions were blown away - like things which had never existed, not even as illusions. In their place all those bits and pieces of thought which I had been turning over began to fit together, like pieces of a jig-saw which suddenly begin to find their pattern. The old readiness to strike some bargain with worldly culture, and the years of consequent pain, suddenly dissolved if they had been just a bad dream, and here I was bathed in a morning light, awake and at home.

Freedom and heritage

I am conscious of the fact that for many a conservative defender of the Vatican II regime, the position I have been putting poses a number of difficulties. While I cannot address each of these directly here and now, I'd like to polish up a few points and hopefully dispel at least some of the doubts.

In putting a case for the traditional Latin liturgy, I am advocating merely that all Catholics who choose to worship, and to receive the sacraments of the Church, according to the traditional rites should be free to do so. This means that parents who wish to bring up their children in the ambience of this rich heritage, should be free to do so. And, of course, those priests and religious - or those who aspire to the priestly and religious life - who wish to serve God in the traditional forms of liturgy and community life should be likewise free.

I am not arguing for a liturgical counter-revolution to pull the Western Church back into strict accord with its Latin heritage. Apart from anything else, so many Catholics, having lost contact with traditional liturgical forms, would find them so foreign on return that it would be an injustice to reimpose them - just as it was an injustice to deprive Catholics of their heritage.

What I want to see, however, is what the Ecclesia Dei decree has laid the foundations for. Namely, an opportunity for a number of liturgical expressions to co-exist within the Western Church - not by any means a unique situation, since that is how things were throughout the mediaeval period and up to the Council of Trent. Even after that other liturgical forms continued to exist within the Western Church until Vatican II.

But that, you might say, would threaten the Vatican II reforms. Why, if people got a wiff of the tradition they would want to go back to it and that would be the end for aggiornamento.

Well, if that were to happen, so be it. Since the purpose of the Council was, according to Popes John and Paul (and many another "father" of the Council), to generate "pastoral" reforms, and since "pastoral" judgments are of their nature prudential, being either wise or unwise, relevant or irrelevant, effective of ineffective, good in their results or bad, then our faith should be unscathed if the Vatican II "hypotheses" were falsified by the test of history. The only casualties of such an outcome should be the reputation of our leaders for prudent judgement and the myth papal infallibility in church government.

For my part, however, I do not believe that the new model Church which has emerged in the Western World will suddenly disappear at a "wiff of tradition". What has arisen in the wake of Vatican II will last until the collapse of secular Western culture, until the final denouement of that civilisation which arose with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and of which post-conciliar Western Catholicism has proved to be the creature.

There are, however, people far more responsible and experienced than I who would disagree: the French hierarchy, for instance. Perhaps no more bitter opponents of liturgical tradition can be found than among French bishops. With few exceptions they believe that the game will be up for them and all they stand for if French Catholics were allowed to have their head, especially given the growing preoccupation in France, particularly among the young, for pre-revolutionary French history and heritage.

Speaking of which, is it not paradoxical that now the Catholic Church has jumped on the conservationist bandwagon - with church authorities in Sydney, for example, halting work on the new St. Mary's Cathedral complex until an alternative to rainforest timbers can be found - that Catholics who revere their own cultural and spiritual heritage are treated like enemies.

The Newman Principle

So, you might reply, you are just locked into the past. You want to live as if the inexorable fact of change does not wear down older forms and cultures.

No, I am not opposed to change in the forms of Catholic life, including in the liturgy. While I do argue that the traditional forms of Catholic worship are liturgically superior to the present order of things, I have not claimed that the traditional liturgy was perfect, or that it could not or should not develop.

What I have argued is that the new regime is not a development of the tradition. It was and is an artificially contrived thing, drawn up by a committee and imposed on the Catholic world, this imposition being accompanied by an unjust, almost universal, and de facto ban on the customary way Catholics of the Western Church had worshipped for generations. Such a thing has never happened before in the history of the Church. By definition this was no development.

It could be argued, of course, that the old liturgy had become fossilised and that the hard shell which had formed around it needed to be cracked so that a mature liturgy, free of childish attachments to the past, could hatch out.

It probably was the case that the possibilities of liturgical development had been limited by the control which Rome had exercised over the liturgy from the Council of Trent to the Second Vatican Council. This discipline was imposed to preserve the Mass and the Sacrament of the Altar from the sacrilege of manipulation by people who wished to turn the Mass into an instrument for propagating doctrine at odds with the traditional Catholic faith. Given what has happened since the relaxation of this discipline, the previous caution about liturgical innovation seems to have been based upon a realistic assessment of the possible dangers.

The price paid for this was, perhaps, some inflexibility. Though to be fair, developments were taking place in the liturgy before Vatican II under the influence of the "liturgical movement", which we cannot discuss here. Suffice it to note, however - for the benefit of those who argue that without the "liturgical reforms" we could not have had a venacular Mass - that the practice of reading the lessons in the local language was widespread in Germany before the Council.

So I am not arguing that changes should not have occurred. What I am saying is that scope for change should have been provided and, indeed, had been provided to some extent. However, for change to constitute a genuine development, it must be steeped in the tradition and develop organically from it. As Newman put it,

...this process [whereby an idea germinates and matures] will not be a development, unless the assemblage of aspects which constitute its ultimate shape really belongs to the idea from which they start. (John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Image Books, 1960, p.61)

Apropos, how can the New Order of the Mass constitute a development when the liturgical centre of gravity has shifted from the consecration to the communion, when the symbolism of the rite now speaks of supper rather than of sacrifice? How can this "ultimate shape" really belong to the idea from which it started - Christ on the Cross shedding blood upon the ground?

No, the changes which came after the Council did not occur organically. Rather they were made artificially. The reigning principle at the time was that of change by design rather than by natural development. For the first time in Catholic history the rite of Mass was drawn up by a team of "experts" and, in addition, by men acting under the influence of abstract theories of "good liturgy" rather than under the authoritative guidance of custom. Furthermore, their design was imposed on the Latin West after a break with past practices had already been contrived. Thus a crucial break in that continuity which lies at the foundation of true development was affected at two levels. Both continuity of form and continuity of practice were broken. This is the kind of development we call revolutionary.

The leaven in the dough

Granted the justice of these arguments, surely it follows that Catholics will just have to go back to the traditional liturgy?

As I have already indicated, that would itself involve an injustice. Nevertheless, if the Catholics of the Western world are to retain a genuinely Catholic identity, their traditional liturgy will have to have a palpable presence in Catholic life. Its role will be to serve as a leaven in the new liturgical dough, exerting a reforming influence on the new liturgy by bringing it back into contact with the traditional mentality of Catholic worship.

This, it seems to me, is the way ahead for liturgical reform in the Western Church. Rather than looking to Rome to design some rejigged liturgical order - and risking an enormous international row among bishops and theologians redolent with the danger of schism - reform can take place imperceptibly at the local level under the indirect and hopefully spreading influence of tradition exerting itself, as it were osmotically, on contemporary liturgical habits.

What kind of liturgy will emerge from this "discussion" between the new and traditional liturgies, is difficult to say. But one thing, I am convinced, is certain. Unless the New Order of the Mass is regnerated under a traditional influence, it will die. Perhaps it will die even under the influence of reform, because reform will either generate a new, hybrid liturgy or prompt in the minds, especially of young priests, that dangerous question: why have changed it at all? Whatever the outcome, the crucial thing is that a germ of the traditional concept of Catholic worship be implanted within the new liturgy. After that, the course of future liturgical developments is a matter for Divine Providence.


(*Gary Scarrabelotti is the Joint Editor of Oriens and the founding Secretary of The Ecclesia Dei Society. This article is an expanded version of that originally published in the Australian magazine Fidelity January-March 1990. )

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