Go find a tranquil place, close your eyes and think back. You were much younger than you are now, quite possibly a child. Your mind’s eye conjures up what seemed like a vast and majestic palace with the rising wisps of sweet-smelling incense leading your gaze upward toward what you thought must surely be Heaven. The altar boys, who only hours before were your rambunctious playmates, have been transformed into cherubic servants of God.
Your parents and neighbors kneel close by; your mother’s veiled head bowed low, deep in prayer amidst the sacred silence. There is no band, no choir in sight; in fact, there are no performers anywhere to behold. On the altar, the priest addresses God in the same language that Pontius Pilate used in reference to our beaten and bloodied Savior: “Ecce homo.” You are in a pre-Vatican II Catholic Church worshiping God with wonder, awe, and reverence.
For those not old enough to recollect these wonderful memories, you may soon get your chance. With the release of his long-awaited Motu Proprio, “Summorum Pontificum” Pope Benedict XVI has rescued the so-called Traditional Latin Mass from decades of undeserved and unauthorized obscurity. While making clear that the Novus Ordo, or new Mass, would be the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, he established that the older form “must be given due honor for its venerable and ancient usage.”
These are words that a goodly number of Catholics have longed for years to hear. When the “spirit” of Vatican II changes were adopted, many thousands of the faithful lost faith. The thinking being, that in the crazed cauldron of the 1960s, if the unmovable Church could change with the times, all was lost. Old women bewailed the “desanctification” of saints like Christopher, folk masses confused parents who wanted to insulate their children from pop culture and everyone wondered about Purgatory.
Especially for young women — against whom the sexual revolution was a great act of moral violence — the impervious shield of the Church seemed to have been fatally weakened. If, for example, we no longer had to cover our heads in church, we were just like “other girls,” and so we became. The notions of modesty and chastity for Catholic girls were particularly mocked by the culture of that time, and a Church undergoing such upheaval had not the weapons to fight for them.
In truth, we were all laboring under the misconception — greatly enhanced by the world’s panting media — that we did not leave the Church, she had “left us.” Thankfully, we were as wrong about that as anyone will ever be about anything in this life. Because essentially, the root of Catholic worship has never changed, and cannot change as long as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is at its heart.
The re-presentation of Christ’s death and resurrection: Christ as both victim and priest; the giver and the gift of the bread of life and cup of eternal salvation; this is the Mass. And as long as it is celebrated reverently, either form will do. But the confusion which led to the state of the Novus Ordo Mass as it is often celebrated today has, in some places led to a dire irreverence, and it is this that the Holy Father seeks to dispel by “freeing” the Latin Mass.
It is easy to see why today’s Catholics are so attached to the new Mass. Because, like so much of modern culture, it is morally easy. It is easy to understand, easy on the ears and it’s an easy way to satisfy what many see as a tiresome requirement that interrupts their Sunday ritual of football and fun. This attitude is an anathema to belief in critical dogma like the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: lex orandi, lex credendi; as the law of the liturgy goes, so too the faith.
It is hoped that the two forms of the Roman Rite will influence each other in positive ways. Indeed, some parishes have already incorporated Latin within the Novus Ordo and it is expected that the Tridentine Mass will use the vernacular in its readings. Both will enable more awe, reverence and wonder; those qualities of a child which our Lord enjoins on us in order to gain the Kingdom of God.
Are there divisions in the Church? There are now and have been, even when the Apostles walked the earth. Were there not, St. Paul wouldn’t have written most of his beautiful letters to those pesky presbyters in the nascent Church. Indeed, schisms and heresies have often lead to the Church defining or redefining its teachings for the sake of unity, and the Motu Proprio may be a prime example of that. Through it, the Church Militant; that is, all Catholics still living here on this earth, have been joined more closely in the charity so desired by our Lord:
And the glory that thou hast given me, I have given to them, that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them and thou in me; that they may be perfected in unity, and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and that thou hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. (Jn 17: 22-23)
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