[Editor’s Note: The following is a response to episodes one and two of the documentary film series Mass of the Ages: The Latin Mass TRILOGY. It was directed by Cameron O’Hearn and produced by O’Hearn and Jonathan Weiss. You can watch the films for free and access other resources and videos online on the film’s website or on its YouTube channel.]

One of the first things worth noting about the Mass of the Ages series is that the filmmakers attempt to step away from the divisive, social media-fueled liturgy wars, and instead focus on the religious and ecclesial fruit of the traditionalist movement and their devotion to the pre-Vatican II Mass. Although it is certainly a propaganda film in the sense that it advances a clear agenda from a one-sided perspective, it does so with charity. It mostly refrains from attacking or mocking those it opposes (with a few conspicuous exceptions). The arguments the films advance are well-known to Catholics familiar with traditionalist websites and social media, although the producers clearly made an effort to avoid attacking the pope, bishops, and Second Vatican Council by name. The filmmakers also steered clear of many of the most extreme conspiracy theories and radical views commonly associated with the traditionalist movement.

Part one in particular avoids polemics and relies on personal insights and testimonies in order to help the audience understand what they see as the benefits of the Tridentine Rite—both to the Catholics devoted to it and the communities surrounding it. If part one has a protagonist, it is Kristine Mauss, a young, recently widowed mother of four who has found spiritual and emotional support for herself and her family from the Latin Mass and her traditionalist community. Her testimony is complemented by those of a number of clergy and prominent traditionalists who wax poetic about the beauty and the transformative qualities of the older rite.

Part two walks a finer line, because its narrative is centered on the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council, but on the whole the film serves as a lamentation of what it depicts as the unfortunate series of events that led to the implementation of the reformed liturgy. Beginning about five minutes into the film, as interviewees describe why they believe the liturgical reforms were short-sighted, a series of videos and images from various Vatican II liturgies appear, interspersed with clips from secular films and programs like Sister Act, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and My Little Pony. The message of this sequence is clear: the reforms detracted from the sanctity of the Mass and opened up the liturgy to a season of banality and silliness. Later scenes feature a split screen; with footage from the Tridentine Mass on the left and the Vatican II liturgy on the right.

I suppose the intention is to show the inherent superiority of the Latin Mass, but I don’t understand how showing a priest and servers walk around, bow, and genuflect in silence contrasted with a priest saying “Lord, have mercy” aloud and facing the people proves anything about the objective advantages of the older rite. (I also don’t understand why the faces of many people in the videos of the newer rite are pixilated. I’d imagine a sympathetic priest would have happily signed a release allowing them to use footage of him saying Mass.)

Early in Episode 2, we are introduced to the key figure in the film, who is not a protagonist but an antagonist: the much-maligned Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, secretary of the Council for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy and one of the chief architects of the reformed Roman Rite. Animated sequences and an ominous voiceover with an Italian accent are sprinkled throughout the film to tell the story of Bugnini and other figures of the era. The choice of quotes is selective, and in at least one case is inaccurate and taken out of context.[1]

In part 2, the narrative presented by the filmmakers is far from the most sensational account found in many traditionalist websites and publications. In this film, we aren’t subject to conspiratorial accounts of infiltration in the Church or tirades against the council or Pope St. Paul VI. Even the question of whether Archbishop Bugnini was a secret Freemason is treated briefly, gingerly, and with (relative) sensitivity. Supporting the claims in the film is Fr. Charles Murr—former secretary to the Canadian curial Cardinal Édouard Gagnon—an American priest who recently published a book that presents allegations of freemasonry in the Vatican in the decades surrounding Vatican II.[2] This discussion is ancillary to the overall message of the film, however, and its treatment of the question concludes with another interviewee stating, “My own opinion is that, really, we need to judge his work on their fruits, that is to say the liturgical reforms should be judged on liturgical criteria, not on personal criteria, or ad hominem criteria in terms of who made them.”

Episode 2 features ordinary traditionalists as well, although they play a secondary role compared to Kristine Mauss in the first part. Appearing at various points in this installment are three women—Jodi Lacroix, Judy Fradl, and Mary Popp—who have spent many years supporting the Latin Mass by making vestments, repairing statues, and helping to promote the older liturgy. Each of them has stories to tell about the obstacles and difficulties they faced from the institutional Church in the years immediately after the Council. These personal portraits of everyday faith provide oases of humanity in a film that spends much of its time crafting a complicated rhetorical argument.

The second episode also presents an overview of the recommendations made by the conciliar document on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, compared to the actual reforms that were carried out. Interestingly, the film portrays Pope Paul VI in a largely positive light, although incredibly naïve, suggesting that he may have fallen victim to the predatory reformer Bugnini.

By far, the least engaging sequence of the second installment (due to its reliance on extremely tedious statistical minutiae, rather than the ideas, stories, and images that permeate the rest of the film) is its analysis of the prayers and scripture passages changed or removed in the revision of the Missal. The filmmakers attempt to cut through this dry material by distracting its audience with animation, and fortunately it isn’t too long.

In all, the way Episode 2 depicts the implementation of the Council is fairly moderate compared to many other traditionalist accounts of this history. Certainly the historical accounts and arguments are biased, but we shouldn’t expect the filmmakers to give equal time to Catholics who support the reforms in this kind of movie. I can imagine Mass of the Ages receiving a warm reception by pre-Francis conservative Catholics who supported the “reform of the reform” of the Roman liturgy.

So what’s the problem?

Mass of the Ages does not grapple with the very real problems of extremism and conspiracism in the traditionalist movement. The film does not respond to the serious charges against traditionalism made by the Holy Father. The filmmakers’ non-response is unfortunate but understandable, however. The real problem with Mass of the Ages is that it provides platforms for some of the most extreme and dissenting figures in traditionalism today. Many (if not most) of the interviewees featured throughout the films openly champion schismatic, conspiratorial, and often downright offensive views. Even if they are on their best behavior, to present extremists as ambassadors of this movement to a mainstream Catholic audience seriously undermines the message of the film. A smiling Taylor Marshall in a suit is still Taylor Marshall.

Ever since the release of Traditionis Custodes in July 2021, its most prominent critics have relentlessly insisted that the radical element—those who oppose the Second Vatican Council, who accuse the pope of teaching doctrinal error and heresy—are at the fringes of the movement, and that most traditionalists are just regular Catholics who simply want to worship in the same form of the Mass as their ancestors. We keep hearing about the “good” traditionalists, but where are they?

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh asked in Commonweal in January, “why are they—the ones who go purely out of love for this form of liturgy—not rising up against their self-appointed leaders, for whom traditionalism is clearly about much more?” Following Traditionis Custodes, surely some of them must understand that the time to express their support for the pope and the Council is running short—if for no other reason than to prove their existence—because the radicals in their ranks have hijacked the message and done their best to prove Pope Francis was right.

Ivereigh went on to observe, “At the very least, one might expect calls for a rigorous self-examination. Yet it is striking how rarely one finds ‘good’ traditionalists repudiating the bilious denunciations of Francis and Vatican II that swamp the internet, or the ‘recognize-and-resist’ defiance of the high priests of traditionalism, with their QAnon conspiracies and claims of globalist conspiracies.”

In his letter to the bishops about his decision to restrict the older form, Pope Francis observed that the use of the 1962 missal “is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’” He argues that this behavior gave him little choice, writing, “One is dealing here with comportment that contradicts communion and nurtures the divisive tendency.”

Ironically, the traditionalists who have voiced objections to observations like Francis’s are often precisely those who are very well-known for such deportment. Readers of this site are well-aware of the dissident Cardinal Raymond Burke and his relentless attacks on Pope Francis and the papacy itself. When Traditionis Custodes was released, he quickly posted a statement to his website insisting that this assessment of traditionalists is untrue. He wrote, “Neither have I found them out of communion with the Church or divisive within the Church. On the contrary, they love the Roman Pontiff, their Bishops and priests.… They, in no way, ascribe to a schismatic or sedevacantist ideology.” Given the cardinal’s well-known views, however, he is far from the most reliable judge on such matters.

The cardinal sets a very low bar for what he considers fidelity to the pope. One can be extremely divisive in the Church and still “love the pope” (especially considering that as Catholics, we are taught to love our enemies) and “not be sedevacantist.” Coming from Cardinal Burke, it would have been more reassuring had he instead grumbled that there were too many modernists, papolaters, and ultramontanists in the traditionalist movement.

True, the traditionalist movement is not a monolith, and there is plenty of infighting, even among the individuals featured in the film. I can recall Joseph Shaw, the president of the International Federation Una Voce, has criticized Taylor Marshall, and surely there are others who took part in these films who don’t see eye to eye on everything. But what unifies most of these voices is contempt for Pope Francis and his teachings and opposition to the Second Vatican Council.

For the most part, that didn’t make it into the film, however. The most (unintentionally) comical moment in the second film was Peter Kwasniewski attempting to put a positive spin on the Council’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. He commented, “Although it did have some striking language in it, it mostly comes across as a conservative document, or at least a document that would reassure people. We’re not talking about a radical overhaul of the Catholic Church’s worship. We’re talking about adding a little bit of vernacular here and there. We’re talking about modifying the calendar a little bit.”

Contrast this with what he wrote about the document in June 2021, when he called it “the greatest Trojan Horse ever introduced into the Church,” saying that it was “chock-full of problematic statements and loopholes big enough to drive a fleet of Mack trucks through.” Dr. Kwasniewski, in fact, opposes all the reforms that have been made to the liturgy since the 1950s (even before the council), arguing that the old rite “functions well the way it is, and should not be changed in any significant way. Its perfection in texts, chants, and ceremonies has never been as evident as now, when it stands out in sharp contrast against a backdrop of liturgical manglement, mediocrity, and malaise.”

Another interesting production decision was to show Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz (emeritus of Lincoln, Nebraska) and scholar Dom Alcuin Reid praise Paul VI’s “saintly” qualities and personal holiness, rather than Kwasniewski’s position that Paul VI “was far from exemplary in his conduct as pastor; that he not only did not possess heroic virtue, but lacked certain key virtues; that his promulgation of a titanic liturgical reform was incompatible with his papal office of handing on that which he had received; that he offers us a portrait of failed governance and tradition betrayed.”

It would take a book to go into every problematic and dissenting view publicly promoted by each of the interviewees, but here’s a brief overview of some:

Peter Kwasniewski (author and speaker): accused Pope Francis of heresy, rejects the canonization of Paul VI, rejects the Church’s traditional teaching on papal primacy, which he calls the “Spirit of Vatican I.”

Eric Sammons (editor of Crisis Magazine): Believes “Pachamama” is responsible for Covid; says we should “move beyond” Vatican II because it was a “failed council”; has asserted, “I believe that ‘Recognize and Resist’ is the only legitimate position for today’s Catholic,” explaining that “to ‘resist’ means to oppose the overall program of Pope Francis.”

Fr. Dave Nix (priest of the Archdiocese of Denver): has praised Corpus Christi Emeritus Bishop Rene Gracida as “a great hero of mine for publicly questioning the valid resignation of Pope Benedict XVI”; attended a “super-charging retreat” with other priests at the home of sedevacantist movie star Mel Gibson in January 2021; now lives as a hermit after a controversy-filled ten years in diocesan ministry.

Joseph Shaw (Una Voce President): coordinator of the “Fillial Correction” of Pope Francis, accusing the pope of advancing seven heresies. He has also described as “obviously true” (and not retracted) Archbishop Viganò’s debunked accusations against the pope. He thanked a group (which included Peter Kwasniewski) for accusing Pope Francis of heresy. He accused indigenous Amazonian Catholics of “syncretism” and “paganism”; he has asserted that that disobedience to one’s bishop is really obedience (and the same with the pope).

Timothy Flanders (Editor of One Peter Five): Radical traditionalist who has described the current papacy as the “Third Pornocracy,” writing: “Now the Vatican Mafia (which formed into the St. Gallen Mafia in the 1990s) have their man as pope: Jorge Bergoglio. And he has shown himself loyal to his wicked entourage of pornocratic Marxists profaning the name of Catholic.”

This is only a handful of the interviewees and their beliefs. It’s worth noting that this group also overwhelmingly rejects science and the pope on the Covid pandemic and vaccine, dissents from Amoris Laetitia and the Church’s teaching on the death penalty, and opposed Francis’s papacy overall, long before Traditionis Custodes. The frightening thing about it all is that if these are the chosen mouthpieces of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, then what are the Catholics who attend these liturgies hearing from the pulpit? Who is giving talks at their parishes? What books are recommended to them? What are they talking about at the after-Mass coffee hour?

In addition to the dangerous ideological views and theological errors of so many of the interview subjects, two other Mass of the Ages interviewees found themselves in the news close to the release of the films they appeared in. Fr. James Jackson, FSSP, who is prominently featured in Episode 1, was arrested less than two months after the film was released and faces a federal trial on child pornography charges. Dom Alcuin Reid, who is one of the featured interview subjects in Episode 2, was suspended from ministry after he was illicitly ordained to the priesthood in a clandestine ceremony by an unnamed bishop in April.

One might say that the most significant problem with Mass of the Ages is that it isn’t real. The series does little more than present an attractive, carefully calculated image of traditionalism. The first episode does this by appealing to senses and emotions. Episode 2 does it by presenting a mild and inoffensive version of the traditionalist narrative, designed to appeal to more mainstream Catholics and stripped of its more unseemly or controversial ideas. By denying or avoiding the most problematic elements of the traditionalist movement, the filmmakers almost cultivate an air of “this seems too good to be true.” If you talk to an ex-traditionalist (and I know many), you know it is.

This film series might have accomplished something truly special had they used it as an opportunity to allow the mysterious (or mythical?) “good trads” to come out from behind the shadows of their radical peers and speak for themselves, rather than cast “bad trads” to play good trads. Or it might have done better to scrap the talking heads altogether and spend time with more people like Kristine, Jodi, Judy, and Mary, instead. I think many Catholics would rather hear from more people like Judy explain why they sought out the Latin Mass in the 70s and 80s than to listen to Peter Kwasniewski pretend that he thinks Sacrosanctum Concilium isn’t the work of the devil.

Pope Francis, in his explanatory letter, noted “the close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the ‘true Church.’” There’s no doubt this is true. Perhaps this didn’t have to be the case. Pope Benedict clearly did not have this impression in 2007. When he opened up permission for priests to use the older liturgical rites, he wrote, “Many people who clearly accepted the binding character of the Second Vatican Council, and were faithful to the Pope and the Bishops, nonetheless also desired to recover the form of the sacred liturgy that was dear to them.” History has not borne this out.

Episode 3 of Mass of the Ages has been billed as a response to Traditionis Custodes. Based on the first two episodes, we have every reason to expect that it will deny or ignore the real problems that Francis is seeking to address. A more edifying and thoughtful film would explore these issues frankly and honestly, and in dialogue with the leaders of the institutional Church. Perhaps someday someone will make that film.

Notes:

[1] The film twice quotes Bugnini as saying, “The road to union with our separated brethren, the Protestants, is to remove every stone from the liturgy, every prayer from the Mass, that could even remotely be an obstacle or difficulty.” This is either a distortion or incorrect translation of what Bugnini  actually wrote, and the actual quote was used in a very specific context. I will address this specifically in the very near future. [Update: The follow-up was posted on June 20, 2022, “Annibale Bugnini: Liturgy’s Greatest Villain.”]

[2] I have had difficulty verifying one of Fr. Murr’s historical claims and depending on where my research takes me, I may discuss this in my upcoming Bugnini piece as well.


Image: Adobe Stock. By Omnia Omnibus Media.


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Mass of the Ages: Gilded Radicalism
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