In my experience, many traditionalists perceive the “New Mass” as empty and bland compared to the richness of the Tridentine liturgy. From their perspective, the new liturgy needs artificial distractions, from ad-libbing to clowns, to maintain people’s interest. The inherent richness of the Tridentine liturgy, they argue, avoids the need for all this “clutter” while still keeping people’s attention.
There are several factual flaws in this assessment. Compared to medieval European liturgy, which contained such elements as passion plays, Offertory processions, and a communal sign of peace, the Tridentine liturgy is stripped down, spare and short. This relative “starkness” can also be seen when any form of the Roman Rite is contrasted with the ornate liturgies of the East. The simplicity of the current liturgy can only be properly understood against the backdrop of this historic tradition.
Further, the comparison between the newer and older forms of the Roman Rite is frequently “loaded” by using a Sunday “High Mass” to represent the Tridentine liturgy. If, instead, we used a “Low Mass” as the standard, we could see that the liturgy of Vatican II is, in some ways, less stark. The silent “Low Mass” could hardly become more plain and bare, at least from the perspective of the congregation; it lacks chant, incense, and the many ministers that makes the “High Mass” something of a spectacle. This “Low Mass” is a better standard of comparison, because it is the form of Mass that the majority of traditionalists are attending on any given Sunday. By comparison with the “Low Mass”, the Vatican II liturgy seems less stark, as almost any Sunday celebration will include audible responses, intercessions, an Offertory procession, a sign of peace, and at least a little singing.
Despite these factual errors, I partially agree with the traditionalist assessment. The liturgy of Paul VI is rather plain, and at least in the USA it does tend to become cluttered by a variety of extraneous additions. Contrary to the traditionalist perspective, however, I think that imported traditional elements can also become a type of “clutter”. Liturgical clutter, of any sort, is a problem. The plainness of Paul VI’s liturgy is not a problem, because it is different in kind from the plainness of a traditional “Low Mass”. In fact, the plainness of the Vatican II liturgy is an intentional strategy for the renewal of the Church.
Pope Pius V, faced with the challenge of protecting the Church in a tumultuous time, promulgated a universal, uniform liturgy for the Western Church. For the first time, the whole Western Church used the Roman rite, or similar rites derived from it, such as the Dominican rite. The Western Church at that time, however, was quite small, consisting mostly of the European countries on the northern shore of the Mediterranean. The East had gone into schism hundreds of years before, much of northern Europe had recently been lost to Protestantism, and the great missionary era, when Catholicism was spread throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas, had barely begun.
While it can be argued that a uniform rite helped to bring unity and stability to the Church under Pope Pius V, it soon produced problems of its own. The Tridentine Rite remained more or less alien to the many cultures and regions that were being evangelized for the first time. Its ability to develop organically was also impaired by its standardization and by the growing centralization of the Western Church. By the 1950s, many Catholic thinkers saw the need for a solution to these problems.
St. Paul VI, taking the documents of the Second Vatican Council into account, made the decision to revise the Missal. This “New Mass,” while different, does not represent a clean break with tradition. It clearly belongs to the Roman liturgical tradition, and many of the “new” elements in it are actually recovered, pre-Tridentine ones. This plain yet option-filled liturgy is the one that most Roman Catholics celebrate today. To understand this decision and its results, an analogy may be helpful.
The Holy Card and the Painting Class
The Tridentine Liturgy can be compared to the distribution of a “holy card”: a mass-produced image of a religious scene, likely at least a little dated-looking, probably showing Christ as looking strangely European, and laminated in plastic to avoid any tampering. Identical holy cards are handed out to a bunch of people. The Mass of St. Paul VI can be, by contrast, compared to a painting class, in which each of the students, guided by an instructor, paints a depiction of the same religious scene.
There is an important similarity between these two scenarios. In both cases, the participants each end up with a sacred image representing the same subject. The similarity ends there, however. With the holy cards, everyone’s card is identical. The cards belong to those who receive them, but only in a very limited sense. The images produced in the art class will have a very different effect. The ultimate result will still be a sort of unity; each canvas depicts the same image according to the guidance provided by the instructor. Each painting, however, will bear the particular stamp or style of the painter, and these images will belong to the students in a much deeper sense. Better still, because they had to paint the scene for themselves, the students will probably be more attached to these images than the recipients of the holy cards will be to theirs.
To return to our topic with this analogy in mind, we can see that in many areas of the world, particularly in the poorer countries of the global south, the “painting” proceeded with gusto, creating striking works of enculturated art. During the pandemic, I watched live streamed Masses celebrated in a range of countries around the world. It was wonderful to see the many different aspects of the same Roman Rite. Masses in India, Mexico, and the Philippines were all clearly the same liturgy, yet also distinctly local. It was a beautiful expression of unity in diversity. It is notable that the inhabitants of poorer, post-colonial countries show very little interest in the Tridentine liturgy compared to those of Europe and North America.
In wealthier countries, the results of liturgical inculturation have not been so impressive. Traditionalists are not the only Catholics who feel dissatisfied with the current state of Catholic liturgy. Why hasn’t the “painting” worked out in the “Over-Developed World”?
It is important to realize that long before Vatican II and the resulting changes to the liturgy, the Church in Europe and North America was already rotting away from within. On the surface, the Church seemed to be in good shape. Vocations and Mass attendance were high. The Church, however, had conformed itself to a wealthy, materialistic culture, and religious practice was increasingly becoming a mere tradition. Catholics in the USA, in particular, were attempting to pursue both the Kingdom of God and the American Dream, without realizing their fundamental incompatibility. Many European countries were already experiencing declines in religious practice and number of vocations prior to the Council. It is likely that this decay prevented the proper enculturation and development of the liturgy. While some traditionalists blame the decay of the Church on the Second Vatican Council, a careful study of history shows that this disintegration was already well underway by 1962. The relative vitality of the Church in Africa is also hard to explain if Vatican II was the cause of the Church’s problems. Western narratives about the “decline and fall” of the Church can be extremely parochial.
A Lack of Culture due to a Lack of Community
So what, exactly is the problem facing the Church in the “developed” world? To put it bluntly, we don’t have a culture; instead—particularly in the USA—our society is dominated by an anti-culture. The Church has a lot of experience with evangelizing flawed cultures, cultures which contain elements incompatible with Christianity. This is the first time, however, that the Church has found itself in a society which is dominated by an anti-culture.
A culture is the embodied expression of a group’s experience of reality. Today’s society breaks up communities; we often lack a common, shared experience, and we are constantly moving around, “reinventing ourselves,” and in other ways fragmenting our social groups. Our “culture” is based on individuals creating their own reality, and so there is no shared culture that can be Christianized. Most Christians, however, don’t realize this, and are left groping for answers amidst growing confusion. This idea is worked out in more detail in another article of mine.
The important point for this discussion is that community comes before culture. Culture is something that a community has, even though culture also helps to sustain a group. In our society, cliques serve as a replacement for true community. Cliques form when people come together around some kind of shared interest; a clique is a chosen, manufactured, low-commitment substitute for community. An economic base in which people share their lives, as well as a religious base in shared worship, are the elements of a true community.
One reason for the lack of community in the Western world is our societal wealth. Wealth allows us to insulate ourselves from others and to choose and change our relationships at will.
Returning to our analogy of a painting class, Catholics in the “First World” covered their “canvas” with the uniform drab grey of suburbia. That proved boring, so they quickly proceeded to cover it with ideological stickers, from red-white-and-blue jingoism to hippy psychedelics. In reaction to this, traditionalists imported their own set of “stickers,” dressing up church buildings in the sort of faux stone and woodwork that marks “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” and performing a sort of liturgical LARPing.
In this context, it bears repeating that such revivalism is not the same as tradition or culture, whatever other value it may have. As a traditionalist, I was taught that the reason the Tridentine liturgy was so much superior was precisely because it was traditional and had developed organically, rather than being put together by activists. A tradition, however, is generally unconscious, a natural part of life for a given group. Traditions are “lived” more than they are discussed or thought about. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that even the promotion of traditional liturgical elements can produce the kind of “activism” that is inimical to the liturgy (p. 83). It is ironic that traditionalists, with their organizing and campaigning and arguing, see themselves as proponents of tradition and organic development.
In saying this, I’m not condemning those who appreciate incense and chant, nor those who prefer drum sets and felt banners. The problems start when these various liturgical details are promoted for ideological reasons, or are imposed on others in an attempt to save the Church by “improving” the liturgy. None of this activism has successfully filled the void because none of it has addressed the real problem. All these proposed solutions are just more of the same, more consumer identities that bored suburbanites can adopt at will.
The fatal flaw in modern thinking is compartmentalization. Problems with the liturgy can’t be solved by tinkering with the liturgy. In general, ‘doing’ things to the liturgy will always be activistic. We’ve lost the type of culture which could produce natural, organic growth and development, whether in the liturgy or in anything else. The liturgy is ‘the people’s work’ and without a people, without a community, there will be no authentic liturgy. Liturgy is a cultural phenomenon, and without a community there is no culture.
Our task is to embrace the simplicity of the modern liturgy and resist the urge of activism. Tinkering with the liturgy is attractive because it is easy. As is so often the case, however, the easy answers are the wrong answers. Instead, we need to do the hard work of embracing voluntary poverty and true community. If we do so, the “emptiness” of the Vatican II Liturgy will prove to be the fertile emptiness of a tilled field, expectantly waiting for the growth of a new, enculturated, liturgical form.
 Recently, a reader complained of a lack of nuance in my criticism of the traditionalist movement. To clarify, in this article, and in my writing more generally, I am using the term to refer to those who see the “Tridentine Liturgy” as objectively superior to the “Vatican II Liturgy”, and who are at least reserved about, if not suspicious of, the Second Vatican Council and the modern Popes, particularly Pope Francis. Such traditionalists are found both inside and outside the Church; I was one for many years. Those inside the Church tend to gravitate toward destination parishes run by the FSSP or ICKSP, if any are available in their area. I am not referring to mainstream Catholics who like a bit of incense or who are fond of medieval architecture, or even to those who like to attend a Tridentine liturgy on occasion.
 Not to make a bad pun!