By the time I became a Catholic on April 4, 1999, I was already immersed in the Tridentine Mass. Also known as the Traditional Latin Mass, the Mass of St. Pius V, or the Extraordinary Form, I loved the prayers of this Mass, the silence and—on special feasts like Christmas and Easter—the Gregorian chant. After Mass on Sundays, I went downstairs and drank watered-down coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts as we discussed events in the world and in the Church. And there was a lot of complaining. I took part in many conversations that were nothing but complaints. There wasn’t a Sunday that went by that we didn’t discuss how awful the regular “Novus Ordo” Mass was or what this or that liberal bishop was doing.
There was always a constant state of unease. We were the Faithful Remnant, the true Catholics preserving tradition. I saw myself that way. I remembered how I looked down on all those “other” Catholics. At the time, I nearly exclusively went to the Tridentine Mass except for holy days of obligation and the Easter Triduum. Even there, I made it a point to bring my Tridentine missal and pray the prayers from there since at the time I felt it was the more authentic version.
I believed that the Tridentine aesthetics were more Catholic and more authentic. It fed into my love for Medieval history and literature. Week after week I attended Mass and beat my breast, declaring my utter unworthiness. I was sure that the future of the Church laid in returning to the Tridentine Mass and tradition.
Yet, I was uneasy about some aspects of the surrounding Traditionalist culture. On most traditionalist websites, they hawked older books, mostly from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. These books carried more than just traditional understandings of Catholic teaching and belief. They contained racist theories, antisemitism, and sexist views. Traditionalist discussions online often involved praise of dictators like Franco and the espousal of Judeo-masonic conspiracy theories. Traditionalist blogs would often post articles decrying the “godless leftist elites,” offensive anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, and antisemitic dog whistles.
I recognized and rejected those conspiracies and thought I could still be steeped in traditionalist culture. But the culture only got worse. Many of the traditionalist blogs and authors I’d read began rejecting the legitimacy of Pope John Paul II and became sedevacantist. I started wondering—where’s the love? By 2006, I stopped reading reactionary and conspiratorial publications like The Wanderer and The Remnant. However, I continued to read certain websites, including Rorate Caeli and Father Z’s blog. Later, I met my husband, a fellow traditionalist and a former SSPX seminarian. The Tridentine Mass became an essential part of our relationship and our identities as a couple.
We were elated when Pope Benedict XVI promulgated the moto proprio Summorum Pontificum on July 7, 2007, removing many of the restrictions on the Tridentine Mass. Benedict expressed his belief that the older and newer forms of the Mass could mutually enrich each other. No longer would the traditionalists be seen as a weird splinter group dying out, but we were thought of as an enriching part of the Church, so we believed. My husband and I were happy to be married the Tridentine Mass, a fruit of the moto proprio.
Pope Benedict assured the bishops in his accompanying letter to Summorum Pontificum that in lifting the restrictions on the older rite, it would not in any way be seen as a abrogation of Vatican II. He wrote, “It is not appropriate to speak of these two versions of the Roman Missal as if they were ‘two Rites.’ Rather, it is a matter of a twofold use of one and the same rite.” He saw it as another form—the “extraordinary form”—of the same Roman rite. In addition, Pope Benedict invited the bishops to give him feedback on their experiences after a three year period, so that “If truly serious difficulties come to light, ways to remedy them can be sought.”
In subsequent years, new extraordinary form communities were established, including one that I helped form. Yet these communities, including mine, were isolated from much of parish life. The older calendar is different, so no new saints’ days or feasts have been added to it since 1962. The communities I was familiar with tried to keep things the way they were in the 1950s and early 1960s. The emphasis on the “superiority” of the Tridentine Mass over the “Novus Ordo” remained. The people in the extraordinary form communities seemed to rehash the same complaints and attitudes as they did before Summorum Pontificum.
Then, when Pope Francis was elected in 2013, many traditionalists began expressing hostility toward the pope, in some cases considering him a heretic or worse. In fact many of these communities, far from sharing in and enriching parish life, devolved into toxic cultures of sexism, racism, homophobia, antisemitism, contempt for the Pope, and contempt for anyone who doesn’t think like them.
Granted, some traditionalists have recognized this and have called their brothers and sisters to repentance. But even these traditionalists hold the false idea that somehow the extraordinary form of the Mass is meant to be the salvation of the Church. This attitude, prevalent in many traditionalist communities, is false. The Church has several liturgical rites—equally beautiful, enriching, and holy in their own way. One is not superior to the other.
Sadly, what began as a gesture of love and reconciliation by Pope Benedict XVI has further exacerbated the cultural, spiritual, and political divides suffered by Church today. By 2018, I’d had enough. My daddy had passed away a few months earlier. Deep in grief, I felt extremely numb. I looked around and thought, “What is the point of it all?” Yes, the older rite had all these beautiful trappings, and yet my experience of it was so cold. There was no love and no warmth, so I left. I began to attend the Vatican II Mass.
Traditionalists continued to rehash the same tired arguments. They think that somehow, they’re the future of the Church. But the reality on the ground is typically that a handful of large families travel great distances to a sparsely-attended (or sometimes crowded) Tridentine Mass hub. The real growth in the Church is in immigrant communities, as well as in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the Global South. Worldwide, the Tridentine Mass comprises very few communities. Unfortunately, because they have a large online presence, their damaging, schismatic attitudes, especially toward Pope Francis and Vatican II have grown.
It is these attitudes that alarmed Pope Francis, and thus he had to promulgate Traditionis Custodes and rescind Summorum Pontificum. As a former traditionalist, it made me sad that it’s come to this, but I’m not surprised either. Continuing to ignore or tolerate these schismatic and quasi-schismatic groups and attitudes will further break Church unity.
And far from breaking with tradition, the Vatican II Mass is in continuity with it. It’s kept the Roman Canon intact, the same canon of prayers used in the Tridentine Mass. It has also added other Eucharistic prayers found in ancient missals as well as other recent additions. The Vatican II Mass has more options and is more flexible. It has allowed for the introduction of cultural customs appropriate for different cultures and societies. It challenges the notion that only a Eurocentric Roman Mass is the full expression of Latin Rite Catholicism.
In addition, the Vatican II Mass is part of a reckoning and healing process after years of the Church’s complicity in imperialist colonialism, the destruction of American indigenous groups, the enslavement of Africans, and other evils around the world. Granted, while this may not have been the primary reason for promulgating the reformed Mass in 1970 but Vatican II opened the door to recognizing that the Church had to change its approach to the world. In fact, this more than anything is the traditionalists’ complaint. They are unhappy with Vatican II due to its implications for ecumenism, religious liberty, healing relations with the Jewish people, and strengthening the Church’s relationship with other religions.
Sadly, some traditionalists have blamed most of the Church’s problems on Vatican II, ignoring that the Church already had many problems prior to the Council. Others have suggested that the Tridentine Mass and the Vatican II Mass are indicative of two entirely different religions or that somehow the older Mass is more holy than the Vatican II Mass.
I admit that I believed the latter for years. But I had to grapple with the fact that the Tridentine Mass did not necessarily make for more holy people. After all, the Tridentine Mass was the norm during the years of the slave trade. It was the lex orandi at the same time tribal lands in the Americas were confiscated and many indigenous tribes went extinct. This was the form of the Roman Rite used during the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. Many of the people who participated in these atrocities were Catholic, and the Tridentine Mass was the only form they knew. Like many Catholics today, they acted against the teachings of the faith, and it had nothing to do with the rite of the Mass. It’s wrong to blame the evil in the Church and dissent from Catholic teaching on an edition of the Roman Missal.
We have to reject the notion that going to a specific form of the Mass will change a person to the point where it will make them holy. That’s not how it works. The grace is the same in both the Tridentine and the Vatican II Mass. What matters is the disposition of the person, and this fact is lost on so many traditionalists. What makes a person holy is how they respond to that grace.
It’s not the aesthetics that make it holy. You can attend the most beautiful of Masses and still be a hateful, proud person with no love in your heart. It’s not enough to focus on the vertical without also remembering the horizontal: love God and your neighbor as yourself. This basic part of the Gospel is what Pope Francis has taught for years. It is also what Vatican II emphasizes. If the Church is to survive as this century continues, then she must live this out. We all must live this out: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.
Can that be done at a Tridentine Mass? Sure. Can that be done at the Vatican II Mass? Sure. Can that be done at an Eastern Divine Liturgy? Sure. But when the culture surrounding a particular rite becomes so toxic that it threatens not only Church unity but our ability to live out the gospel’s call to love, something must change. Sadly, in the case of the Tridentine Mass, it must be restricted and allowed to fade away. This is exactly the reason why Pope Francis promulgated Traditionis Custodes.
The infection must be stopped, the antibiotics given and if necessary, surgery done to remove it. The reactions since the promulgation of the document, unsurprisingly, have vindicated Pope Francis’s decision. I wish this hadn’t been the case.
Image: Matthew Doyle, Prayers after Mass, St Frideswide Virgin (Oct 19, 2011, Birmingham Archdiocese) License: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0). Source: https://flic.kr/p/axkxAf
Rachel Dobbs is a Catholic convert and a happily married woman with two black cats living in Jacksonville, Florida. She works as a Sr. Library services associate at the University of North Florida where she received her Bachelor's and Master's in history. In addition, she's a novice Benedictine oblate. Her interests include history, reading, knitting, fantasy, and RPGs.