When I heard that Pope Francis had promulgated a motu proprio reimposing restrictions on the celebration of the 1962 Missal (or the Vetus Ordo), my first thought was this was greatly needed and long overdue. My second thought was that this would break the hearts of people whom I dearly love.
It’s difficult to deny the aesthetic, emotional, and, yes, spiritual force that the Mass of the 1962 Roman Missal has in the lives of those dedicated to it. I have been to maybe a dozen Vetus Ordo Masses, and every one of them has been an overwhelming sensory experience. This is—in the Catholic view of things—related to the Mass’s potential for spiritual conversion; the experiences of the body inform the soul, and vice versa. I might not be Catholic today if I had not gone to several conspicuously “traditional” liturgies prior to my formal conversion in early 2017; my initial dissatisfaction with the Episcopal Church mostly had to do with liturgical rather than theological or political gripes. If it had turned out to be easier to get to a higher-church Episcopal parish than to a self-consciously reverent Catholic one, my religious trajectory at that point in my life could have gone very differently. I’m very glad that I did decide to become Catholic (and, incidentally, return to my family’s “ancestral faith”), and in that sense I owe the Vetus Ordo and similarly “high,” reverent liturgies (such as that of the Personal Ordinariate, of which I am technically still a member) an enormous debt of gratitude.
It’s not just me who says this and who feels this way; I’ve met and talked to many people whose faith has been reinvigorated—or even sparked from nothing—by the 1962 Mass. In many of these people’s situations, the 1970 Mass, at least as celebrated by many less-“traddy” priests, would likely have been unhelpful or even counterproductive in their journey towards God. Even people who are more or less fine with the 1970 Mass now—a category in which I include myself—often first became interested in Catholicism via the “TLM” and the aesthetic appurtenances surrounding it. High altars, berettas, incense, Gregorian chant—all of this packs an emotional wallop, in the same way that the Byzantines declared their icons did when they rejected the iconoclast position over a thousand years ago.
So why was my first reaction to the announcement of Traditionis Custodes approval, perhaps even relief? Put simply, it’s because precisely my familiarity with diocesan TLMs and the culture surrounding them has taught me over the years how bad things are getting. The first 1962 Mass I ever attended, about six or seven years ago, had a very polite and earnest young usher who was at pains to reassure me that the image of “trads” as a bunch of far-right cranks was a stereotype. I could find, he said, about the same spectrum of opinion at a diocesan TLM that I could in any other orthodox Catholic space, and certainly at least as much respect for the position and person of Pope Francis and his predecessors. During my two years at Boston University School of Theology between 2015 and 2017 I got to know young traditionalists who were open-minded, politically idiosyncratic (leaning to the left or to the anti-authoritarian right), deeply deferential towards the magisterium, and happy to crack jokes about the fundamental silliness and pageantry of issues like the dubia and the various other Burke-and-Schneider-led initiatives of that period. When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, practically none of these people voted for him. (I joked at the time that if the people involved in Boston University’s Catholic chaplaincy had been representative of the country, independent candidate Evan McMullin would have won the presidency in a landslide.) But over the following two or three years, things changed.
I don’t say this to impugn any of the individuals of whom I’m speaking so highly; the curious thing is that most of the people involved in this stage of my religious life are just as delightful, sensitive, and intellectually curious as ever. But something about the atmosphere in the diocesan TLM scene and adjacent sectors of youth orthodoxy changed. The line between radical traditionalists and mainstream conservative Catholics in good standing turned out to be more of a continuum. Parishes and online spaces where I once felt very secure began to slide further and further towards the “hard” end of that continuum. (Once in confession at a trad-leaning parish I confessed deliberately entertaining negative thoughts about someone high up in the hierarchy; my confessor immediately assumed I was referring to Pope Francis, when in fact I meant the dubia cardinals! Another time, somebody outright ghosted me for saying that I wasn’t fully convinced by the arguments for the all-male priesthood.) By the time I began writing for Where Peter Is in the spring of 2019 I had more or less completely given up on the traditionalist community as a vehicle for renewal of faith or morals in the Church. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic began almost a year later there was almost nothing I could say anymore to some of the people and communities I still love (they helped form me, after all), nor they to me.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, many, including Pope Francis, have noted mainstream TLM communities drifting further and further towards rejection of an ecumenical council. Thus, a fairly convincing argument can be made that it became necessary to restrict the situations in which the TLM can legitimately be celebrated in order to prevent schism. Beyond that, I don’t know if the restrictions in Traditionis Custodes will resolve any of this situation. It’s too early to tell. It might very well backfire just as Summorum Pontificum did. Even so, Pope Francis, in my opinion, had to do something, and it’s genuinely become difficult for me to imagine the atmosphere in some of these spaces and communities and parishes getting much worse than it already has.
The explanatory letter accompanying Traditionis Custodes observes, in a somewhat pungent tone, that “Whoever wishes to celebrate with devotion according to earlier forms of the liturgy can find in the reformed Roman Missal according to Vatican Council II all the elements of the Roman Rite.” I think that this observation could offer a path forward, as long as partisans of the reformed Mass are willing to accommodate the criticisms that will inevitably be offered by former “trads.” There should, put simply, be room for “High Mass” celebrated according to the 1970 Missal. The Mass of Paul VI and John Paul II, celebrated with the concern for aesthetic and intellectual gravity that is so characteristic of the traditionalist mind, could truly become the best of both worlds and indeed “the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.”