Pope Francis recently issued Traditionis Custodes, which restricts, but does not prohibit, the celebration of older forms of the Roman Rite. In his accompanying letter, Pope Francis explains that he is taking this action because the traditionalist movement has become divisive. He writes, “One is dealing here with comportment that contradicts communion and nurtures the divisive tendency — “I belong to Paul; I belong instead to Apollo; I belong to Cephas; I belong to Christ” — against which the Apostle Paul so vigorously reacted. In defense of the unity of the Body of Christ, I am constrained to revoke the faculty granted by my Predecessors.”

For many traditionalists, however, their attachment to an older form of the liturgy is framed as a matter of unity, of unity with the past and the Catholics who have gone before us. They claim that they are attending the “Mass of the Ages” or the “Mass of the Saints.” and participating in the same rituals Catholics have celebrated “for fifteen hundred years.” By doing so, they say that they find a deeper unity with the Church as it exists through time. In fact, traditionalists who wish to maintain their unity with the present Church sometimes lament having to choose between an older rite that symbolizes unity through time and a newer rite that emphasizes unity with the Church around the world.

A Mistaken View of History

Does this idea of finding unity through the “Latin Mass” hold up to scrutiny? Fundamentally, it is based on a mistaken view of the history of the liturgy. The liturgy of the 1962 missal is not “the Mass of the ages.” It was only codified for the Western Church by Pope St. Pius V in 1570; as the liturgy of the Western Church, it only lasted for about 400 years, from 1570 to 1970. Even during that time, there were numerous changes and revisions, and of course, the various Eastern churches continued to use their own rites. Before 1570, there was a lot more diversity in the European liturgy. In some ways, liturgy in the middle ages was more like the current form of the Roman Rite than like the 1962 missal. In many places, the Mass included public intercessions (in the vernacular), a sign of peace given to the laity, and an offertory procession. There were more “options.” as they are now dismissively called. In some places, blessed bread was distributed after Mass, as it is today in some Eastern Rites. Liturgical gestures such as genuflection and kneeling only came into vogue in the 1100s. The custom of reading the beginning of St. John’s Gospel at the end of every Mass only became universal in the 1500s. In medieval Spain, there were three liturgical readings: one from St. Paul, one from the Old Testament, and one from the Gospels; this should sound familiar to those who attend the current form of the Roman Rite.

As well as all the diversity in the Western Rites, the Church has always included the many Eastern Churches with their fascinating array of liturgies. They use languages ranging from Syriac to Aramaic to Slavonic and contain many different “anaphora” (the equivalent of the “canon” or “Eucharistic prayer” of the West.) The Maronite Rite alone contains over seventy different anaphora! Language such as “the Mass of all the Ages” tends to perpetuate the unfortunate marginalization of the Christian East.

Going further back in time, the western liturgy was initially in Greek. St. Peter and St. Paul would have celebrated the liturgy in Greek, as would have most of the saints and Fathers of the Church in the first three centuries of Christianity.

If the supposed unity with the past created by attending the Mass of St. Pius V extends to those worshiping in such a diverse range of languages and liturgies, then it is hard to see why the current form wouldn’t do the job just as well! There’s more difference between the liturgy of St. Peter or the modern-day Alexandrian Ge’ez Rite and the 1962 Roman Missal than there is between the 1962 Roman Missal and the Mass of Vatican II.

The First Celebration of the Mass

If language and ritual are important for establishing unity with the past of the Church, traditionalists are faced with an even more serious problem. The first three celebrations of the liturgy, at the Last Supper, Calvary, and in Emmaus, bear very little resemblance to any current liturgical celebration, whether Eastern or Western, ancient or modern. Christ spoke in Aramaic, Hebrew, or possibly Greek, but certainly not Latin, and didn’t follow any existing set of rubrics at these celebrations. And yet when the Mass is celebrated in any language or rite, we are in union with these first celebrations. Indeed, without this unity, our celebrations would be meaningless. Compared to this deeper, all-encompassing, life-giving unity, any unity created by similarities of language or custom seems a paltry, trifling thing.

A Mistaken Ecclesiology

This highlights a deeper mistake of the traditionalist mindset. The traditionalist speaks of a “Church of the Past” and of the saints and heroes of times gone by and attempts to find a connection with them through his liturgical and devotional practices. In reality, however, the only way to find unity with the Church of the past is through the Church of the present. Christ is not in the past. He is eternally present in his Church. Nor do Christ’s saints belong to the past. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. In the Mass, celebrated under any form or rite, all the saints of the “past” are present to us, as are all the saints of the future yet to be. (What would a liturgy designed to connect us to the future even look like? It is just as well that we don’t have to consider this question; any liturgy, by connecting us to Christ the Head, connects us with the whole Mystical Body throughout space and time.)

This fundamental inconsistency plagues traditionalist thought and rhetoric. Their language shows a view of the Church as static, as something which has been given to us all “wrapped up” and which can only be protected, but not developed. This can lead to a suspicion of any change. We needn’t fear development, because the Church is guaranteed against falling into error. It lives and develops with the very life of God himself in Jesus Christ.

Pervasive Ideological Slogans

I realize, of course, that there are traditionalists who hold firmly to a belief in a living Church and are staunchly loyal to the Pope. They merely enjoy older liturgical elements such as Latin and chant. They often argue that there’s nothing wrong with these liturgical tastes. In the abstract, they are correct.

I find, however, that those traditionalists who are merely interested in older forms of the liturgy tend to absorb by osmosis the many spiritual and intellectual problems that characterize the movement. In particular, they come to see the earlier form of the Roman Rite not as a matter of personal preference, but rather as objectively superior, due to its supposed antiquity and perfection. This inaccurate understanding frequently produces an attitude of superiority toward other Catholics and the hierarchy. This can be seen, for instance, in the recent statement of the FSSP priests in Dijon, France, who refused to concelebrate with the other priests of the diocese at the Chrism Mass because they “have reservations on the New Mass.”

As I have experienced myself, it is but a short step from accepting misleading rhetoric to accepting the flawed mentality of superiority, and from there but a short step to disunity with the Church. Words really do matter. If catchphrases like “the Mass of the Ages” or “the tradition of 15 centuries” or “apostolic origins” are repeated often enough, they sink into the soul, producing division and eventually schism.

A mere preference for particular liturgical forms is not, in itself, divisive; division occurs when older forms of the Roman Rite are seen as superior. A feeling of superiority creates division, not necessarily in every individual case, but in a movement as a whole. This dynamic is certainly not unique to the traditionalist movement; it has plagued the Church from the beginning. As Pope Francis noted, St. Paul had to work against similar movements that based their claimed superiority on details of outward observance. In regulating practices that have proved divisive, Pope Francis is heeding this deeper tradition of the Church.

Image: Adobe Stock

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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