Rorate Caeli

Dr. Kwasniewski’s Lecture at Steubenville: “The Old Mass and the New Evangelization: Beyond the Long Winter of Rationalism”

On Monday, September 7, 2015, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski (one of our contributors and well known to lovers of the traditional liturgy) delivered a lecture at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The event was well attended by students, faculty, and staff. Rorate is pleased to be able to publish the text in full -- an exclusive publication, for which we are very grateful.


The Old Mass and the New Evangelization:
Beyond the Long Winter of Rationalism

Peter A. Kwasniewski [*]
Gentile Gallery of the J. C. Williams Center
The Franciscan University of Steubenville
September 7, 2015

It is an honor and a joy for me to be here this evening. I am grateful to Dr. Michael Sirilla for the invitation to speak at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, which, for so many years, has maintained the reputation of a school where Our Lord Jesus Christ is “the king and center of all hearts” and where the Catholic Faith is taught, practiced, and loved. On a more personal note, I have the feeling of “coming full circle,” since I taught for the Austrian Program at the Kartause in Gaming, and at that time mingled with many wonderful people from the university—but never had a chance to visit the home campus.

As I was working on this talk, I came to see that my title, “The Old Mass and the New Evangelization,” really deserves to be a book, not a lecture. I decided to limit myself to an aspect that seemed especially fruitful—“Beyond the Long Winter of Rationalism”—even though one could approach the topic from so many angles.[1]

Rediscovering the Ancient Mass

Allow me to begin with some facts. The attendance of Catholics at Mass has been in steady decline, one might even say freefall, since about 1965—the year when huge changes began to be made to the way in which the Mass had been celebrated for centuries.[2] On the other hand, since the year 1984, when Pope John Paul II first asked bishops to permit priests to celebrate the usus antiquior or older use of the Roman Rite, and particularly since Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum in 2007, which dispensed with the need for episcopal permission, the number of traditional Latin Masses available to the faithful, the number of clergy offering them, and the number of Catholics attending them have steadily increased. As of 2013, over 1,000 clergy in North America had completed a formal training program for celebrating the Extraordinary Form. In 1988, there were only about 20 places in the United States where you could find a traditional Latin Mass on Sundays; today, that number has risen to almost 500.[3] In response to an obvious demand on the part of students, faculty, and staff, Catholic colleges and universities are including the Extraordinary Form in their chaplaincy schedules. Religious orders have incorporated the usus antiquior into their way of life or even adopted it exclusively, with the result of a surge in vocations. The average age of Catholics attending traditional Latin Mass parishes or chaplaincies is lower than the national average, while the average family size is higher.[4] It is a vibrantly youthful, flourishing, and expanding movement. As Pope Benedict XVI observed in 2007:

Immediately after the Second Vatican Council it was presumed that requests for the use of the 1962 Missal would be limited to the older generation which had grown up with it, but in the meantime it has clearly been demonstrated that young persons too have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them.[5] 

Why is all this happening? Why has the liturgical reform of the 1960s and 1970s failed to produce a new springtime in the Church?[6] What, in contrast, is the secret of the old Latin Mass’s appeal—the reason or reasons for its surprising resurgence in our day, when most of the people who celebrate or attend it were born after 1970? And how is this development good for the Church and for the New Evangelization?

In order to begin answering these questions, we need to orient ourselves correctly with respect to what the New Evangelization means and how the liturgy fits into it. One could give a number of valid formulations, but I find Bishop Dominique Rey’s the most succinct:

The New Evangelization is not an idea or a program: it is a demand that each of us comes to know the person of Christ more profoundly and, by doing so, become more able to lead others to Him. The only way to begin to do this is through the sacred liturgy, and if the liturgy is somehow not as it should be, or I am not properly prepared, this encounter with Christ will be impeded, the New Evangelization will suffer. … The history of evangelization throughout the centuries shows how the great missionaries were great men of prayer, and more specifically of authentic devotion. It also shows the correlation between the quality and depth of liturgical life and apostolic dynamism. … The New Evangelization needs to anchor itself in profound Eucharistic and liturgical renewal.[7]

Taking what Bishop Rey says, we can formulate a thesis. If the old Mass helps people to “come to know the person of Christ more profoundly,” if it helps us become “great men of prayer and authentic devotion,” if it provides superior “quality and depth,” then it is, and will continue to be, one of the most important elements of the New Evangelization.

I’d like to take an experiential or inductive approach, by looking at what Catholics themselves say when asked what struck them about the traditional Latin Mass the first time they attended it. Personal testimonies are abundantly available.[8] Let us begin with several from young adults.

I took more notice of what the priest was doing, which surprised me. His facing away from us was refreshing, because I liked the fact that he is one of us, looking towards God, representing us. . . . The smell of the incense, kneeling for Communion, wearing of the mantilla, quiet prayer . . . all focused on God with reverence and humility, and I was not distracted by the priest or altar servers.[9]

Here’s another report:

It was a Missa Cantata, a sung Mass. All I had known [before] was folk Masses, people singing ‘Kumbaya,’ and the first thing that struck me was the seriousness of it. … I was just amazed at the solemnity of the people and the priest. … I felt really focused for the first time in a Mass. … The main thing I like is the silence. … It is an opportunity to meditate and contemplate. I like to think of myself at the foot of the Cross.[10]

And a third reaction:

It was here [in Oxford] where I first experienced the Mass in Latin. It was a solemn high Mass, and it was perhaps the most beautiful experience I have ever had. Though now I know the liturgy, understand what is happening upon the altar, and am familiar with the replies in Latin, in my ignorance on that happy day in Oxford I was able to experience that Mass as a blind child, imagining the angels singing from on high, as I was too embarrassed in this foreign place to turn my head back to get a glimpse of the choir loft. … There is an unsurpassed solemnity that the “old” rite carries.[11]

And this, from one of your own students, Mary Bonadies, as told in the Summer 2015 issue of Franciscan Way. Mary is talking about her experience of singing in the choir at the first Extraordinary Form Mass she attended:

It opened up a whole new world to me. At the end of the liturgy, I broke down and cried because I had never experienced such beauty.[12]

A young couple due to be married this October at St. Walburge’s in Preston, Lancaster, had this to say about their journey:

Coming from an atheist background, my fiancé and I have been attracted to the Catholic faith this year through the beauty of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. We were taken in by the liturgical music, tradition, and reverence of everyone that attended. It sparked a curiosity in the faith that led to us being received into the Catholic Church.[13] 

To show that such reactions are not limited to the young, here are two testimonies from elderly people:

I was focused during the whole of the service. It felt more spiritual and I felt much more connected to the service because it wasn’t in English. It seemed a lot more profound… there was no shaking of hands or anything. We were all focused on the Mass rather than the priest. Often, at Mass it’s all about the character of the priest and this wasn’t like that. … I felt myself listening intently. … It felt really special in a way I hadn’t thought about Mass being special in 40 years.[14]

I came by chance to discover the [ICKSP] Shrine Church in New Brighton and the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. I was immediately transported to another realm. The obvious spirituality, respect, and devotion that I saw amongst the people and clergy moved me to such a degree that I was transfixed and knew immediately that I had found what I never knew I was looking for. . . . Being given this wonderful chance to draw close to God for the first time in many years, and to engage with him at a far deeper level than I ever believed possible, is something that I could only have found in the Traditional Mass.[15] 

As these first-person reports bear witness, people find something special in the traditional Latin Mass, something they may never have experienced or encountered elsewhere. Allowing for differences of emphasis or vocabulary, all of the writers seem to be expressing a threefold perception. First, the old Mass is theocentric, focused on God, “vertical,” evocative of the transcendent. Second, it is Christocentric, bringing out the priesthood of Christ and His supreme sacrifice on Calvary, and throwing into high relief the ministerial priest’s acting in persona Christi, while downplaying his idiosyncratic self. Third, it is hagiocentric, emphasizing the holiness of the ritual, the piety and reverence that should characterize our approach to God, the peculiar modes of addressing the tremendous and fascinating mystery that God is, with hushed awe and holy fear, and a heightened awareness of one’s own interiority—one’s capacity for recollection, meditation, and contemplation.[16]

In other words, the usus antiquior Mass follows the great sacramental principle of doing what it looks like, and looking like what it is.[17] If the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is indeed a tremendous mystery, a reality so awesome and divine that we cannot possibly wrap our finite minds around it but can only yield ourselves to it and be carried away by it, then it should come across that way to us. A sacred encounter with the transcendent God should look and feel both sacred and transcendent. It should signify what it is, and be what it signifies. If the liturgy does its work well, we will be humbled in its midst, provoked to prayer, stirred by singing, brought to silence, caught up in things invisible, turned inward to the depths of our soul, turned outward to the absolute primacy of God. The usus antiquior does all these things exceedingly well. The question may then be asked: Why is it so efficacious? How does it work?

A Common Objection—and Fallacy

We can answer this question by considering one of the most common objections to the revival of the traditional Latin Mass: “This Mass is in an ancient language that no one speaks any more. It’s often very quiet, so we can’t hear what the priest is saying. The ceremonies are complex and hard to follow. The chants are in a strange style that has no connection with today’s popular culture. All of these things make the old Mass hard for modern people to relate to or enter into. By the time of the Second Vatican Council, the Mass had become inaccessible, and so it needed to be put into the vernacular, simplified, and adapted to modern ways of thinking and acting.”

That’s the objection you’ll often hear, and the justification for most of the changes. Under the influence of rationalism, the architects of the modern Roman rite did their utmost to make the liturgy more (as they saw it) intelligible, transparent, and accessible—and this, ironically, has meant a tremendous decrease in the liturgy’s power to convey and communicate the mystery of the Eternal and Infinite God and the sacred mysteries of Christ in His divine humanity. As just about everyone has noted at one point or another in the past fifty years, the mysteriousness of the Mass has evaporated. This is not merely an incidental problem; it is a problem that strikes at the very essence and purpose of liturgy as divine worship.[18]

The most basic fact of our existence is that we are in need of God—not a god of our own making, who fits into our mental categories, but a God who transcends all we can ever think and imagine.[19] The liturgy has to introduce us to this God, the real one, in order to satisfy our neediness of Him. “Thou didst touch me,” says St. Augustine, “and I have burned for Thy peace.”[20] If the liturgy is to bring us into the real presence of the sovereign mystery of God, it will have to make serious demands on us, in God’s name; in keeping with the logic of the Cross, it will try us as gold in the fire, to see whether we are worthy and to render us less and less unworthy. The believer, for his own good, needs the liturgy to be dense, elusive, and fascinating. The “thickness” of the old liturgy[21] better expresses and inculcates the mysteries of the Faith; its layers of prayer, symbolism, ceremony, and chant, even in their apparent foreignness, have the power to speak more directly to the soul and to call forth an interior response.[22]

Transparency and Opacity

Traditional liturgies, Eastern and Western, have a certain inherent density of content and meaning that demands a response from us, yet our response is never fully adequate, satisfactory, or exhaustive: we can always have prayed better, we are always being outstripped by the reality. We never get to the bottom of it, shrug our shoulders, and say: “Well, that was nice, what’s next?” In contrast, a liturgy that attempts to be totally “intelligible,” in the sense of having no opacity, impenetrability, or beyondness, is ill-suited and off-putting to man as an intellectual being. It gives him nothing to sink his teeth into; it leaves his highest faculties in the lurch; it gives precious little exercise even to his lower faculties.[23]

The truth of the matter is quite different from what the liturgical reformers thought. To them, the liturgy had to be transparent so that we could see through it. But total transparency equals total invisibility. A window that is perfectly clean and clear is one that birds kill themselves flying into, because it has ceased to appear as a window, as a paradoxical barrier that lets the light through. In this life, we do not have full possession of the divine light, but this purifying, illuminating, and unifying light flows to us through the liturgy’s prayers, ceremonies, and symbols. If we wish to compare the liturgy to a window, it would be a stained glass window, where the colors and shapes of the glass, the stories it tells or the mysteries it evokes, are both what is seen and that through which the light is seen. 

Christ appears in our midst through the liturgy, and it is vitally important that we come up against the liturgy to experience, in a palpable way, His physicality, His resistance to our pressure, His otherness, precisely as the condition of our union with Him. You cannot marry an idea or a concept, you can only marry a person of flesh and blood who is different from you: the precondition for oneness is otherness. This is why it is extremely dangerous for human beings to think of themselves as the creators or modifiers of the liturgy and to act accordingly—whether before or after the coming of Christ.

Speaking of the golden calf, which is the nation of Israel’s collective fall, parallel to the fall of Adam, Joseph Ratzinger writes:

The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote, and mysterious God. They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world. He must be there when he is needed, and he must be the kind of God that is needed. Man is using God, and in reality, even if it is not outwardly discernible, he is placing himself above God. This gives us a clue to the second point. The worship of the golden calf is a self-generated cult. When Moses stays away for too long, and God himself becomes inaccessible, the people just fetch him back. Worship becomes a feast that the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating, drinking, and making merry. . . . Then liturgy really does become pointless, just fooling around. Or still worse it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in sacral disguise.[24] 

To the extent that we think and act that way, we are in serious danger of hugging ourselves rather than encountering Christ, of gazing into a pool like Narcissus and falling in love with our own reflection. One cannot truly be obedient to something he himself has instituted, since it emanated from his will and remains ultimately within his power.[25] The teacher is not docile to himself, the king is not submissive to his own will. As Ratzinger often says in his writings, the true liturgy is one that comes down to us along the stream of tradition, dictates to us our (relative) place, impresses us with its own form and shapes us according to its mind—the mind of the Church collectively, not of any particular committee or even any particular pope.[26]

Doorway to the Sacred

Let me suggest a different example.[27] A door is a useful thing: it enables us to pass from one space into another, while keeping the outside out and the inside in. As such, a door can be ignored apart from its functionality; we typically don’t think about commonplace doors, the ones we use every day at home or at work. You might say we give them our peripheral attention, enough not to walk into them like one of the Three Stooges. 

But there are at least two situations in which our experience of a door is quite different. First, if we are going to an important place for the first time—the office of a prominent person such as a bishop or a president, or the family home of my boyfriend or girlfriend. This door can be rather intimidating, because it represents something to us: it is a barrier, a threshold, a test, a point of no return. Such a door seems to have a personality: it challenges you, dares you to go in, perhaps whispers that you are not ready to go in and had better turn around. This door becomes more than a door; it is a symbol of the unknown, a sign of an unknown person. The second experience is when we see a massive, elaborate, richly-decorated door, as one finds on the great cathedrals and even in many humbler churches from ages past. Notice what has happened. The door, in its origin a purely utilitarian thing, has now become a reality in its own right: it is Christ, who is the door, the gate, the entrance. This door is something more than a door, something meaningful and beautiful in itself. With wonderful strangeness, it is not merely something we go through, but something we take into ourselves as we pass through it, something we give ourselves over to as it receives us. If, as in the great entrances of the medieval churches, the image of Christ is integrated into the doorway, He embraces us and we embrace Him. Here it is no longer possible to say that the door is just a door. It is a sign and a reality that transcends its usefulness, just as a true friend is not only useful but also pleasant and virtuous.

How does all this relate to the liturgy? The liturgy is not merely a means to an end, but an end in its own right: a sign and a reality, like the door, that demands and deserves our devout attention and our surrender to its own language, as we pass through it to the heavenly Jerusalem. When we pass through the liturgy, we do not leave it behind or forget about it, much less denigrate it; we take it into ourselves and it takes us into itself. It may be fanciful to say it, but we could think of the entire church as one great door to heaven, and in that sense, we never finish passing through the door; we are always passing through it. The liturgy is the same way. That is why, like those magnificent old church doors, the liturgy, too, should be massive, elaborate, and richly-decorated. It is not trying to get out of the way, but to get in the way, because it is the way. We speak, eloquently in my opinion, of “going to Mass,” as if the goal of our going were the Mass. This is quite true: we should be going to the Mass, and once we are within it, then we are joined to the mysteries it carries and conveys. It has to be not transparent in order to serve as a connection to God. In this way, a church door is like the stained glass window, and the liturgy is like both—not like a modern minimalist door of industrial manufacture or a plate glass window with no differentiation.

The English language has the poignant idiom “seeing through something,” meaning, exposing its emptiness or uncovering its imposture. If we can “see through” the liturgy, if it does not interpose signs and symbols like the stained glass window or the grand doorway, we cease to see it; we take it for granted, and soon enough, we are the ones who take center stage, as in Ratzinger’s analysis of the golden calf. In the ensuing vacuum, we need to invent something creative to occupy ourselves and our audience, or we need to play heavily on the emotions, since we are not wrapped up in the fullness and thickness of traditional theocentric liturgy.[28] As surely as night follows day, this filling in the gaps or filling up of dead space fails to entertain the people, and they go away, sometimes forever. Such is the tragic result of failing to respect the grandeur, strangeness, and singularity of the liturgy and attempting to shift it into more familiar categories that are, nevertheless, foreign to it.

Accessibility and Elusiveness

Next, let us consider the phenomenon of boredom. It is not difficult to see that total accessibility equals boredom. One of the reasons modern Western man is so unhappy is that he has too much of everything too easily available to him. We are awash in food and drink, laden with clothes, living in comfort; sexual titillation is suffocatingly omnipresent; we can get where we are going quickly and easily, but we don’t really know where we are going or why we should go there. What do we have to strive for, to hope for, to suffer for, to sacrifice ourselves for? The value of our goals decreases in proportion to their triviality and ease of acquisition. Does modern man have a transcendent Other to whom he can surrender himself, an elusive quarry that fascinates him, beckons him onwards, and is always just around the corner but never in his grasp? No, modern man is trapped in immanence, the quotidian, the pedestrian (or should we say, the automotive), the predictable, the endless bestirring and satisfaction of finite needs. It all gets rather wearisome. No wonder chronic boredom has become a psychological epidemic. We are seeing what happens when a creature, created from an eternal idea and destined for eternity, created by the Infinite for the infinite, has bound itself by chains to the finite and the temporary.

What are the liturgical implications of this point? Quite simply that a liturgy, to be true to God and true to man made in God’s image, cannot be totally “accessible”—and the attempt to make it so will only result in its degradation. To make the liturgy obvious, easy, simple, is to make it cease to be the liturgy. If it becomes proportionate to man in his temporality and finitude, it becomes, to that same extent, disproportionate to God and to man’s immortal intellectual soul, created in God’s image. This principle affects every aspect of liturgy. 

For example, sacred music should not be a music that emphasizes temporality by a heavy regular beat, and finitude by catchy and simplistic melodic phrases. Gregorian chant is supremely fitting for the liturgy and serves as the supreme model of sacred music because its lack of the straightjacket of accentuated metricality, its free-floating rhythm and graceful, sinuous melodies, intimately wedded with the words in a one-flesh union, leave behind the predictable patterns of this world and carry us into the heavenly realm, the world of supernal beauty. The vestments worn by the ministers must not look like polyester drapes that could be hung on a curtain rod in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In their rich colors and embroidered symbols, their splendor and set-apartness, liturgical vestments should be pushing at the limits of what clothing can be—signs of the invisible clothing of the beauty of sanctifying grace.[29] The sacred vessels placed on the altar of sacrifice should be resplendent precious metals, and the chalice ornamented with gems, engravings, filigree, whatever can set it apart as “this glorious chalice” that our Lord will take into His holy and venerable hands, to fill with His most precious Blood, “whereof a single drop has power to win / All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.”[30] Everything in the liturgy must bespeak the sacred, the transcendent, the holy, the beautiful, the noblest offerings of love and thanksgiving.

Let me summarize my argument against liturgical rationalism. Liturgy that is totally intelligible is irrelevant, because it no longer summons forth from us the leisurely labor of the deepest and fullest response we can give, with our senses, imagination, memory, intellect, will. Liturgy that is totally transparent is invisible and thus ignored, because it does not catch our attention at the very point where the invisible God becomes visible in otherworldly signs and symbols, like light becoming narrative in the stained glass window. Liturgy that is totally accessible is boring, because it is too easy. As the mystics tell us, God is our sovereign Lover, and He woos mankind with a lengthy and perilous courtship. We, in return, chase after Him with sighs, groans, and tears, ever on the trail, catching now and again a glimpse that sets our hearts ablaze. If we have any clue about what we are doing, there is nothing quick, easy, or boring about it: the liturgy is a lifelong courtship, an exhilarating chase, the exploration of a new world in which we are not the conquerors but the captives; the liturgy is our wedding feast, anticipated and somehow already present. Such metaphors fall so far short of the reality that they strain the bounds of language, they clash and meld. This, too, should be our experience of liturgy: it is a mystery that strains the bounds of our language, our thoughts, our feelings, beckoning us to go “further up and further in.” 

It is precisely the traditional liturgies of the Church, Eastern and Western, that most perfectly express and fulfill these inherent requirements and human needs. They are not readily intelligible but opaque, multi-layered, cosmic in scope, rich in paradox, proclaiming the ineffable divine sacrifice; they are not transparent but, like a rood screen or an iconostasis, stand before and between us, mediating the unapproachable Light; they are not easily accessible, but exacting, requiring self-discipline,[31] demanding our conversion to something objective, outside of us, prior to us, higher than us, and normative of us. A traditional liturgy dictates the terms of our engagement with it; we are not in the position of telling it what to be or what to do. In all these ways, the great liturgies of the Christian tradition—the Mass of St. Gregory the Great as codified by St. Pius V, the Ambrosian rite, the Mozarabic rite, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or of St. Basil the Great—are supreme gifts given by God to His Church on earth, by which our profound neediness of God is stirred up and quenched, and God’s mysterious “longing” for man reaches down and calls forth from us the response He desires, one that is as simple as Himself and as complex as ourselves.

Simplicity and Complexity, Revisited

Earlier I spoke of the danger of simplicity and the attraction of complexity. But we need to be more precise, because there is good simplicity and bad, good complexity and bad. If, because of the way things are being done, you can see at a glance that the Mass is a sacrificial action in which our Lord and God is present for our adoration, that is a good simplicity—something the tiniest child can perceive and the oldest person still relish as the awe-inspiring wonder it is. If, on the other hand, you think the Mass is a Protestant Bible study with a communion service tacked on, that is because you have been exposed to a bad simplification of it. Similarly, if you get immersed and a bit dizzy in the richness of the Mass as it invades all your senses and thoughts, that’s a good complexity; no analysis could ever do justice to it. But if there’s a lot of disjointed and distracting stuff going on at Mass and you can hardly pray and can’t wait to get out, that’s a bad complexity.

Again, the key to making such distinctions is to ponder the difference between rationalism, which brings everything down to our level, and mysticism, which elevates us to the divine. Rationalism seeks the linguistification of reality in order to control it, seeks to capture transcendent mystery in handy formulas, speaks on and on as though one could create an image of eternity if one only talks long enough. The old liturgy knows better[32]: the priest praying at the altar, primarily addressing God on behalf of all; the schola chanting antiphons and psalms; the incense rising and bells ringing; the people following their missals or praying rosaries, singing the Creed or just watching, letting their souls be led by images, sounds, motions—everyone is glued together by the complex simplicity and simple complexity of the divine mysteries, which are always far beyond us and yet right there before us and inside us, at once transcendent and immanent.

Many Catholics today, however, are harassed with a simplistic simplicity (the banality of all-too-human activity, unskilled and redolent of the marketplace) combined with a complex complexity (since language, especially when it attempts to be “self-explanatory,” is often a distraction, a barrier, to the apprehension of inward meaning). Thus modern liturgical praxis re-instates unintelligibility by insisting overmuch on intelligibility. Verbosity cancels out the ineffable Verbum; “undisciplined squads of emotion” cloud over the deifying light.[33] Contrary to the stated intentions of the reformers (“simplify, simplify”), the complexity is never actually reduced to an aesthetic and spiritual simplicity. Ratzinger puts his finger on this very problem:

More and more clearly we can discern the frightening impoverishment which takes place when people show beauty the door and devote themselves exclusively to “utility.” Experience has shown that the retreat to “intelligibility for all,” taken as the sole criterion, does not really make liturgies more intelligible and more open but only poorer. “Simple” liturgy does not mean poor or cheap liturgy: there is the simplicity of the banal and the simplicity that comes from spiritual, cultural, and historical wealth.[34] 

Or, as Dom Mark Kirby, Prior of the Benedictine monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle in Ireland, observes:

There is a cold, reasonable, and altogether too “grown-up” form of religion that fails to address the needs of the heart. Chilly and cerebral, it is foreign to the spirit of the Gospel because it is so far removed from things that children need and understand. In many places, the past fifty years saw the imposition of a new iconoclasm, an elitist religion without warmth, a religion for the brain with precious little for the heart, a religion stripped of images and devoid of the sacred signs that penetrate deeply those places in the human person where mere discourse cannot go.[35] 

The classical liturgy is already simple in a profound way that comprises complexity of word, image, gesture, song, silence; it is simple in the way that a living animal is simple, in spite of an inconceivable multitude of parts, because it is a single holistic, articulated, organic whole, a unified center of action and suffering. 

The New Evangelization

All this may sound rather speculative, but it has decisive practical consequences for the everyday life and mission of the Church in the modern world. “The way the liturgy is treated determines the fate of the faith and the Church,” said Cardinal Ratzinger.[36] The humanism, rationalism, archaeologism, utilitarianism, modernism, and other -isms on the basis of which the reformers worked in the sixties and seventies have yielded a liturgy inadequate to its own theological essence, unequal to its ascetical-mystical vocation, and estranged from its cultural inheritance. This modern liturgy, in the manner in which it is commonly celebrated and experienced today, reflects and inculcates an anthropocentric view of worship that is spiritually damaging, since it deviates from the evidently theocentric, Christocentric, and hagiocentric worship bequeathed by tradition. This, in turn, will continue to weaken the Church’s internal coherence, mar the external beauty of her face, deplete her doctrinal fidelity, limit the extension and intensity of her holiness, and diminish the efficacy of her missionary efforts. As Cardinal Burke laments:

If the Sacred Liturgy is celebrated in an anthropocentric way, in a horizontal way in which it is no longer evident that it is a divine action, it simply becomes a social activity that can be relativized along with everything else—it doesn’t have any lasting impact on one’s life.[37] 

Conversely, as the traditional liturgical rites and their spirituality are recovered and come to occupy an ever-greater place in the lives of the faithful, to that extent the damage of the past fifty years will be able to be reversed, staunch fortitude can be developed for the coming persecutions, and tremendous energies of evangelization can be nurtured and released.[38]

Bishop Athanasius Schneider has given eloquent expression to the real priorities that face the Church today:

Only on the basis of adoring and glorifying God can the Church adequately proclaim the word of truth, that is, evangelize. … Everything about the liturgy of the Holy Mass must therefore serve to express clearly the reality of Christ’s sacrifice, namely the prayers of adoration, of thanks, of expiation, and of impetration that the eternal High Priest presented to His Father. … How can we call others to convert while, among those doing the calling, no convincing conversion towards God has yet occurred, internally or externally?[39]

Bishop Dominique Rey, whom I quoted at the start of this talk, puts it well: “I wish to say very clearly that the New Evangelization must be founded on the faithful and fruitful celebration of the sacred liturgy as given to us by the Church in her tradition—Western and Eastern.”[40]

This, brothers and sisters, is good news: God, having loved us first, has given us, in various traditions, optimal ways to make our response to Him in love—a work that we can do, but only through Him, with Him, and in Him. That is the great gift of the sacred liturgy. That is why the rediscovery of the traditional Latin Mass, with all of its special qualities, is vital both for the re-evangelization of Catholics and the sharing of the Gospel with non-believers: it is at the very heart of the good news that we seek to share, it is itself a powerful agent of conversion, and without it, we are in danger of talking about the good news rather than initiating people into it, as a living communion with Christ.

Think of it this way: an atheist, out of curiosity, goes to church. What will he find there? Will he be shattered out of complacency by the “shock of the beautiful”[41]? Or a Protestant wonders what the Catholic Mass is all about, and she decides to attend one Sunday. Will she be overwhelmed by her confrontation with the majesty and mystery of Christ in his holy sanctuary, an existential contact with undiluted sacredness? It is sad to have to say that, if our atheist and our Protestant happen to pick a Catholic church at random, they face a great risk of being turned off by the banality or puzzled as to how such a religion can survive its moribundity. Or let us say that we have shared the word of truth with our neighbor; with God’s help, we have rekindled the spark of faith in a fallen-away Catholic, or started a promising exchange with an unbeliever. What is it, ultimately, that we are inviting them to share? Our faith is far more than belief in a book or a set of propositions, far more than a plan of life or a social network. We want them to come fully alive in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh; we want them to behold the glory of the only-begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth; we want them to experience “the divine, holy, most pure, immortal, heavenly, life-creating, and awesome mysteries of Christ.”[42] Where and how is that going to happen? Do we have something truly wonderful, truly satisfying, to invite them to? Something that can make their hearts burn within them and their minds rise up to heaven, as it does for us? If our liturgy isn’t as it should be, evangelization has no real end in view.[43]

Where Does This Leave Us?

Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro writes these sobering words:

Only the man who has roots has a future. Part and parcel of the problems of modern man are that because he has cut his roots with his own past, he can no longer project himself to the future. Man, without an inherited and objective frame of reference, cannot even make sense of the present in which he lives. To attempt to achieve freedom by escaping from the burdens of tradition tends to result in a new enslavement to a chaotic present.[44]

Yet there is hopefulness in this observation, too, if we take it to heart. “Only the man who has roots has a future”: we must regain our roots, get reconnected with them, in order to bear much fruit.

It is, of course, extremely disturbing that leaders in the Church have created or permitted such a disastrous situation. But we would be guilty of great naiveté if we did not recognize how much confusion has afflicted the Church at certain times in her 2,000-year pilgrimage: the treason of bishops during the Arian crisis, the moral degradation of the papacy in the Dark Ages, the worldliness of Renaissance Rome with its princely pontiffs, the colossal mistakes made at the time of the Protestant revolt, and the surrender to Enlightenment seductions. All of these are prominent episodes in Church history that teach us just how much ignorance, error, and sin God in His inscrutable Providence may allow, for the testing of the saints.[45]

Serious confusion is possible among believers, as we see in the famous scene in the Acts of the Apostles when St. Paul asks a band of disciples at Ephesus: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied: “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”[46] Obviously, whoever had preached the Good News to them not done a thorough job of catechizing. The same can be true today: “Did you receive the Holy Tradition when you believed?” “No, we have never even heard that there is a Catholic tradition—no one ever told us about it. We didn’t know there was a great, rich, solemn, prayerful form of the Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council—no one ever showed it to us.” It is the role of apostles today to bring to men, believers and unbelievers alike, all the riches of Christ and of the Church’s long and fruitful life in Christ. We do not need to judge the erring or the ignorant; we need to have mercy on them by loving them enough to care that they hear, touch, taste, smell, and see the beautiful. Indeed, as St. Augustine says, we need to start the works of mercy by showing mercy to ourselves.[47] We are the poor and hungry, the lame, blind, and deaf, for whose benefit Christ has lavished upon His Church vast stores of spiritual nourishment. It is therefore our duty to immerse ourselves in those stores and, once we have become strengthened by the food of kings, to lead others to the same banquet.

If you already attend the traditional Latin Mass, get to know the liturgy better. Follow along (at least sometimes) with a hand-held missal: when it comes to vocal and mental prayer, you will never find anything richer or more worthy of meditation than the very prayers of the Mass, including the ones the priest says silently and privately. If your main or exclusive exposure has been to the Low Mass, make an effort to find a High Mass or a Solemn High Mass. We need both the Low Mass for its peacefulness and the High Mass for its glory—they capture both aspects of the song of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest” (that’s the High Mass), “and peace on earth to men of good will” (that’s the Low Mass)—but it cannot be denied that the Roman liturgy is fully itself only when clothed in its full ceremonial and musical splendor. Read good books about the Mass. There are such wonderful, gripping, illuminating authors you can read—Ratzinger, Guardini, Fortescue, Davies, Mosebach, Dobszay, Mahrt, Lang, Reid. As some of you may know, I’ve written a book, Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church, which discusses more in depth the sort of things I’ve touched on tonight. Don’t be bashful about inviting friends and family to the usus antiquior to introduce them to this treasure of our faith. Tell them not to worry if they can’t follow it at first and that it will grow on them over time. If, on the other hand, you have not yet attended the old Mass, or go only rarely, do yourself a favor and plunge in.

The New Evangelization begins with my conversion and your conversion. As Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland says: “If we are transformed by the sacred liturgy, then we, as believers, can help transform the culture.”[48] Let us place ourselves in the school of the old Mass, the school of countless saints, so that it can shape our minds and hearts, nourish us, and equip us for the work God is calling us to do. It is my hope, my prayer, and my conviction that you will come to see how the traditional Latin Mass is one of the best ways for us to make Christ our king and to make the Faith blossom again in the midst of our modern wilderness.


[*] I would like to thank Dr. Joseph Shaw, Christopher Owens, Fr. Thomas Kocik, and Fr. Samuel Weber, O.S.B., for their comments on an earlier draft of this lecture.

[1] An excellent essay on this topic has already been written by Dr. Tracey Rowland, “The Usus Antiquior and the New Evangelisation,” in The Sacred Liturgy: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church, ed. Alcuin Reid (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 115–37. This volume contains a number of papers relevant to our topic. See also Bishop Athanasius Schneider, “The Extraordinary Form and the New Evangelization,” in The Latin Mass, vol. 21, n. 2 (Summer 2012): 6–10; also available at Those who wish to pursue the matter in some detail may consult my book, Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014).

[2] See Susan Benofy, “The Day the Mass Changed,” Part 1:; Part 2: To me it seems irrelevant to object that the huge changes (e.g., Mass versus populum, the de facto abolition of Latin and Gregorian chant) were not mandated by the Second Vatican Council and are not required by the Novus Ordo Missae as such, which, in its rubrics, permits an ars celebrandi in continuity with tradition. The simple fact is that, from 1965 onwards, a self-consciously modern way of celebrating the liturgy was introduced from the highest levels of authority and, for all intents and purposes, was imposed upon the body of the faithful, with no serious attempt made to practice what Pope Benedict XVI would later call “the hermeneutic of continuity” (Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, note 6). Pope Paul VI stated, in his general audience of November 26, 1969, that the “divine” Latin and the “incomparable” Gregorian chant were going to have to be sacrificed for the sake of reaching modern man. As a result, the number of churches in each country that retained, in the Novus Ordo, a Latin liturgy with Gregorian chant could be counted on one’s fingers. It is understandable that defenders of the modern Roman Rite wish to compare the Ordinary Form “as it might be” with the Extraordinary Form “as it actually is,” but such a comparison is unreal, even fantastical, given the strength of custom built up by decades of impoverished, discontinuous, and abusive ars celebrand. The Novus Ordo “High Masses” of the Oratories in London, Oxford, Toronto, or Vienna are beautiful exceptions that prove the rule. This, unfortunately, has been our existential situation for a long time, and it will continue to be so until the traditional movement gains ascendency through numerical superiority (which, demographically, is not improbable in the long haul) or a reforming pope comes to the throne of Peter, or both.

[3] For the status quo in 2013, see (accessed August 19, 2015).

[4] Moreover, anecdotal evidence as well as actual research strongly suggests that the ratio of men and women in traditional Latin Mass communities is more balanced than in Ordinary Form communities, where women outnumber men by a sizeable margin; but further speculation on this point would take us too far afield in the present talk. For more on this subject, see the FIUV Position Paper 26, “The Extraordinary Form and the Evangelisation of Men,” and resources available at the weblog of Dr. Joseph Shaw, President of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales.

[5] Letter to Bishops, July 7, 2007. Antonio Cardinal Cañizares Llovera, when still Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, wrote in a similar vein in 2013: “[T]he motu proprio also produced a phenomenon that is for many astonishing and is a true ‘sign of the times’: the interest that the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite elicits, in particular among the young who never lived it as an ordinary form and that manifests a thirst for ‘languages’ that are not ‘more of the same’ and that call us towards new and, for many pastors, unforeseen horizons. The opening-up of the liturgical wealth of the Church to all the faithful has made possible the discovery of all the treasures of this patrimony for those who had not known them—among whom this liturgical form is stirring up, more than ever, numerous priestly and religious vocations throughout the world, willing to give their lives to the service of evangelization” (see full text here).

[6] For my response to the familiar objection that Pope Paul VI’s liturgical reform would have produced a new springtime if only it had been “correctly implemented,” see note 2.

[7] Bishop Dominique Rey, “Introduction,” in Reid, Sacred Liturgy: Source and Summit, 15–16. Canon Francis Altiere offers this elegant single-sentence definition of evangelization: “Evangelisation concretely means helping practicing Catholics to grow in holiness and become apostles; helping lapsed or non-practicing Catholics to return to the sacraments; and helping non-Catholics to become Catholics” (Mass of the Ages, issue 185 [Autumn 2015], 10).

[8] For more examples of this burgeoning genre, see Carl Wolk, “The Flight to Eternal Rome and the Mass of the Revolution,” OnePeterFive, June 11, 2015; James Kalb, “What the Traditional Mass Means to Me,” Crisis Magazine, December 4, 2014; “Finding What Should Never Have Been Lost: Priests and the Extraordinary Form,” The Catholic World Report, August 19, 2014; Anne M. Larson, ed., Love in the Ruins: Modern Catholics in Search of the Ancient Faith (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 2009). It is a fertile field for research if someone is looking to identify subjective or experiential factors in the resurgence of the traditional Latin Mass.

[9] Mass of the Ages, issue 185, 9. The writer’s name is Maile Hanson. In the magazine of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, Mass of Ages, there is a regular feature in which Catholics are asked to attend the Extraordinary Form and then give their honest-to-goodness reactions. Some are attending for the very first time, while others are older Catholics who haven’t been in decades or may not even be practicing any more.

[10] Mass of the Ages, issue 182 (Winter 2014), 8. The writer’s name is Philip Dillon.

[11] “An Atheist’s Conversion to Catholicism, the Traditional Liturgy, and Young Adults” (accessed August 20, 2015), written under the pen name Zita Mirzakhani.

[12] Emily Stimpson, “Singing for God,” Franciscan Way, Summer 2015, p. 5.

[13] Mass of Ages, issue 185 (Autumn 2015), p. 11.

[14] Mass of the Ages, issue 180 (Summer 2014), p. 8. The writer’s name is Timothy Whitebloom.

[15] Mass of the Ages, issue 183 (Spring 2015), 7. The writer’s name is J. Mackenzie, who describes himself as a convert from Anglicanism.

[16] Note how these features line up with what is most needed, most neglected, and even most derided in our times.

[17] What I mean is this: water cleanses dirt from the body; therefore baptism, which is for cleansing sin from the soul, is done with water, and that water, together with the words, really cleanses the soul. Similarly, bread and wine nourish the body; therefore the Eucharist, which is for nourishing the soul, is given to us under the forms of bread and wine. In scholastic language, we say a sacrament effects what it signifies.

[18] For an excellent treatment of this problem, see Aidan Nichols, O.P., Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of Its Contemporary Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), esp. ch. 2, “The Importance of Ritual,” 49–86.

[19] As St. Augustine famously said: “Si comprehendis, non est Deus” (Sermon 117, PL 38:663)—“If you can grasp it with your mind, it’s not God.”

[20] Confessions, trans. Frank Sheed, ed. Michael P. Foley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006), Bk. 10, ch. 27, p. 210.

[21] The language of “thickness” is borrowed from C. S. Lewis, who contrasted “thick” and “clear” religions, and argued that the true religion has to be thoroughly both: see “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Religion, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1970), 101–3. For further discussion, see Thomas Storck, “Catholicism: The Perfection of Religion,” in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, 99.11–12 (August/September 1999): 7–12, available here.

[22] Needless to say, this interior response is the primary element of active participation. If the interior response is present, it does not require an external expression, although it will often benefit from one; if it is lacking, all the external actions in the world cannot substitute for it.

[23] It may give plenty of exercise to them quantitatively, but it is not well-structured and ordered to a definite goal; it is exercise for the sake of exercise, rather than for the sake of producing a certain physique.

[24] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 22–23.

[25] I am reminded of a conversation in which Fr. Louis Bouyer said he would never pray the second Eucharistic Prayer, and when asked why, responded: “Because I wrote it!”

[26] The old Mass is certainly not “the Mass of” St. Gregory the Great, St. Pius V, or St. John XXIII in the same way that the new Mass is the Mass of Paul VI. Moreover, there was never a time in the Church’s history prior to the invention of the Consilium when the Roman liturgy was sliced into discrete portions that were farmed out to subcommittees (the many Coetus) for redactions and spliced back together, with the ragged joints still showing.

[27] I gladly acknowledge my debt to Romano Guardini’s masterful treatment of the metaphysical-psychological language of signs: see his Sacred Signs, trans. Grace Branham (St. Louis: Pio Decimo Press, 1956; available in reprinted form here).

[28] As Joseph Ratzinger has remarked: “If the Liturgy appears first of all as the workshop for our activity, then what is essential is being forgotten: God. For the Liturgy is not about us, but about God. Forgetting about God is the most imminent danger of our age. As against this, the Liturgy should be setting up a sign of God’s presence” (Preface to Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, 2nd ed. [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005], 13). One-dimensional texts and ceremonies convey what seems like a superficial message (sometimes it is superficial, sometimes it is not, but the manner of its communication is what counts: “the medium is the message”). The natural human reaction to superficiality on a serious occasion is to make an attempt to elicit or inject more content, more meaning, more feeling, more earnestness. It is precisely in such hostile environs that we find the invasion of foreign practices like chronic ad libbing, secular readings, liturgical dancing, rock or pop music, special lights, video screens, and pseudo-symbols (e.g., the unity sand ceremony at weddings), interwoven with methods of cajoling active participation. None of this “enhancement” would be necessary if the liturgy was doing its own work well, so that worshipers could be brought into the presence of God and abide in it.

[29] I am aware, of course, that vestments, like other elements used in the liturgy, had fairly humble and utilitarian origins in the ancient Church, and that the point of view I have expressed is definitely a medieval one, even Baroque. However, since I accept without demur the principle of organic development, by which the liturgy is enriched over the centuries as the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, internalizes ever more deeply the theological and spiritual meaning of the sacred mysteries, it is, to my mind, a fundamental error, even a heresy, to suggest that we ought to take the foggy records of ancient Christianity during its time as a persecuted underground movement and make them (such as they are) into a normative blueprint for the contemporary Church. This error was rightly castigated as “archaeologism” by Pope Pius XII, and yet the architects of the liturgical reform routinely appealed to this principle as well as the ill-defined expectations of ecumenism to justify some of their most outrageous acts of vandalism.

[30] From Gerard Manley Hopkins’ translation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Adoro te devote.

[31] Historically, of course, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was not for outsiders, nor even for catechumens, but for the fully initiated: it was the culminating thing Christians did, not the first thing they did—a holy rite guarded with strictest secrecy. With the gradual Christianization of the European world, it was inevitable that the liturgy came to be celebrated more and more publicly, without such restrictions—and that, in subsequent ages, from the time of the Protestant revolt onwards, it has been able to function as a major incentive to conversion, as Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his Address to Schola Cantorum Pilgrims in November 2012, invoking the example of Paul Claudel.

[32] Indeed Pope Paul VI seems to have known better: he writes in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi: “We are well aware that modern man is sated by talk; he is obviously often tired of listening and, what is worse, impervious to words. We are also aware that many psychologists and sociologists express the view that modern man has passed beyond the civilization of the word, which is now ineffective and useless, and that today he lives in the civilization of the image.” This he said in 1975—five years after the introduction of a rite whose verbose didacticism and elimination of much non-verbal symbolism is by now as painfully out of date as the architecture of the same period.

[33] The phrase in quotation marks is from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘East Coker,’ V (accessed at, September 2, 2015); for “deifying light,” see the Holy Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue: “Let us open our eyes to the deifying light.”

[34] The Ratzinger Report, trans. Salvator Attansio and Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 128.

[35] Dom Mark Daniel Kirby, O.S.B., Vultus Christi weblog, May 21, 2008 (, accessed August 24, 2015).

[36] Joseph Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord, trans. Martha M. Matesich (New York: Crossroad, 1997), ix; my translation, which is from Bp. Athanasius Schneider’s talk “The Extraordinary Form and the New Evangelization,” differs slightly from Matesich’s.

[37] “The Wanderer Interviews His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke,” Don Fier, February 2, 2015 (accessed August 20, 2015).

[38] I would not say that the modern Roman Rite, or some kind of “reform of the reform,” has no part whatsoever to play in this process of repentance and restoration, but I am convinced it will not have the leading role. While it is true that anything short of the beatific vision can admit of improvements, the tradition was not broken and did not need fixing; the reform needs all the help it can get.

[39] Schneider, “The Extraordinary Form and the New Evangelization.”

[40] “Introduction,” in Reid, Sacred Liturgy: Source and Summit, 15–16.

[41] See Pope Benedict XVI’s Address to Artists, November 21, 2009.

[42] As the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom chants.

[43] This is well summarized in Proposition 35 of the Final List of Propositions from the XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which reads, in part: “The worthy celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, God’s most treasured gift to us, is the source of the highest expression of our life in Christ (cf. Sacrosanctum concilium, 10). It is, therefore, the primary and most powerful expression of the new evangelization. God desires to manifest the incomparable beauty of his immeasurable and unceasing love for us through the Sacred Liturgy, and we, for our part, desire to employ what is most beautiful in our worship of God in response to his gift” (accessed August 19, 2015).

[44] Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro Carámbula, “Sacred Liturgy and the Defense of Human Life,” in Reid, Sacred Liturgy: Source and Summit, 384.

[45] The best overall account I have seen of the crisis moments in the history of the Catholic Church, with particular attention to the crisis of the past sixty years, is H. J. A. Sire, Phoenix from the Ashes: The Making, Unmaking, and Restoration of Catholic Tradition (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015).

[46] See Acts 19:1–7.

[47] See City of God, Bk. 10, ch. 6; Sermon 106 on Luke 11:39, n. 4.

[48] “Bishop Sample: ‘Transformed by the Liturgy, Transforming the Culture,’” Anna Abbott, National Catholic Register, March 8, 2013 (accessed August 24, 2015).