Rorate Caeli

Interview with Peter Kwasniewski in Czech Newspaper RC Monitor, on Liturgy, Music, Philosophy, Traditionalism

Mr. Andrej Kutarna, a writer, publisher, and photographer who lives near the city of Prague, asked me to give an interview in anticipation of the upcoming launch of the Czech edition of my book Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church. (See here for more details about the book launch on Friday, October 14, at which Cardinal Burke has graciously agreed to be present.) A Czech translation of the interview, slightly abridged, was published in this week's issue of Res Claritas Monitor 13 (2016), n. 18 (PDF link here; see pp. 11-14). The full Czech version may be viewed here at Mr. Kutarna's site.

Rorate Caeli has received exclusive permission to publish the original English interview in full:

Aristotle, Aquinas, Plato
Mr. Kutarna: How did you come to the TLM? How was your first encounter with the “Mass of the Ages”?

Dr. Kwasniewski: My journey into the traditional liturgy was gentle and gradual. I grew up in a very typical suburban American parish and sang in its children’s choir and, later, adult choir. The liturgy was very “contemporary” in style, but I didn’t know that at the time.

In high school two things happened: I got involved in a charismatic prayer group, which re-animated my faith, and I took a course in philosophy that brought me into contact with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. After a couple of years, my interest in the charismatic prayer group waned, but my intellectual life soared. I began to study theology, too, and had a vague longing for a form of prayer and liturgy that would correspond to the depth and breadth of philosophy and theology. Without knowing it, I was searching for the traditional worship of the Church, which was born of the ancient Fathers, developed by the medievals, and faithfully handed down to us from Trent onwards. 

I was fortunate to attend a college [Thomas Aquinas College] where the Ordinary Form of the Mass was celebrated always in Latin and with Gregorian chant. This pleased me very much because it seemed like what I had been looking for. But then, towards the end of my four years there, I had several opportunities to attend Tridentine “low Masses” and the occasional sung Mass in a small chapel. The intensity of silence, the palpable holiness, the richness of the prayers, gripped me powerfully. 

When I went on to graduate school at the Catholic University of America, I made a priority of finding out where this glorious Mass was celebrated in Washington, D.C., and ended up at Old St. Mary’s, where I experienced a Missa cantata with full ceremonial. I felt I had finally “come home” as a Catholic: this was the point of arrival, what I had been searching for. That was over 20 years ago, and I have never wavered in this conviction. I fell in love and I am still in love – it is like a good marriage!

Mr. Kutarna: You are a lecturer in philosophy, composer and conductor of sacred music, and you write passionately about liturgy. Some people may regard this as a very broad variety of subjects. How would you describe the connection between them? 

Dr. Kwasniewski: I myself am surprised that my life has led in so many directions, and I have to admit that it is hard, practically speaking, to cultivate them all. But I learned early on that they complement one another. So many great minds—think of Socrates and Boethius, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Pieper and Ratzinger—recognize the deep connection between music, philosophy, religion, and life. 

When I was first studying philosophy, I had a nagging sense that moderns were neglecting the religious dimension of ancient thought, and then I discovered the work of Pierre Hadot and others, who showed that philosophy is always rooted in a primordial religious quest and in traditional practices of askesis, and that it culminates in a mystical ascent to the Good. This, of course, is the natural disposition for supernatural grace. The Incarnation is God’s answer to the fundamental question posed by our very humanity in all its marvelous distinctness and potentiality. 

St. Clement of Alexandria says that Christ is the New Song, the Logos taking flesh as a hymn of creation in which we can all join. Music is speech elevated, exultant; through singing, what might be a mere truth (say, a sentence of Scripture or of the liturgy) is elevated to praise, homage, glory. In this way, I see an internal sequence: the examination of human nature and the world gives rise to philosophy; philosophy pursued with honesty and zeal gives rise to the desire for worship of the Transcendent; this worship in its perfection is liturgical and musical. To me, these subjects are a continuum.

Directing a choir in Austria
Mr. Kutarna: What was “first” — did liturgy lead you to music or was it the other way round?

Dr. Kwasniewski: My experience of the liturgy was always connected with music, even when the quality of the music happened to be poor. So I had a deep sense that these two things naturally went together. Thanks to Ratzinger, I now understand much better why this is true, but in order to have that sense, one simply needs to be immersed in the phenomena. 

A huge turning point for me was discovering Gregorian chant at the end of high school. A music teacher gave me a Graduale Romanum from the 1940s, and I was fascinated by the neums and the texts, neither of which I could read. In college, I took Latin (it was a required subject) and joined a chant schola. Singing the proper chants each week at Mass (in the Ordinary Form!), I completely fell in love with their beauty, subtlety, and piety. This “musical conversion” paralleled my discovery that liturgy could and should be celebrated in a way that was theocentric and vertical, rather than anthropocentric and horizontal. And, of course, it paved the way for my discovery of the traditional Mass, which is God-oriented through and through, saturated with the piety of centuries of Christian tradition.

Mr. Kutarna: To the upcoming book. The title of your book—both in English [Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis] and in Czech [Povstávání z prachu]—suggests that the Church is in some sort of crisis. Could you shortly describe where do you think the root of this crisis lies?

Dr. Kwasniewski: There are many aspects of the crisis, needless to say, and it is not always easy to make a diagnosis of the root problem, particularly as it may differ from one area of the Church to another (what may be true of Europe and North America may not be the same in Africa or in Asia). But I think we can be confident of the correctness of Joseph Ratzinger’s judgment: “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy” (Milestones: Memoirs 1927–1977). This is a judgment shared by Cardinal Burke, Cardinal Cañizares-Llovera, Cardinal Sarah, and many other astute observers of our times. 

In our rush to dialogue with the world, in our accommodation of the ideas (and idols) of modernity, and in our embrace of pastoral activism, we have forgotten the primacy of God, the primacy of the liturgical prayer, the primacy of tradition, and the primacy of grace. This is a fatal blow to the Church in her human element. After all, Our Lord promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, which means that somewhere she will always survive until the Second Coming of Christ. He never promised that any local church would survive—and just as Islam wiped out Christianity in Africa and Asia Minor in ancient times, so the spirit of compromise with modernity has been wiping out Christianity in the Western world of today. There will always be pockets of faithful Catholics who hold fast to orthodoxy, which means both “right doctrine” and “right worship.” But that there is a crisis of faith, and that this crisis has been precipitated by the poor decisions and the faulty philosophy of the ecclesiastical hierarchy over the past half-century, only a man deaf and blind could deny.

Mr. Kutarna: In the countries behind the Iron Curtain we maybe haven't experienced the post-conciliar liturgical mess in such an extent as in the Western Europe or the U.S. Do you think the usus antiquior may be important even in our liturgically rather conservative context?

Dr. Kwasniewski: I would say two things to the question. 

First, it is becoming more and more known that the liturgical reform operated on the basis of radical principles, which found their way into the resulting liturgical books. One example is the manner in which the redactors of the Missal systematically removed or downplayed asceticism and the theme of contemptus mundi [contempt of the world] that is so much a part of Catholic spirituality; another example is the introduction of new Eucharistic anaphoras in the Roman Rite, even though for over 1,500 years it had only a single one, the ancient and venerable Roman Canon. “Difficult” passages of Scripture were suppressed that had been read for as many centuries as we have records. There were also deformations in the Divine Office, such as the abandonment of the weekly cursus, the omission of “difficult” psalm verses, and serious meddling with the texts of the hymns. Such moves are startling innovations and monumental ruptures with an unbroken tradition. Things like this are serious issues, regardless of whether or not the ars celebrandi is reverent and respectful of the rubrics and the texts. 

Second, it is only a matter of time before the liturgical liberalism of other “more advanced” nations negatively affects Eastern Europe. We see how political, economic, and cultural liberalism have already begun to “colonize” Eastern Europe. The same will happen with liturgical abuses, novelties, and heresies. For instance, Poland, one of the few nations to have stood strong against the abuse of communion in the hand, finally capitulated in 2005, surely due to ongoing pressure from what we call “the liturgical establishment.” It is therefore urgently necessary to rediscover our Catholic tradition and to do so from its pure and fresh sources.

Mr. Kutarna: Many people (even priests and bishops) seem to think that the popularity of TLM is just a temporary fad among the younger generation, a fad driven by some kind of fear of the complexity of life in the postmodern era. Why do you disagree? 

Dr. Kwasniewski: If I may cite Pope Benedict XVI once more: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too . . . It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.” 

Human nature in its essence does not change; the natural symbols used by religion (fire, water, incense, gold, elevated places, facing east, etc.) do not change; our need for churches, vessels, vestments, and furnishings that are special, splendid, numinous, “out of the ordinary,” does not change. 

If anything, modern man is more in need of the prayers and practices of traditional Catholicism, because he is in very great danger of forgetting his dependence on God, on the natural world, and on tradition. We would not exist without God; we cannot live well unless we have a proper relationship to creation; and Christianity could not exist without tradition. The reality of God, the honor and glory due to Him, the right use and destination of created goods, and the fullness of Christian tradition—all of these are found, harmoniously and provocatively, in the traditional liturgies of the Church, Eastern and Western. 

It is not fear that drives the traditionalist, but love of excellence and hatred of banality. It is not a fad but a deeply-felt hunger and thirst for the unequivocally sacred. God Himself is the source of this hunger and thirst, and He will never stop causing it among the faithful. 

The Church of the future
Mr. Kutarna: In the first chapter of your book you offer a statement that the TLM is the ultimate “children’s Mass.” Why do you think so?

Dr. Kwasniewski: For me, it’s a simple thing. If you have a boring liturgy with a lot of people talking all the time and nothing special happening, nothing interesting to look at or listen to, children will be bored. If you have the awesome sound of the pipe organ, the mysterious melodies of the chant, the archaic majesty of the Latin tongue, the swinging of censers with billowing clouds of smoke, elaborate chasubles and copes passing in procession or facing solemnly the high altar and its tabernacle, ministers caught up in a sacred choreography, a whole church hushed in silence for the great Canon, and so forth, what child would not pay attention, come under the sway of this symphony of symbols, get caught up in its transcendent motion, and be slowly, permanently formed in a Catholic imagination and sensibility? It does not matter if a child fully understands it or not—none of us fully understands the divine! The liturgy should be a kind of infinite expanse that one never reaches the end of, to match the human soul’s capacity for the infinite. If worship is excessively tailored to us, to our everyday mode of operation, it will quickly lose its efficacy, and people will cease to be Catholic. 

Mr. Kutarna: Many Catholics who are looking for an alternative to the Novus Ordo often frequent the Divine Liturgies of Eastern Catholic churches.  How would you describe the principal difference in emphasis between TLM and the Eastern liturgies?

Dr. Kwasniewski: I love the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and attend it regularly myself. It has been pointed out by many authors that the Eastern liturgies in general are more vocally participative, extroverted, joyous, and centered on the Resurrection, while Western liturgies incorporate more silence and singing by scholas, are more “interior” in their manner, and focus on the mystery of the Passion of Our Lord. 

I think this is certainly true, but we mustn’t forget that the great historic liturgies have much in common, in their texts (think of the constant doxologizing), their “ethos” of solemnity, their embrace of the beauty of traditional music and architecture, and their great sensitivity to the symbolic value of every word and gesture (nothing is left to spontaneity or extemporaneity). In this sense, I find that attending Byzantine liturgy, even one in English with a lot of congregational singing, is much more like attending a Tridentine Mass than it is like attending a Novus Ordo Mass, because of the rich prayers, the formal attitude, the solemn ceremonial. It has an ancient (and therefore timeless) “feel.”

Mr. Kutarna: Is the traditional Latin Mass the only way out of this crisis—to the renewal of the Church?

Dr. Kwasniewski: A widespread restoration of the traditional Latin liturgy would, in fact, strongly reverse the trends of secularization, relativism, indifferentism, and modernism that are ravaging the Church. But there is also no doubt that people abandon the practice of the Faith for many reasons, and insipid, uninspiring liturgy is only one of them. Conversely, good liturgy is not the only thing necessary; we need good preaching, sound catechesis, robust social fellowship and support, the pursuit of spiritual and corporal works of mercy. But if the liturgy is done badly, nothing else will work, either. It is part of the divine economy: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well.”

Mr. Kutarna: One of the topics close to your heart is obviously sacred music. Is there anything like a “proper” liturgical music or is music at Masses only to be the choice of the pastor or the faithful? Should the sacred music be considered only a mere accompanying factor to the liturgy or does it play some more substantial role?

Dr. Kwasniewski: The Catholic Church has a very beautiful teaching about sacred music, which unfortunately most Catholics don’t know about. The root principles are given in Pope St. Pius X’s motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini and repeated in many subsequent magisterial documents. Sacred music should be holy—that is, it should be characterized by a recognizable and palpable holiness. You should be able to hear it and say “This is music for the temple of God; this is not profane or secular music.” This is not music from the cinema or from Broadway or from the disco or the campfire, but it’s music for the temple of God. Second, it should be good; it should be artistically well-crafted and noble. Nothing of poor quality, nothing shoddy, nothing that’s trite or banal. The third quality he talks about is that it should be universal. It should be such as to characterize the Catholic Church, which is the same all throughout the world, which celebrates the same mysteries with fixed liturgical rites. So, in other words, it shouldn’t be the music of a particular tribe or camp or school or subculture. It should be as universal as possible. 

Pope Pius X says Gregorian chant is perfectly these three things, it’s the exemplar. It’s holy, it’s artistically beautiful, and it’s universal. This is why it’s the normative music, the gold standard. Therefore, other music is welcome into the temple to the extent that it embodies these qualities of chant. Renaissance polyphony deserves special praise because it derives its melodic vocabulary and liturgical spirit from the chant.

Mr. Kutarna: Why is Gregorian chant superior to devotional songs in vernacular? Did not the Council ask to promote the vernacular? 

Dr. Kwasniewski: In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council Fathers reiterated this teaching of St. Pius X and went on to say something no pope or ecumenical council had ever said before—namely, that because Gregorian Chant is the music proper to the Roman Rite, it should have the chief place (or as some translations say, “pride of place”), in the liturgy. No qualifications were made: in each and every liturgy. Even with the proviso “everything else being equal,” the Council is saying that chant should still have chief place because it’s the very music of the rite. It’s not just music tacked on to the rite, it’s the music that grew up with it, “bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh.” Gregorian chant is the Roman rite in its musical vesture. 

What’s more, the Council explicitly supported the retention of Latin in the liturgy and merely expanded the possibilities of the use of the vernacular. It is unthinkable that the Fathers intended to jettison a musical heritage of over 1,000 years; it certainly cannot be supported from the documents of the Council.

Mr. Kutarna: In an ideal world without the likes of Msgr. Bugnini, how do you imagine the liturgical recommendations of Sacrosanctum Concilium (and Vatican II more broadly) could or should have been implemented?

Dr. Kwasniewski: In retrospect, I think we are in a better position to see that some of what got into the documents of the Second Vatican Council was ephemeral enthusiasm from the 1960s that is now very dated.  The Constitution on the Liturgy lays down general theological principles that have permanent validity but goes on to propose many particular changes, which are not doctrinal matters but disciplinary and therefore prudential in nature. Looking back, we can ask whether, e.g., the suppression of Prime was really necessary; whether “useless repetition” is really so useless after all; whether the Church calendar really needed anything more than superficial refinements, as opposed to a massive overhaul. In other words, many pages of this Constitution have not aged well and are a bit embarrassing now to look at; they are better forgotten, along with much else from the 1960s. Indeed, it seems to me that the way forward is to get beyond the insistence on the 1962 missal (which, admittedly, serves as a necessary reference point) and return to a healthier stage of the rite, namely, as it was found in 1948, before experts began to meddle with the substance of it.

On the other hand, this much seems clear: the call for a fuller participatio actuosa, which is not an invention of Vatican II but a desideratum of St. Pius X, has still not been achieved in most traditional Catholic communities, inasmuch as the people do not sing—or worse, are discouraged from singing—the Ordinary of the Mass in Gregorian chant. Moreover, the Propers of the Mass are frequently not chanted, either because they are replaced with psalm tones and motets, or because the Low Mass is taken as the norm rather than the Sung Mass. In my opinion, these are serious deficiencies that need to be addressed over time in the traditional milieu.

Mr. Kutarna: How can a lay person without a nearby TLM community join in the renewal as you propose it in the book?

Dr. Kwasniewski: The first thing I would recommend is to adopt some part of the traditional Divine Office for personal recitation. The Divine Office, too, is part of the public liturgy of the Church, and when we pray it, we are uniting ourselves to the prayer of Jesus Christ and His Mystical Body. One could start modestly with Prime and Compline; those who have more time could do Lauds or Vespers. 

As a Benedictine oblate, I am very fond of the “bread and butter” spirituality of the monks: in addition to the Divine Office, doing some lectio divina or prayerful reading of Scripture, or reading slowly a good book by a Father or Doctor of the Church. All of this is part of the forgotten treasury of the Church and is therefore an important component in the renewal.

As a teacher, I am a huge advocate of ongoing education. People need to read good books about dogma, the liturgy, the saints, and spread these books among their friends. Magazines and blogs can be helpful, too, in this regard, as long as they do not take the place of reading real books (especially the Bible, the Missal, the Divine Office).

Above all, I would say that even a person who lives far from a TLM community should do his best to get to a traditional Mass at least once in a while, to “recharge the batteries,” so to speak. In my life there have been times when, due to vacation schedules, the TLM has been unavailable for months at a time. I have always been amazed at how a single Mass during such a period can be like an oasis in a desert. Yes, it’s painful to be reminded of what one normally lacks, but it is also a blessing, a consolation, an opportunity to renew one’s commitment to Christ, His Church, and Catholic Tradition.