Rorate Caeli

Is the Church Crisis Driving the Faithful to the Latin Mass? An Interview with Dr. Kwasniewski

Recently, Judy Roberts interviewed me for an article she was working on for the National Catholic Register. Parts of the interview appeared at the Register on December 16th, but the full interview is presented exclusively here at Rorate.

Judy Roberts: In your experience, are more Catholics indeed seeking out Mass in the extraordinary form during this time of turmoil in the Church? What are they telling you as to why? 

Peter Kwasniewski: Statistics, to the extent that they are available, the creation of new traditional Mass apostolates, and anecdotal evidence shared via social media point to a steadily growing base of faithful who are attending this form of the Roman liturgy. 

I’m not sure if it’s growing more owing to the current crisis, but what I have noticed is an interesting trend. The “progressives” or “liberals” are emboldened under this pontificate to show their true colors more and more openly; the “conservatives,” that is, those who would have been classified as “John Paul II Catholics” or “Ratzingerians,” are diminishing; and the “traditionalists,” who once seemed a negligible minority, have not only shown themselves more numerous than hitherto imagined, but are now occupying the intellectual and moral high ground. The serious work of Catholic restoration is happening in large part due to their efforts.

Who are these people? Are they merely older Catholics who grew up with the traditional Mass and are nostalgic for the way things used to be or does this group also include younger people and converts? 

This question can be answered most convincingly by a simple experiment: visit your local Fraternity of St. Peter chapel or Institute of Christ the King oratory, or a parish where the TLM is offered, and have a look round at the congregation. There will be a number of gray-haired grandmothers and grandfathers, but the majority are middle-aged parents, youths, children, and, need I say, infants—lots of them. This can’t be a phenomenon of nostalgia for those born after the 1960s when the old liturgy was nearly extinct. It’s simply a rediscovery of a treasure whose palpable beauty, sacredness, and dense Catholic content are its magnetism.

What is it that they say they are finding in the so-called old Mass? Is it merely the beauty of the liturgy that is drawing them or by worshipping in a parish that offers the extraordinary form, are they finding other benefits, such as a priest whose preaching is faithful to Church teaching and fellow parishioners who are like-minded in their practice of the faith? 

I would sound like an aesthete if I said that everyone was coming for the sake of the beauty of the vestments, the ceremonies, and the music—although for sure these things are critically important in a religion that appeals to the senses and the imagination, as our divine Teacher always did in His parables. Beauty does attract the human heart. More than one Latin Mass-goer has admitted to me that it was the awful music that finally drove him or her away from the Novus Ordo world. 

But no less appealing is the near-guarantee that the homily is going to be no-nonsense Catholic doctrine, served up neat. And since we are social animals, we need to find other serious Catholics, people who are striving to know, live, and pass on the teachings of the Church.

Given that the number of places offering traditional Latin Masses [in the United States] has grown to more than 500 since 1988, when there were only about 20, would you say this latest movement of Catholics toward the traditional Mass is part of that trend or something altogether new? 

As I mentioned, the growth has been pretty steady. There was, naturally, a notable leap in and shortly after 2007 when Summorum Pontificum came out, although it’s remarkable how many bishops are still living in “indult land,” believing that they have to be asked about and then approve every TLM that starts up, which is completely contrary to the universal law introduced by Summorum. 

Pope Francis has done his unintentional best to push Catholics towards a refuge from the seemingly accelerating confusion and turpitude of the contemporary Church. Not that fallen human nature is anywhere absent, but there is a level of sanity and seriousness in the Latin Mass world that has almost no parallel elsewhere. 

Regardless of external circumstances, the movement will continue to grow because it has an immense internal strength. Priests who learn the old rite say that it changes their lives. When laity discover it, they become uneasy with modernized alternatives, and are drawn to seek out a fuller expression of their religion.

A Tweet by Rorate Coeli recently suggested that some of these people might have left the Church and all religious practice had they not by chance found the Traditional Latin Mass. Does this also confirm what you are hearing and seeing? If so, what is it about the traditional Mass that could serve as a lifeline and keep someone in the Church? 

I’d agree with that Tweet. In my travels around the world I’ve met plenty of folks who converted because of the traditional Mass, or who reverted to the Faith because of it. We shouldn’t really be surprised. In the first half of the twentieth century, when there were so many conversions to the Catholic Faith, it was often the splendor and solemnity of the liturgy that drew them in, or kept them in. The same thing is happening today. 

But I also want to add that it’s not just the Mass that draws people in, it’s a whole way of life, thought, and worship, including the other sacramental rites, blessings, customs, and calendar. For example, before Vatican II many parishes had well-attended Sunday Vespers. All that got chucked out after the Council (contrary to its explicit wishes). Today publicly-celebrated Vespers may be found most often in connection with traditional communities. 

Why do these things help people stay in the Church? Simply because they respond deeply to our hunger for God, for a worship that is obviously directed to Him and takes seriously His reality, His attributes, His prerogatives. If God is real, and if He is who He says He is, our liturgy should act, we should act, as if all this is absolutely true!

We continue to hear rumors that Pope Francis wants to undo the permission Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI granted for priests to say Mass in the extraordinary form. How likely do you think it is that this would happen? 

Any such action would be absurdly counterproductive. The pope is already fighting a losing battle in public relations and especially among the faithful who would be his most natural allies, namely, the conservatives and traditionalists, who always want to defend and follow the papacy if they can (as opposed to the liberals, who defend it only when it suits their laundry-list of sexual or other deviations). So if he pulled back Summorum, he would be further alienating Catholics who are most committed to the practice of their faith. 

Moreover, he would simply not be obeyed by a large number of those who are offering or assisting at the TLM, because they are already convinced by the arguments of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI that the old rite cannot, in principle, be outlawed or abolished. 

If the pope’s overriding desire is to “make a mess,” as he once told youths to do, then he could certainly make quite a mess by doing this. I’ve been continually surprised at how often he shoots himself in the foot, so perhaps there are more bullets where the others came from, but I tend to think that liturgy isn’t much of a priority for him, and that he will seek to curtail “traditionalism” in a variety of more circuitous ways, as when he crushed the Franciscans of the Immaculate. But the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, and it won’t be going back in any time soon.

Peter Kwasniewski is an independent scholar and writer who has written three books devoted to traditional Catholicism: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages (Angelico, 2017); and most recently, Tradition and Sanity: Conversations & Dialogues of a Postconciliar Exile (Angelico, 2018).