Rorate Caeli

On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Novus Ordo: Dr. Kwasniewski’s Lecture “Beyond ‘Smells and Bells’: Why We Need the Objective Content of the Usus Antiquior

In his Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum (April 3, 1969), Pope Paul VI specified that the Novus Ordo Missae would go into effect on the First Sunday of Advent that year — November 30, exactly fifty years ago. In my recent Minneapolis lecture, written with an eye to this important anniversary, I argue that the Novus Ordo Missae constitutes a rupture with fundamental elements of all liturgies of apostolic derivation, and that, as a consequence, it violates the Church’s solemn obligation to receive, cherish, guard, and pass on the fruits of liturgical development. Since this development is, in fact, a major way in which the Holy Spirit leads the Church “into the fullness of truth” over the ages, as Christ promised, so great a “sin against the Holy Spirit” cannot fail to have enormous negative consequences, as indeed the past five decades have verified. Nor is it possible to bridge the abyss between old and new by applying cosmetics or the drapery of elegant clothing, because the problem is on the order of a genetic mutation, or damage to internal organs. The profound and permanent solution is to maintain continuity with the living liturgical tradition found in the usus antiquior.

The full text of the lecture, with notes, is given below; the recording of the talk may be found either on YouTube or at SoundCloud.


Beyond “Smells and Bells”:  Why We Need the Objective Content of the Usus Antiquior

Peter A. Kwasniewski
Minneapolis, Minnesota
November 13, 2019

Of the questions one can ask about the liturgy, three of the most elementary are: Where did it come from? Why is it the way it is? And what difference does it make?

One sometimes meets traditional Catholics who think of the classical Roman rite as something that was instituted by Christ in detail, either at the Last Supper, or during the forty days after His Resurrection, in a more leisurely version of the Latin Mass training camps offered by the Fraternity of St. Peter or the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius. Some might be disappointed to know that this is not at all the way things happened historically. But as I hope to show, it would have been as unfitting for the liturgy to be instituted in detail from the very start as it would have been for Our Lord to hand over to the Apostles the Summa theologiae or Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. The reasons are very similar to the ones given by St. Augustine when he praises the meandering path taken by the 73 inspired books of Scripture, written over many centuries by many individuals with different styles and points of emphasis, but altogether making up a single God-given volume that converges on Christ.

We know from Scripture that Christ instituted the liturgy of the New Covenant and that it was in a process of growth even during the lives of the Apostles, who started out dividing their worship between the synagogue services, the Temple services, and private meetings in homes. The records of history—for example, the various missals, lectionaries, and chant books we possess—show a gradual development in the Church’s public worship, especially after the Church gained her freedom with the Edict of Milan in 313, which allowed her to resituate her liturgy in spacious Roman basilicas. In both Eastern and Western rites, each century bears the fruit of new prayers, new feasts, new ceremonies, but always building upon what came before, in a process best understood as elaborating and extending further the preexisting content. This, I believe, is the most basic meaning of “organic” development: whatever comes later on arises, as if naturally, out of what is already there.[1]

Of course, human free will is involved, and the free play of contingent historical events. We are not automatons who act in a predetermined way, nor is the history of the Church like a train running on pre-set tracks. There was no intrinsic necessity that St. Stephen be the first martyr, or that the cultus of St. Lawrence be so dominant in the Roman Church, or that the Roman rite would be taken up by Charlemagne in Gaul and later delivered back across the alps with Gallican embellishments such as the Palm Sunday procession. More broadly speaking, neither was it necessary that all Christians worship in the same way: this is why we have many families of orthodox liturgical rites, be they Roman, Ambrosian, Gallican, Mozarabic, Coptic, Chaldean, Byzantine, Slavic, or Syro-Malabar.

Thus, understanding how liturgy develops presents us with a challenge, not unlike the one faced by John Henry Newman in writing his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. How do we distinguish good developments from bad ones, otherwise known as corruptions? What is the relationship between unchanging essential elements and incidental changeable elements? Is it legitimate to view “the divine liturgy” as coming down to us from heaven, something we simply ought to receive, analogous to divine revelation? Or is Christian liturgy in a state of perpetual evolution? Can we harmonize the two views by seeing liturgy as teleological—that is, moving over time towards some perfection or fullness of form that, in fact, it achieves at a certain point? And if this is true, can we identify that point? What would be our criteria?

The Vincentian distinction: profectus and permutatio

The fifth-century Church Father St. Vincent of Lérins offers us a very helpful tool in his account of how Christian doctrine may legitimately develop over time. Vincent is not interested in merely describing change, as a sociologist would do; rather, he proposes a theological account of what kind of change is possible and desirable within Christianity. This quotation is lengthy but every word of it is worth savoring:

The growth of religion in the soul must be analogous to the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same. There is a wide difference between the flower of youth and the maturity of age; yet they who were once young are still the same, now that they have become old, insomuch that though the stature and outward form of the individual are changed, yet his nature is one and the same, his person is one and the same. An infant’s limbs are small, a young man’s large, yet the infant and the young man are the same. Men when full grown have the same number of joints that they had when children; and if there be any to which maturer age has given birth these were already present in embryo, so that nothing new is produced in them when old which was not already latent in them when children.
     This, then, is undoubtedly the true and legitimate rule of progress, this the established and most beautiful order of growth, that mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant. Whereas, if the human form were changed into some shape belonging to another species, or at any rate, if the number of its limbs were increased or diminished, the result would be that the whole body would become either a wreck or a monster, or, at the least, would be impaired and enfeebled.
     In like manner, it behooves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of growth [profectus], so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupted and unadulterated, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no mutation [permutatio], no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits. (nn. 55–56)

This analogy to a living bodily organism has often been applied to the liturgy, as well, which grows to full maturity by a process of articulation and expansion, like an oak tree from an acorn.

However, can’t we question this analogy because it would imply eventual decrepitude? Indeed, this is what the liturgical reformers of the mid-20th century actually thought: that the Roman liturgy had become aged, wizened, ossified, fossilized. It had stopped developing and had turned into a “museum piece.” This is why, in their view, it had ceased to attract or edify modern people.

But Vincent’s analogy is not meant to imply a one-for-one correspondence to the laws that govern biology, especially under the reign of original sin and its punishment, death. If man had not fallen, he would still have grown from infancy to full stature, but then he would have remained in the prime of health until summoned by God directly into heaven. Similarly, the Church’s doctrine, or rather, the expression of her doctrine, develops to maturity, but it does not ever decline into sickness, old age, or senility.[2] Her liturgy likewise develops under the guidance of Divine Providence, under the breath of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the giver of life, making present anew the mysteries of the glorified Christ who has conquered death and lives forever. As a consequence, this liturgy, in its broad lines and beloved details, grows from strength to strength, from glory to glory, until it reaches a stature that may be considered its mature form, like that of a 33-year-old man. The archetype of liturgical development, as of all other realities, is Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Et Jesus proficiebat sapientia, et aetate, et gratia apud Deum et homines: “And Jesus advanced in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men” (Lk 2:52). Note that, according to St. Luke, Our Lord advances, proficiebat; He does not retreat or surrender, collapse or corrupt. As King David says, speaking in the person of the anointed king to come: “For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption” (Ps 15:10).

Our Lord chose to enter the world not as one already full-grown and glorified, but as one who would begin with our smallness, accept our growth, suffer our death, be buried, rise again from the grave, and ascend into heaven with His luminous wounds. The liturgy of the Church, patterned after Christ’s life, will also begin small, grow up to maturity, and then experience a kind of death. But this is not a death in the realm of history, as if the liturgy, after achieving its prime, could then decline and become corrupted. In the life of a human being , there are many dramatic changes from conception to birth, infancy to childhood, adolescence to full adulthood, but after that point, the most significant change is bodily death. Hence, just as doctrine progresses from conception as a revealed truth through its full maturity expressed as dogma, and never ceases to be true, the liturgy progresses in such a way that it achieves and retains its perfection of form—and after this, it will “die,” so to speak, at the end of time, when Christ returns in glory, and all symbolic rites will give way to the light of God fully manifested. For as St. John says of his vision of heaven in the Apocalypse: “I saw no temple therein. For the Lord God Almighty is the temple thereof, and the Lamb. And the city hath no need of the sun, nor of the moon, to shine in it. For the glory of God hath enlightened it, and the Lamb is the lamp thereof” (Rev 21:22–23).[3] And even so, the earthly liturgy will not so much be abolished as it will enter into its fullness in the heavenly liturgy. Like the Old Law, it will not be canceled out but fulfilled, brought to completion. If the liturgy could speak up for itself, it, too, could speak the Messiah’s words: “Thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.”

The Vincentian canon: doctrine and liturgy

St. Vincent of Lérins is famous also for the so-called “Vincentian canon,” that is, a rule by which orthodox doctrine can be distinguished from heresy, so that we may distinguish the Catholic Faith from counterfeits. The canon reads thus:

In the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all [ubique, semper, et ab omnibus]. For that is truly and in the strictest sense Catholic, which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent.[4]

As satisfying and impressive as it sounds—ubique, semper, et ab omnibus—this rule is not altogether easy to apply, and much ink has been spilled over its strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, it epitomizes the conservatism of the Church Fathers as a whole and may be said, without exaggeration, to reflect the mind of the Church herself, since we find the same canon or paraphrases of it invoked by many popes down through the centuries.[5]

The Vincentian canon was formulated in regard to doctrine, but it can and should be applied to liturgy as well, in keeping with the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi—that is, the way we pray reveals and confirms what we believe. Since we know that liturgy develops historically, even as doctrine does, we have to make the same distinction between change or mutation of essence (permutatio), and development in terms of enrichment, expansion, new insight (profectus).[6] As the great admirer of St. Vincent, John Henry Newman, put it:

A true development . . . may be described as one which is conservative of the course of antecedent developments being really those antecedents and something besides them: it is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds; and this is its characteristic as contrasted with a corruption.[7]

New liturgical seasons, feasts, processions, and devotions introduced in the course of time are comparable to the dogmatic definitions that adorn the history of the Church. The dogmas are not new, but their formulation is; the celebration of the sacred mysteries is not new, but the particular shape of the calendar, of the texts and rituals through which they are celebrated, emerges in time. But once liturgical rites have emerged, they are the privileged means by which the faith of the Church is expressed and lived; they cannot be swapped out at whim, or modifed past recognition, any more than the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent can be contradicted or retired into oblivion. This is the principle of theological and liturgical conservatism: the Church holds on tightly to that which the Holy Spirit brings to birth in her.

Thus, we have to think of the “liturgical Vincentian canon” like this: What we find in all apostolic liturgical rites as they develop over time is that which must be recognized as being, whether explicitly or implicitly, “always, everywhere, and by all.” Some few elements are explicit from the start, such as the use of bread and wine as matter for the Eucharist. Other elements emerge in the course of centuries, but once they have emerged, they are retained always and everywhere and by all from that point onwards—that is, they are treated with the same reverential respect as the original elements. Undoubtedly one could make a long list of such elements, but here, in the interests of time, I would like to point out eight particularly important elements.

1. All traditional liturgies, East and West, celebrate the sacred mysteries with the priest and the people facing eastwards, or in the common phrase, ad orientem. St. Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian Fathers and a preeminent patristic authority, identifies this practice as a custom handed down from the Apostles; St John Damascene, a towering figure in Greek theology, defends it with the witness of both Testaments.

2. All traditional liturgies, East and West, use an ancient and fixed anaphora (by this I mean Eucharistic Prayer), or, if they have more than one (like the Eastern rites), specify which anaphora is to be used for which days or seasons of the liturgical year.

3. All traditional liturgies, East and West, employ an elaborate offertory by which the sacrificial finality of the bread and wine is clearly signified. In the Byzantine rite, this happens in part before the public start of the liturgy, as the priest prepares the prosphora; in the Western rites, such as the Roman and the Ambrosian, the offertory finds its place during the liturgy, usually right before the commencement of the anaphora.

4. All traditional liturgies, East and West, treat the most Blessed Sacrament with the utmost veneration. Only the clergy handle the consecrated offerings. The laity receive directly into the mouth from the clergy. Particles are carefully gathered up and consumed. Lavish signs of adoration are never absent. Vessels are thoroughly cleansed.

5. All traditional liturgies, East and West, are hierarchically structured: the roles of bishop, priest, deacon, subdeacon, lector, acolyte, and so forth are clearly delineated. Only men serve in these roles, since they are all modes of exercising Christ’s royal priesthood in the flesh. The faithful in attendance also have their role, which is not to be confused with that of any of the ministers. Moreover, the ministers perform many of their separate tasks simultaneously, because some texts and actions are not meant to be seen or heard by the people.

6. Following on the last point, all traditional liturgies, East and West, are designed for and make expressive use of church buildings in which the sanctuary, representing the Holy of Holies and the Church Triumphant, is clearly separated from the nave, representing this world and the Church Militant. Only certain individuals, correctly vested, may enter into the sanctuary during the liturgy. Christian theology is thus articulated in the architecture itself, especially through the use of barriers, doors, and images of saints.

7. All traditional liturgies, East and West, chant liturgical texts according to age-old melodies that grew up with those texts as their “musical clothing”—in the West, this would be Gregorian plainchant. Moreover, fixed orations (either chanted or spoken) and proper antiphons are appointed for nearly every day of the Church’s year; when a votive Mass is chosen, its content is nonetheless articulated in full. These antiphons and orations cover, with total honesty and integrity, the whole of Christian doctrine and belief, not sweeping any uncomfortable matters under the carpet. In this way the liturgy will speak often of human frailty, sinfulness, concupiscence, our need for divine grace in order to be saved, the danger of damnation, our need to resist demons and infidels, our calling to convert pagans, the evil of heresy and schism, the good of fasting, abstinence, and chastity, the primacy of heavenly and spiritual goods over temporal and earthly ones, the kingship of Christ over states and societies, and other such themes—all of which are prominent in the traditional missal. Lectionaries follow the same rules: an annual (one-year) lectionary contains long-established readings, meant to be chanted, chosen for their liturgical suitability, and fearlessly addressing the paradox of weak and wandering mortals called to asceticism and divinization.

8. All traditional liturgies, East and West, are conducted in an elevated linguistic mode, whether that involves the use of an ancient hieratic language such as Byzantine Greek, Christian Latin, or Church Slavonic, or the use of florid imagery and unusual phraseology, as one finds in vernacular forms of Eastern rites. In either case, ritualized and numerologically significant repetition is a key component.

And, as a sort of meta-principle, all of the foregoing elements are seen and treated as require­ments—not options left up to the pastoral discretion or momentary choice of a celebrant or anyone else. In authentic Christian worship, one must offer the holy sacrifice facing liturgical east; one must use a fixed anaphora; one must carry out an oblative offertory and signify unambiguously one’s intention to offer the divine victim; one must handle, consume, and distribute the Blessed Sacrament with utmost veneration, observing ontological distinctions between clergy and non-clergy and between men and women; one must respect the mutual parallelism of liturgy, theology, and architecture; and one must say or sing the antiphons, orations, and readings dictated by the rite, which together constitute a mature and rich expression of dogma and devotion.

We can therefore say with utmost confidence that if there were any Eucharistic liturgy that did NOT embody all eight of these elements—or that NEED not embody any one of them—it would stand in violation of the Vincentian canon and would not be a Eucharistic liturgy in the full and proper sense of the term. It could rather be described as a prayer service or paraliturgy with a consecration inserted into it. Any rite that departs from what has come to be practiced always, everywhere, and by all could only be an inexcusable and unforgivable rupture with tradition. No hermeneutic of continuity could ever repair this breach, for it would not be a breach caused only by subjective “interpretations,” as the word “hermeneutic” implies, but rather by objective omissions, defects, aberrations, and vices. Neither could a copious bestowal of “smells and bells” overcome the problem, because the problem pertains not to artistic externals only, but to the internal constitution of the rite in its texts, ceremonies, and rubrics. At best, smells and bells could only hide the deepest problems, even as new-fallen snow might temporarily cover the ugliness of an urban industrial zone.

The Novus Ordo violates the Vincentian canon

Let us now run through the eight elements mentioned, to see how the Novus Ordo stacks up against fully-developed Catholic tradition.

1. It is no longer a jealously guarded secret that the rubrics of the Novus Ordo permit, indeed seem to assume, worship facing eastwards (ad orientem) instead of facing the people (versus populum). However, the implementation of the Novus Ordo by the bishops and popes of the past fifty years has relentlessly favored versus populum, to the extent that both Paul VI in March 1965 and Francis in July 2016 have virtually equated the reformed liturgy with the versus populum stance. A universal restoration of ad orientem in the Novus Ordo is as likely as a restoration of the Papal States or the Holy Inquisition. And even if it is done ad orientem, the Novus Ordo still allows for either posture, in spite of their contrary significations, which amounts to a form of relativism, and leaves the decision in the priest’s hands, which is a form of voluntarism. Speaking more broadly, the Novus Ordo encapsulates the entire arc of modern philosophy: in its prejudice against the universal anthropological language of symbols, its inescapable optionitis, its monotonous verbosity aimed at immediate comprehension, its rubrical sparseness and vagueness, and the veritable Tower of Babel created by vernacular missals, it shows itself to be characterized by the nominalism, voluntarism, rationalism, and relativism.

2. The Novus Ordo offers a generous smorgasbord of newly-composed Eucharistic Prayers from which the celebrant chooses ad libitum. The only traditional anaphora, the Roman Canon, need never be used at all, and is in fact rarely used.

3. Against the backdrop of a highly-developed and long-received offertory rite, the Novus Ordo represents the first liturgy in the Church’s history that repudiates an oblative offertory (as did Martin Luther in the 16th century when designing his own German Mass for his followers), replacing it with a Jewish-inspired “presentation of gifts” that does not unambiguously signify that the Mass is a true and proper sacrifice in propitiation for sins and for the good estate of the living and of the dead, offered to the Most Holy Trinity by the Son of God according to His human nature.

4. In the Novus Ordo, the Blessed Sacrament is treated with haphazard veneration depending on the private religiosity of the clergy and people. The rubrics and ceremonies in this regard are utterly inadequate, which is why devout priests, to avoid Eucharistic sacrilege, end up importing old practices into the new Mass.[8]

5. The Novus Ordo is stubbornly horizontal in its manner of practice: the hierarchical offices are either canceled out or confused, the distinction between clergy and laity is blurred, the roles of men and women are mingled in a way only conceivable after the Sexual Revolution, and instead of the verticality of simultaneous action directed to God, there is linear, modular, sequential liturgy in service of audience-oriented rationalism.

6. The Novus Ordo has a disintegrating or corrosive effect on ecclesiastical architecture and all other aesthetic elements of the liturgy. The symbolism of separation and articulation inside the church building is not respected by the rite or its rubrics. The Novus Ordo’s combination of antiquarianism and modernism is fatal to church design and decoration. The Novus Ordo has never been able to produce great church buildings and vestments. Any decent church built in the past 50 years, and any beautiful vestment produced, has been modeled off of art created for the classical Roman Rite. Newly built but traditionally-styled churches and vestments are in a state of tension with the rites performed in them, since it is perfectly obvious that every recognizably Catholic style of church, from the Romanesque to the Gothic to the Baroque, was designed solely and specifically with the celebration of the traditional Latin rites in mind.[9]

7. The Novus Ordo can be sung with chant, but Paul VI made his intention very clear in 1969: Gregorian chant should be given up for the sake of vernacular verbal comprehension.[10] Hence, the new liturgy’s normative mode is text spoken aloud in a declamatory manner; chant is a little-used option, and indeed feels ill-suited to the reformed liturgy, as 25 years of experience directing choirs taught me firsthand: the chant is contemplative music offered up to God, while the reformed rite calls for music “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Moreover, the central texts of the Mass—the Ordinary, the Propers, the Commons—lack the fixity and stability they have in the classical rite, and the entirely newly-constructed multi-year lectionary vastly increases the quantity of readings, without concern for their Eucharistic placement, while at the same time removing many readings that used to be present, including some that put before us the more challenging truths of the Faith, which we, as fallen human beings, need to hear as much as we do the more consoling truths. In particular, the orations of the Novus Ordo are notoriously dumbed down and edited for political correctness: they rarely use military imagery, for example, and go out of their way to avoid talking of human weakness, pressing dangers, trials and adversities, the captivity of sin, wounds caused by sin, offending God’s majesty, remorse, reparation, penance, enemies of Christ and of the Cross, God’s rights over men and nations, the merits of saints, miracles, apparitions, and the four last things. The orations of the old rite abundantly speak of such things, while the new rite deliberately and systematically avoids them, as its own designers admitted, and as many subsequent scholars have exposed. The new rite carried over only 17% of the orations of the old missal unaltered, while discarding or heavily editing the remainder, or taking up older prayers and rewriting them to make them palatable to a modern mentality. When I first learned about this, I nearly fell off my chair. It made me realize that the religion expressed in the new Mass is not the same as the religion expressed in the old Mass. They overlap to some degree, but they are not the same. The lex orandi is the lex credendi, so if you make enough changes to the one, you will inevitably change the other.

8. The Novus Ordo in its editio typica and its vernacular versions is bereft of an elevated linguistic mode. This judgment includes the New American Bible as well as the 2011 ICEL revision of the Mass, which, although an improvement compared with its predecessor, is still dry, flat-footed, and bereft of eloquence. In keeping with our age’s impatient utilitarianism, repeated words and acts have been pared down to a minimum.

So many and such great deviations from the common liturgical heritage of orthodox Christians prompts the question: What was going through the heads of the reformers of the 1960s? On what basis did they act with such disregard or even contempt for that which, only a few years earlier, everyone would have hailed at the Church’s most precious possession? The reformers went about their work as if the liturgy were nothing but man-made, temporary structures, having no inherent value or weight such that we ought to privilege the sprawling structures of the past over our own efficient new architecture. They must have assumed the neoscholastic reduction of liturgy to the form and matter of the sacrament.[11] The liturgical modernist or modern liturgist thinks that the historical development of liturgy is not included in the scope of divine Providence or the Holy Spirit’s work of leading the Church into the fullness of truth; it is not a teleological process that culminates in maturity. It was never anything other than pure convention, something thrown together by a group of people at a particular time—nothing but “the work of human hands,” assembled by a committee of experts and animated by a pope’s command. Needless to say, that is not how liturgy was ever viewed and handled before the 20th century

Formulating laws of organic development

Can we gather together our conclusions thus far and formulate them as “laws”? Yes, we may, and we can even add the visual aid of a chart.


The background to this chart is Our Lord’s promise: Cum autem venerit ille Spiritus veritatis, docebit vos omnem veritatem, “when He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, he will teach you all truth” (Jn 16:13).[12] This promise includes the fullness of liturgy. One would expect, if the Church is truly governed by the Spirit of God, that her liturgy would, in its large lines and accepted forms, mature and become more perfect over time. Would it not then follow / that the rate of change will slow down and the Spirit’s work will gradually shift from inspiring new prayers to preserving the prayers already inspired? A liturgical rite will grow in perfection until it reaches a certain maturity, and then will cease to develop in any but incidental or minor ways.

On the chart, this process is diagrammed with two lines. The descending line[13] represents the creation of liturgical forms, while the ascending line[14] represents the preservation of existing liturgical forms. As the former action tapers, the latter action dominates, until that verse from Ezekiel is fulfilled in the Church’s sacred liturgy: “Your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God” (Ezek 16:14).[15]

Law #1. There is true development in regard to liturgical rites. They are not fixed and frozen in time, nor are they handed down from heaven in their perfection. As in general with dogma and morals, so with the liturgy, the Lord bestows on human beings the dignity of being true causes of the articulation of doctrine, the application of laws, and the enrichment of public worship.

Law #2. Authentic development begins from and remains faithful to what the Lord entrusted to the apostles. The “deposit of faith” contains all the principles of sacred doctrine, such that nothing that develops later in the ecumenical councils or in the papal magisterium may contradict it. In like manner, the apostles as they spread out to the four corners of the earth took with them the seeds or principles of the liturgical rites that have subsequently flourished as the major rites of the Church. There is no liturgical rite that does not belong to a definite apostolic tradition extended continuously over time. A rite cannot be fabricated ex nihilo. Hence the dictum of Trent anathematizing anyone who would change the received and approved rites into other new ones.[16]

Law #3. The “truth” into which the Holy Spirit guides the Church includes the development of her liturgy. Hence, any significant or wholesale rejection of elements that have come to be practiced and accepted over a long period of time in the Church is a sin against the Holy Spirit, and any attempt to recast a rite from the ground up reflects a false theology of the Church and of the Trinity.[17]

Law #4. As the liturgy develops, it becomes fuller and more perfect, both as an expression of the mysteries of faith, and as a vehicle for inculcating appropriate virtues in the faithful and for eliciting from them the acts of faith, hope, and charity that are demanded by these mysteries. Hence, just as the credal statements of the early Church grow in their fullness until they reach a certain perfection, so too, the liturgical rites of the Church grow over time until they reach a perfection of text, music, ceremony, and kindred signs that are fitting both to expressing the mysteries and to impressing them upon the faithful.

There are three corollaries to this fourth law.

Corollary 1. The rate of liturgical change decreases over time, as the rite achieves the plenitude intended for it by Divine Providence.

Corollary 2. One should expect a rite, after a certain point, to be relatively permanent and immobile, so that it is a compliment rather than a criticism to say of it that “it has hardly changed for 400 years,” as we can say of the Roman Missal in the period from 1570 to ca. 1950.

Corollary 3. The clergy offering and the faithful assisting at a particular rite will understand it to be appropriate that the rite should be permanent and immobile. It is not merely that liturgies tend towards stability and constancy; it is that this process of stabilization and permanence is seen to be desirable and fitting for the life of the Church. It is seen as a blessing from the Lord, who, having raised up generation after generation of saints to enhance and enrich the liturgy, now seals it with His sovereign blessing, imparting to it a share in His own immutability and eternity.[18] This is clearly the attitude found among Eastern Christians, but it was a common Western attitude as well, until very recent times.

Law #5. To the extent that a liturgy is perfected, its changes will be proportionately incidental or accidental. Thus, in the first half of the first millennium, something as basic as the Eucharistic prayers of the Mass were still in process of growth; in the second half of the first millennium, the Gregorian chant corpus was completed; in the first half of the second millennium, the rites of Holy Week achieved their full ceremonial splendor; in the second half of the second millennium (until the liturgical reform), growth tended to concern only additions or modifications of feasts to the liturgical calendar.

The sin against the Holy Spirit

I would like to come back for a moment to my claim, in Law #3, that liturgical reform of a certain magnitude constitutes a sin against the Holy Spirit. My reasoning is this. In his watershed encyclical Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII stated:

The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity. The more recent liturgical rites likewise deserve reverence and respect. They, too, owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age even to the consummation of the world (cf. Matt 28:20). They are equally the resources used by the majestic Spouse of Jesus Christ to promote and procure the sanctity of man.[19]

This encyclical was published in 1947, prior to any major changes that would be made to the Roman Missal in the years thereafter.[20] Consequently, Pius’s mention of “more recent liturgical rites” refers to everything medieval and Baroque, that is, everything subsequent to that ancient period of which the Liturgical Movement tended to be enamored. By the time of Pius XII, this collective body of liturgy—which was simultaneously ancient, medieval, and early modern, as an organic reality that had passed through all of these periods—was already highly stabilized and consistent for 400 years. That fact alone points to the Providence by which a treasure of great perfection and beauty, a living reality born of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the bridal Church, was lovingly kept and handed down. If Pius XII is correct to say that medieval and Baroque developments “owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age,” it follows that no one may repudiate what the liturgy has been for long stretches of the Church’s history without sinning against the Holy Spirit. Papal authority cannot be legitimately exercised against that which the Holy Spirit has inspired, either to its detriment or even to its destruction; such an exercise would be an abuse of office. Rather, what the Spirit has given us remains in its totality not only sacred and great, but a permanent model and measure.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the reformers believed in the providential guidance of the liturgy as to its conceptual content but had reached the conclusion that Latin had become an insuperable barrier to participation. In that case, they would have sought merely to translate the existing liturgy into an appropriate register of the vernacular. Yet 2,147 bishops and superiors at the Second Vatican Council voted, in fact, to retain Latin while allowing some parts of the liturgy to be put into modern languages. Or let’s say the reformers felt that some ferias or feastdays in the missal would benefit from additional Scripture readings. They would then have proposed appropriate readings for those days, leaving the rest of the missal intact.

But no. Their postconciliar actions betray their dissent from the very content of the old liturgy: its prayers of preparation, its antiphons and readings, its orations, its offertory and canon, its ceremonies, gestures, postures, its very orientation. From the 1950s through the 1970s, literally nothing was left untouched—and the changes were usually on a large scale, such as the wholesale rewriting of the rites of the Mass, of baptism, priestly ordination, extreme unction, the dedication of a Church, the consecration of virgins, the blessing of holy water, everything. This was not a revision but a rejection; not a reform but a revolution.[21] It is tantamount to a denial, in company with the ancient Gnostics, that Jesus Christ has already come in the flesh.[22]

In virtue of the ironclad axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, such a rejection can mean nothing other than a rejection of the doctrine and spirituality the traditional Roman liturgy incarnates. It is, in other words, not primarily a deviation from rites, but a deviation from the Faith embodied in the rites—a form of infidelity or apostasy. All this—an injury to which was added the insult of ignoring many explicit stipulations of the conciliar document Sacrosanctum Concilium—amounts to a belief that the Holy Spirit had long ago ceased to guide the Church into the fullness of truth in its liturgical worship. This belief, however, cannot but be heretical; asserting it would be blasphemous; and acting upon it would be sacrilegious.[23]

Winding my way to journey’s end

In my own life as a Catholic, I have gone through several distinct stages over a long period of time, so I have learned to be patient with those who “don’t get it.” I didn’t “get it” either, although it fills me with joy to see how quickly the younger generations today are reaching conclusions that I resisted for years. If I were to try to put into words what I was seeking and finding at each stage, here is what I’d say.

In the first stage, which coincided with childhood and adolescence, I was trying to be a good son and a dutiful Catholic. I obeyed my parents in most regards, went to church with them on Sundays and Holy Days, and held a Ten Commandments morality (with some gaps owing to bad formation). The parish church was a typical suburban church, covered with carpet and Extraordinary Ministers. Midway through high school, a friend invited me to attend a charismatic youth group meeting, and I loved it. Thanks to the adult leaders, whom I would describe as “John Paul II Catholics,” I discovered in that group three important things: first, that the Catholic Faith proposes itself as true and therefore as the truth by which everything else ought to be evaluated (up till then, I’m not sure I had heard this claim!); second, that practicing the Faith did not have to be boring or perfunctory but could be emotionally invigorating and satisfying; third, that those who believe in God, the immortal soul, the sacraments, and prayer are, for the most part, much better and much happier people who, in turn, make for better and happier friends.

But after spending a couple of years in this group, something started to wear thin about it. I’m not sure I could put my finger on it, but the experience was something like what happens after a sugar high or puppy love: there was something superficial, after all, inadequate, temporary, insubstantial. It was as if I needed to find the external visible and audible form of the truth of the Catholic Faith that I accepted with my intellect; I needed to find the incarnate Christ, not the abstract word or the fleeting feeling. This is what I began to find at Thomas Aquinas College, initially in the Latin Novus Ordo with chant (what we might call the “Reform of the Reform” approach), where the overwhelming effect was one of reverence, of taking serious things seriously.

Yet there was always a disturbing problem lurking in the background. Almost anywhere else in the world—especially in the 1990s—the Novus Ordo was celebrated in a totally different way than it was done at TAC. What was wrong with everyone else? Why couldn’t they see how much better a reverent and beautiful liturgy was? I later came to understand that this is a monumental flaw baked into the Novus Ordo: the “smells and bells” are only optional, at the whim of the people in charge. Consequently, everything depends on the education, good taste, and orthodoxy of the pastor or the celebrant, or whoever is entrusted with decision-making power. Yet such optionitis combined with the current ecclesiastical power structure is a deadly combination: all it takes is one too many complaints to the bishop and boom!, Father Incensus Oriens is gone, sent scurrying across town or away to the boonies; the next guy comes in, and destroys, in a matter of weeks, the work of beautification and resacralization that it may have taken years or decades to build up. We all know this happens. It shows that a liturgy that treats any of the eight elements mentioned earlier as optional is doomed to failure, because of the principle stated by St. Thomas: “What is able not to exist, at some time does not exist.” Or, to to put it more colloquially: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

Later on in college, I began to attend clandestine celebrations of the Tridentine Mass, and here I discovered yet another secret: the presence and meaning and value of tradition—of doing what has been done for ages, the same rites that countless Catholics have known over the centuries, praying in the same words as great saints of the past, entering into the mysteries of Christ in a way that demands a transformation of mind and heart even in the very act of worship. I acquired a daily missal and began following it. I could see very quickly that this liturgy was considerably different, deeper in its theology, more truthful to human nature, more obedient to revelation, more beautiful in its presentation; as a matter of fact, it was more emotionally stirring as well, although in more subtle ways. In short: finding this liturgy and yielding to it was the end of a search on which I did not even know I was embarked. This liturgy embraced all that I had found in each stage of my journey, yet went beyond them all. It was, and has remained, inexhaustible: an infinite vista opening backward to history, forward to eternity, outward to culture, upward to heaven.

Seeking God on our terms or His

Consider for a moment what charismatics and proponents of a “Reform of the Reform” have in common. Both are seeking authenticity, an encounter with reality, with the divine presence, with the grace of the Holy Spirit. The problem is that both are forms of anthropocentrism: we want to find God on our terms, not on His terms; we want to worship Him in our way, not His way. Be it through excessive emotion or a liturgical rite of our own design, we are bringing God down to our own level, instead of letting Him reach us and take us up to Him along a path He has already provided. Like Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, we are looking here and there and everywhere to find Him, when He is standing right in front of us, in His gentle and glorious—though also veiled and mysterious—objectivity. He is the gardener who has already turned the soil, planted the seeds, tended their growth into an orchard of the finest, most succulent, most nourishing fruit trees—all the rites of Holy Mother Church that enable Him to become, more and more, the gardener, the governor, and indeed the intimate guest of our souls. This is what we see in the lives of the great mystics: it is the liturgy that forms and grounds and permeates their interior life, keeping it healthy, strong, balanced, rich, and fruitful, preventing it from veering off into arbitrariness, sentimentality, idiosyncracy, pride, or vanity. The interior life of grace, hidden in the soul, is reflected, represented, exemplified, in the exterior physiognomy of the traditional liturgy. It is the mystical life of the indwelling Trinity writ large, translated into the language of ritual, ceremony, and prayer—enacted in the choreography of ministers, brushed upon by words, savored in melodious chant, nestled in thundering silence.

I have argued this evening that the Novus Ordo is not the Roman rite or any kind of traditional rite; it does not express the fullness of our Faith in its ceremonies or in its texts. Since the liturgical heritage of the Church does represent the work of the Holy Spirit over the ages, inspiring, gathering, augmenting, refining, consolidating, and preserving the treasures of our collective worship as Christ’s Mystical Body, we are faced with a very serious decision: Do we take the path well-trodden by the saints, each generation demonstrably in continuity with the generations before and the generations to follow, by the common bond of an incorruptible God-breathed inheritance; or do we take a different path—liturgy violently conformed to a certain mentality, theory, or Zeitgeist?

I will therefore issue a double challenge. To those who do not already consistently attend the traditional Latin Mass, I will say: you should attend it, the sooner the better, because it is the highest glorification of our God, the most perfect expression of our faith, and the most exquisite treasury of our culture. It will take time and effort, and perhaps earn for you some cold shoulders, but it will reward you thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold. To those who are already in love with the traditional Roman rite and committed to it, I say: get to know it still better—assist at it more often, use your daily missal, study good books about it, spread the knowledge of it, and support the traditional movement with your prayers and your resources as if your very life and the existence of the Catholic Church depended on it. As time goes on, it is increasingly clear that this is a matter of life and death, vitality and extinction.

In conclusion: the title of my lecture asks a question: Why do we need not just more beauty, not just more reverence, but above all, the objective content of the usus antiquior? The answer is that God intended us to have it. It was brought forth from the womb of the Church by the Holy Spirit; it was received, practiced, and embellished by innumerable saints as they climbed the ladder of humility to heaven; it was given by Providence with a view to our universal human needs and holy desires; it was, and it remains, a gift of God’s immense love, a fitting throne to receive the greatest gift of all, His Son Our Lord Jesus Christ. Like His kingdom and laws, its rubrics are constant and fixed. Like the wisdom of the Gospels, its texts are dogmatically, morally, ascetically, mystically rich. The fine arts, especially music, find themselves at home in it, for they were all born there, in the city God hath founded (cf Ps 86:5–7). Like the Light that shineth in darkness, which the darkness did not overcome (cf. Jn 1:5), its ceremonies visibly and powerfully convey the Catholic Faith in its dazzling light of truth and its fearless grappling with the dark. The prayer of tradition unites us with all of our predecessors in the faith, and with all traditional Catholics alive right now, in every country, on every continent, who worship in the same rites, aspiring to the same ideals. This is how lasting renewal in the Church will come about.

The true Church lives from her Tradition
NOTES

[1] The Second Vatican Council appeals to just this concept: “There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, §23). Never was a conciliar text more violated in the event.
[2] This is rather what happens to heresy and schism, as we can see with Protestants and the Old Catholics. The Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias, speaking on behalf of the Vatican at the Fourteenth Lambeth Conference in 2008, spoke these striking words: “Much is spoken today of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. By analogy, their symptoms can, at times, be found even in our own Christian communities. For example, when we live myopically in the fleeting present, oblivious of our past heritage and apostolic traditions, we could well be suffering from spiritual Alzheimer’s. And when we behave in a disorderly manner, going whimsically our own way without any coordination with the head or the other members of our community, it could be ecclesial Parkinson’s.”
[3] The “sun” here represents the Eucharist, the “moon” the other sacraments and sacramentals that prepare for it or derive from it.
[4] Commonitorium, ch. 2, n. 6.
[5] Most notably John Paul II when he is defending exceptionless universal moral norms in the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
[6] Inspired by Vincent, we might almost speak of a formula: age x universality = venerableness.
[7] Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Pt. II, Ch. V.6.
[8] Because its architects were working under the influence of mid-20th-century theories of Christ’s presence in the congregation and in the liturgy as a whole—things that are true, but not in the desacramentalized manner in which they were taken—the resulting Novus Ordo may be called the first “post-Eucharistic liturgy.” I mean this in the sense of a liturgy that is not manifestly centered on the Real Presence of Our Lord under the species of bread and wine.
[9] The Novus Ordo, like a mule, lacks the fertility of its natural-born parent. Artists and architects will always need to go beyond its confines if they wish to produce great work appropriate for the sacred liturgy.
[11] With the Divine Office, there is even less of a necessary core, making it vulnerable to the worst excesses of constructivism.
[12] St. Thomas Aquinas (ST II-II, q. 1, a. 9, sed contra) cites this verse as evidence for the indefectibility of the Church: “The universal Church cannot err, since she is governed by the Holy Ghost, Who is the Spirit of truth: for such was Our Lord’s promise to His disciples (Jn 16:13): ‘When He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will teach you all truth.’”
[13] Like the descent of the dove, or the tongues of fire on Pentecost, announcing that a new dispensation is at hand. However, there will never be another dispensation: that of Christ is definitive. Hence, one can never expect a time, after the age of the Apostles, in which new Christian rites or sacraments will come into existence.
[14] This could remind us of the Ascension and the Assumption, exemplars of our final destiny in the unchanging bliss of heaven. As liturgy unfolds over time, it becomes more evidently the image of the eschatological banquet.
[15] This entire chapter of Ezekiel, especially verses 8 to 26, can be taken as a description of a three-stage historical drama: first, the calling of Israel and the old covenant; second, the coming of Christ and the new covenant, which inaugurated a period of maturation and royal splendor; third, the apostasy of the 20th century when churchmen went whoring after secular values, created “colorful shrines” to the gods of the world,  and made a religion out of humanism, burning incense to “images of men.” To these values, gods, and images, churchmen sacrificed the Church’s sons and daughters, in the outward exodus of the baptized who left the Church and the internal exodus of the faithful who have ceased to believe or even to know the Catholic Faith.
[16] It is apparent from this observation that not even a pope has or could have the authority to create a new rite.
[17] This is all the more apparent if we recall that the liturgy is the locus of divine revelation given by the Father, the extension through time and space of the Incarnation of the Son, and the outpouring of the Spirit in the prayer of the Bride of Christ.
[18] Someone once asked an Armenian-rite priest: “Don’t you ever get tired of celebrating the same liturgy every day?” He replied: “Do you get tired of seeing your mother each day? Would you want a different mother?”
[19] Mediator Dei, n. 61.
[20] Thus, prior to Pius XII’s own inscrutable defacement of the Roman rite in the radical changes made to the Holy Week liturgies.
[21] The question is often asked: Why did nearly all of the bishops, who had voted for something else, meekly go along with Paul VI’s increasingly radical liturgical reforms, instead of voicing their objections and refusing to comply? The answer may be given in one word: hyperpapalism. The pope is God on earth and his word is law. No matter what. It is for the same reason that nearly all of the bishops today, under Pope Francis, remain absolutely silent in the face of his heresies and the corruption of the Vatican.
[22] The substitution of Jewish prayers of blessing over a meal for a proper Offertory rite is, in this regard, highly suggestive, since the very defining trait of post-Christian rabbinical Judaism is its explicit denial that the Christ has come in the flesh. See my book Tradition & Sanity, ch. 9, “Gnosticism, Liturgical Change, and Catholic Life,” for a discussion of the influence of Gnosticism on the liturgical reform.
[23] The “sin against the Holy Spirit” has been discussed at great length by exegetes. For our purposes it suffices to note that it is connected in any case with rejecting the evidence of the work of God at hand, such as Christ’s power to drive out demons by the Spirit of God rather than by collusion with Beelzebul, as his critics maintained; this implicitly is a rejection of Christ’s entire ministry of making the kingdom of God present in our midst. Now, the kingdom of God is continually made present to us in the sacred liturgy. Hence a rejection of liturgy is a rejection of the kingdom, of its Lord, and of the Spirit of the Lord. We may also say, with Peter Lombard (Sentences, Bk. 2, dist. 43), that there are six kinds of sin against the Holy Spirit: despair, presumption, impenitence, obstinacy, fighting against known truth, and envy of a brother’s grace. These too are seen in the liturgical reform: despair that the faithful could enter into the mysteries celebrated in the traditional rites; presumption in thinking to create rites superior to those handed down; impenitence in refusing to repent of and repair the obvious damage caused to the People of God by the scope and speed of the reform; obstinacy in resisting the prior claims of tradition; fighting against the truth (lex credendi) to which the liturgy (lex orandi) gives expression; and lastly, envy of a brother’s grace, in the form of envy of the Byzantine tradition with unintelligent emulation of it.

The audio of the lecture, given in Minneapolis, November 13, 2019:


(Also available as downloadable MP3 here.)