Rorate Caeli

The Best Book on Its Subject: Dr. John Pepino Reviews Fiedrowicz’s The Traditional Mass

Michael Fiedrowicz.
The Traditional Mass. History, Form, and Theology of the Classical Roman Rite. Translated from the German by Rose Pfeifer. Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2020; xvi + 331 pages. ISBN 978-1621385240.

The reader interested in the traditional Roman liturgy and its place in the Roman-rite Church today ought to possess this most recent monograph on the Roman liturgy from Angelico Press. Certainly I hope that it finds its way into the hands of all Roman rite seminarians in the English world, not to mention pastors, and even bishops. It would help topple any number of sacred cows that stand in the way of a clear-eyed assessment of the two “forms of the Roman Rite.”   In fact, one finds oneself wishing that its analyses had been broadly available to the bishops before the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae . . . .

While Fiedrowicz is Germanic in his scholarly rigor and precision, at 331 pages his book is not a daunting tome. Furthermore, it is accessible even to the moderately informed layman and  manages to cover all the basic facts in its first 231 pages: Part I, “History,” tracks the development of this rite from its second-century beginnings to the twentieth century; Part II, “Form,” describes the rite from an external point of view (the degrees of solemnity, the structure of the Mass, the liturgical year, Latin as a liturgical language, ceremonies, rubrics, etc.). Its third and last part, “Theology” (pp. 233-304), shows how the traditional Latin Mass is formally a monument of Tradition, that is, an artifact which hands down revelation; the author calls it “celebrated dogma.” The book closes with a selective bibliography arranged by topic and a couple of indices (persons; subjects). In a word, it is a timely introduction to the Roman Church’s perennial Mass. 

The timeliness of Fiedrowicz’s work is partly due to his use of both pre- and post- conciliar sources: the canonical names are there, of course (Lebrun, Guéranger, Bruylants, Battifol, Jungmann, Schuster, Botte, Parsch, Mohrmann . . .), but also, and always advisedly, the heroes of the epic post-conciliar era of liturgical resistance scholarship (Gamber, Calmel, Madiran, Davies . . .), and naturally contemporary scholarship too (Barthe, Jackson, Kwasniewski, Lang, Mosebach, Nichols, Pristas, Reid, the Proceedings of the yearly CIEL conferences . . .). Even as recently published a contribution as Joseph Shaw’s important The Case for Liturgical Restoration (2019) is on the roster. Those who have recognized these names will also have noticed the international scope of the author’s scholarship: because he is a German speaker with a good command of French and English, this translation of his work gives to the English-reading public access to sources, scholarship, and insights not normally within close reach.

This is not to say that Fiedrowicz has no insights of his own. On the contrary, here is a priest who has not only read much, but also thought much, about the Roman rite of the Mass. The title of his book, for instance, reflects his own conclusions on the name by which one ought to call the Mass under study: “Traditional Mass” is his pick,  but he also finds “the Mass of All Times” to be a “lovely expression” (p. 46), and approves of  “the Classical Rite.” These terms all reflect an organic development culminating in the 1570 Missal, the “final outcome of a long evolution” (p. 55, relying on Guéranger, Newman, Bouyer, and Reid). As for the novel expressions “Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite” and Usus antiquior—they are tied to our present context and are called to disappear . . . . Near the end of the book the author names the Mass as contained in the Missal that Paul VI promulgated the “recreated form” (p. 301), a nearly apt moniker.

The book reads as a celebration—if not a defense—of the traditional Mass. In this respect, it constitutes a long-overdue response to the attacks issuing from the liturgical establishment since World War Two and repeated to this day as a distraction from the obvious deficiencies of the Novus Ordo Missae. Fiedrowicz, a gentleman scholar, is never blunt; he rather lets the contrast between the old and the new speak for itself. His first disparagement, if one can call it so, of the NOM comes as a quotation from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the shift from the priest’s peccata mea (traditional) to peccata nostra (new Mass) during the Pax. One could draw up an exhaustive list of traditional elements that Fiedrowicz both explains and celebrates and that the NOM dropped, but the following examples will suffice: the importance of the Octave of Pentecost and Ember days; the relevance of “stational” Masses; the artistry of the Latin prayers; the excellence of the Offertory (responding to Dom Oury’s now-conventional defense of the NOM Offertory) . . . .

In the same vein, The Traditional Mass is a response to much of the (often dated) litnik scholarship that served as basis and excuse for the elaboration of the form created in the late 1960s. Generally speaking the author is unimpressed with the results of mid-century liturgical scholarship, which have time and again been proven wrong or at least exaggerated (p. 211).  Perhaps the most refreshing and, from the point of view of principles, satisfying argument is his tackling the (often unspoken) principle according to which the liturgical scholar’s knowledge of the first recorded mention of a ceremony or practice grants him license to dismiss it and call for its suppression (p. 209, n. 45). Here Fiedrowicz correctly points to a well-known principle of other human sciences (philology, linguistics, archaeology, etc.) that the first formal mention of a custom does not provide the date for its introduction, but rather usually reflects an already long-standing, if formally unrecorded, tradition.

Fiedrowicz’s cool argumentation goes on to explode a number1960s liturgical-scholarly shibboleths: the invocation of St. Cyril of Jerusalem for Communion in the hand (p. 115); the antiquity of the versus populum stance (p. 148), in the refutation of which he gets at the operative principle in one of his many golden lines, “the principal purpose of the liturgy is not dialogue, but collective worship”; the flaws of the Vulgate as liturgical text (p. 178); the unfittingness of the term “Gregorian” chant; the inability of the traditional Mass to include active participation (although the popes from St. Pius X to Pius XII could only have had the traditional Mass in mind when speaking of participation!); the meagreness of the traditional lectionary; the weakness of the Roman Canon as anaphora (in response to which he gives a magnificent presentation of its concentric structure around the Consecration); the silence of the Canon (much maligned, yet so eminently appropriate).

In addressing the question of the place of the vernacular in the liturgy, Fiedrowicz shows a supple command of the argumentation found in Church documents as well as in the work of the Grande Dame of Church Latin, Christine Mohrmann, who in her own day, like the never-believed prophetess Cassandra of Troy, had explained how the Latin of the liturgy is not the vernacular of the late Roman empire. Here he presents us with another of his golden lines: “the Church did not slip Latin on as a garment that could be replaced with another . . . the Roman Church artistically forged for herself her own Latin for her liturgy, and in it she uniquely expressed her identity” (p. 158). He also presents the devastatingly prophetic opinion a far-sighted Germanic bishop voiced as early as 1839, when the imitation of Protestant vernacularism was already a temptation: “Do not expect too much from the German language . . . the Protestant churches are getting more and more empty. The same may happen to ours too. I fear that we will drive out our old churchgoers without” attracting new ones (p. 171, n. 166).

On a more theological level, the author, in chapter 9 (“Rituality and Sacrality”), explains the strengths of the traditional Mass. It is catholic, here meaning “universal,” both through time (a St. Irenaeus would be at home at the traditional Mass) and space (a foreign Catholic visitor is at home at the traditional Mass wherever he goes). It is intangible: one does not touch the sacred, as “objective space removed from human interference” is what makes God’s  presence perceptible. It is rigidly codified: the rubrics keep out subjective creativity on the part of the celebrant. It is richly symbolic: here the author goes a long way to explain the more mysterious ceremonies of the Mass, e.g. the paten hidden under the subdeacon’s humeral veil during part of the Canon at the Solemn Mass. Likewise chapter 5 (“Structure and Components of the Celebration of the Mass”) shows how the way in which the parts of the Mass are conducted is eminently fitting and meaningful, for instance the bowing and dialogue-format of the Confiteor or even the syntactical structure of the Orations. Most charming is the loving exposition of how well the Prologue of the Gospel according to Saint John fits as a conclusion to the Mass.

Another aspect of the book that will recommend it to scholar and layman alike is its carefulness. The author never claims more than he can argue; his tone is always calm and rational; the Greek and Latin quotations are refreshingly flawless and rendered into good English; citations from the Fathers of the Church, which are plentiful, refer to the most recent editions for the original ancient language and to the best English translations available. We can here thank the translator, Miss Rose Pfeifer, for not merely relying on the nearly unreadable Victorian English versions whose lack of copyright makes them too easily accessible on line.

Now a few words of criticism.

Some readers will find the author’s use of the 1962 edition of the Missale Romanum as normative to be somewhat slavish, particularly in light of recent arguments for a return to the status of the Missal before the reform of the rubrics in 1960 and the “restored” Holy Week of 1956. This may be due in part to the 2011 year of publication of the first German edition. At the time (that is, before the CDF permitted a limited use of former editions of the Missal), it was hard to imagine an actual return; even now, the priests and faithful with regular access to pre-1962 celebrations are in the minority. Be that as it may, the author does also present the older, more traditional rubrics: he favors the Communicants’ Confiteor before Holy Communion; he mentions the former greater use of Benedicamus Domino instead of Ite Missa est; he gives a clear and succinct explanation of the older classification of feasts (double majors, semidoubles, etc., along with the gradation of solemnity); he mentions the reduced lessons (from twelve to four) at the Easter Vigil. On the other hand, in his otherwise excellent presentation of Vigils and their importance (fast before feast), he passes over the Vigil of Saint Andrew (suppressed in the 1960 revisions), even though it had traditionally inaugurated the Sanctoral. By and large, however, the author’s analyses should satisfy the faithful who are attached to the pre-1955 form of the Roman rite.

Another quibble concerns the selective bibliography: since the sources have been divided up into topics (“Sacred Language,” “Gregorian Chant,” “Orations,” etc.) rather than continuously listed in alphabetical order, it is hard to find the full citation of a work referred to in abbreviation in the footnotes; the work in question may not even be amongst those selected for the bibliography at the end. This makes the book unwieldy as one reads it with a view to the sources, as there may be much page flipping back to the first, full, citation of an abbreviated work. On the other hand, the bibliography as presented is perfect for one seeking to bulk up his liturgical library on any given topic.

At this point the reader will have realized, despite these last minor complaints, how important this new book is in the current liturgical conversation: it amounts to an authoritative “state of the question,” with any number of trailheads for further investigation. It also provides one with the many answers to the question posed by (as yet) inconvinced friends and relatives (including Novus Ordo clergy): “Why the old Mass?” In this respect it is the perfect gift (or loan) when one is unsure of one’s own mastery of the facts . . . or of one’s temper in what can easily turn to a heated debate. More broadly, this books constitutes the essential introduction for any one, from high school on, who wishes to understand the liturgical patrimony of Rome.