Rorate Caeli

The Joy of the Traditional Roman Mass: They can't take that away from us.

Last week at Mass we heard the gospel from St. John that recounts Jesus’ first miracle, the changing of water into wine.  Today on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany we hear of two more miracles performed by our Lord:  the healing of the lepers and the healing of the centurion’s servant.  The gospels in the season of the Sundays after Epiphany concentrate on the miracles of Jesus as the answer to the seminal, the basic question asked and answered in the gospels: who is this man Jesus?  These miracles are not offered as proof to the gospel answer to this question, that he is the Son of God, the Word of God the Savior of the world. But they are offered—and they are offered in a historical sense, not in some sort of symbolic sense—to point to the answer to the seminal question.  Many who call themselves Christians have been having problems with these miracles for a long time, and they have done so because they have succumbed well over a century ago to a rationalistic and moralistic understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. And they are locked into a totally outdated and false understanding of the physical world: they live in an imaginary Newtonian world in which surprise is absent. It is absent by decree, since there can be no surprises in a clock world understanding of the physical universe.  One does not have to be conversant with the ins and outs of contemporary physics to know that physical reality is full of surprises and that these surprises happen with alarming frequency.  The irony is that in an age in which science is seen to be the basis and the touchstone of what is real, most people, certainly including theologians, are locked into a view of reality that corresponds in no way to the mysterious and in a way crazy picture of physical reality that contemporary physics paints for us.  And the verb paints is very apt, for physical reality is much more like a painting whose meaning can never be fully grasped than the rather boring view of reality that is like a Patek Phillipe watch: expensive, keeps good time, but in the end not very interesting.

There is no doubt that we are living through one of the worst crises the Church has faced in her now more than 2000 year history.  The roots of this crisis do not lie in yesterday.  The roots have been growing for at least three centuries, some would say much longer than that, and these roots are firmly grounded in the soil of that radical and myopic view of reality that places the individual at the center of the universe and as the ultimate meaning of what is real and true and good.  The cry of Martin Luther: “Here I stand, I can do no other”, finds its logical and inevitable consummation in the world in which we live, a world that loves to talk about community only in terms of a reality that is totally circumscribed by a radical denial of what has formed communities in the past:  family, friends,  shared values grounded in something beyond the community, in a sense of the transcendent.  This is a world in which any objectivity in morality is denied.  Morality is defined in terms of the freedom of the individual to do whatever he or she wants, with the exception of hurting another person, and that hurting another person is seen in terms of making that other person unhappy.  Even killing another person does not get in the way of this morality based on the self and a selfish understand of freedom, as we can see in the painful example of the contemporary acceptance of abortion as a personal right.

The crisis in the Church lies in her willful refusal, in those who are supposed to be the guardians of the Faith, to vigorously counter in an ecclesial way, that is, based on the truth of the Gospel, this warped view of what is real, what is true and good.  There is no doubt from a reading of Church history that the Church has succumbed at various times in her history to trying to make peace with the world by a deliberate forgetting of her role and mission given to her by Him who is the ultimate contradiction to the world.  But in those times, there have always been those whom we call saints, especially the martyrs, who have seen through these dishonest attempts to come to terms with the world, and whose lives and death have the same effect as Jesus’ miracles: they point beyond and above to the God who is good, true and beautiful.  The Church has often had a hard time dealing with these people: like St Antony of Egypt who fled from the world to live in the desert; like St Francis of Assisi who embraced a terrible form of poverty to point to the reality of the radical nature of Christianity; like St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose understanding of the vocation of love that lies at the heart of what it means to be a Catholic brought her to such terrible suffering and in the end at her death a darkness that she perceived as a loss of faith.  Or like St Thomas More, that very worldly and intelligent man, that eminent scholar and writer of superb even if mock Ciceronian Latin, that ambitious man who rose so high in political power and who found himself quite unexpectedly and not by choice confronting that choice that is at the heart of the Catholic faith and yet is denied by most Catholics, that choice between the world that tolerates only a tamed and impotent Christian faith,  and that faith which demands to choose contra mundum because of love of Christ who died pro mundo. And Thomas More chose for God in the context of defending the Papacy in the person of a Pope who was no great model for the Petrine ministry. The trouble is that these saints and most saints have been so pietized and hagiized and sentimentalized by Catholics that their meaning, who they really were, has evaporated. St Francis becomes a Disney character complete with birds and a birdbath.  St Thérèse becomes a sweet pious French little girl holding roses.  St Thomas More becomes a character in a Robert Bolt play who is reduced to a man of principle.

But this is all part of the history that has brought us to this time of crisis. This is a time when bishops refuse to condemn the warped worldliness of their flock who hold prominent positions in government, those who dare to claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, dare to proclaim themselves as Catholics, dare to claim to be daily Mass goers, and at the same time support contemporary moral positions that deny the Lord of life himself.  And all of this in the name of compassion, compassion redefined in the name of the freedom of the individual.  And this is what compassion has been reduced to.  So many Catholics do not know what compassion means: it means to suffer with another.  It does not mean to excuse the faults of another.  But it does mean to love the other, and to love some one means to be willing to suffer with that person,  means to reach out to the other from the Cross of Jesus Christ: there is no other compassion than the compassion of Mary at the foot of the Cross. There is no other compassion than St Francis’ receiving the stigmata. There is no other compassion than St Thérèse suffering her dark death in the context of her vocation to love. There is no compassion other than St Thomas More’s terrible realization of what love for the world really means,  dying in behalf of the love of Christ for all men,  in a most ambiguous context.  It means that there is no foundation for true compassion except in the infinite compassion of Jesus Christ for the sinners of the world.  

But what has brought us to the particular depth of crisis the Church faces today?  The difference between the crises of the Church in the past, and there were many of them, and the crisis besetting us now is this:  the contemporary loss of the sacred, specifically in the liturgy of the Mass, as the binding force that was the fundamental context in which the Catholic life was lived through the centuries.  It was, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, the fons et culmen, the source and summit of the Catholic life.  The Mass of the Tradition, the Traditional Roman Mass, is the fruit of organic development whose words, prayers, gestures, music cannot be identified with any one culture, any one provenance.  The Mass includes its roots in Judaism, in the Greek speaking world of ancient times, in the Middle East of Syria and Lebanon, in the city and empire of Rome, drawing from traditions far and wide, from Britain to Gallican France, to Spain, to North Africa, from what we call in general the East: all expressed in a common and unchangeable language that is foundational in the Christian world of the West. This structure, this palace, this humble home, this house that everyone, rich, poor, men, women, children, educated, peasant could come to and be at home in, at home even if not intellectually understanding what all these rooms meant, yet coming into a place that was familiar and yet not common, the place that was always there, that did not depend on the fashion of the world, what was au courant at the time, that transcended time and space, that always pointed to what one could not understand but believed. This is so wonderfully captured in that scene in Graham Green’s novel,  The Power and the Glory when the Mexican peasants sigh with happiness as the priest, risking his life for them,  says the Mass in a poor home, and when he raises the Host they sigh, and in that sigh they know, they know, despite the terrible reality of their lives, they know that God is with them again in the home of the Mass.

And yet, what we are doing right now is the antidote to the crisis we face. We offer at this time and in this church that Mass that grew organically through 1500 years,  not as a set of prayers and rules but as a living organism that took was best in the ever changing historical milieu of the past millennium and a half, the form of the Mass inculturated by and in the many cultural milieus of the past 1500 years, shedding what was dross and embracing what was consonant with the essence of the Roman Mass, at whose heart is the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross and thus a source of grace.  Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum in essence did not merely “allow” the free celebration of the Traditional Roman Mass.  That document broke the spell of the false and un-Catholic fiction that St. Paul VI had abrogated the Traditional Roman Mass in his  imposition of  the Novus Ordo form of Mass on the whole Church as if it were continuous with the Traditional Roman Mass.  How could a form of the Mass that was written by a committee whose members used liturgical scholarship for their own purposes and who were determined to make up a liturgy that would appeal to “modern man”, a liturgy that is fixed in one time and space, and which is the product not of organic growth but rather of doctrinaire imposition of attitudes of a very small time in the history of the Church: how could this form of the Mass be continuous with the Traditional Roman Mass?  

The Consilium that produced the Novus Ordo Mass forgot that the Mass is for God, is the worship of God. It is not  for the priest nor for the people. The Mass is not a religious exercise for people. It is not something for the priest to make up and to make relevant and to make people happy. It is not an extension of religious education, a didactic exercise. The Mass is where one enters into the Holy of Holies and gives oneself over to the mystery and love of God. When I was ordained a priest nearly 38 years ago, I never dreamed I would be celebrating this Mass in this place surrounded by people of faith from all sorts and conditions of men and women. But God is good and faithful.  And he will continue to be faithful despite those who presume to outlaw this form of worship that is the product of and the heart of Catholic Tradition. And we rejoice in this source of grace and truth, this treasure, the ultimate treasure that is filled with the beauty of God in the distillation of time, of that time impregnated with the astounding event of God becoming man, becoming flesh of a real woman who lived full of grace at a specific time and place in the history of the world. And what else can we do on this day then to be grateful and happy, oh so happy, oh so filled with joy?  And what else can we do than before Holy Communion to echo the centurion’s words from the Gospel:  “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” And then receive that Lord with great joy.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla