Persecution of the Traditional Latin Mass
I’m not really a Latin kind of guy. I like attending the Traditional Latin Mass (Vetus Ordo of Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite) once in a while, and there was a brief time when I attended almost weekly, but to be quite honest with you, it’s not where my heart is. Anglicanism is what drew me into the Catholic Church, and I’m a member of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter now, so I’m a Sacred English kind of guy, and the mass that speaks to me the most is Divine Worship. It’s the liturgy that comes from the Anglican Patrimony, and the tradition that led me into the Catholic Church.
When I was an Anglican, our parish always celebrated two forms (rites) from the Book of Common Prayer. The first was Rite One, and it’s the liturgy that most closely resembles what Divine Worship looks like in the Catholic Church today. It used Sacred English (thee and thou) and was usually done in a very traditional way, even if the parish itself was not that traditional. Then there was Rite Two, and this was the liturgy that most closely resembles what we see in the Catholic Church today with the contemporary vernacular Mass (Novus Ordo or Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite). It used all modern English, or Common English, and was usually done more loosely with a bit of innovation from time to time. However, just about every Anglican parish I attended always used both “rites” from the Book of Common Prayer. There was an unspoken understanding, if you will, that even when most people in the church prefer contemporary worship, there will always be those who prefer the more traditional forms, and nobody in a parish church should ever feel alienated. So every parish (that I attended) dutifully celebrated both “rites” from the Book of Common Prayer, showing proper reverence for Rite One and respecting those who still preferred that, while accommodating everyone else with Rite Two.
A similar situation existed in other churches I attended both as a child and an adult. Each local community would make an effort to have both a “traditional” and a “contemporary” worship service on Sundays: Lutheran, Methodist, Evangelical, Baptist and Pentecostal. Of course, each denomination had its own definition of what “traditional” meant, but when it came to contemporary services, it seemed they were all mostly the same, or at least very similar. The message sent by all of these Christian communities was essentially the same: “All are welcome, because we accommodate both traditional and contemporary forms of worship.”
So you can imagine how shocked I was to discover that the Catholic Church had universally done the exact opposite!
The roll-out of the contemporary vernacular mass (Novus Ordo or Ordinary Form) was, in my opinion, worse than a public relations failure. It was a complete and utter public relations disaster! I wasn’t around for it, thank God, but had I been, I think I would have been pretty upset. I was just an infant when it happened, brought into this world by two semi-practising Protestant parents who were likely just coming to the realisation that they probably ought to get me baptised and start going back to church again. I wouldn’t join the Catholic Church until thirty-years later, in the year 2000, when all the damage had been done, and all that remained was the eerie feeling that something really big just happened and now it’s over.
I’ll never forget, coming into the Catholic Church in a very modern parish, and hearing stories about “crazed traditionalists who used to be a problem a long time ago.” These stories reminded me of the Native American legends in my early childhood, wherein the “savage Indians” would attack “peaceful pioneers” travelling the great American West. I knew there was such a thing as “Indians” and I’d heard they were a “pretty significant problem long ago,” but you didn’t see or hear much about them any more. Once in a while, while driving through a reservation town as my father often did on family vacations, you might catch a glimpse of one dining at a McDonald’s, but he no longer looked like anything you heard or read about in those old legends. Yes, these Catholic “traditionalists” sounded something like that to me, and I thought to myself “what a curious oddity.” Upon becoming Catholic, I felt like I had just strolled into and old Western town, where everybody was wearing modern clothes and doing modern things, which was fine (I suppose) except it seemed a little out of place, and I began to wonder where those old-fashioned traditionalists had gone, whom I presumed might “balance” the picture of this old Western town.
One of the things I immediately noticed upon becoming Catholic was that there seemed to be less reverence for the Eucharist than what I was accustomed to in my moderately liberal Anglican parish. When we presented ourselves for communion in our Anglican parish, we did it at a communion rail while kneeling. But I rarely ever saw Catholics kneel for communion. I thought this to be rather odd, considering the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist (transubstantiation) was far more specific than the Anglican teaching. One would think Catholics would show a little more respect. Instead, what I witnessed was people standing in line, having the Eucharist placed in their hands, and then consuming it on the way back to their pew. Again, this all seemed a little odd to me. Some time later, the local bishop instituted a rule requiring communicants to at least bow before receiving the Eucharist. It was a small step in the right direction as far as I was concerned.
Some years later I encountered my first “crazed traditionalist.” She was a fellow employee working temporarily at the same place as I. As it turned out, she was a member of the local Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) community. I didn’t even know one existed in the area at the time. I talked to her at length for quite some time. She didn’t seem very “crazed” to me, nor did she sound like a “savage Indian” attacking the “peaceful pioneers.” (Keep in mind, I’m using this illustration as a cultural reference to make a point. I don’t actually believe Native Americans are savages. That would be silly.) My point here is that in both cases, as a child watching television, and then again as an adult Catholic hearing about traditionalists, I was the victim of a little propaganda. Native Americans aren’t “savages,” and Traditional Catholics aren’t “crazed.” In fact, I was taken aback by how reasonable this SSPX laywoman was. She corrected me once, telling me that it wasn’t about the Latin for most SSPX members, and that Latin is just a language. Rather, it’s about the solemnity, reverence and tradition.
That struck a chord with me. As a former Anglican, it was the solemnity, reverence and tradition of the Anglican liturgy that drew me into the Catholic faith to begin with. So, I spent the next few years trying to sort all this out. I began reading about what happened following the Second Vatican Council and the roll-out of the new vernacular mass in 1970. That’s when I discovered the problem. The new vernacular mass (Novus Ordo or “New Order”) was, for the most part, just installed into Catholic parishes around the globe, with little to no provision made for preserving the traditional Latin mass (Vetus Ordo or “Old Order”). For the most part, and with very few exceptions, Catholics who wanted to stick with the older Vetus Ordo mass were told to “grow up” and “get with the times.” If they held their ground, they were called “troublemakers” and subsequently marginalised. In one diocese after another, in one parish after another, the Latin Vetus Ordo mass just disappeared, and was replaced with the vernacular Novus Ordo mass. Catholics who didn’t like the change were ignored and left out in the cold. It was possible to find a Latin Vetus Ordo mass once in a while, but these were rare and usually long distances from each other. It became common for Catholics to have to drive two hours to the nearest Latin Vetus Ordo mass, and that’s if they were lucky. In the midst of all this, one organisation fought back, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).
The SSPX might have seemed like the last hope for traditionalists in the Catholic Church during the 1980s. However, it’s founder Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was advanced in age, in his eighties, and nearing death. He repeatedly requested permission from Rome to ordain episcopal successors to his fraternity, and each time his requests were delayed, stalled or ignored. Fearing he would die before receiving permission from Rome, he ordained four new bishops on his own, without permission. This meant the episcopal ordinations were valid but not licit. One would think Lefebvre must have thought this would be worked out quickly with some minor disciplinary action, considering the desperate circumstances this octogenarian found himself in. Rome replied immediately with full excommunication for Archbishop Lefebvre and the four bishops he ordained. All of this happened in 1988. What Lefebvre did was wrong, and excommunication would be the normal procedure for dealing with matters such as these. Whether Lefebvre expected it to happen, and how long he thought it might last, remains unknown to us. However, the excommunication procedure itself was unusual, announced from the Congregation of Divine Worship (CDW), and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was never consulted. The prefect of the CDF, a prelate by the name of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, thought this excommunication was highly irregular and inappropriate concerning the circumstances. He was about to intervene when Pope Saint John Paul II publicly announced the validity of the excommunication. At that point, there was nothing Ratzinger could do, until he became pope himself and in 2009 he then lifted the excommunications against the Society bishops who were still living. Since then, negotiations have been underway for the regularisation of the Society under canon law.
Following the 1988 excommunication of the SSPX, Pope Saint John Paul II set up an alternative society for celebration of the Latin Vetus Ordo mass — The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP). In his Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei, this Saint instructed all the Catholic bishops of the world to make “wide and generous” provision for those attached to the Latin Vetus Ordo mass…
Respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition, by a wide and generous application of the directives already issued some time ago by the Apostolic See for the use of the Roman Missal according to the typical edition of 1962. — Pope Saint John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei, 4c
On this matter, Pope Saint John Paul II was almost completely ignored. Very few bishops made this provision requested by the Saint. If anything, the opposite was true. Local bishops, all over the world, with very few exceptions, forbade the celebration of the Latin Vetus Ordo mass, and ignored repeated requests by the faithful to provide one. For Traditional Catholics in the Church, the situation remained largely unchanged after the pope’s directives in Ecclesia Dei, and if anything it was worse, because now (thanks to the excommunication of the SSPX) the stigma of “schismatic” was attached to any Catholic who preferred traditional liturgy.
I’ll tell you a personal story. During this time of my research I approached two priests in my local diocese (long before I joined the Ordinariate or it even existed) soliciting their thoughts about the Latin Vetus Ordo mass. It was just a casual question. I didn’t do anything I thought was offensive in any way. I was shocked at the response. One of them yelled at me, and the other told me (very sternly) to stay away from anyone requesting “that sort of thing.” Honestly, based on their reaction, you would think I was inquiring about a Satanic rite or something. This happened between 2003 and 2007.
Now as a former Anglican, and a former Evangelical before that, I can tell you from personal experience, this is NOT how you run a successful and welcoming church. You never shun your most traditional members. You never turn them away. You never categorise them as “crazy” or “schismatic,” and you certainly never, ever, freak out when somebody asks you a question about traditional liturgy. Yet this is exactly the experience I had dealing with local priests and laity between 2003 and 2007. I must confess, for a brief time there I wondered: “What have I got myself into by joining the Catholic Church?”
In the Anglican denomination I was part of (The Episcopal Church), we had problems with liberalism, innovation and blatant heresy. But even the Anglicans knew better than to mess with the liturgy. They kept the older, more traditional, Rite One around for anyone who wanted it, and every single parish celebrated it at least once a week. So finding it was never a problem, and it was always nearby. Yet the Catholic Church seemed to have flushed the older liturgy down the toilet and insisted that everyone follow the newer liturgy or face some kind of backlash if they didn’t. It was bizarre. It left a very strange impression on me. I got the distinct feeling that the Church leadership was trying to tell me that everything the Catholic Church believed and practised before 1970 was somehow “wrong,” and that the only way to do things right is the new way. I also got the distinct feeling that I wasn’t the only one getting this message. I suspected (and still suspect) that millions more got the same message.
The backlash was predictable. During this time between 1988 and 2007, the SSPX grew in size, opening up more chapels and expanding its influence, in spite of the excommunications of its bishops and the illicit status of its sacraments.
Pope Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) made strong efforts to correct some of these problems during his papacy. In 2007, he released a motu proprio entitled Summorum Pontificum. This document liberalised usage of the old Latin Vetus Ordo mass, allowing any priest to celebrate it privately, and instructing all bishops to provide this liturgy liberally. Furthermore, it instructed these bishops that the laity have a right to inform the Vatican if their liturgical needs are not being met, and that the Vatican would be willing to “help” any bishop who finds it difficult or impossible to meet the liturgical needs of traditional Catholics. Pope Benedict XVI stated privately that he envisioned a time when every parish would once again have a Latin Vetus Ordo mass at least once a week. Many scoffed at this idea.
In the years following Summorum Pontificum, there was a resurgence in the celebration of the Latin Vetus Ordo mass. However, following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, it seems there has been an increasing hostility toward traditional liturgy resurfacing in the Catholic Church. It’s almost as if some bishops think that when you change popes, you change canon law on the liturgy too! Now that Pope Benedict XVI is gone, they can return to their previous practice of spurning the traditional Latin liturgy. Thankfully, not all bishops are this way, and far more are friendly to traditional liturgy than there were previously.
I worry about the future of the Latin Vetus Ordo liturgy, but more importantly, I worry about the people who are attached to that liturgy. It concerns me when they are denied access to the Latin Vetus Ordo mass, or when they’re told there simply aren’t enough people around to provide it. To me, it seems grossly unfair, and I think they deserve better. I have what I want now. Divine Worship gives me all the solemnity, reverence and tradition I could ever ask for, with the familiarity of the Anglican Patrimony that drew me into the Catholic Church in the first place. So I’m in good shape, and I have more than I could ask for. Nobody need worry about me. Still, I’ve not forgotten my traditional Latin brethren who are still struggling to regain what should have never been taken away from them in the first place. Honestly, I think the Catholic Church could actually learn a lesson from Protestantism on this one. Don’t deprive your people of traditional liturgy. It has really negative effects (think SSPX), and only causes trouble for everyone. It’s not how you run a successful and welcoming Church either.