One thing I’ve recently learned is that there are some strong opinions regarding the Ordinary vs. the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (Novus Ordo vs. Latin Mass). I’ve been having quite a few conversations with friends recently about the pros and cons regarding both.
Recently, hanging with some friends over beer and ribs, the pro-Latin Mass opinions soon began to emerge. Online, pro-Latin Mass podcasters and bloggers have been pushing the Latin Mass thing hard. Those who have opinions about these things can get somewhat militant, indeed. But I suppose it’s to be expected. After this “summer of shame” a lot of us are wondering, “What went wrong?” and the Novus Ordo seems to be considered a culprit to many minds.
As is often the case, a gracious, balanced, and thoughtful opinion can be found in Father Dwight Longenecker. Without condemning either, he’s given lists of 12 things he likes about both the Novus Ordo and the Latin Mass.
As a recent convert into Catholicism, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.
Could the Traditional Latin Mass have helped convert me?
Alternate history is impossible to know, so I’m unsure how soon (if at all) I would have converted if I had only experienced the Latin Mass. Even if I would havem it certainly would have taken longer.
As a potential convert attending the Novus Ordo, it was vindicating to hear so much Scripture read. It helped to hear the Mass in a language I understood so I could be sure exactly what was happening and what was being said in the prayers. For an Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christian, this is a big deal.
Catholicism needed to pass the “Bible test” and conspiracies circulate about what “actually happens at a Catholic Mass” or “what the prayers really say” or whatever. I don’t know Latin so how could I ever verify such things? Hearing the Mass in English helped me realize just how Biblical the Mass really is and that was a big factor in my conversion.
Could I have gotten past all the Latin and still converted? Sure, possibly. God’s grace cuts through a lot. But it’s not a for sure thing. I just know that I converted due to the Novus Ordo and don’t know if I would have due to the Traditional Latin.
One opinion of the pro-Latin Mass folks is that it’s more reverent. Indeed, there do seem to be some abuses in the Novus Ordo (I’m still uncomfortable seeing communion in the hand) but is that because Novus Ordo lends itself toward abuses or are abuses a hold-over from the post-Vatican II confusion? The Novus Ordo can be quite reverent, and it seems abuses can be set right without scrapping the Novus Ordo completely—it’s the proverbial “baby out with the bath water” scenario.
I also feel that “reverence” can be somewhat relative. For me, coming from a background of electric guitar “worship” and dancing in the aisles, the Novus Ordo felt insanely reverent and beautiful. If I had gone straight into a Traditional Latin Mass, I likely wouldn’t have stayed long; it would have been ritual overload.
Even if one supposes the Latin Mass is the ideal, it seems the Novus Ordo is at least the gateway drug for a flattened, nihilistic, modernist world to encounter Christ in the Mass.
Converting the Pagan vs. the Post-Pagan World
That leads to a more abstract idea bouncing around my mind, and not yet refined. Another argument I’ve heard from Latin Mass defenders is the idea that “It’s the Mass of the Saints” and “This is the Mass that Christianized the Pagan world.”
But this treats the post-Christian world the same as the pre-Christian pagan past. It seems the Latin Mass meant something substantial to the pagans because they had their peculiar and mysterious rites and rituals too. So when Catholics showed up with their peculiar and mysterious rituals—sacrifice, other-worldly language and prayer, incense, candles, vestments—the pagans recognized something of themselves but something more fulfilling. They discerned the importance of what was happening. They “got” all the pomp and circumstance because that’s what they were doing too.
But in this post-pagan, post-Christian world, religious rites are “weird” and do not compute in a modernist mind. It’s more distracting than helpful. Ritual and mysterious rites are considered archaic, not something for the oh-so-enlightened modern, and represents a lack of freedom.
Even modern Christians, such as the rock-star “worship” I grew up with, may visit a Novus Ordo and assume there is no “life” because everyone is so somber. For them, true worship is emotional and ritual hinders the vibe. If even the Novus Ordo is considered too “legalistic” for the modern world, how well will the Latin Mass be received for potential modern converts?
C.S. Lewis first introduced me to this way of looking at the modern world. He saw this disconnect with the pagan of antiquity and the modern post-pagan, post-Christian.
“Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with the post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not. The Pagan and Christian ages alike are ages of what Pausanias would call δρώμευου, the externalised and enacted idea; the sacrifice, the games, the triumph, the ritual drama, the Mass, the tournament, the masque, the pageant, the epithalamium, and with them ritual and symbolic costumes….But even if we look away from that into the temper of men’s minds, I seem to see the same. Surely the gap between Professor Ryle and Thomas Browne is far wider than that between Gregory the Great and Virgil? Surely Seneca and Dr Johnson are closer together than Burton and Freud.” (Lewis, page 5)
“It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism’. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity ‘by the same door as she went in’ and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.” (Lewis, page 10)
Seen in this light, the argument that the Latin Mass is the best for today because it was so successful with the pagans of yesteryear falls a bit flat. The ancient pagans actually believed in something, actually worshiped something; that ‘something’ demanded their fealty and they gave it.
Today we’re dealing with a culture that believes nothing except what gives them good vibes; that truth is what you decide it to be; that worships the god within—a god that demands no fealty; that values the newest smart phone more than an old book; that can’t think much deeper than a tweet; that has the constant glow of screens on faces which snuffs out any spark of fiery insight within minds; that has traded in the confession booth for the psychiatrist couch because it no longer believes in sin but still hungers for affirmation.
Fr. Longenecker has a great article about some of these ideas too, where he describes how men need first be good pagans before becoming good Christians.
However, even given all of this, I recognize that there is another side to this coin. All those great rites the Pagans had—the sacrifice, the costumes, the ritual drama, the festivals—as well as the great beliefs they had—that there is something ‘out there’ that demands fealty, that everything in the world means something—are basic human needs. And it seems that the more flattened, nihilistic, and anarchic the modern world becomes, the more beautiful and attractive the old ways could be to it.
In that sense, maybe the Latin Mass will be what brings more people to Christ.
Those are some thoughts from a man who is not an expert on any of this. The Latin Rite is certainly beautiful, and that’s not a small point. I plan to attend some more; there’s one an hours drive from me. Perhaps more experience with it will help me appreciate it more.
But at the moment I still think the Ordinary Form has a lot going for it, too.
C.S. Lewis, De Descriptione Temporum, in “Selected Literary Essays”, Cambridge University Press, 2015