This past Sunday my family attended Mass in the Extraordinary Form, as my pastor has begun to say this Form of the Mass on a weekly basis at our parish. It was the first time attending a Latin Mass for my wife and most of my children, so I tried to prepare them beforehand as to what to expect. It was a Low Mass, so silence reigned, which was actually quite beautiful.
Although I truly appreciate the old Mass, I admit that I am content with the Novus Ordo, as long as it is properly celebrated. However, there are many Catholics who greatly prefer the Latin Mass, and John Zmirak has posted a wonderfully written, charitably-argued defense of traditional Catholicism over at Inside Catholic. I urge everyone to go over there and read it.
Zmirak distinguishes between “orthodox Catholics” and “traditionalist Catholics”. “Orthodox Catholics” are those who assent to all the Church’s teachings and appreciate all the Church’s traditions, yet do not have an attachment to pre-Vatican II, Tridentine Catholicism. In fact, some orthodox Catholics greatly prefer many of the changes that came about as a result of Vatican II. “Traditionalist Catholics”, on the other hand, also assent to all the Church’s teachings, but believe that many of the pre-Vatican II, Tridentine traditions of the Church still have great value. As someone who falls in the “orthodox Catholic” camp but has significant Traditionalist sympathies, I want to make a few comments on Zmirak’s article:
Still, the division [between orthodox and traditionalist Catholics] is palpable. It was lying right there on the table, for any who cared to palpate it, last week when I went to dinner with a Trad-minded colleague and a visiting author who’d come to speak at our college on G. K. Chesterton. (The presentation was riveting, and I highly recommend Dale Ahlquist’s talks and books.) Like the good Mr. Shea, our speaker is a convert, and he shared with Mark a puzzlement at the apparent fixation traditionalists have on restoring former elements of the liturgy and other Catholic practices that are not essential, and resisting innovations that are not inherently evil. Having come from churches that didn’t have the Eucharist, and remaining through God’s grace flush with gratitude for the sacraments, many converts really don’t understand what the rest of us are nattering on about. We who grew up privileged may seem like sulky, spoiled kids. We owe these good people an explanation.
Zmirak hits on an important difference here. When I go to Mass, I still sometimes find myself saying, “Jesus Christ is coming – body, blood, soul and divinity – to this altar; I can’t believe I’m here!” A traditionalist cradle Catholic, on the other hand, might sometimes think something along the lines of, “Jesus Christ is coming – body, blood, soul and divinity – to this altar; I can’t believe [insert liturgical abuse] is here!” Both are valid reactions, and both appreciate the awesomeness of what is happening. But the former perspective – often held by converts – doesn’t concern itself with many of the inessential elements of the Mass. After all, we have been a part of a ecclesial community which didn’t even have the Eucharist, so we are just thankful for being present.
But should we be concerned with “inessential” elements? Zmirak thinks so:
Here’s what we Trads have realized, that the merely orthodox haven’t: Inessential things have power, which is why we bother with them in the first place. In every revolution, the first thing you change is the flag. Once that has been replaced, in the public mind all bets are off — which is why the Commies and Nazis filled every available space with their Satanic banners. Imagine, for a moment, that a newly elected president replaced the Stars and Stripes with the Confederate battle flag. Or that he replaced our 50 stars with the flag of Mexico. Let’s say he got away with doing this, and wasn’t carried off by the Secret Service to an “undisclosed location.” What would that signify for his administration? If people accepted the change, what else would they be likely to accept?
A valid concern, but I would argue that it can be easily over-inflated. If the president changes the United States flag with the flag of Mexico, that has a powerful effect. But if he changes the dinner china in the White House dinner room, that does not. So there are inessential things that have power, and inessential things that do not. The trick is determining the difference, and the sin of the Pharisees was that they could not make that distinction. But even accepting that certain inessential elements have power (such as the turning of the priest towards the people), the Christian should still always realize that even then they do not trump truly essential elements, something that, at least in my experience, some Traditionalist Catholics have a hard time remembering.
In fact, you can see the danger in focusing on inessential matters in the very comments of Zmirak’s article. In one of the very first comments, another traditionalist criticizes Zmirak for being positive about the congregation saying the responses with the altar servers. Instead of focusing on the fact that Zmirak is giving an extremely powerful argument for his own beliefs, this traditionalist focuses only on another inessential matter to debate.
But this does not diminish the main thrust of Zmirak’s article. I applaud him for this well-argued article, and I hope many of us “orthodox Catholics” give it a read and take his arguments to heart.