Over ten years ago Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum, the motu proprio liberalizing the offering of the Traditional Latin Mass. Before this action, the celebration of “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman Rite, as he called it, was tightly restricted throughout the Church. Since then, its celebration has become more frequent, although its availability is still mostly found on the Church’s peripheries (to use a favorite phrase of our current Holy Father). Typically the Extraordinary Form is offered only at odd times—very early in the morning or on a Sunday evening—and in odd places—in parishes and neighborhoods whose better days were decades ago.
For many traditionalists, the lack of availability of the Extraordinary Form is both a scandal and a detriment to the renewal of the Church. When an EF Mass is celebrated, it is often accompanied by a church bursting at the seams with young families. In stark contrast, Ordinary Form Masses at many diocesan parishes are frequently half-full and consist mostly of gray-haired boomers. If this is the case, traditionalists wonder, then it seems like a more expanded offering of the EF could bring back vitality to a Church that desperately needs it. The very fact that the offering of the EF is still restricted makes one suspect that all the talk of a “New Evangelization” is less about growing the Church and more about putting lipstick on a pig. Yet many non-traditionalists argue that there is no real pent-up demand for the Latin Mass, that offering the EF more frequently would have little or no (and possibly even negative) impact on Church attendance.
Would offering the EF more frequently and in more places lead to more people in the pews? Is there a greater demand for the EF than the supply? I think the answers aren’t as simple as either traditionalist or non-traditionalist Catholics might think.
(Note: I’m not going to address the question of whether the EF should be offered more frequently just because it’s the superior form. That’s a legitimate discussion, but here I’m only concerned with the practical effects of a more frequent offering and how it would impact Mass attendance.)
Demand for the Latin Mass?
For five years I attended an FSSP parish, which offered the Extraordinary Form Mass on a typical parish schedule: twice every Sunday morning, and once a day throughout the rest of the week. The location of the parish wasn’t in an odd place, either; it was easily accessible to a wide range of people. Based on the arguments you often hear from traditionalists, Catholics should have been flocking to this parish. But did that happen? Not really. We typically had around 200-250 people each Sunday, while a nearby diocesan parish a mile away usually had more than 1,000 people in attendance on Sundays, and other parishes within a twenty-mile radius had similar attendance numbers. In an area consisting of tens of thousands of Mass-attending Catholics, only a handful chose to attend the Latin Mass. (I’ve since moved from the area, but my experience where I live now is similar.)
At first I was perplexed by this reality, as I held the view that “If you offer it, they will come.” I tried to find fault in many places—perhaps the existence of the FSSP parish was unknown to most Catholics, perhaps other parish priests had badmouthed it, perhaps the stereotype of bitter traditionalists had kept people away. Some of this might have been true, but it wasn’t the real answer. As I got to know more and more Catholics in the area (I worked for the diocese at this time and so had a lot of contact with average pew-sitting Catholics), I found the main reason was much simpler:
Most Catholics just aren’t interested in the Latin Mass.
Most Catholics are content to attend the Mass they have always attended. They have no problem with how the Mass is celebrated, they like their parish, they like their priest, they like the time it is celebrated. There is no pent-up demand for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
This shouldn’t be surprising. For the past 50 years Catholics have experienced the Ordinary Form of the Mass as, well, the ordinary way one worships God. If they have heard anything about the Latin Mass, it’s probably that it’s a relic of a past we’d just soon forget. So it’s no wonder that most Catholics have little interest in the EF.
So does this mean that traditionalists are wrong in their belief that expanding the offering of the Latin Mass would lead to more people in the pews? Perhaps surprisingly based on my experience, I actually think traditionalists are essentially correct.
Imagine a Catholic Bizzaro World
To demonstrate why I think this, do this thought experiment: imagine Rome decreed tomorrow that every parish in the world had to flip when the Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form Masses were offered. So instead of the OF being “ordinary,” it became extraordinary; it was the one offered at odd times and odd places. The EF, on the other hand, replaced every OF Mass currently being said (also assume that every priest was magically capable of celebrating the EF Mass). What would be the result?
Of course we’d hear howls from some quarters of the Church—primarily from aging prelates and clergy. But here’s how I think most Catholics would react: with a shrug. They wouldn’t change a thing: they’d keep going to Mass at the same time and at the same parish they do now. If Joe Catholic is a regular attender of the 9:00am Mass at St. Ann’s, then he would keep going to the 9:00am Mass at St. Ann’s even after it became an EF Mass. It might take him a few months to get used to it, but quickly it would just become his new norm.
We’ve seen this phenomenon twice already in the past generation. When the Novus Ordo was implemented in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, most Catholics just kept going to their regular parish Mass. Likewise, when the new English translation of the Mass was instituted in 2011, the same thing happened. Most Catholics, I believe, aren’t that consciously concerned with how the Mass is celebrated; they will go to just about any type of Mass their parish celebrates. Over time, yes, how a parish celebrates Mass has an impact on attendance, but in the short term, even radically changing the form of the Mass will have little impact.
But let’s look at this Catholic Bizarro World a little closer. What would happen to the now-restricted Ordinary Form Masses? Would people drive miles and miles, and disrupt their family schedule, to attend an Ordinary Form at an odd time in an odd place? I doubt it. Whereas the beauty and richness of the EF inspires people to make sacrifices to attend it, I doubt many Catholics would be similarly inspired by the typical OF Mass. Likely the offering of the Ordinary Form would dry up and eventually disappear. If it’s not propped up by the institution, then it has little to make people want to sacrifice for it.
Sign of Contradiction
Making the Extraordinary Form ordinary wouldn’t turn off the typical Catholic, and would make things easier for the traditionalist Catholic. But it would also do something else: attract those put off by the banality of how Mass is often celebrated today. The beauty and built-in reverence of the Latin Mass would reach out to those the Church has forgotten: the souls who know there is something beyond this world, but don’t experience that at the typical Mass. The Church would again become something it hasn’t been in decades: a sign of contradiction, which, paradoxically, would attract souls looking for more than this world offers.