How Some Latin ‘Trads’ have Accomplished True Reform

Christ the Ancient of Days

However, on the flipside, there has been a shift over centuries in how the Latin Church conceived the nature of the services that was in need of reform. The universal church of the first millennium considered the Eucharist and Divine Office as inherently public actions, a view preserved in the Eastern Churches. But later developments in the Latin Church led to the rise of private devotions and services, a trend exemplified by personal priestly recitation of the Breviary and the Low Mass of a single priest and server in the absence of the faithful. The Low Mass initially made sense in a monastic context, explained by the Latin custom of each priest offering his own daily Mass without concelebration. But as time went on, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, abuses began to multiply where silent Low Masses were increasingly offered in parish churches, culminating in the infamous stereotype of the 1950s parish priest who speed-muttered unintelligible Latin with his servers to rush through his 20-minute Mass. Even so great a modern pope as St. Pius X (who in addition to being a foe of the Modernist heresy was also instrumental in organizing the Russian Greek Catholic Church) was faulted for completing his Mass in less than 20 minutes! The most obvious practical effect of this shift was the loss in the Latin Rite of the universal church’s ancient tradition of sung services and the rich repertory of plainchant and choral music growing from this patrimony over the centuries.

Therefore, it should be no surprise that a central element of the Second Vatican Council’s agenda of liturgical reform concerned the restoration of sacred music. But the way this program was carried out in the following years is a textbook case of innovation masquerading as reform and the destruction it can cause. Instead of looking for inspiration on how to revive Latin sacred music to the magnificent living tradition of plainchant and choral music preserved in the liturgies of the Eastern churches and even to some extent in the hymnody of “high church” Protestants like some Anglicans and Lutherans, the “reformers” instead embarked on a novel course by bringing the banal secular styles of then-contemporary pop songs into the celebration of the new Latin services. And most ironically, it is groups such as the FSSP and ICKSP which have clung to the old Roman Rite and are habitually accused of not accepting Vatican II that have in fact best carried out the liturgical reform recommended by the Council.

Happily, one who attends the services of these “traditionalist” apostolates, as I have done at the FSSP chapel in Harrisburg, PA, will experience an authentic ressourcement that reflects the practice of the ancient universal church as continually preserved in the East: Sung Mass in its glory with chant, polyphony, and incense, congregational singing of the ordinary chants, and sung Vespers. I believe the approach taken by these groups shows a way forward for the Latin Church in reading and applying the directives of Vatican II. Instead of seeing it as an opportunity for innovating to conform to the spirit of the age, she should rather take the reform as an encouragement to re-harmonize her own practices with the spirit of the ancient church as continuously handed down in the East. And I purposefully put it that way, for as the Latinizations historically imposed on Eastern Catholics were harmful to us, slavishly imitating Eastern practices would likely not benefit the Latins either. We have each developed different and unique ways of expressing the same faith, and it would violate the integrity and authenticity of our respective traditions to “cut and paste” particular practices from one church to another. But there is an underlying spirit of wholeness in Eastern worship that Latin Catholics could take as a blueprint for re-integrating analogous practices from their own tradition, as the FSSP and ICKSP have done.

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