A reader recently inquired as to my thoughts on the current state of the old liturgy. I meant to comment on the fifth anniversary of Summorum Pontificum this past July. However, taking a much needed summer break was more of a priority. Since then, I've intended to touch upon the topic. Now is as good a time as any.
Summorum Pontificum was, for some, the answer to long prayed petitions. Since the summer of Benedict's first year on the papal throne, rumors had circulated that restrictions on the old Mass were about to be lifted. While I had gradually lost interest in the Tridentine cause by the time SP was promulgated, I did pay attention to developments regarding the liturgy's subsequent use.
Certain parties are adept at promoting any fresh celebration of the Tridentine liturgy, any well attended or particularly ornate celebration, anything that establishes vitality for the old liturgy. You cannot necessarily blame them. Lord knows I promoted the hell out of the old liturgy any chance I had back in the day. Frankly, it just makes sense from a marketing perspective. If you genuinely believe the old liturgy has a purpose and this purpose is more than an antique curiosity, you will make every effort to present it as a vibrant reality, some thing living and imbued with divine dynamism. Although, the more fantastic hopes for the old liturgy have come to naught. More tempered voices have taken a "brick by brick" view of the Catholic landscape post-SP. This approach is honest to the degree it admits that the impact of the Tridentine liturgy is limited.
The two approaches outlined above often ignore the very sad flipside to the efforts at establishing a Summorum Pontificum inspired resurgence of the old liturgy. A reader has made me aware of the subsequent collapse of nascent Tridentine movements and/or parishes in his area. In one such example, after some two or three years of offering the liturgy according to the Missale Romanum of 1962, the priest announced that the parish would soon cease celebrating the old liturgy. Why? Because the numbers weren't adding up. Despite some recent local press and a devoted community, the small turnout could not justify the expenditures for celebrating the old liturgy. Typically, there is a touch of paranoia among Tridentine enthusiasts when bishops intimate a lack of interest for the old rite in their diocese. I don't doubt that more priests are interested in the old liturgy. Nor do I doubt that younger Catholics are interested as well. Tridentine supporters need to reckon with the cold math that just doesn't add up; the interest in the old liturgy as a regular liturgical celebration is limited in mainline Catholic circles.
Summorum Pontificum ought to have occasioned many profound questions on within the so-called Traditionalist camp, a party with which I once identified. Traditionalist had once challenged the extend of papal authority. It seemed the liturgy was the one area that the papacy could not utilize a sweeping authoritative act and make any such modification to it. Unfortunately, the Tridentine crowd is in an uncomfortable spot. Beginning with the promulgation of the Missal of Pius V, the papacy made claims to centralized authority over the liturgy of the whole Latin Church, making exemptions for rites that could demonstrate two hundred continual use and, after the promulgation of the Missal, expending great effort through the network of cardinals to have most local usages abdicate their rite in favor of the Missale Romanum. It was an exercise of this same authority claimed for the papacy with the promulgation of Pius V's Missale Romanum that was used four hundred years later to suppress the Roman liturgy as it existed, in essence, since the medieval period - noting the suppressions of Pius V and subsequent slow development of the liturgy thereafter. Traditionalists, most notable Michael Davies, challenged whether papal authority had such power to alter the liturgy to the extent presented in the Missale Romanum of Paul VI. In 2007, it was the same exercise of this same sense of papal authority that lifted previous papal restrictions on the old liturgy. Summorum Pontificum has, for the time being, solidified a conception of papal authority that grants the pontiff power to alter the liturgy in the most comprehensive manner imaginable, barring, of course, the insertion of liturgical expression that would run contrary to established dogma. The liturgy has been reduced to the product of papal whim, intuition or ideology; it is no longer something sacrosanct but the tool of any given theological, philosophical or ideological school that assumes enough power in the Vatican bureaucracy.
Pope Benedict's decree of "two forms, one rite" hardly seems like a long term solution. Defining the Roman Rite as comprised of an ordinary (novus ordo) and extraordinary (Tridentine) form defies liturgical history. One is hard pressed to find a historical precedent establishing the legitimacy of such an approach. Liturgical rites have one form, though differing degrees of elaboration based upon the context, for instance, the difference in degrees between a pontifical Mass and a chanted Mass in the old Missal. The concept of ordinary and extraordinary forms is not only an innovation, it is still ill defined. What makes the Tridentine liturgy the extraordinary form of the rite? Certainly, we have seen no indication of the Tridentine liturgy being utilized for the most solemn liturgical feasts, which would be a definition of extraordinary based upon liturgical praxis. Rather, the Tridentine form appears to be extraordinary in much the same manner as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist: the definition of "two forms, one rite" has the effect of legitimizing the pastoral exigency of the old liturgy and removing it from the control of the local bishop. It does not restore, it seems to me, the Tridentine rite to equal footing with the novus ordo. Additionally, even if "two forms, one rite" were to place the old liturgy on equal footing, it would then create another set of problems. We have a divergence in Calendar, Ordo, and Lectionarium. It does not seem plausible to continue with discrepancy between the two missals indefinately. At some point, at least with regard to the Calendar and Lectionary, there must be a confluence between to two liturgies.
Above all, however, the taudgry state of the Roman liturgy persists. Those persons who invest their hopes in a "brick-by-brick" approach are hard pressed to find any proof indicating a gradual "gravitational pull" one the celebration of the ordinary form of the Roman rite. Those who make every effort to celebrate the Roman liturgy in a manner cognisant with the liturgical patrimony of both the east and west are the same who would do so anyway, regardless of which missal is in use. Liturgical celebration that stirs the soul is not dependent upon the missal in use. The dominant mode of celebration pre-Vatican II was a sloppy low Mass. In our own day, one needs only to observe a monastic liturgy with the Missal of Paul VI to realize the liturgical reform is not inherently deficient. Rather, there is a typical "Roman" or "Western" approach to the liturgy that persists and operates regardless of which set of liturgical books is present at the altar. The old liturgy, contrary to all of my hopes, expectations and aspirations of yore, is not the solution to the problem of the liturgy in the West. This is not to say that we need not revisit the Tridentine liturgy. It is worth our while to revisit the old liturgy at the zenith of the liturgical movement. It is worth trying to rediscover their trail and find all of the openings and avenues for powerful spiritual experience they marked out in the old liturgy. It is not so much a matter of simply restoring the Missale Romanum of 1962 into force, rather, it is a matter returning to the point of discovery and exploration of the old missal and reorient ourselves to direction in which the Roman liturgy was heading before a total recast of the Roman rite was imposed. Part of this would involve, in my estimation, a genuine study of the hand missals produced by the luminaries of the liturgical movement. I believe their intentions show through in the pages of their product.
Of course, this would pose its own hard questions. Top among them being the place of the Missale Romanum of 1964/65 - that oddest of volumes confined to university libraries, whether due to a small print run or little interest. Was that odd volume the fulfillment of the liturgical movement's intentions for the old liturgy or was it the first misstep along a rocky road?
There are many variables, all of which make this a complicated task and serve to demonstrate the facile liturgiology prevalent today. The old Latin liturgy is genuinely no better off than it was prior to the publication of Summorum Pontificum. As long as their is no honest attempt to return to the original liturgical movement's ambitions for the old liturgy, as long as it is prevented from developing on its own terms, a process it was engaged in during the first half of the last century, and treated as a liturgical museum piece, then it will lumber towards obsolescence.