Last week, in a speech to Italian liturgists, Pope Francis appeared to set in stone the liturgical changes that came at the time of Vatican II. “After this magisterium, after this long journey,” he said, “we can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” Liberal commentators celebrated his comments as a blow to the “the re-emergence of a certain neo-clericalism with its formalism” and rejoiced that the “restorationist movement in liturgy is being reversed”.
Liberals have reason to be glad: Francis has shown that he is sympathetic to their desire for a liturgy that feels more like a communal meal than an ancient sacrifice. But does Francis’s declaration mean that after millennia of development liturgical evolution has arrived at a final state and now must stop?
In a word, no. One might as well magisterially declare that spilt milk can’t be put back in the carton, or dogmatically define that Humpty Dumpty can’t be reassembled, as proclaim that liturgical reform cannot be reversed. It is like proudly stating that one cannot undo a grave mistake. The observation is incontestable, even if shame would be preferable to boasts. The question is not whether we can undo past blunders, but rather how to clean up the mess.
Francis’ remarks are yet another sign of his anxiety over the traditional direction in which young Catholics are carrying the Church. We have seen this before, in the stories he tells about young priests whoand , unlike the wise, old, compassionate (and liberal) monsignori. Francis has played variations of John Lennon’s Imagine: “We are grandparents called to dream and give our dream to today’s youth: they need it.” Maybe so, but the youth do not seem to want it.
As any young progressive or old traditionalist will tell you, age does not dictate whether one prefers dogma or liberty, ritual or casualness. Yet across much of the Catholic world, young traditionalists are competing against old progressives. Ironies abound, as youths who revere the venerable face off against elders who chase the up-to-date, and progressives who fear the future battle with traditionalists who loathe their immediate forebears.
Anyone who doubts the reality of the conflict should visit a monastery or convent, where young monastics will almost invariably be more traditional than their elders. In France, in 20 years’ time a majority of priests will celebrate exclusively the traditional Latin mass. Wherever one looks, the kids are old rite.
Few have spoken as eloquently about the changes the Church is undergoing as Fr René Dinklo, provincial of the Dutch Dominicans, and the only member of his order from Generation X. One of Fr Dinklo’s earliest memories is of a confessional filled with the drums used by the youth choir. By the time he joined the order in the early 1990s, the Dutch Dominicans had discarded their traditional prayers and come to believe that the order would be transformed into an assembly of laymen. He had reason to think he would be the last priest in a province that had lasted for 500 years.
Then the province began to get vocations. The young Dutch Dominicans were eager to reconstitute the forms of life and prayer their elders had dismantled. “We are on the brink of far-reaching changes,” Fr Dinklo observed last year. “In this situation tensions between generations may arise.” The younger men want to wear the habit and “re-discover a number of religious practices, rituals, forms of singing and prayer from the tradition which the older generation has set aside”. In order to avoid generational conflict, these young men are being established in a new house.
In a 2010 address, Archbishop Augustine DiNoia described the experiences of these young traditionalists. “My sense is that these twenty- and thirty-somethings have been radicalised by their experience … in a way that we were not.” After “God-knows-what kinds of personal and social experiences”, they have come to know “moral chaos, personally and socially, and they want no part of it”. A sense of narrow escape guides their vocations. “It is as if they had gone to the edge of an abyss and pulled back.”
DiNoia’s generation sought to unite the Church and the world, but the young priests believe the two are finally opposed. “It may be hard for us to comprehend, but these young people do not share the cultural optimism that many of us learned to take for granted in the post-conciliar period.” They lament the “Church’s own internal secularisation”, particularly “the disenchantment of the liturgy”. This explains their enthusiasm for the 1962 missal.
DiNoia is anxious for the priests of his generation. Despite their talk of being open to the future, “I am not certain that we … are entirely ready for the kind of radical rejection of the ambient culture on the one hand, and, on the other, the radical commitment to the Dominican-Catholic alternative way of life that we recognise in the young men.”
Many young Catholics feel that they have been denied an inheritance that was rightly theirs. They have had to reassemble piecemeal something that should have been handed to them intact. An English academic recently told me of his attempt to obtain a copy of the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, a reference book that went from impeccable authority to liber prohibitus at the time of the Council. He contacted a Belgian who helped declining religious houses dispose of their libraries. This Belgian found a Franciscan community that was willing to sell its set – but at the last moment took a different course. The monks decided to burn the books, “to prevent them getting into the hands of traditionalists”.
Who are these terrifying young traditionalists? Step into a quiet chapel in New York and you will find an answer. There, early each Saturday morning, young worshippers gather in secret. They are divided by sex: women on the left, men on the right. Dressed in denim and Birkenstocks, with the occasional nose piercing, they could be a group of loiterers on any downtown sidewalk. But they have come here with a purpose. As a bell rings, they rise in unison. A hooded priest approaches the altar and begins to say Mass in Latin. During Communion, they kneel on the bare floor where an altar rail should be.
In a city where discretion is mocked and vice goes on parade, the atmosphere of reverence is startling. This mass began a year ago when students and young professionals (most of whom are not thoroughgoing traditionalists) began attending a young priest’s private celebration of the mass. It has been maintained as a kind of secret conventicle ever since, advertised only by word of mouth so as to avoid offending older priests who loathe the traditional mass and are horrified that the young people of New York – the vanguard of taste in every domain – increasingly see tradition as the future.
After the Last Gospel, the worshippers break their fast nearby with coffee. I ask one how she started coming here. “I’ve been going to Mass for 24 years,” she says. “I still go to both forms, but when I encountered the Latin Mass it felt more reverent. I was taken out of this world.” Her manner is disarming, her dress contemporary and unassuming. As the conversation drifts into a discussion of why Pius IX was right in the Mortara case, I reflect that she is the kind of person image-conscious Catholics would like to hold up as the Church’s future – were she not so drawn to its past.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow
This article first appeared in the September 1 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here