As a High Church Anglican who climbed fairly high up the candlestick, I developed a great appreciation for the ancient Church at prayer. It was catechism by incense, rood screens, gorgeous vestments and ad orientem Masses chanted from high altars that scrape the heavens.
What a shock, then, when I was finally received into the Catholic Church in 2011 and discovered that, in the Latin Rite, this patrimony had been discarded and was viewed with suspicion. While studying for ordination to the priesthood, I was told to stop wearing a cassock, denied the opportunity to learn the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (I learned it later on my own) and warned against the clericalism of traditional worship. Those were fraught times.
Now, only a few years later, the climate has shifted. As the administrator of a parish, I regularly wear a cassock and no one blinks an eye. In fact, many parishioners thank me for it. I use incense and chant the Mass on Sundays. I wear a biretta and have introduced an Extraordinary Form Mass to our regular schedule. There have been a few complaints, yes, but these have been far outweighed by the large number of life-long parishioners and new families who have become quite devoted to our beautiful and reverent worship. With very little prompting, the parishioners are forming a schola to chant in Latin and a number of women are now wearing chapel veils.
Neither my parishioners nor I have any agenda when it comes to the intersection of Church politics and the liturgy. We simply desire to offer worship pleasing to God, in communion with the Holy Father, and in accord with the prescriptions of the Second Vatican Council. Our parish, Epiphany of Our Lord, is a typical, ordinary parish in a typical, ordinary diocese in St Louis, Missouri. My experience is not unusual: even bishops are now introducing ad orientem to entire dioceses.
Traditional worship is no longer controversial among the faithful. Quite the opposite: they are eager for it and will support any priest willing to help them restore beauty and sacredness in their parish. I first began exploring this thesis several years ago after being warned that any attempt to restore our Catholic heritage in a parish would cause a riot in the pews. I wasn’t so sure about that, so I began forming impromptu focus groups.
At the pub after evening Mass, I asked the young adults how they would react to an ad orientem Mass. The responses ranged from highly enthusiastic to, at worst, a shrug of the shoulders which indicated that they would be fine with it. There was not a single negative response. I’ve asked this question to other groups of all ages, and with only a few exceptions the responses have been the same.
The Catholics I’ve queried have no experience of ad orientem worship and no experience of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. Yet, they are instinctively attracted to beautiful, challenging worship that makes full use of the treasures of our patrimony. There’s a sense among them that something has been missing from the parishes they have grown up attending, as if a hand has closed over a precious gem and hidden it from sight. For them, incense, chanting and ad orientem are not sentimental nostalgia or retrograde political statements. It isn’t a conservative protest against the Church, quite the opposite – traditional worship is seen to be the living, breathing lifeblood of a modern, relevant Church.
If it is true that battles over the liturgy in recent memory functioned as a proxy for theological and political battles among various interest groups in the Church, that is no longer the case. The vigour for the battle has petered out: new generations of Catholics have lost interest in partisan warfare under the guise of prayer. They are simply hungry for beauty and in search of authenticity.
The Mass has shaken free from artificial constraints. No more politics, no more emotional baggage, no more divisiveness, only a people encountering a wonderful discovery. Traditional ritual mediates the unnamed desire to connect with our ancestors, see the face of the divine through beauty, feel the weight of a veiled mystery as the next world presses down upon this one, and embark on a heroic journey to find our way home. Here, finally, in a world that is worn and weary, is something that cannot be consumed. It must be encountered. It must be wrestled with and contended for. The Mass, in all its sacred glory, is an ark.
The Church’s mystery is her strength, her traditions a luminous glow, her ancient beauty a calm place in the midst of a whirlwind. If the Eucharist is the one great love worth giving our lives to, would we expect the Mass to be any different?
Fr Michael Rennier is associate editor of Dappled Things, a quarterly of ideas, art and faith (dappledthings.org)