Our ill-starred love affair with modernity

A traditional Latin Mass in Rome’s San Giuseppe a Capo le Case church (Getty)

Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness
by Peter Kwasniewski, Angelico, 317pp, £16

Why are Catholic churches becoming empty? I have spent years trying to find an answer. Then, while reading this book, I realised that it is actually very simple: it is just a matter of liturgy. The Old Mass puts God at the centre; the modern Mass puts man in His place. Our liturgy today is not beautiful enough to attract souls.

Peter Kwasniewski is not one of those hate-filled traditionalists who spends his time insulting Pope Francis. “The love of the Latin liturgical traditions,” he writes, “can never, in principle, be opposed to communion with and rightful obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff, the successor of St Peter.” He doesn’t invoke Archbishop Lefebvre and instead quotes liberally from Paul VI, John XXIII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Kwasniewski, an American professor of philosophy and music, writes with real love of the beauty of the traditional Mass. This is evident in every word. “The ancient liturgy,” he notes, “is truly ancient: it breathes the spirit of the martyrs and confessors, Fathers and Doctors, monks and hermits, mystics and ascetics.” The ancient Mass, he says, implies a process of kenosis (“self-emptying”) of the priest to the Tradition. The celebrant is not the main character: he is only handling, with great care, the Sacred Mysteries.

I’m 38 and, like most Catholics of my generation, for me a “normal Mass” is celebrated in the vernacular by a priest who faces the people. He is usually surrounded by altar girls. Lay men and women distribute Holy Communion to people who receive the Host in their hands in a standing position. We then sing a kind of pop song.

The author offers documentary evidence in support of his belief that this form of the Mass can encourage modernistic and even heretical ideas, making it more like a Protestant service than a traditional Catholic liturgy.

This is not, of course, what the fathers of the Second Vatican Council wanted. Kwasniewski observes that “Neither the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy nor the Novus Ordo Missae as promulgated by Pope Paul VI mandated or even so much as mentioned the priest facing the people; the habitual use of laity to distribute the Sacred Species; the reception of Holy Communion on the hand and in a standing posture; the involvement of women and girls in the sanctuary as substitutes for acolytes; the abolition of the Latin language; the substitution of pop-style songs for the chanted Ordinary of the Mass and of vernacular hymns for the chanted propers of the Mass.”

So what happened? We have largely forgotten the importance of Tradition and its symbols and have dismantled them in the name of modernity. “We grew up habituated by 50 years of liturgical thinking that the most sacred mysteries are subject to our control, our ‘better ideas’,” Kwasniewski writes. “For 50 years we have seen an embarrassing infatuation with modernity, an ill-starred romance.” He argues that, “As with all extramarital liaisons, this one, too, must come to an end”, because the “Church [is] wedded not to modernity or antiquity but to Jesus”.

The author thinks that the roots of the problem lie in the late 19th-century movement of Modernism. “The battle against Modernism,” he admits, “has been lost, as regards the ‘new Church’ which emerged after Vatican II.” Today anyone who cares about our time-honoured liturgy is called a “traditionalist”. Fifty years ago they were simply called a Catholic.

But modernistic Catholic churches are fast emptying. Meanwhile, Old Rite Masses on a Sunday in the United States have increased from 20 in the late 1980s to around 500 today. If you attend one, you suddenly realise that your fellow parishioners are not tired old people who have been dragged there by routine, as in many modernised churches.

In fact, you are surrounded by enthusiastic young people. The author lets them speak, demonstrating their freshness which adds hope to our future.

How do we know that the Church of today is the same as the Church of yesterday and of every age? “Because she celebrates the same liturgy, one characterised by slow development under the influence of the Holy Spirit,” argues Kwasniewski. “This is the very badge and banner of Catholicity.” And especially after Summorum Pontificum, Benedict XVI’s 2007 document lifting restrictions on what he called the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, all have the unquestionable right to demand it.

Pope Francis often urges us not to transform the Church into a NGO. What is the best way to differ from every NGO if not concentrating on the spiritual matter the Church has always been focused on: celebrating the sacrifice of Jesus according to the tradition that is the work of the Holy Spirit? This book is somehow, paradoxically, a guide to following Pope Francis’s invitation.

Paolo Gambi is a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald