Opinion & Features

Why the ‘Old Mass’ disturbs a conformist age

In 2009, the Bishops of England and Wales petitioned the Vatican’s guardians of all things to do with the Traditional Latin Mass – the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei – that those celebrating Mass in this form should be forbidden to celebrate Epiphany, Ascension and Corpus Christi on their traditional dates. The bishops had just done this for the “Ordinary Form”, moving celebrations to the nearest Sunday. In 2011, they petitioned the Pontifical Commission to allow female altar servers to be allowed at Extraordinary Form (EF) Masses. Late in 2015, they petitioned the body once again, to ask that the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews, used in the EF, be changed.

It is unlikely that this latest request will meet with a more favourable response in Rome than the preceding ones. What is surprising is that it should have been made at all. I am not aware of any other bishops’ conference making such a request since the freeing of the ancient Latin Mass by Benedict XVI in 2007. And England and Wales is not a place noted for hostility to the “former liturgical tradition”, with even the bishops themselves celebrating it in many dioceses, and handing churches over to priestly institutes committed to it.

It is not despite but because of the success of the “Old Mass” in England that the bishops are taking this interest in it. Furthermore, this success has taken a different form from that in other countries. In England, priests from institutes dedicated to the Traditional Mass are, despite important recent expansions, still rare.

The great majority of Extraordinary Form Masses in England and Wales are celebrated by diocesan priests. English bishops understandably see it not as an exotic minority interest, governed by its own rules and served by its own clergy – perhaps like England’s Ukrainian Rite Catholic churches – but as their business.

The tenor of their interventions has been of trying to knock off some of the EF’s distinctive and awkward corners. In each case the EF represents two uncomfortable things: continuity with England’s Catholic history and unity with the Vatican. You won’t find Corpus Christi celebrated on a Sunday or “altar girls” in the history books, and you won’t find them today in St Peter’s in Rome. The Prayer for the Jews that the bishops apparently find so objectionable was actually composed by a pope: not one in the Middle Ages, but Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. Its accurate expression of the Catholic faith is confirmed by its similarity to numerous prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours prayed by bishops, clergy and pious lay people all over the world.

The unity exemplified by the ancient Latin Mass both across time and across space was the slogan of the Catholic revival of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The building of Gothic and Italianate churches spoke of but two sides of the same coin: that Catholicism was England’s ancestral faith, and that this ancestral faith was not insular, but universal, with its taproot leading to Rome. Catholicism’s contemporary manifestation was strange to the English, with muttered Latin services and elaborate rituals involving oil, candles and holy water. But the very strangeness spoke of its antiquity and authenticity. It spoke also of spiritual power, and restored a touch of magic to the bleak landscape of rationalism and industrialisation. The sociologist Anthony Archer, in his classic study of working-class Catholics in Newcastle, noticed something else.

Old-style Catholicism’s contrast with the English culture of the day was a manifestation of critical distance from the social and political Establishment. To the discomfort of some of the old Catholic families, the Catholic Church became a refuge for unchurched industrial workers and Irish immigrants. The incorporation of vast numbers of Irish into English Catholic congregations, after the trauma and dislocation of famine and emigration, was not a foregone conclusion, but perhaps is the English Church’s finest historical achievement in modern times. We certainly aren’t being so successful with more recent waves of culturally Catholic immigrants, most of whom never set foot in a church after they arrive on our shores.

That liturgical traditionalism should lead away from, and not towards, an uncritical acceptance of the established order of politics and society should not be surprising, and this reality is manifesting itself again today. Attending the ancient liturgy now, as in the past, implies taking seriously the longer view: a view from which divorce and abortion are not just facts of life, where the vision of Catholic education is not just a matter of tweaking the National Curriculum, and where the Church’s teachings about usury and the Social Kingship of Christ might be worth a second glance. In terms of the party politics of 2016, it is a view, as Pope Francis would express it, from the periphery. It is view which takes the vulnerable, the ignored and the exploited more seriously than it takes the cognoscenti.

This is matched by the Traditional Mass’s ability to attract diverse congregations. At a time when too often Catholics segregate themselves into social, educational and linguistic categories by choosing which parish and which version of the Ordinary Form they attend, a complete range of people can be found at the EF. Catholics attracted to a more counter-cultural view of the faith naturally see the faith that unites them as more important than anything that divides them.

With a hint of bitterness, Archer contrasted the old Catholic Church, a Church offering the socially excluded a mystical spirituality alongside a trenchant condemnation of social injustices, with the new, a Church offering middle-class churchgoers a wordy, intellectually oriented spirituality with cliquey “lay ministries” and “house Masses”, alongside a new chumminess with the Establishment. Reality is seldom as simple as such generalisations. But it is worth considering whether the very things that seem a little awkward about the Traditional liturgy might not have their usefulness in the current era of political alienation and mass migration.

Joseph Shaw is chairman of the Latin Mass Society