The place: your typical American parish, not yet blessed by the fruits of Summorum Pontificum. The time: any Sunday of the year (chances are it’s a “Sunday of Ordinary Time,” which befits a form of liturgy so ordinary). The music: smiling ditties of indescribable triteness. The congregation consists of children who have not been catechized, are bored to death, and would rather be texting or playing video games; young adults who are fornicating or engaging in solitary vice in their spare time, as this is the “gospel” they hear preached in their sex-ed classes, and no one even thinks of impeding their vices or correcting their errors; married couples who, with a few happy exceptions, contracept their marital vocation out of existence; older folks who, under the lifelong influence of the capitalist secularism that animates contemporary America, attend church because it’s a good habit, like brushing one’s teeth or wearing clean clothes. Hardly anyone is morally prepared for prayer and hardly anyone actually prays — an unmistakable sign of which is the unstoppable chitchat that pervades the church before the “gathering hymn” fills the electrified air and that resumes right after the “scattering hymn” is over and the altar girls are on their way out. In between was the obligatory reception of a wafer in the hands, for some strange reason that no one can quite explain, except that it’s got something to do with belonging.
Apart from exceptional clergy touched by the beneficent dew of Tradition, the priest who heads this congregation — or, shall we say, who presides over this assembly — may be worse off than his flock. It’s possible he neither prays his breviary nor does daily mental prayer; perhaps he does not pray or study much at all, which would explain the shallow, vaguely relevant, vaguely left-leaning homilies. His life is busy but superficial. He runs a strong risk of being trapped in one form of immorality or another, be it rampant gossip, entertainment-saturated indolence, self-indulgence at the table, attachment to drink, or worse vices that shall remain unnamed. In sum: the people are lost, confused, surrendered to the all-pervasive secularism, and so is their priest, except that he can hide it better. Nay, he has often gone one step further: invoking Vatican II, he magically makes lack of faith, lack of doctrine, lack of morals, and lack of solemn liturgy sound like a pious accommodation to the modern world. Like the diversity of religions, such accommodation is, after all, willed by God.
In this vast vacuum of intellect, this abandoned mortuary of prayer, this limp indulgence of weak will, is it any wonder that divine worship has all but disappeared? Any wonder it has been replaced by a cringeworthy show of self-absorption and self-adulation week after week, vividly symbolized by the lack of quiet prayer before Mass, the socializing pandemonium at the Sign of Peace, and the grating sound of trivial chatter in the church the moment Father leaves? It is hard to see any adoration of God going on here; it is a monotonous and flaccid exercise in man-made ritual, a liturgy “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It lacks the healthy fear of uncivilized superstition, the rich mystery of the unknown and invisible, the luminous beauty of traditional theocentric ritual accompanied by poignant gestures, chants at once soaring and serene, the burning of candles and incense, whispers and silence. The Mass as it had been prayed and embellished by saints over generations, centuries, almost millennia — this Mass was thrown away, replaced overnight with a committee’s turgid banality. We are reaping the sickly fruits of this satanic parody of Tradition; the sickliest of them all is Francis’s Traditionis Custodes, the Latin title of which could perfectly well be translated “Prison-guards of Betrayal.”
Modernism a La Carte
The Latin-rite Church is hopelessly mired in the mud of Modernism. The admirable liturgical catechesis of Pope Benedict’s pontificate affected for the better a tiny percentage of Catholic parishes and communities around the world; these are where a recognizably Catholic renewal is taking place. Yet if it is true to say “things are better than in the days of Paul VI” simply because we have moved from extreme abuse or outrageous experimentation to banality and sterility, from mockery to mediocrity, what kind of improvement is that? Will it not leave people just as cut off from their roots, from the Tradition, from the truth and beauty of the Faith? Will it not be more dangerous inasmuch as it looks like a kind of stability and reliability, when in reality it is utter waste and void? The Church in general has not been able to withstand the onslaught of a militantly secularist anti-culture. With her highest and most precious resource in the spiritual combat stripped away. The shift from the old Missal prefaced by Quo Primum to the new Missal denuded of Pius V’s manifesto of orthodoxy was like going from a cannon to a butter knife, from marching trumpets to party favors.
Bringing the liturgy closer in its externals to modern life meant bringing it closer to the meaninglessness and profanity of modern life. Thinking they were doing people a favor, the woolly shepherds of the Church gave her sheep and goats an excuse to give up going to Mass altogether, because the new Mass, having become an echo of the vulgar world, lost its spiritual relevance: it could offer nothing, give nothing to us that we did not already have to satiety. The only thing that can possibly be relevant is that which is totally irrelevant to the grinding routine of modern life. The old liturgy carried on in baffling and mysterious isolation, as though it paid not the slightest attention to the world’s trip to hell in a customized handbasket. And this was wise, profoundly wise. Many Catholics of the last fifty years who stopped attending Mass, or never started going in the first place, wouldhave attended the old liturgy, if only because it breathes a spirit of peace and timelessness so refreshingly contrary to the noisy and splintering spirit of modernity. That is the sort of thing that attracted many Catholic converts (for instance, Thomas Merton!), if you look at their conversion stories. To abandon this “irrelevance” was, in fact, to make the Mass finally truly irrelevant, in the sense that it no longer answered a deep, wordless need to encounter the sacred Mystery, to come before the divine Other, the presence of God’s Kingdom in our midst, under a veil, but more abidingly real than our vanishing reality. The reformed liturgy in sterilized English with third-rate folksy music managed to announce that the Catholic Church has nothing to offer that cannot very easily be found elsewhere, in more potent form. Interested in the latest popular music? Look elsewhere. Interested in feeling the feeling of togetherness? Look elsewhere. This kind of self-stimulating collectivism flourishes more outside church doors than within them — which would make the official clerical attempt to imitate it laughable, if it were not sacrilegious.