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The Traditional Mass: A Remedy for Modern Man’s Spiritual Ills

King Henri IV, after a long and bitter fight for the French Calvinist cause, finally sought to quell the fires of religious war by adopting his country’s traditional faith. “Paris is well worth a Mass,” he is rumored to have said, confirming the impression that he continued to reject Romanish ritual in his heart, even as he placed the strength of the monarchy and peace of the realm ahead of his personal convictions.

As Catholics, we know that Henri erred in at least two ways: first, by concluding that it profits a man to gain any portion of the world at the cost of his soul (see Mark 8:36); and second, by considering the Mass to be something of little account.

Regarding the first point, our faith teaches that “the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come”; that this glory, which “shall be revealed in us,” is ours in hope if we are “joint heirs with Christ”; and that this inheritance is ours when we “are in Christ Jesus,” and he in us (Rom. 8:1-18).

How is this communion with Christ achieved? The Second Vatican Council reminds us of the perennial teaching that our salvation depends on both the doctrines and sacraments of the Church—and above all on the Eucharistic liturgy, “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed [and] the font from which all her power flows.”

Between the means of salvation and the ever-changing fashions and fetishes of the world it should not be difficult to decide where our ultimate allegiance lies. Yet the Church always has its Henris: members (even princes) willing and sometimes eager to deny and denigrate her saving doctrines and disciplines in order to curry the favor of a fallen humanity.

When the very integrity of the Church seems shaken by the scandal of highly placed churchmen scheming to subvert infallible dogmas such as the indissolubility of marriage, it may seem odd to focus on matters of liturgical controversy. In any case, haven’t these disputes been more or less settled by various measures of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, liberating the ancient form of the Roman Rite from de facto banishment and providing for the worthy celebration of the rite’s newer version?

In his latest book, Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages, Peter Kwasniewski argues that the liturgical damage control administered by these holy popes, though laudable in itself and fruitful in many ways, is only the initial stage of a far larger restoration that must take place if the Church is to strengthen her connection to Christ, whose strength she so desperately needs if she is to convert the modern world to him.

As those familiar with his writings have come to expect, Kwasniewski skillfully interweaves the fruits of his scholarly studies, personal reflections, and heartfelt exchanges with his fellow Catholics into an elegant and moving account of the damage the Church has done to herself in recent decades by abandoning her own heritage, liturgical and otherwise.

Boldly, yet persuasively, Kwasniewski demonstrates how the sudden and sweeping changes imposed since the 1960s on modes of public worship—changes often grounded in shoddy scholarship, advanced by deceitful maneuvering, and imposed by bureaucratic fiat—have contributed to the ascendency of theological modernism within the Church and a consequent decline in signs of spiritual strength—vocations, Mass attendance, conversions, and witness to the world.

Without assuming a simple cause and effect relationship, Kwasniewski amply demonstrates how liturgical innovations—some mandated by the new liturgical books, others smuggled in during the process of their implementation—systematically undermine beliefs and habits vital to the development and nourishment of souls in spirit and in truth. The near exclusive use of the vernacular, the simplification and elimination of theologically rich and biblically grounded texts and symbols, the priest’s versus populum stance, the multitude of options and encouragement of improvisation, the invasion of the sanctuary by laymen, the incessant prodding of the laity to respond to verbal cues in prescribed ways—all these features and more constitute a subversion of the theocentric orientation that has defined Christian liturgy from the time of the Apostles.

To those who object that we must not idolize particular ceremonies—which, after all, were developed or adapted by human agency over the centuries—Kwasniewski masterfully answers that liturgy is an essential component of the Incarnational dynamic of salvation. Though he need not have done so, God chose to redeem mankind by taking flesh in the nature of a particular man, who preached the Gospel in a particular tongue in a particular land to particular disciples. Having died and risen, the God-Man sent his Spirit to a particular corps of men whom he commissioned to teach and govern in his name—dividing particular and unique gifts among those who love and obey him by loving and obeying his Church.

Although the palpable particularity of Christ and his Church are famously scandalous to those who would prefer a spirituality of petty platitudes, our faith insists that “there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The bearer of that Holy Name, Jesus Christ, has chosen to reach out and rescue us—body and soul—through the sacraments and sacramentals administered by a Church obedient to his teachings and commands.

A right appreciation of the liturgy thus begins with the realization that it is a manifestation of the divine Logos given to us from above by the Father of lights (James 1:17), whose gifts constitute “sound words” “committed to [our] trust by the Holy Ghost,” to which we must hold firm “in the love which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13-14).

In perhaps the most striking chapter of his book, Kwasniewski argues that the perfect model of our approach to the liturgy is Mary, who gave her fiat to the Incarnation of the Logos with all its consequences, even those she could scarcely see or comprehend. Like Mary, who “kept all these words, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), we need to be drawn by the liturgy into the contemplation of sublime mysteries through which he that is mighty will do great things to us (Luke 1:49). Only when we allow ourselves to be shaped by the liturgy—and hence by God—can we grow in the sanctity needed to proclaim the glory and do the works of God, allowing his light to shine before men and drawing all men to him.

Though development in the liturgy does take place, the only change compatible with the nature of liturgy is slow and organic rather than quick and mechanistic. From time to time, souls profoundly shaped by divine agency have contributed to the development of liturgical rites through inspired additions to or cautious pruning of what has been received. In this way, a number of differing but profoundly kindred rites have developed over the centuries. Before recent revisions to the Roman Rite, however, the Church has never permitted the rapid and radical revision of the primary means by which she approaches her divine Savior.

The recent “wholesale reconstruction and whole-cloth invention” of the liturgy, Kwasniewski points out, was effected under the influence of “two false theories: the Corruption Theory,” which repudiates centuries of liturgical development as resulting from human error, and “the Pastoral Theory,” which holds that liturgy must be adapted to the radically new mentality of modern man. Given that the masterminds of the revised liturgy despised and rejected the actual handiwork of God as embodied in the traditional Roman Rite, while aiming at a liturgy governed by the whims of men rather than the worthy reception of the divine Logos, it is no wonder that, despite the heroic efforts of countless faithful souls caught in the crossfire, the Church has suffered such drastic setbacks in the wake of the resulting liturgical revolution.

As Kwasniewski notes, modern man (who is, in the end, nothing but fallen man puffed up and egged on by a particular combination of flattery and technical facilitation) is driven to exert control over his environment and to seek comfort and pleasure anywhere he can find them. While this can indeed raise barriers to his participation in the traditional liturgy—with its ancient language, silent prayers, multilayered action, hierarchical structure, and complex symbolism—the very nature of this alienation from traditional modes of worship demands that we embrace them all the more intentionally. For the same things that alienate us from the ancient liturgy separate us from God—who is infinitely above us and beyond our comprehension, over whom we can exert no control, and whose superabundant love promises to sweeten and lighten the yoke of suffering rather than promising temporal comfort and pleasure.

How are we to recover the wisdom and graces of a liturgy all but lost to the vast majority of Roman Rite Catholics? Kwasniewski rightly refrains from attempting to predict the precise ways and means of divine providence. He does make clear, however, that the traditional Roman Rite—with or without organic adaptations, and celebrated in the manner prescribed by the popes and councils up to and including Sacrosanctum Concilium—constitutes the model to which all forms of the Roman Rite must conform if the Church is to receive and distribute the plenteous fruits with which her loving Lord wishes to feed a starving world.

For those intimidated by this conclusion, Kwasniewski walks us through various features of the traditional Mass that may at first feel foreign to us, and explains how they can serve as an invitation and lifelong training in the love and service of Our Lord. I leave it to the reader to peruse the particulars of his sage advice.

In the end, Kwasniewski has succeeded at showing both that conformity to modernity is not worth the loss of the traditional Mas, and that the salvation of modern man is worth the recovery of this same Mass. If “traditional liturgy is our lifeline, not only to Our Lord but to the entire history, heritage, culture, theology, and identity of the Roman Catholic Church to which we belong,” we ought to give thanks for the continued availability of this lifeline, and do our best (in accordance with our circumstances and duties) to put it to its intended use!