Is Pope Benedict XVI determined to restore the Latin mass that many Roman Catholics thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history? The answer, in short, is both yes and no. But neither the “yes” nor the “no” quite fits the conventional speculations in several recent media reports following off-the-cuff remarks to a small Catholic association in Great Britain by a Vatican official. In unraveling this, it helps to begin at the beginning.
As he reminds us in his memoir, Salt of the Earth, the young Joseph Ratzinger was deeply influenced, both spiritually and intellectually, by the mid-20th-century movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church’s public worship–a movement that helped pave the way for the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Father Ratzinger was a peritus, a theological expert, at the council, and like many others, he welcomed the council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: here was a ratification of the liturgical reform movement he had long supported and a blueprint for further organic development of the celebration of mass. In the immediate aftermath of Vatican II, however, Ratzinger became convinced that organic development had been jettisoned for revolution, the liturgical Jacobins being a cadre of academics determined to impose their view of a populist liturgy on the entire Catholic Church.
In the decades between Vatican II and his election as Benedict XVI, Ratzinger became a leader in what became known as “the reform of the reform”: a loosely knit international network of laity, bishops, priests and scholars, committed to returning the process of liturgical development in the Catholic Church to what they understood to be the authentic blueprint of Vatican II. Seeing a Gregorian chant CD from an obscure Spanish monastery rise to the top of the pop charts in the 1990s, they wondered why much of the church had abandoned one of Catholicism’s classic musical forms. Finding congregations that seemed more interested in self-affirmation than worship, and priests given to making their personalities the center of the liturgical action, they asked whether the rush to create a kind of sacred circle in which the priest faces the people over the eucharistic “table” might have something to do with the problem.
And they reminded the entire church that Vatican II had not mandated many of the things most Catholics thought it had decreed: for example, the elimination of Latin (and chant) from the liturgy and the free-standing altar behind which the priest faced the congregation.
Over the past 40 years, the Catholic liturgical wars have tended to be fought among specialists and activists. The largest post-Vatican II splinter group, associated with the excommunicated French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, certainly had its problems with the new liturgy; but the deeper cause of the Lefebvrists’ march into schism was their rejection of Vatican II’s teaching on religious freedom, which they deemed heresy. The overwhelming majority of Catholics throughout the world have welcomed the new form of the mass that became normative in 1970, a mass celebrated entirely in English (or Spanish or French or Polish, or whatever language the congregation speaks). Over time, the silly season in Catholic liturgy that peaked in the 1970s–“clown” masses (with the priest vested as Bozo or somesuch), free-for-all prayers that ignored the prescribed rite, dreadful pop music, inept “liturgical dance,” a general lack of decorum–began to recede. A re-sacralization of Catholic worship became evident in many parishes. What Ratzinger and other specialists had called “the reform of the reform” was underway at the grass roots, and under its own steam.
It was to accelerate that “reform of the reform” that Benedict XVI issued a decree last summer permitting the widespread use of the 1962 Roman rite, known technically as the Missal of John XXIII. Amidst the recent, fevered speculations that Latin days are here again, it’s important to note what the Missal of John XXIII is not. It is not the “Tridentine Rite,” because it includes modifications of the missal mandated by the Council of Trent in the 16th century; it is not the “mass of Pius V,” which some Catholic megatraditionalists argue is the only valid form of Catholic worship. It is, in fact, the mass as celebrated every day at every session of the Second Vatican Council. (The 1962 missal did contain a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews, which some, but certainly not all, Jews found offensive. After a brief flurry of criticism, Benedict XVI modified the prayer; conversations about its further alteration continue. The modified prayer was used in the minuscule number of Catholic congregations that celebrated Holy Week 2008 according to the Missal of John XXIII; no pogroms resulted, and indeed the argument seems to have died out.)
Some may find it ironic that the “old Latin mass” that Benedict XVI has permitted is precisely the mass as known by Pope John XXIII, hero of Catholic progressivism. But there is in fact something “progressive,” in the sense of reformist, about Benedict’s strategy here.
Yes, the mass of John XXIII is celebrated in Latin, and yes, it is often celebrated (although it need not be) with the priest and the congregation facing the same direction as they pray–looking together, as classic liturgical theology teaches, toward the return of Christ and the inauguration of the heavenly Jerusalem. But the pope’s point in making this form of liturgy more widely available is neither nostalgic nor retrogade. Rather, by encouraging the more widespread celebration of this classic form of the always-evolving Roman rite, Benedict XVI intends to create a kind of liturgical magnet, drawing the “reform of the reform” in the direction of greater reverence in the Catholic Church’s public worship. In doing so, the pope is also reminding the church that, as Vatican II put it, the mass is a moment of privileged participation in “that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle.” “Going to mass,” in other words, is not something we do for ourselves, or something we make up ourselves; liturgical worship is our participation in something God is doing for us.
Will this Benedictine reform-of-the-reform mean that every Catholic parish will soon have at least one Sunday celebration of mass in Latin, using the Missal of John XXIII? It seems unlikely, not least because very few priests today are competent Latinists. But in those places where the Latin mass of 1962 is celebrated reverently and without nostalgic accretions (lace-bedecked older vestments, for example), it will be a source of spiritual nourishment for the minority that prefers this way of worship, even as it introduces a new generation to what will be, for them, a new form of liturgy. In international settings, the use of this rite in Latin may help revive that ancient tongue as a common Catholic language for common worship–no small matter in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic church. Among scholars and parish clergy alike, the more widespread celebration of mass according to the Missal of John XXIII may prove to be the reformist magnet that Benedict XVI wants it to be, encouraging those who are already at work re-sacralizing the liturgy.
And the net result, over time? Almost certainly not “Latin days are here again” in every Catholic parish but rather a more reverent, more prayerful celebration of mass according to a reformed missal of 1970–and according to what the Second Vatican Council actually prescribed.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
This article was originally published on Newsweek