Book Review: Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius & Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass. Peter Kwasniewski. Brooklyn, NY:
Angelico Press. 2020. 388 pp. $19.95.
As someone who absolutely hates the summer months for their heat and humidity, reading (indoors) was always a cool, relaxing escape from the blaring sun and nonstop sweat. I may not have gone to Disney or Denmark, but my summers since childhood featured a number of great adventures contained within the pages of various books I nabbed from Barnes and Noble. One of these books was the young adult novel, The Giver by Lois Lowry. I first read it when I was 10, and, to this day, it remains one of my favorite novels.
The Giver follows the story of a 12-year-old boy, Jonas, who lives in a utopian society characterized by “Sameness”. In this society, there are no strong emotions, and everything from language to climate is carefully controlled. War has long since ceased, as have any forms of strife and conflict. Parents have a cool and detached relationship with their children; in fact, even birth-mothers are separated from their biological children to prevent emotional attachment. Everything in society is conditioned so that everyone and everything is pleasant and convenient. At the age of 12, every child is considered an adult and is assigned his or her life’s work. Jonas’ father works with newborns, his mother works in the court system, his best friend Asher is made the assistant director of recreation, and his other close friend, Fiona, is tasked with taking care of the elderly. Jonas, however, is given a special assignment. He is to become “The Receiver”, the apprentice for “The Giver” — the man who holds all of society’s memories and history, that which they traded for a life of comfortable Sameness.
The Giver is described as an old man, whose wrinkles and weariness are due, in part, to holding in all of humanity’s memories and emotions. Jonas, young and held in blissful ignorance all throughout his life, is completely unaware of the long past — all he knows is the present and what he had experienced in his twelve years of Sameness. The Giver trains Jonas, imparting the world’s memories through a mere touch on Jonas’ back. Jonas experiences breathtaking sleigh rides in the snowy winter, sees the orange and yellow hues of autumn leaves and pumpkins, feels the warmth of sunshine, experience fear and sorrow, hunger and war, love and loss. Jonas then realizes how empty and meaningless his utopian world is, and wonders how society could trade passion, beauty, and authenticity for egalitarian staleness and unproblematic, artificial interactions. After one particular revelation (I won’t spoil it here), The Giver tells Jonas that without the memories, the people cannot know right from wrong, or wisdom from foolishness. It would seem that the only way forward, then, is through a handing on of memories and emotions — even if it makes people feel uncomfortable.
Another hot summer means another summer dedicated to reading. However, I am no longer the ten-year-old boy reading novels about fantasy and utopian worlds. Nearing 30, I have spent this summer reading quite a bit of theology and history as part of my doctoral program. Among the various books I have read this summer, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright has captured my attention the most. Those who frequent websites dedicated to traditional Catholicism (One Peter Five, New Liturgical Movement, Liturgical Arts Journal, Rorate Caeli) are probably familiar with Peter Kwasniewski, given that he has written a copious amount of articles on various topics related to Catholicism — from music to architecture, liturgy to family life, and everywhere in between. Kwasniewski has written for academic and general audiences, given dozens of lectures across the world, and has given his entire life to the promotion of the traditional Roman Catholic faith — especially its ancient worship. I have read quite a bit of Kwasniewski’s work (and previously reviewed another book of his), and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he is, in my opinion, the best living commentator on Roman Catholicism’s traditional worship and belief. Aside from his poetic writing style, Kwasniewski has a talent for communicating ancient, oft-forgotten (or purposely-suppressed) memories of Catholicism to a wide array of people across the world, many of whom are learning about the Church’s tradition for the very first time. His latest book is no exception.
Before I continue, however, I want you to take a little Sunday stroll with me — keeping a distance of six feet between us, of course. Follow me as we walk into your local Roman Catholic church — St. So-and-So in Somewhereville. As we approach the church (which may or may not look like a spaceship), keep your eyes and ears open. We are arriving about 15 minutes before Sunday Mass, and you and I walk into an empty church pew in the center of the church to pray and prepare ourselves for the sacred liturgy. However, those 15 minutes are largely spent squinting our closed eyes, frustratingly trying to block out the deafening sound of Eileen and Boris a few pews behind us, who are chatting about their Sunday afternoon plans. Before the 15 minutes are up, we hear a tap on the microphone at the front of the church. A grey-haired woman dressed in a floral blouse and white trousers stands at the pulpit, and smiles. “Good morning, my name is Susan, and welcome to St. So-and-So’s parish for the Celebration of the Eucharist. Here are this weekend’s announcements.” About 10 minutes later, flooded with information about every single event taking place at St. So-and-So’s parish hall and its rationale, everyone suddenly stands up, and starts shaking hands and patting each other on the back. In the distance, you can slightly hear Susan at the pulpit order everyone to “greet your neighbors and introduce yourself”, but it looks as if the congregation knew the script beforehand. As the stirring stops, you hear a bell — ding!
Everyone remains standing, as the electric piano located up front begins an intro for a song that sounds like the theme to “My Little Pony”. Having enjoyed his own personal pre-Mass conversations with Eileen and Boris, the priest walks (or bounces, whatever fits the music selection) from the back to the front of the church, flanked by his army of octogenarian comrades. He begins the Eucharistic Celebration — not, with the Sign of the Cross — but instead, with a “Good morning!”, to which, the people respond more or less in kind. After making the sign of the cross, Father Funnypants makes a joke about the local sport team’s most recent loss. Everything is in the vernacular so that everyone understands everything — despite there being no evidence that the priest nor the congregation believe they are at the foot of the Cross upon Calvary. The readings are read by ministers who walk up to the microphone without the slightest bow towards the Holy of Holies, the homily seems more inspired by Mr. Rodgers than Sacred Scripture, and the entire experience is just very… verbose. The priest reads words, the people respond to his words with words in a monotonous tone, and at the moment of the consecration — whereby the bread and wine become mystically transformed into the true Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ — a cellphone goes off (didn’t anyone listen to Susan’s announcements?) Communion is handed out like Halloween candy, and every now and then a priest or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion needs to tell a young adult to spit out his chewing gum before receiving the Sacred Host. After Mass, you’re looking at me, dumbfounded: “This is a Catholic church?” you ask.
In theory, it is, and, despite every attempt to otherwise shut Him out, Jesus Christ will truly appear on the altar under the appearance of bread and wine, as long as the basic requirements for sacramental validity are met. But such reductionism is unfitting towards the sacred liturgy, which is supposed to be the “source and summit” of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, as it is oftentimes practiced, the Celebration of the Eucharist becomes more about a celebration of ourselves and our own accomplishments. Like society in The Giver, the Church at the midpoint of the twentieth-century decided to abandon authenticity, beauty, and transcendence for an unproblematic, safe, and comfortable liturgical experience. Like The Giver, the majority of the people affected simply operate as if nothing is wrong, as if this is simply the “way it should be”. Although there are more liturgical abuses far worse than what we experienced on our little Sunday excursion, St. So-and-So’s church is, essentially, a victim of a radical Church experiment that was doomed from the beginning: the modernization, rationalization, and deformation of the sacred liturgy. But thankfully, there is a way out, and the path runs through the past. Tradition — and not novelty — is the future.
In popular literature and movies, depictions of the Roman Catholic Church have long emphasized the mysteriousness of the Latin chant, the towering church spires, Gothic cathedrals illumined only by wax candles, sunlight refracting through the prism of stained glass windows. The “Catholic imagination”, as the late Fr. Andrew Greeley once described, is deeply rooted in the Church’s traditional forms of life, rituals, and devotions. How did we go from building the marvelous Chartres Cathedral to designing churches to look like a nuclear fallout shelter? How did the liturgy change from having ancient prayers chanted softly to a priest reading aloud a Eucharistic prayer that was composed at a restaurant in Trastevere?
During the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), there were rivaling groups fighting over the liturgy. Bringing with them a few decades of research, some academics felt that they knew what was best for the Church’s act of worship. Some of them wanted to completely abandon any liturgical development that had occurred in the prior millennium, fearing it would turn away Protestants and turn off “modern man”. By making the liturgy more “understandable” (in a rational sense), more “relatable” (by adding popular music), and more “egalitarian” (dismissing the distinction between ordained and lay), the reformers believed that their created liturgy would win over the world and be successful. During the Council, there was a dissenting minority, arguing that the proposed liturgy ruptured with centuries of authentic development, watered down the Catholic faith, and was artificially-constructed. Of course, such voices were silenced (to the glee of the liberal wing). Despite the council’s relatively conservative text on the liturgy, by 1970, the liberal wing had all but a total victory on the ground. Gorgeous Gothic and Romanesque churches with their towering marble high altars were “wreckovated”; folk music replaced Gregorian chant; liturgies characterized by “smells and bells” were replaced with velvet carpets stepped on by groovy clergy. Aside from a few small pockets of resistance, the traditional Latin Mass was all but abolished, its memory a pestilence to the liturgical reformers. In the decades following Vatican II, there were numerous attempts by subsequent popes to rein in some of the extreme liturgical abuses and even “reform the reform”, but such attempts are no more than simply putting lipstick on a pig. It was up to a few brave bishops, a handful of clandestine clergy, and unflinching lay faithful to preserve the traditional Latin Mass — the Catholic liturgy in the West which had existed in some form or another for 1,600 years.
This is where Dr. Kwasniewski’s work comes in. He is among a few laymen who have committed themselves to the defense of traditional Roman Catholicism against those who seek to wipe its memory from the face of the earth. He a spiritual heir to Michael Davies, who was arguably the most vocal defender of the traditional Latin Mass in the English-speaking world. Like Davies, Kwasniewski makes use of the mass-media available in our time (blogs, books, podcasts, YouTube) to communicate the timeless truth and beauty of authentic Roman Catholicism. Like The Giver, Kwasniewski holds the memories of tradition, offering the seemingly lost treasure to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. It is in the slow, contemplative reading of his latest book that I found in myself a reignited flame, a reawakened desire to promote the traditional Latin Mass among my fellow Roman Catholics.
Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright is aptly named, as every single Roman Catholic — by virtue of his or her baptism and incorporation into the Latin Church — has a fundamental right to worship in the ancient rite. The traditional Latin Mass is indeed our birthright, and the fact that many in my generation were robbed of this inheritance is nothing short of scandal. After all, it was the traditional Latin Mass which nurtured and nourished countless saints in the Roman Catholic Church for 1,600 years! How could a team of “experts” and a pope with an obsession of papal power deny the holy Mass that speaks to rich and poor, educated and uneducated, old and young alike? How many people who attend the traditional Latin Mass today lament that they were denied this liturgy for several years? In order to appreciate the traditional Mass, one needs a Copernican revolution of sorts, one in which we realize that the Church does not revolve around the times, but rather should stand apart as sacred, holy, and perennial in Her teachings and worship.
Part I: Orientation
The book is divided into 3 parts: Orientation (I), Objections and Replies (II), and Present & Future (III). Each part contains a number of excellent essays which cover a variety of topics. In the first part, Orientation, Kwasniewski offers chapters focused on the following (to name a few): ten reasons to attend the traditional Latin Mass, the logic and cohesiveness of the Roman Rite, the ways in which the old Mass “demands more” and “delivers more”, and the phenomenon of shrinking congregations during a time in which the reformed liturgy — the one crafted to speak to “modern man” — saw modern man walk out of the door (without genuflecting). Kwasniewski demonstrates how the traditional Latin Mass is not a mere accident in history but rather a culmination of centuries of Roman Catholic piety, faith, and ritual. Central to his thesis is that various features of the old rite — the division between laity and clergy, the emphasis on God’s mysteriousness and hiddenness, the stable liturgical texts dense with theological riches — are consistent with Scripture and Tradition. The nature of the liturgy as the worship of the Triune God should suggest that a liturgy which is easily domesticated and packaged neatly into our modern sensibilities is probably not a liturgy worth having. Kwasniewski writes:
“Many of the reasons for persevering in and supporting the traditional Latin Mass, in spite of all the trouble the devil manages to stir up for us, can be summarized in one word: MYSTERY. What St. Paul calls musterion and what the Latin liturgical tradition designates as mysterium or sacramentum is far from being a marginal concept in Christianity. God’s dramatic self-disclosure to us, throughout history and most of all in the Person of Jesus Christ, is mystery in the highest sense of the term: the revelation of a Reality that is luminous yet blinding in its luminosity, intelligible yet ineffable. It is fitting that the liturgical celebrations that bring us into contact with our very God should bear the stamp of His eternal and infinite mysteriousness, His marvelous transcendence, His overwhelming holiness, His disarming intimacy, His gentle yet penetrating silence. The traditional form of the Roman rite surely bears this stamp.” (22–23)
Contrary to those who see the Latin Mass as an obstacle to liturgical participation, Kwasniewski points out how true “active participation” is interior and spiritual, and only then can it be meaningfully external. In other words, the idea that the Novus Ordo fosters better participation because it gives everyone a job to do (9 choirs of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, anyone?) and words to mutter is nonsensical. The traditional Latin Mass, in all of its splendor, discipline, and reverence, actually transports the faithful to the foot of Christ at Calvary, which is re-presented every time the Holy Sacrifice is offered. The essential elements constitutive to the Mass — adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication — are fostered through worship that is sensuous and transcendent, calling us to participate with “a full engagement, an investment of all of oneself — intellect and will, imagination, memory, and external senses, soul and body, through interior and exterior acts.” (66) Of course, the Latin Mass is not ‘easy’ — nor should it be. In the traditional Latin Mass, everyone remains a student in the Lord’s service, its goal not for you to absorb the liturgy, but instead be absorbed by it (88). The ancient liturgy requires us to adapt our modern thoughts and attitudes (“How dare Mass exceed 45 minutes — I have plans!”), to focus less on temporal things and more on things eternal. As Kwasniewski writes:
“The centuries-old liturgy proved itself able to be the axis of Christendom, the burning heart of religious life, the source of strength for marriage and the family, the glue of a Catholic society, the focal point of missionary zeal.” (98–99)
Reducing the Mass to a “meal” will simply not do, nor will those who attend the liturgy be truly fed by moral platitudes and community-first initiatives. The Latin Mass requires a radical reorientation of intellect and will to the divine Majesty in all of His splendor and glory. This is no easy task, especially when the dominant narrative since the 1960’s is that everything in the Church prior to the mid-twentieth century was deficient and required updating like software. Such narratives are still being pushed by the neo-conservative wing of the Church.
Part II: Objections & Replies
In the second part, Objections and Replies, Kwasniewski brilliantly anticipates potential arguments against the traditional Latin Mass and answers them comprehensively, leaving little room for doubt that he has already heard and experienced these arguments ad nauseam. What are some of the common objections to the Latin Mass?
- It is inaccessible given the ancient Latin language
- It is rigid and not flexible to times, cultures, and circumstances
- It is not portable, so if you do not have a magnificent cathedral, you cannot celebrate it properly
- It does not have enough Scripture
- It ignored certain elements from “early Christianity” such as the Offertory procession, the prayers of the faithful, and the priest facing the people
- It is not simple nor easy to understand
- It does not reflect the Church’s current theology
Kwasniewski responds to these objections (and more) with powerful insights into the Church’s history, faith, and culture. Objections to the traditional Latin Mass are not anything new, and they largely focus on the same four or five concerns: its learning curve, its mysteriousness, its near-demolishing at the hands of Pope Paul VI (and the pope can never be wrong, right?), etc. I will not respond to these objections here, as Kwasniewski does a masterful job at it himself in chapters 8–11. Some highlights, though, include his distinction between a Novus Ordo liturgy celebrated in the Latin language (something hard to find, but existing in small pockets) and the traditional Latin Mass; his explanation as to how the “middle ground” approach to the liturgy (characterized by those wishing to reform the Novus Ordo and not simply return to the Latin Mass) falls short (143); his dismissal of “false antiquarianism” whereby the Church tries to recover “lost” practices which are then copied and pasted into the liturgy today (149–160); and the like. This is the meatiest and most fun section because it provides deep answers to common protests against the ancient liturgy. “The Charge of Aestheticism” (193–204) is a gem of a chapter in its defense of beauty in the liturgy against those who believe “true Christianity” requires a simplified, domesticated, and informal liturgy. As he writes,
“[D]ivine worship does not benefit God or Christ, as if making them better; they are already as good, holy, and glorious as can be. Rather, by ordering our souls to Him as our ultimate end, by filling our minds with His truth and our hearts with His love, divine worship benefits us who offer Him the sacrifice of praise. Man as a creature of intellect and sensation will not benefit nearly as much from liturgy that is either verbal-cerebral or frivolously flashy as he will from liturgy that is packed with rich ceremonial-textual content and abounding with sensuous symbols, the sum total of which will always exceed human comprehension.” (196–197)
Part III: Present & Future
In the final section of his book, Kwasniewski turns his attention towards more practical and pastoral matters: the traditional Latin Mass and its effect on family and social life. A common objection one hears about attending the Latin Mass is that it would be impossible for children to “know what’s going on” and remain attentive. Kwasniewski, a father himself and a friend to many-a-Catholic family, sees this consideration and engages it with wit and compassion. Children actually know more than we adults give them credit for, and if you expose them to a liturgy filled with signs and symbols of the Holy One, they will understand that they are in God’s presence. If, on the other hand, you give them a liturgy which resembles Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, they will respond to it in kind. Parents have a “moral duty to give children the best faith formation they can, here and now, which necessarily centers on rightful divine worship.” (240)
From the traditional Latin Mass, children learn that “[t]he Mass is a mystery of faith, a holy sacrifice” (245), the Blessed Sacrament deserves respect and adoration (247), and that the “source of our unity and community is in Christ and flows out from Him to all of us.” (251) Every Sunday, children attending the Latin Mass can be encouraged to say “thank you”, “please”, “I’m sorry”, and “I love you” to God through the parts of the Mass (258). Children can be taught basic Gregorian chants, enter into the silence and song of the liturgy, and practice traditional devotions (271- 273). Aside from discussing the children’s experience of the Latin liturgy, Kwasniewski includes in this section a reflection upon the pro-life movement’s relationship to traditional liturgy (289–295) and the way in which current Church crises may actually do more to lead people to tradition than away from it (297–302).
Now, if you are reading this and thinking, “Well, they do the Novus Ordo Mass at my parish quite reverently,” some of these chapters are addressed to you. “Sorting Out Difficulties in Liturgical Allegiance” (281–288) contains real correspondence between Kwasniewski and a pseudonymous inquirer, reminding the reader that these questions and ambiguities need to be worked out gently. The fact is that the majority of Roman Catholics attend the Novus Ordo liturgy — some of them happen to like certain elements of it, if not the whole thing. They have their reasons, and Kwasniewski (who spent time in charismatic and ‘conservative’ Novus Ordo liturgies) knows this well. You might even find your own voice behind those pseudonymous seekers.
Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright is certainly a book I would recommend to just about anyone, from my nominally-Catholic friends from childhood to even the sharpest opponents of the traditional Latin liturgy. The traditional Latin Mass is only growing in popularity, especially among the young. Put simply, many young people are seeking something in the Latin Mass that they cannot and did not find in the Novus Ordo liturgy. Of course, there are exceptions — Roman Catholicism is booming in Africa and southeast Asia, where the liturgy incorporates many local elements and is fully-meshed within the reformed liturgy. Self-proclaimed “trads” need to be cautious against simplistic slogans: “Vatican II destroyed the liturgy” (it was actually in a downward spiral before it); “Mass in the vernacular ruins the mystery” (the Eastern Churches would like to have a word); and so on. Such traditionalists need to also remember that there are many, many good and faithful orthodox Catholics who attend the Novus Ordo and work to celebrate it in a reverential and prayerful way faithful to Vatican II’s document on the liturgy. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Novus Ordo liturgy imparts grace to those who attend and participate in it with a proper disposition of faith, hope, and love. That said, it is not forbidden to question its coherence as a rite, its frightening origins, or its future. After all, if Church hierarchs felt it was in their power to dismantle a 1,600 -year-old liturgy and replace it with their own novel creation, what is stopping a future ecumenical council from abandoning the Novus Ordo altogether?
Regardless of what the future holds, the main concern of ours should be the present. By the grace of God, the traditional Latin Mass is growing in popularity, and such growth requires a book like Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright to serve as a defense of the Mass of Ages. Though he comes off quite opinionated and even polemical at times, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski understands that the stakes are high. Like the society portrayed in The Giver, much of the Church is unaware and apathetic (if not outright hostile) towards the traditional Latin Mass. But Kwasniewski, along with a number of others, sees this as a mission field — not a sign of defeat. If anything, while Catholic parishes are merging and closing across the United States and beyond, those churches which offer the Traditional Latin Mass see an incredible amount of young families and adults of every age, men and women who are passionate about their Catholic faith and willing to go the extra mile (or 40) to attend the Roman Catholic Church’s solemn, traditional worship. The Latin Mass has much to offer, as does Kwasniewski — but only if one is willing to receive the memories of those who have gone before us.