The “Dangerous Memory” of Traditional Roman Catholicism

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.

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“Our closing hymn is #310 in the Breaking Bread hymnal, ‘Y.M.C.A’”
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We used to build beautiful churches

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 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

“[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)

Conclusion

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?

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Doctoral student in theology, seeking the true, good, and beautiful.

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