Reviewing Peter Kwasniewski’s new book on the case for the traditional Latin Mass, Dorothy McLean writes:
One thing that confuses at Mass today is just what the priest is doing at the altar/table up front. Depending on the prayers he chooses, he is either offering a sacrifice to God or preparing a communal meal: Which is it? Similarly, if the priest is booming prayers into a microphone, is he speaking to God (Who has perfect hearing) or is he really addressing the congregation? Meanwhile, if the modern Mass is such an improvement over the old (as we hear so often), why have most Catholics in the West stopped attending it?…
These are excellent questions that highlight a very real problem, which is the rather wholesale collapse of both practical and experiential Catholic faith throughout Western civilization over the past half-century or so. The last question in particular—if the revised missal is such a vast improvement over the Tridentine Mass, then why has Catholicism suffered so profoundly since the former’s implementation?—is a vital one for understanding the predicament we are in today.
That predicament is stark: since the middle of the last century, regular Mass attendance has plummeted among all age groups, most strikingly among young adults, whose regular attendance numbers have plummeted from three-quarters in 1955 to barely one-third at the turn of the century. Overall, during that same time period, the number of Catholics who claimed to have attended church in the past seven days dropped a full thirty percentage points; Protestants have suffered nowhere near these levels of attendance reduction.
Now, overall church attendance across Western society has declined over the past fifty years or so regardless of denomination. One might be willing to chalk the Catholic Church’s reduction in attendance to various disparate phenomenon: secularized culture, poor catechesis, bad clergy, any number of other things. Some or all of these could be true to varying degrees. But I would submit that the rewriting of the Liturgy, and the cavalier and slipshod way in which that rewriting was applied, has a great deal to do with the decimation of the Catholic faithful. Ultimately the assurances of midcentury Catholic reformers—that the New Mass would be more “relatable” and “accessible” to the laity, and would reverse the slow decline in regular attendance already present by the late 1950s—rings brutally hollow. The empty pews attest to it.
It is hard to overstate the radical shift of the Mass from the Tridentine to Novus Ordo, the liturgical abuses it invited, and the eagerness of many of the clergy and the lay faithful to pervert the beauty and the sacred order of the Mass in favor of a kind of modern spiritual variety show. My mother, herself a cradle Catholic—and, to be sure, a thoughtful critic of what she sees as various deficiencies of the pre-concilliar Church—relays a story in which a priest, during a Christmas Eve liturgy, dressed up as an elf and skipped around the nave in order to entertain the children. I have seen a priest don a professional football jersey mid-liturgy because he lost a bet; I once witnessed a priest, during a homily, place a couple of cheap toy statutes of gauchos on the altar and prattle on about them with no discernible connection to the Gospel or indeed anything else; I remember the scofflaw in the Philippines when a priest, in an aggressive and shameless excess of vanity, rode a toy scooter during Mass in order to get a rise out of everyone. Away on my bachelor party weekend a number of years ago I popped into a local church for the Saturday vigil; at the end of the Mass, following the closing prayer but prior to the recessional hymn, the celebrant declared: “See you next time!” At which point the congregation responded, in unison, “Same time, same place!” The priest, I remember, was a kind and welcoming man, and surely he loves Christ as much as any faithful cleric—but if it were a choice between attending that kind of game show-ified Mass every week or else building my own rustic chapel out of Atlantic white cypress and forcibly conscripting a local Trappist choir monk to personally say Mass for me every weekend, surely I would choose the latter.
A Mass—and a religious culture more generally—that allows for such things (and even encourages them!) is broken in some strange, sad and vital way. As McLean points out, by way of Kwasniewski, the Novus Ordo has created a “maelstrom of confusion” as to just what the Mass is about and what the Church is supposed to be expressing in the Mass. In that swirling chaos, a kind of crude laxity has arisen, one in which the repeated assurances of “modernization” and “accessibility” and “active participation” have been exposed for the meaningless assurances they always were.
None of which is to imply that I am somehow holier or else less sinful than even the staunchest and most aggressive of liturgical reformers; I am not. Nor is it to imply that the Church could solve all its problems—attendance-based or otherwise—with a return to the exclusive use of the Extraordinary Form. Nor is it even to say that the Novus Ordo can not be done with great respect, fidelity and beauty, for surely it can. It is simply to say this: after more than fifty years of novel experimentation and repeated assurances that this is what the Church needs, we must all be prepared to admit that the great reforms of the 20th Century have not played out the way that they were supposed to, that there is a genuine case to be made for the Extraordinary Form, and that, as McLean puts it, we would do very well, at this critical juncture in the Church’s history, not to ignore “the human longing for something challenging, complicated, and mysterious in the worship of God.”