On Mons Barr on Traditionis Custodes

Writing in the Catholic Herald, Monsignor Eric Barr found American traditionalists’ behaviour frustrating, and I have some sympathy with him. The culture (or anti-culture) of the United States is deeply Protestant, and all American religious groups are tempted towards disobedience and a search for uniqueness and ‘authenticity’.

Nevertheless, I think that Mons Barr’s article fails, not in charity, but in imaginative sympathy. For he suggests that the young priests of his diocese wanted to say the old Mass for reasons of self-aggrandisement: in order, as he puts it, to feel ‘strong’ and ‘elite’. I suspect that he is here noting, but failing correctly to analyze, two reasons for which some young priests are drawn to the Old Mass, neither of which are egotistic.

To understand the first, one must first note a claim in Mons Barr’s article: he says that the New Mass is what the Second Vatican Council mandated. But this claim is, at best, tendentious. The council fathers (very reasonably) mandated various liturgical reforms, to be made in continuity with the Latin church’s liturgical tradition. But the commission that produced the new liturgies went further than the fathers had envisaged: it deleted whole liturgical seasons; it effectively abolished the (probably apostolic) Ember days; it replaced all the Sunday collects with new ones. The results of this radical change were mixed: the New Mass is valuable, and good in many ways; yet it contains notable defects. In particular, many of its texts are insipid and, especially in the English translation, read like the minutes of Liverpool City Council. Hence (despite some encouraging improvements in recent years) too many of the New Mass’s texts still lack what I call philosophical dignity: they do not give one the sense that two-thousand years of inspired philosophy and theology and tradition lie behind them and the Church; they do not remind one that the Mass stands at the Golgotha-summit of salvation history, to which all previous human religious striving and thought had led the way.

For all their inaccessibility, the old texts do. Young priests are drawn to them because they remind them that they have committed their life to a rational, well-thought-out religion. It is easy to imagine the background of a typical young American priest who wants to say the old Mass. In his parochial ministry, he will have become used to a depressing experience of liturgy; many times, perhaps, he will have groaned inwardly as the new Mass, done badly in the all-too-common parochial way, presented him as a platitudinous social worker leading a purely subjective, emotion-driven, self-regarding worship. This will have been a deflating experience for him, as for any self-respecting grown man; such an image of priesthood attracts only the disordered. But one day, he will have discovered that, what guitars do to the soul, the concision and conceptual rigour of the old texts can help to heal. So yes, Mons Barr is right, young priests like the ‘elite’ quality of the old liturgies; but only in the sense that they evince the thought of great and spiritual minds, and the whole history of the people of God (in a non-Calvinist sense the ‘elect’, from ‘eligere’, whence also ‘elite’). If there is a certain lack of tradition and philosophy, a certain lack of historical groundedness, in Mons Barr’s diocese of Rockford—as the shocking state of its priests’ Latin suggests—then that is all the more reason to let the old liturgy bespeak these things. Indeed, the fact that Rockfordian priests are willing to say the old texts without fully understanding them might charitably be taken as a sign of their humility, not gnosticism1: a sign of their deference to the Church, not only in her Militant aspect but also in her Penitential and Triumphant ones. (Gnosticism, after all, consists in the cult of special knowledge; not in deference to what one does not yet understand).

The second reason why young priests like the old Mass is, I suspect, because it highlights the unique role of the priest at Mass. It is not that the young priest wants to be deferred to as the man Fr. X, but that he knows that his role at Mass is special, and is rightly respected.

An example from another context will illustrate what I have in mind here. I know that, without thinking about it, I act with an especial outward (and, I hope, inward) reverence towards married people, especially married women; especially those whose marriages are fully valid and open to life; and perhaps most of all to those who are sacramentally married. In showing such reverence to sacramentally married persons, I do not honour any free-standing self-willed achievements of their own, like an ancient Greek reverencing an Olympian or hero—and there is certainly too much of that about at the moment—; instead, I honour the life of Christ within them. I have a similar attitude towards habited religious. Indeed, it is with an intenser form of this reverence that we venerate the saints.

Similarly, then, the old liturgy marks the priest as separate not to honour the man, but to honour his priestly character, and his unique and wondrous task: to offer up the holy sacrifice of the Mass to the Father. The old Mass, in which the priest faces East, is not about the priest’s private persona, but rather his action in persona Christi: the people do not see his face, his persona, his πρόσωπον, but rather the cross on his back. So yes, perhaps Mons Barr is also right that the old Mass makes priests feel ‘strong’, but only in the sense of not sounding drippy and limp-wristed. The priest at the old Mass is a man on a Missa, and makes no apology for it: as Evelyn Waugh once noted, he enters Church without even looking to see whether he has a congregation. This unshowy unabashed performance of one’s duties is true manfullness; it is the very opposite both of child-abusers’ limp-wristedness and of sect leaders’ harmful machismo.

I say none of this to advance the case that the old Mass is perfect or the new Mass disastrous; indeed I think that the use of the vernacular is a good thing; I value the ‘Reform of the Reform’; I have seen the very best of the new liturgy at places like Fisher House; and my usual Sunday mass is a parochial, new one, celebrated by a good and faithful parish priest. Rather, my point is that Mons Barr has, I would gently suggest, failed to understand the attractions of the old Mass; had he done so, he might have written a quite different article.

1Which Mons Barr does not impute specifically to traditionalist priests.