Saturday, February 04, 2012

Why the Extraordinary Form Is Better: An Appeal to Priests

This is a re-post, with a few emendations, of something I put up a year and a half ago.   Things have changed in that time.  For one thing, I no longer have access to any regular Extraordinary Form Mass, and an official request for it that I took part in at a local parish has so far gone unanswered.  For another, the collapse of Christian civilization -- to which, in my line of work, I have a front-row seat -- has advanced a lot farther, to the point where the Catholic Church in the United States is under direct and explicit attack by our own government.  It should come as no surprise to us to find ourselves under assault at this time: with her members so infected by the spirit of the world, it seems the Church has seldom been weaker.

This makes the need for traditional Catholic worship all the more urgent.  Business as usual will not do.  We must recover and celebrate our distinctly Catholic patrimony.  We must rebuild our moral sense, and we must present those outside the Church with a clear choice between what they have now and what they could have in the Church.  

This, surely, is why we have been given a Pope who would take the traditional Mass out of mothballs.  And this is why priests must take this gift and make the most of it.  Fathers: if you do not know how to celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form, please learn.  Do not wait to be pestered for it: do it even if, at first, nobody wants it and you encounter resistance.  You were made to withstand resistance.  The Holy Father meant the freeing up of the traditional Mass to be a gift for all Catholics, not just current devotees.  It is also a great gift to priests.  How can you bear to continue in ignorance of half of the Roman rite?  And how can you bear not to be plugged in to the tradition that nurtured centuries and centuries of priests and laymen before you, and brought up generations of saints?  How can you hope to recover, in the eyes of your flocks, the dignity of the priesthood, which has been dragged through the mud of so many scandals, without the liturgy that makes that dignity shine forth more clearly than any other?

Am I asking a lot?  Of course. But you received Holy Orders precisely in order to be able to give a lot.  Your child is asking you for bread: what kind of a father would give her a stone?  Besides, my request is nothing compared to the urgency of these evil times, which demand action.  The Extraordinary Form of the Mass is a most powerful spiritual weapon.  Seldom have we needed it more.  Please do not fail to take it up and wield it boldly.

I know that for what follows, I am going to be solemnly apprised of the validity of the Novus Ordo Mass, and the fact that I am opinionated, and that I have no business holding that one form of the Mass is superior to another, and that I lack charity, and that I think I am more Catholic than the Pope, etc., etc.  Oh well.  Whatever.  Let not the apostles of "tolerance" rush to judgment.  I'm not a sedevacantist, and I have deliberately refrained from attending SSPX Masses, and I don't think the Novus Ordo is invalid.  But I do think it is not as good as the Mass we tried to shelve 40 years ago.


1. The Extraordinary Form Is Better Equipped to Focus the Mind on God.  The single biggest way that the Extraordinary Form of Mass focuses the mind on God is by the priest facing God and not the congregation.  I have heard it argued that versus populum is of older vintage than ad orientem; however, if that is true, once you have attended a Mass in which the priest faces ad orientem, it is easy to understand why versus populum was previously abandoned.  In the ad orientem posture, the priest faces God.  He faces in the same direction as the congregation, thereby underscoring the unity of purpose between the priest and the faithful.  

Another way in which the Extraordinary Form focuses the mind more on God is by the fact that the Rite is celebrated in Latin and not in the vernacular.  This brings home to us the fact that the words spoken are the voice of the Church, and that they are addressed, not to us, but to God.  These reminders that we are not the center of worship are healthy, and help us to direct our minds where they should be directed during Mass.  (And yes, I realize that the Novus Ordo may also be celebrated in Latin and ad orientem, but let's face it: how often is that done?  The Extraordinary Form of Mass, on the other hand, is always done this way.)  

Yet another way the Extraordinary Form properly orients us is by means of all the articles used in the Mass, from the vessels to the vestments.  Each one has a special meaning.  Have you ever noticed that the priest's vestments point to the Lord's Passion?  The cincture around his waist resembles the cords that bound Jesus in His captivity.  The maniple around his left arm symbolizes toil, grief and tears.  The old-style chasubles often bear embroidered images of crosses, so that the priest, like Jesus, carries the cross on his back.  And the chalice itself is vested in a veil that matches the priest's vestments, to underscore the identity of the priest and the sacrifice: the priest immolates himself at the altar, just as Christ, both Priest and Victim, immolated Himself on the cross.  These are only a few of the many visual meditations the traditional Mass gives us, if we pay attention to them.   

2. The Extraordinary Form Sheds More Light on Truths of the Faith. One could go on meditating on the Mass until the end of time, and still not unpack all of its significance; but I find that there are some truths that the Extraordinary Rite makes more obvious.   One is the awesome dignity of the priesthood.  Another is the fact that the Mass is the Sacrifice of Calvary. 

Mass in the Extraordinary Form teaches me that the priest is not just any old guy doing a job, but a man specially selected and set apart in order to perform the Holy Sacrifice.  I can tell this by the fact that he is facing God, as I am, but he is permitted to approach the altar and to stand in the breach, as it were, between God and myself, obtaining God's pardon and grace for me.  I can also tell this by the fact that the priest does most of the praying and performs most of the external actions, while I sit, stand or kneel quietly.  This teaches me both the futility and the needlessness of relying purely on my own efforts to win salvation: futile, because I am powerless, and needless, because in that moment, God has appointed a minister to do for me what I cannot do for myself. 

And all of this teaches me that the Mass is none other than the Sacrifice of Calvary.  The priest is alter Christus: Christ, in the person of the priest, entering the Holy of Holies, offering His own Self to secure redemption, as Paul says in Chapter 9 of the Epistle to the Hebrews.  The Holy Sacrifice itself is offered in silence: this teaches me that I am in the presence of Mystery.  This silence is not the muteness of ignorance, nor the emptiness of a deserted church; it is the expectant hush falling over Calvary as the Savior breathes his last.  This moment is so solemn that when the priest first approaches the altar at the beginning of Mass, he does so in stages, begging mercy and the forgiveness both of his own sins and those of the people.  The penitential right is not slopped or rushed through, but dwelt upon, to make us understand our own sinfulness and nothingness before the stupendous mystery in which we are about to enter.

3. The Extraordinary Form Is Less Susceptible to Liturgical Abuses.  How can a priest improvise Latin nowadays?  No doubt it was done in the past; but at least the faithful (those not conversant in Latin) did not need to be contaminated by it.  And since the priest is not facing the people, and there is not an army of laity in the sanctuary, there is no room for the carnival atmosphere that too often pervades the Novus Ordo Mass. 

4. The Extraordinary Form Sheds More Light on the Reality of the Communion of Saints.  There is no touchy-feely stuff in the Extraordinary Rite; no hand-holding (yuck); no forced intimacy with our neighbors in the pews (double yuck); yet there is a greater sense of unity with the whole Church, Triumphant, Suffering and Militant, in this rite.  The fact that the priest and the faithful are all facing in the same direction underscores the unity of purpose and intention in this solemn act of public worship.  Plus, the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is the Mass -- admittedly with some changes -- that has nourished centuries of saints.  It sheds light on their words.  When St. Faustina describes her mystical experiences during Mass, or when Dietrich von Hildebrand explicates the opening prayer at the very beginning of the Mass (Introibo ad altare Dei) -- now I understand what they're talking about.

5. The Extraordinary Form Is Much Simpler than the Ordinary Form.  Yes, you read that right. Nothing brought this truth home to me more clearly than the new English translation of the Ordinary Form, which necessitated my going out and buying a 2012 missal.  Most parts of the Ordinary Form have many optional variants, the use of which is governed solely by the pleasure of the priest celebrant.  For example, there are no fewer than ten Eucharistic prayers.  By the time you figure out which one the priest is using, it's halfway over.  Following along in the missal is almost hopeless.  By contrast, the Ordinary of the traditional Mass is always the same.  There is only one Eucharistic prayer -- the Roman Canon -- and the changeable parts of the Mass are governed by seasons and feasts, making the traditional Mass super easy for us missal jockeys to follow.   

6. The Extraordinary Form Is Hated and Despised by All the Right People.  A most reassuring sign.

The Mass in the Extraordinary Form is a precious treasure that we were foolish ever to try to change or throw away. I hope that one day the Extraordinary Rite will become the Ordinary Rite, and eventually displace the Novus Ordo entirely.  Until that day comes...I'll continue to attend the Extraordinary Rite whenever I can, and tough it out whenever I can't. 


  1. One of the best explanations of why the Latin Mass is better than the other. We are blessed to have the Latin Mass in Sacramento, California at my parish, St. Stephen of the First Martyr.

    I'll be posting excerpts of this post, with a link, on my blog tomorrow.

    Thank you.

    Take care.

    David H. Lukenbill, President
    The Lampstand Foundation
    It takes a reformed criminal to reform criminals.
    Post Office Box 254794
    Sacramento, CA 95865-4794
    Phone: 916-486-3856

    With Peter, to Christ, through Mary

    Better to light up than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate. (St. Thomas Aquinas)

  2. Thank you, David. I look forward to seeing your post.

  3. Anita, this is great. I put the link on Face Book, and have also excerpted your post on our Society of St. Gregory the Great blog. I linked back to you, with encouragement to come and read the whole thing. Great job.

  4. Thank you, Jay! I hope you soon have a resurgence of the TLM in your neck of the woods.

  5. The Church says the EF and OF are expressions of the same lex orandi, and there is no contradiction between the two (only differences in emphases etc). Given liturgy is the summit of Christian worship, I find it odd that you seem to imply the Holy Spirit can allow the promulgation of an inferior or defective liturgy - something which has never occurred in the history of the Church. The reasons you choose are also rather selective and subjective as well. e.g your comments about simplicity are often levelled at the OF Mass as "simplication" was one of the intents of the new Mass - in this case simplicity is criticised. one could site a parallel set of reasons which favour the OF e.g. the greater exposure to scripture. In fact one EF priest I know who is about to celebrate his first OF Mass is excited about the prospect of preaching on parts of the Old and New Testament not available in the EF Mass. One also finds certain aspects of either Mass one group will tend to say are "traditional" and therefore good and the other "false archealogism" and undesirable - one clearly cannot win! At the end of the day, perhaps the best one can hope to say is the better Mass is the one both priest and congregants can pray better.

  6. tfaessler, I find it odd that you find it odd that the Holy Spirit would allow the promulgation of an inferior liturgy (as distinguished from an invalid liturgy), given the many dire tributlations and crises that the Holy Spirit has permitted to afflict the Church down the centuries. Christ promised us that the Church would persevere until the end of time, but He did not promise that she would not have to suffer -- quite the contrary.

    As for simplicity, if you read my post again, you will notice that I am not criticizing simplicity but the lack of simplicity in the new Mass, and the fact that it compares unfavorably with the traditional Mass in that respect. All you have to do is try to follow the new Mass with a missal to find out what a structural nightmare it is, and how susceptible it is to the viscissitudes of the celebrant -- even without abuses. As for the greater selection of readings from Scripture, that is one thing Vatican II actually called for that was done in the liturgy, but there is also a case to be made for the smaller selection of readings.

    Your attempt to reduce this to a mere matter of taste and opinion requires you to overlook the fact that the traditional Mass that the liberals sought to quash 40 years ago is in fact the form of the Roman Rite that -- with some modifications -- has stood the test of time for centuries and nourished generation upon generation of saints. There have got to be reasons for this, and, whether we like it or not, these reasons transcend taste and opinion.

  7. There is some precedent for the Church fathers permitting an interpretation of "extraordinary" as something closer to "the norm." That is, the use of "extraordinary" ministers.