July 08, 2008

Without my winter beard I’ve got a baby face, and am often mistaken for a 30-year-old. But teaching college students gives me frequent reminders that I really am fortysomething.

These kids don’t remember Communism. It collapsed in Eastern Europe while they were in tiny diapers, and most of what they know of the Soviet bloc comes from the character Borat. So the first time they heard the word “Stalin” was during a sketch about “sexy-time.”

Lucky them. My friends and I grew up on a steady diet of warnings from the media about the details of nuclear warfare, and grim tales (from a few elderly teachers) of how the Communists had murdered missionaries in Africa, herded priests into Chinese concentration camps, and blown up Russian basilicas. This meant we were pretty sure that we’d end our lives either under some kind of foreign dictatorship—or in the sudden blaze of mushroom clouds: Red Dawn or The Day After. Depending on news reports, I’d have searing dreams of one apocalypse or the other, and wake up relieved to see neither Soviet soldiers nor piles of Hiroshima rubble. It was only in the fall of 1989 that another outcome occurred to me—and I was so excited I had to call a friend and tell him: “Hey Anthony, you know what this means? We might actually die of old age! Just like our grandparents.”

To the fresh young faces that look up at me when I lecture, all this is as distant and weird as I found my mother’s fear of the Chinese—whom she never forgave for Pearl Harbor. For these students, Marxism is a flavor of lit crit, which their friends at state universities use while unpacking Jane Austen novels. To me, it was a nemesis and personal threat, and its fall (thanks in large part to Pope John Paul) was the best thing that had ever happened to me.

Until a year ago, that is. Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum (July 7, 2007), which gave universal permission for the traditional Catholic liturgy—effectively suppressed after Vatican II—was for me the spiritual answer to 1989. No, it didn’t open earthly prison camps, or lighten the finger on the nuclear hair trigger. But it did break down a monstrous wall that had been built by bureaucrats, which wrongly divided Catholics and held millions of us in a ghetto. This was healthy neither for us nor for those we had left behind. (Some of us got a little bit… eccentric attending those “private chapels” set up behind laundromats.) Even worse, it walled off from most Western Catholics the brightest treasures of their own worship tradition, putting behind lock and key the golden monstrances, the incantatory songs, the gestures of profound humility and the mode of prayer treasured by the saints we all invoke.

Again, it is hard to explain all this to members of the “John Paul Generation,” many of whom grew up in vibrantly orthodox parishes in the suburbs, where hideous modern architecture and happy-clappy music peacefully co-existed with solid Christian preaching, whose “Eucharistic ministers” also worked long hours at pro-life pregnancy shelters. Having never seen what came before, with no trailing memories of reverence lost or beauty abandoned, these post-modern Catholics rarely understand what we “liturgy-geeks” are talking about. If they drop in to see a Traditional Mass, they might very well find it attractive, in an artsy, alien way. Like a matinee of The Magic Flute. But it’s not worth fighting about.

Well, some of us who grew up in the 1970s will have to answer, “Yes. It is.” Born in late 1964, I have no childhood memories of the full-bore Traditional Mass. Our parish had already embarked on one of a long series of “transitional” liturgies, which eager experts propelled into action in lieu of Pope Paul’s issuing the Novus Ordo Missae (much less its botched English translation). Even so, the Masses I remember held over some of the most important symbols and practices of the old rite—and they proved important for me.

For instance, as a nattering four-year-old, I was stung by the absolute demand for silence, and the spectacle of big, strong blue-collar dads clad in suits, kneeling with downcast eyes as they waited for the richly robed celebrant to raise that shiny white disc, and the cassocked altar boys to shake those tingly bells. I asked my mother once, “Why are they ringing those bells?” She said, “So children like you will be quiet. And why do you have to be quiet?” she said, anticipating my protest. “Because you see that piece of bread up there in the priest’s hands?”

“It doesn’t look like bread….”

“Well it is. And now what the priest is doing will turn it into God.”

“Oh…” My green eyes opened wide at that, and they haven’t narrowed yet. That moment never left me. Indeed, that memory of a carefully orchestrated human ritual has served as an actual Grace, since I’ve never since doubted for a nanosecond the Real Presence in the Eucharist. That fact was seared into me by the solemn way all the grown-ups knelt, abject, at an altar rail—and opened their mouths like tiny birds for a crumb of “bread.” And by the loving care the priest paid to handling the Host, under which an altar boy hovered with a gleaming platter of gold.

Such memories sustained me, as the bureaucratic vandals loped through the sanctuaries—knocking down this altar rail, pulling out that altar, and banishing the chant. They taught us in grammar school that “the pope wanted us” to stand for Holy Communion, to take it in the hand, from ordinary laymen—and that all this was demanded by “Vatican II,” which was apparently still in session somewhere, issuing these edicts verbally… because none of it was to be found in the Council documents. Then again, neither was all that business about the Omega Point, or Mary’s other children, or Jesus not rising physically from the dead, or Liberation Theology and women priests that they taught at my Catholic high school. But in order to check it, I would have needed to slog through that 1,000-page book of conciliar documents written largely in 1960s Newspeak. Not even I was nerdy enough in high school to do that….

I remember as I got older, how increasingly silly my own religion began to seem. What once we had knelt, amidst solemn music, to humbly be fed by a white-haired celibate in special robes, we now waltzed up to collect like a movie ticket from our gym teacher—all to the tune of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Indeed, growing up I assumed that “B. Dylan” was some obscure composer of modern Church music, since the only place I ever heard his songs were at “Folk Mass.” The lyrics were flowery and made no sense to me, so I assumed they must just be from the Old Testament—like those droning, desperately joyless “responsorial psalms.” (King David wept….) I kept on dragging myself there, every Sunday, even though I sometimes wondered why—because in some cranny of my soul, I still heard those bells, and still felt that alien, supernatural thrill.

I would later learn from reading the works of that great Catholic apologist Michael Davies that most of what our teachers and pastors told us was false—that Communion in the Hand, the widespread abuse of Eucharistic ministers, the abolition of chant, the desecration of altars, the exclusive use of Mass facing the people, even the abolition of Latin and chant, all of it… all of it… was done on the initiative of tiny coteries of experts, often in plain defiance of Church law. In fact, these assaults on the Mass were conducted via the same ruthless office politics as the “renewal” of Catholic education, with similar results. It’s a cliché to talk about weak-chinned bishops and pants-suited nuns with grudges getting together at four-star hotels for weekend conferences to reinvent the Faith of 2,000 years—but that is sadly what happened. Or almost happened—thanks to the firm refusals of Pope John Paul and then-cardinal Ratzinger.

What is worse, as the visible form of our worship mutated so radically, it was hard to resist the suggestion: If this could change, why couldn’t everything else? (This is what Pope Benedict means by the “hermeneutic of discontinuity.”) The first thing a revolutionary regime typically does is to replace the country’s flag—to let the common people know that all bets are off, and their new masters plan to start from scratch. The bishops and theologians who rejected Humanae Vitae—and with it, virtually the whole of New and even Old Testament teaching on sexuality—found these liturgical changes mighty helpful. Indeed, many of the same people who crafted modern catechesis (and modern annulment norms) also helped along in the changing Mass, in a veritable synergy of mediocrity. Communion in the hand, for instance, was introduced in an act of plain defiance of Catholic practice and Church documents—then presented after a decade or so to Pope Paul VI as a fait accompli: This is now our local custom. So he reluctantly approved it. That’s not what they taught us in grammar school. So when Pope Benedict makes clear that he strongly prefers the traditional mode of receiving the Host, millions of us silently whisper “Amen.” And when he liberated the Latin Mass, millions of us screamed “Alleluia!”

If bishops faithfully follow the Holy Father’s wishes—which apparently now extend to training new priests to say both rites—it will work miracles at luring back the scandalized souls of the 70s. It will gradually convince the gun-shy, self-styled Traditionalists to poke around at their old parishes. This will take time, of course. Given the sheer number of falsehoods imposed on Catholic laymen trying to schlep our way to Heaven by “highly placed officials” and the committees who loved them, is it any wonder that when some people learned the truth, they became a little… suspicious? No wonder so many of those people I met at reluctantly tolerated “indult” Latin Masses—it was easier, in some places, to get permission for gay-sponsored Dignity liturgies—carried plastic grocery bags full of poorly printed pamphlets with the names of “cardinals who are 33rd degree Freemasons.” It wasn’t so much a sign of a “schismatic mentality” (although that exists) as a symptom of Post-Conciliar Stress Disorder. I once adopted a beagle whose previous master used to beat him; he still winces whenever I try to pet him. But he’s learning to trust….

Pope Benedict understands all this, and has shown a fatherly compassion toward those of us who suffered from priestly liturgical abuse. His warmth and wisdom are washing away the bitterness, even as solemn liturgies attract new vocations to the priesthood. (When I was in Rome, the Latin liturgies were always scattered with curious seminarians from Indiana.)

What remains is an outreach to the other lost sheep of the 1970s, the millions who drifted away from catechetical psychobabble and liturgies lacking the dignity of Cub Scout ceremonies. Faced with the prospect of a Church that was being dressed up by wishful thinkers in the trappings of dying, “mainline” Protestantism, one out of three Americans who grew up Catholic have already left the Church. Many ceased all religious practice, but far more sought out the starker certitudes of Evangelical churches—whose embrace of Biblical principles and rejection of sacramental rites is straightforward and sincere.

I’m not saying that people who’ve gone off to Pentecostal churches to speak in tongues will be lured back by hearing Latin. But the recovery of the Church in the West from a generation of chaos and self-indulgence can only be advanced by the slow and solemn recovery of dignity, beauty, and order. A liturgy that teaches us to humble ourselves can in time teach us the far greater lesson—to forget ourselves altogether, and gaze at the Face of God with our eyes wide and mouths agape. To kneel like tiny birds waiting to be fed.


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