Last weekend, Pope Benedict XVI released his motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, which enables the greater use of the Pre-Vatican II liturgy, now commonly known as the Tridentine Latin Mass. Under Summorum Pontificum, any priest who is "worthy and not impeded by law" may celebrate the Tridentine Mass and in parishes where a group of faithful that "exists stably" requests celebration of the Old Mass, the pastor should "willingly accede to their requests."
Thus far, the reaction to Summorum Pontificum reported in news accounts has been overwhelmingly negative, probably due to the mass media's instinctive hatred of anything traditional. Among the reasons frequently cited for the opposition to the Pope's move are that most people do not understand Latin, a wider use of the Tridentine Mass could cause divisiveness in parishes, and various complaints from special interest groups, both inside and outside the Church, many of which seem either ignorant or to have missed the point entirely.
Well, let at least one voice be raised in favor of Summorum Pontificum: I am delighted with the motu proprio and very grateful to the Holy Father for this immense and generous gift.
Before my conversion, my image of the Catholic Church was formed by the Latin Mass, then the Roman Catholic Church's primary form of worship. Even before I understood Catholicism, I could easily see how it differed from the Episcopal Church in which I was raised. By virtue of its liturgy, the Catholic Church was its own Thing — there was nothing on earth remotely like it.
When thinking of the Catholic Church, I visualized the elaborate and mysterious ritual I had seen in countless television shows and movies. For when Hollywood wanted to show the reverent, the sacred or practically anything else having to do with religion, it was the Catholic Church and her sacraments that best provided the visualization of the tangible presence of the supernatural in human life. Like many, I was attracted to It without really knowing what It really was. But there is something strange and yet familiar about the whole atmosphere of Catholic worship, much having to do with use of the beautiful sounding Latin, a language you could love without knowing a word of it.
By the time I converted in 1983, of course, the liturgy had changed drastically from what I expected. Over the years, I attended folk masses, rock masses, and children's masses, where kids frolicked in the sanctuary while Father tried to keep us focused on the liturgy; listened to weepy, sentimental songs at Mass whose melodies echoed the Top 40; saw receiving the Eucharist in the hand appear and altar rails disappear; watched as priests became scarce and altar girls abundant. But in all that time there was one thing I never saw: the ancient liturgy that formed my notion of what made Catholicism special in the first place.
It was at least fifteen years after converting before I attended a Traditional Latin Mass. Although the ritual was different, somehow I immediately felt like I had arrived back home. This was the Catholicism that I unconsciously had known without really knowing it, the Faith to which I instinctively reacted before actually encountering it.
Although finding a Tridentine Mass in my area (Los Angeles archdiocese) is difficult and the times inconvenient, I attend one whenever possible. To me, nothing conveys the richness and sense of the supernatural the way the Old Mass does: its magnificent prayers constantly remind us that the Mass is, first and foremost, a Eucharistic Sacrifice; the beautiful, strictly defined rubrics; the wonderful ancient hymns that contain not a hint of pop schmaltz about them; the solemn reception of the Body and Blood of Our Lord kneeling and on the tongue; and, at the end of Mass, the reading of the beginning of John's Gospel, perhaps the most profound words ever written.
By attending the Old Mass, my conversion has become deeper and more complete. The catechesis provided through this magnificent ritual has guided me toward the Church's Sacred Tradition: toward Her teachings elaborated in Papal Encyclicals; toward working for the Social Reign of Jesus Christ; toward an understanding of the Faith and a love of the Blessed Mother; and, most importantly, toward an awed appreciation for the glorious treasure of Her liturgy.
It should be remembered that the Traditional Mass produced the Church's greatest saints and provided the formation of every pope for the past 1500 years, and has been praised by poets, artists and other intellectuals as the crown jewel of modern culture. Thus, if we are obligated to offer our sacrifice to God in the manner most pleasing to Him, Pope Benedict has given a great gift to every Catholic — indeed to the entire world. Only good can come from the celebration of more Traditional Latin Masses. May God bless Pope Benedict XVI for this great pastoral act and may bishops around the world receive his motu proprio in the spirit in which it was intended.