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Ash Wednesday Notes

"Terrifying and enraging"?

Amy Welborn had a post the other day in which she described going to an Ordinariate Mass. She mentioned that the ad orientem (priest facing the altar and away from the congregation) celebration "inexplicably terrifies and enrages some." It does seem to, and I'd go further: the entire traditional Mass, as it was celebrated for hundreds of years (at least) before Vatican II, and of which the Ordinariate Mass is essentially an Anglicanization, terrifies and enrages some Catholics. And that's a really odd thing. 

I entered the Church in 1981, and of course had been sort of scoping it out for a while before that. But prior to the mid-1970s I had given it very little thought. Very, very, little. It had hardly any presence at all in northern Alabama where I grew up, and to the extent that it was ever a topic of discussion among my friends in college and for some time after it was only as an object of mockery. Then as someone contemplating conversion, and a bit later as a new convert, I was if anything more pleased than otherwise that the liturgy was in English. The whole idea of having it in Latin seemed at best very strange to me.

I mention all that by way of illustrating that when I did start to pay attention to the Church I had absolutely no opinion on the liturgy, much less any sort of attachment to what I soon learned was the way things had been done pre-Vatican-II, still less any desire to reinstate it. But I was at first puzzled, then downright bewildered, by the hostility to it shown by so much of the contemporary Church, from bishops on down. And the hostility was not confined to the liturgy itself: it extended to the people who lamented its loss and wanted it back. 

By "contemporary" just now I meant "as of 1981," but the basic syndrome is still very much in evidence. It isn't as almost uniformly prevalent as it was, and as we all know Pope Benedict was very much in favor of making the old liturgy, now known as the Extraordinary Form, available to those who wanted it. Still, for all of the nearly 40 years that I've been Catholic most of the hierarchy have openly despised it and regarded its adherents as, to use James Hitchcock's phrase, "malicious troglodytes." At best they've been treated as pathetic souls who can't handle the modern world and are desperate to return to the supposed safety of the 1940s and 1950s. At the same time much was being made of the Church's need to be open to movements such as feminism which were actively attacking it. Why, I wondered, if these could be listened to respectfully, could not at least that much consideration have been given to faithful Catholics who only wanted to continue worshiping as they had been doing? 

The more I saw of it, the more puzzled I was. I understood and if anything favored the liturgical change. But I could not understand the contempt and anger with which the old form was so widely regarded. 

This really hit home to me at some point in the late 1980s, when my wife and I met a delightful old lady (probably about the same age as I am now) who attended Mass at our parish. She had snow-white hair and sparkling blue eyes. She was intelligent and friendly and informed, and we often chatted with her after Mass. But I began to notice something odd about her. Whenever the subject of the liturgy, or almost anything related to the current condition of the Church, came up, she changed. She lowered her voice, glanced around nervously, and began to talk in hints as if there was some terrible thing that she didn't dare mention.

Eventually I came to realize that she was a traditionalist who had been completely disoriented by the upheaval of Vatican II, and was at least entertaining a lot of fairly dark and paranoid thoughts about what had happened. I don't remember much that is specific now, but I think she at least flirted with sedevacantism, and with theories of Masonic conspiracies and the like.  And I remember remarking to my wife that the woman had been driven a little crazy by the Vatican II fanatics. She had been treated as a crank, and she had in some respects turned into one.

Why? Why were sincere, faithful, good-hearted people like her treated with such contempt by the shepherds of the Church? I didn't understand it then and I still don't. 

And why does the ad orientam posture, even in an English liturgy, provoke such sneering opposition? The description of it as the priest "talking to the wall" is pretty telling, for reasons that are obvious to me, but obviously not obvious to those who use it. 

It makes me wonder whether those traditionalists who see Vatican II as a deliberate attempt to sever the Church's links with its past and turn it into something else altogether have a point. Well, I think they do have a point, actually, although I don't think what they see is the product of consciously evil intentions, but rather of various mistakes, which have been thoroughly explored by critics. In any case the desire of Vatican II progressives to stamp out liturgical traditionalism seems at the very least evidence of an unhealthy sense of disconnection from the past. And there's an obvious implication: suppose you think that much of Catholic tradition should be disowned and discarded, and that you would not want to be a Catholic if it were not. You'll be upset if you see evidence that the tradition is very much alive, and that the attempted severance of the past may be reversed.


I was going to illustrate this with some lurid thing about the smoke of Satan entering the sanctuary, but everything I found was so unpleasant (what did I expect?!?) that I decided to re-post this picture of the chapel where we have our Ordinariate Mass. 


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The strangest are the ultramontanists who went all to implement what they'd been told the pope wanted, simply because they'd been told the pope wanted it.

Not that they were the worst wreckers, but still the strangest.

I can't comment with any sort of knowledge of what went on, though I know there are many competing "narratives." I've never had much inclination to try to sort it out for myself, especially as I don't have any competency. But this more or less phobic reaction still puzzles me. It's tempting just to write it off as heterodoxy of some kind, and I'm sure that's the case for some. But, for instance, the archbishop of Mobile seems to be solid enough, and has been hospitable to the Ordinariate. And yet the only EF Mass he allows is located in a parish which is very remote for most people in the archdiocese.

I speculate that for some prelates it's a genuine pastoral concern, that they really think it's crucial that the liturgy be the same for everyone. Then in the next breath I ask "but then why have some Masses in Spanish?"

The hostility of some Catholics toward their own tradition is mystifying to me. I am sometimes tempted to think it's diabolical, although I'd be satisfied with a less dramatic explanation. I do think that the Vatican II generation has a lot to answer for, and I hope that will answer for it. To me the sweeping changes they made to our liturgy and devotional life looks like a wholesale flight from the sacred.

It's funny: I came into the Church not having a very clear understanding of Vatican II. Naturally I knew that the Mass used to be in Latin and was now in English, but I understood myself to be entering the Catholic Church, not specifically the post-Vatican II Church. I'm instinctively a "hermeneutic of continuity" Catholic. I've seen the new liturgy done well and badly; I've seen the old liturgy done well and badly. On balance, I think I actually prefer the new, but I love both and I want to know both.

I've yet to go to an Ordinariate Mass, but the parish we attend every other week is one in which the priest always celebrates the Mass ad orientem. Why anyone would feel hostility to such a modest, traditional, and sensible aspect of the rite is bizarre.

It baffles me. It's as if anything that reminds them of the pre-conciliar Church "triggers" them, to use the currently popular term. But many are too young for it to be an actual reminder. I don't think anybody much younger than 60 could have many real memories of the old Mass.

I'm sometimes tempted to think it's diabolical, too. Or, somewhat less darkly, a loss of faith, and a desire to turn the faith into secular humanitarianism as many Protestants have done over the past century and more. But I'm also pretty sure that for some it's just a misguided desire to avoid presenting people with something that may strike them as alien.

In any case it seems very clear that much of VII remains an unresolved problem. One knowledgeable friend of mine thinks there will eventually be another council to settle some things. "Eventually" meaning maybe within a century.

The great disappointment of Francis's pontificate to me is that the factionalism involved in all this has been revived. I had thought it was over.

A couple of years ago, my daughter and I attended Mass at an old church in town that was being renovated. Instead of simply repairing and refurbishing it, they decided to turn things sideways, removed all the pews, etc. It’s awful. A old woman greeted us after Mass, and we took the opportunity to ask her about the change. She was obviously very unhappy with it, but she said when she talked to the parish priest about it he said, hey, church architecture doesn't matter really because the Holy Spirit is everywhere. Here's how the church once looked, and here's how it looks today.

I thought of that now because I was looking at Ratzinger/Benedict's The Spirit of the Liturgy to see what he had to say about ad orientem, and found this:

Judaism and Islam, now as in the past, take it for granted that we should pray toward the central place of revelation, to the God who has revealed Himself to us, in the manner and in the place in which He revealed Himself. By contrast, in the western world, an abstract way of thinking, which in a certain way is the fruit of Christian influence, has become dominant. God is spiritual, and God is everywhere: does that not mean that prayer is not tied to a particular place or direction? Now we can indeed pray everywhere, and God is accessible to us everywhere. This idea of the universality of God is a consequence of Christian universality, of the Christian’s looking up to God above all gods, the God who embraces the cosmos and is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. But our knowledge of this universality is the fruit of revelation: God has shown Himself to us. Only for this reason do we know Him, only for this reason can we confidently pray to Him everywhere. And precisely for this reason is it appropriate, now as in the past, that we should express in Christian prayer our turning to the God who has revealed Himself to us.
So much confusion and misunderstanding.

At the first sentence or two of your remarks about the church I thought "Well, it's probably not as bad as that one church I saw on a college campus where they had turned the interior sideways...." Gaahhh.... I thought the worst of that stuff was over. The turn-it-sideways thing is a disorienting effect. A real sense that you're in a sort of no-place.

If they really believed it didn't matter because God is everywhere they wouldn't be so absolutist about these "renovations." If it doesn't really matter, why spend the money? Of course they think it matters.

I think the most immediate psychological difference that ad orientam makes, for me anyway, is that it mostly eliminates the sense that the priest is giving a theatrical performance.

I was just reading an article about a blog post by Bishop Olmstead of Tucson in which he talks about the causes of the Crisis from the perspective of priestly formation.

One of the factors he refers to is clericalism. Sometimes people use "clericalism" as a way to avoid talking about other factors. Bishop Olmstead doesn't do this.

In reflecting on clericalism, it occurred to me that one of the major forms of clericalism that is most destructive is the "cult of personality." So many of the priests found guilty have been charismatic and revered figures. Sometimes even parishioners will say things like, "But he is such a wonderful priest; he can't possibly have done that!" Some then add, "It is a satanic attack on our beloved leader." I've seen this at close quarters.

I bring this up because I think that versus populo orientation at Mass feeds into the cult of personality. Thomas Day pointed this out many years ago in his book, Why Catholics Can't Sing. I recently told some people at the seminary that one thing I can't stand is showboat "presiders." One way to tell a real showboat is if he looks around at the people during the Eucharistic Prayer, as I saw one priest on the faculty of a seminary do in the 1980s. Ugh.

There's really no question in my mind "that versus populo orientation at Mass feeds into the cult of personality." I'm tempted to provide some illustrations from personal experience but I decided a long time ago that it's not healthy for me to dwell too much on those. So suffice to say that I agree about the showboat "presiders." They tend to give me the creeps, actually.

I've never had that impression in England or Belgium, but there isn't much of a culture of "showmanship" in the priesthood (in many cases in Belgium you might think they're actively doing their best to be boring).

Well, if one had to choose...

"Well, if one had to choose.."


Marianne, that "restoration" of the basilica is unbelievable. The new configuration feels very much at war with the space, quite apart from anything else.

"at war with the space" is a perfect description of the way it feels, even more so when you're there than when you're looking at it.

Objective basilica.

How can they not intuitively feel how wrong that is?


My daughter and I could barely stay through that one Mass there.

Janet -- exactly. How could anyone not intuitively feel it's just all wrong.

Yes, exactly ("objective basilica").

I'm sure everybody's heard that joke: "The beatings will continue until morale improves." A lot of post-VII liturgy, music, and architecture has something of that spirit.

I was in high school when all the changes took place. I was just so used to accepting whatever I was told in school about the Church--assuming they knew what was right--I never questioned anything, but it was kind of weird. However, I was more interested in my social life than in the Church, and really, how was I to even find out anything about Vatican II?

One night when I was in my late 30s/early 40s--1980s/90s--I was in a discussion group with a priest and he was talking about the hostility toward those who questioned the change. He said there was really no reason why they could not have brought the new Mass in slowly, having a couple of Latin Masses and a couple of English Masses every week. And that had never occurred to me before. It would have made so much sense.


I think the fact that the Pope deposed our Bishop was probably in the news everywhere. It has been a very uncomfortable couple of years in Memphis, and I don't think I will ever really understand what was going on.

HOWEVER, we now have a new Bishop, and he is a Southerner, so what more can I ask. ;-) He has an enormous job ahead of him here.


"It would have made so much sense." Sure would have. Why didn't they do it? Were they so excited that they just couldn't stand to wait? Interesting that he noted the hostility.

I was vaguely aware of your bishop being deposed but that's all. I don't really know what it was about though. I see at a quick search that it wasn't the sexual stuff. I guess...that's good?...?

I think you may have mentioned it to me but if you went into any detail I've forgotten.

No, I don't think I had. I am very glad it had nothing to do with sex. Still it has been very disheartening.


I had seen a mention somewhere, but certainly not in the secular press round here. Google shows it did get a brief mention in the Church press back in October.

Well, the new bishop signs all his Facebook posts, of which there have been many, with AMDG, so there you go.


Good that he knows to follow the good examples of his flock.

Is he a Jesuit?

No. A diocesan priest.


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