Dr. John Smythe

The inverted Novus Ordo experience

On his very fine blog, Traditional Catholic Priest, Fr. Peter Carota recently posted an article that draws some interesting comparisons between the traditional Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo from the unique perspective of the priest.

It’s well worth reading and sharing.

Unfortunately, it would seem that the very people who stand to benefit most from Fr. Carota’s insights are also the ones most poorly-equipped to give him a fair hearing, and in a certain sense, it’s not their fault.

The Novus Ordo practically breeds Mass-goers that are fixated on their own subjective liturgical experiences and preferences.

I know. I was one of them.

Few in the Novus Ordo world will even attempt to deny that the way in which the Mass is experienced is heavily influenced by the personal characteristics of the priest-celebrant.

For example, when the Novus Ordo Missae is offered by a priest who communicates joy and a sincere personal love for the Lord and His people, not simply in the homily, but throughout the entirety of the rite – be it by the expressiveness of his intonations, or by the eloquence of his gestures – the positive experience of the faithful is due in no small measure to the pious feelings that the priest himself aroused within them.

The converse is also true, as one’s experience of the new Mass is often impacted in a negative way by a priest who lacks the charisma, or more appropriately, the “liturgical stage presence,” of the aforementioned other.

In other words, the faithful experience the priest as much, and often even more, than the liturgy itself.

In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for Novus Ordo Mass-goers to avoid, or deliberately seek, certain liturgies based upon who the celebrant will be.

To be very clear, I do not intend to suggest that any of this is a reflection of the priest’s personal piety; in fact, it is my experience that priests considered liturgically bland are often the very ones most steeped in personal holiness.

The common thread in both of these examples is the Novus Ordo itself, and the “performance driven” dynamic that is endemic to the rite.

I should also add for clarity’s sake that it is incumbent upon the priest (and those who assist him; e.g., servers, schola, choir, etc.) to practice the ars celebrandi in the traditional Mass, and the degree to which he does or does not will most certainly impact the faithful’s experience.

Unlike the situation with the Novus Ordo, however, this impact is not a function of the priest’s personal disposition; rather, it is largely based upon his awareness of the underlying meaning of, and his faithfulness to, the prescriptions of the Missal.

The atmosphere of any given Novus Ordo celebration, by contrast, is created in large measure by the priest’s personality and the give-and-take that takes place between him and the people as just described.

Even in the best of circumstances, such as when the liturgical persona of the priest, ever present before the discerning eyes and ears of the people, is considered favorably, the awareness of all present (including the priest) is firmly anchored in the here-and-now.

As such, the Novus Ordo Mass-goer cannot help but view most things liturgical through the lens of personal experience, and therefore personal preference.

For example, Fr. Carota writes, “Constantly I hear from people that they do not go to the Latin Mass because they do not understand Latin.”

Such persons, and I know a boatload of them, are focused not so much on the rite of Mass itself, nor on the unique gifts that may be imparted therein, but upon their own personal preference for the vernacular and their perception of what is at stake.

The mindset on display in this case is not uncommon even among so-called “conservative” Catholics who claim to hold Pope Benedict XVI in high regard, and are well aware of his criticisms of the Novus Ordo, as well as his effusive praise for the traditional liturgy.

So much has the Novus Ordo conditioned these individuals to weigh every liturgical consideration they encounter against their own particular tastes, that most will scarcely stop to consider the possibility that the pope who gave us Summorum Pontificum (to say nothing of the men who reigned for some 1,500 years prior to Vatican II) just might know something about the Mass that they don’t.

As such, Pope Benedict’s insights, just as Fr. Carota’s, are thus reduced to little more than their personal preferences.

They like Latin; I like English, and that’s what makes the world go ‘round!

I would add to this rather common complaint about Latin a related one that is equally as self-focused; namely, that of not being able to hear, and thus immediately comprehend, so many of the prayers that are said at the traditional Mass, regardless of the language in which they are spoken as so many of them are prayed silently.

Lost in this argument is the reality that the majority of the prayers offered at Holy Mass are prayed neither for our hearing, nor for our comprehension (at least in the immediate sense, but we’ll come back to that in a moment).

And yet, this is the case even as the fruits of the Mass are without question intended for our personal benefit, and the benefit of humankind as a whole.

This can be a difficult concept for many to grasp, again, thanks to the influence of the Novus Ordo Missae.

Even the most reverent celebration of the new Mass is directed toward the faithful in a way that is similar to a protestant gathering wherein the entire service – from the exploration of the Scriptures, the music, and even the prayers that are directed toward God – are ultimately intended for the edification of the congregation.

In a setting such as this, a high premium is placed, and reasonably so, on seeing and hearing and immediately understanding what is taking place.

Not coincidentally, in spite of whatever Eucharistic devotion they may have, this is precisely the mindset that even the most devout Novus Ordo Catholics invariably bring to a discussion about the traditional liturgy.

Setting aside for the present moment the rather stark differences between the text of the Novus Ordo and that of the traditional rite, and focusing exclusively on the latter, the words spoken at Holy Mass, while most certainly capable of having an edifying effect on the people, are primarily ordered toward God; not the assembly.

This is not to say that they are prayed for God’s benefit, of course, but rather are they prayed unto His worship; in this case, a worship that is offered in the Sacrifice of Christ re-presented; the same that can never be exceeded in perfection, with its primary effect being not so much our edification, but the expiation of our sins.

This being the case, hearing and immediately understanding the prayers of the Mass is not a requirement for entering into that perfect act of worship fruitfully, and deriving the primary benefit therefrom.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that many of the prayers in the traditional Mass are spoken to God by the priest personally, sometimes silently, as he uniquely offers the Holy Sacrifice in persona Christi.

Some of these prayers are entirely personal to the priest, like his Confiteor (separate from that of the faithful) and the Lavabo (wherein he asks forgiveness and cleansing for himself), and the Placeat tibi at the end of Mass (wherein he prays that the Sacrifice thus offered may be pleasing to God in spite of his personal unworthiness).

Other prayers are said on behalf of the entire Church and her children (e.g., “we humbly beg… we beseech… grant us…”) but are spoken by the priest alone and silently.

Even the prayer before Communion, “Domine non sum dignus…” (Lord, I am not worthy…); though prayed very specifically for the individual faithful who are about to receive Communion, is prayed by the priest alone, although audibly.

All of this is reflective of the priest’s unique function as an intermediary between God and man as he prays on our behalf.

In truth, any number of prayers and movements in the traditional rite that served to highlight the unique role of the priest were deliberately suppressed by the architects of the new Mass; thereby creating a distinctly protestant atmosphere wherein the Mass has the look and feel of a communal service that is taking place under the guidance of a “presider.”

Now, a word about comprehension…

It is most certainly to our great benefit to explore the liturgy in an attempt to comprehend the sacred mysteries that are celebrated at Holy Mass; the prayers that are spoken, the movements, the gestures, etc.

And yet, it’s important for us to realize that the nature of the sacred liturgy is such that, even for the brightest among us, our ability to truly understand is quite limited.

In other words, while the sacred liturgy is not unknowable; it is so great and so profound that the human mind can only begin to conceive of its true glory via signs and symbols and analogies.

As such, any meaningful degree of comprehension that we may attain will not primarily be derived immediately from an on-the-spot hearing, but rather by plumbing the depths of the sacred liturgy, and this with great effort.

This does takes place, in part, by silent contemplation during the liturgy itself, and yet the prayerful exploration of the sacred rites outside of Holy Mass, supplemented by liturgical instruction drawn from competent sources, is utterly indispensable in making liturgical comprehension, such as it is attainable, possible.

Those faithful who embark upon such an exploration will find that the insights gained from this effort leads to more fruitful contemplation during the Mass itself. With their hearts and minds thus more properly disposed toward being elevated by the sacred signs present in the rite, a more profound experience of the Divine is thus realized therein.

In the Novus Ordo world, this approach is essentially inverted as hearing, seeing, and understanding is given the highest priority in terms of facilitating a meaningful liturgical experience.

The idea that the sacred signs at Holy Mass, which includes the words that are spoken, should be well within one’s intellectual grasp is truly nothing short of preposterous; i.e., it’s not entirely unreasonable to say that “easily understood” is in some measure antithetical to the sacred rites.

This, however, is a direct fruit of Vatican Council II which stated, “Both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease.” (cf SC 21)

In conclusion, tradition-minded Catholics, having discovered so great a treasure as the Usus Antiquior, cannot help but call their Novus Ordo friends and acquaintances to embrace its singular magnificence.

We must be cognizant, however, of the fact that the overwhelming majority of these individuals have been conditioned in such way that their concept of liturgy is severely skewed in the direction of self.

As such, we must pray for our Novus Ordo friends, that they may receive the grace necessary to set their preconceived liturgical notions aside, that their eyes may be opened to the great treasures that have been lost, and thus gain a sincere desire to recover them for the greater glory of God.

Having said this, I would encourage you to consider sharing Fr. Carota’s post (and perhaps this one) with those who may stand to benefit.