Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI and the Traditional Mass

If you're like me, and I am, the most interesting news story of the week was the lifting of the decree of excommunication upon four bishops consecrated by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988.

A little background: Lefebvre was an influential French-Swiss bishop before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. He became the leader of a large group who felt that the Council had been led astray, most importantly in the renovation of the liturgy. Lefebvre founded a sect, which was eventually declared 'schismatic', that adhered to pre-Conciliar teachings and celebrated the old mass - otherwise known as the Tridentine Mass or the Mass of St. Pius X. The group, emphasizing their focus on the old mass, took the name of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).

Lefebvre existed on the fringes for twenty or so years after the council. In 1988 he consecrated four bishops without the consent of the Vatican. The consecration, according to Catholic teaching, was valid but illicit - in other words he could do it, but he wasn't supposed to. SSPX people have been thriving, in a sense. They estimate their own numbers at 1,000,000. And from my experience with SSPX, adherents are not casual members. Traditional Catholics are regular church-goers, strong contributors financially, and take matters of faith and morals very seriously. Aside from their commonplace deprecations of papal authority and of the validity of the council, they are good folks with a strong devotion to the Church.

So, that's part A. A big part B is the strangely timed statements by one of the four bishops regarding the Jewish Holocaust perpetrated by the National Socialists in Germany during the second world war. Bishop Richard Williamson, an Englishman and one of the four, was quoted on a Swiss television show that only a couple hundred thousand Jews died in the Nazi Holocaust, and that the ovens were a myth.

This precipitated a largely justifiable uproar, but the focus of the reconciliation between the Church and the SSPX became Bishop Williamson's unfortunate remarks. The high priests of secular culture (the New York Times editorial staff) decreed that Pope Benedict XVI was a confused old man who cared more about liturgical minutiae than the real concerns of ordinary people. And that settled it for most people.

Luckily you and I are not most people, so we can take the time to savor and appreciate the manifold intricacies of this amazing event.

First, the lifting of the excommunication was a master-work of Church diplomacy and spiritual guidance by our beloved Pontiff. I'll say it again: a master-work. It is amazing.

First, the lifting of the excommunication took place during the "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity" observed by the Catholic Church every year. The prospect of bringing a group of 1,000,000 back into the folds of the Church can only be considered a decisive victory for the Pope, by Christian standards.

Second, it demonstrated that there are differences between the fringes of the left and the fringes on the right. The fringe on the right is actually open to reconciliation and diplomacy. They hold regard for things like reason, fidelity, and tradition. Their differences with the Church are often incidental, or at least within the bounds of reconciliation. As for the left, I am not so sure. In my opinion, the reformers of the left are far more interested in a break than in a reconciliation. That "break" could be a break with the Church, but more likely it is a breaking of the Church. They don't really want to come back to the fold, they want the fold to come to them or to go away. And I think that the reconciliation of the Lefebvrists demonstrates this.

And the third characteristic of this masterwork is that it presents a clear demonstration, in dramatic terms, of what the Church's mind is on the matter of liturgy. The Pope is saying to those who love the Tridentine mass: "We want you back. You have a place here." There are some within the Church who are horrified by the prospect of the return of the Latin mass. It gives them shivers. In a grand gesture, the Pope is showing that he is committed to continuity with the past while being grounded in the present. The Tridentine mass was jettisoned by panicked Catholics in a rush to be considered acceptable by more "modern and established" persons. The Pope is demonstrating that we have no need to deny our past to be the Church in the modern world - we always were.

For those not in the know, the Holy Father's actions could be those of a benighted old man. The same people have said the same thing before (see Regensburg Address) and they were dead wrong. We're lucky to have such a Pope.

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