Fascination with the Old

Many are surprised, many more experienced priests are, when they see the interest among some younger clergy in the ways in which things were done in the Church in the past. To be precise, some younger priests are very fascinated with the liturgy in Latin. Some prefer to wear cassocks, and not a few like birettas, when for the more senior clergy these vestures went away long ago and for good reasons.

This looking to the past is not a universal trait among younger priests, but it is significantly present in any overall glance across the country.

For a start, it is not a question of breaking Church law. To the contrary, provisions are clearly present allowing Latin in the liturgy, and for that matter, the mind of the Church is that Latin should be appreciated and accommodated. Actually, at least in this country, dioceses everywhere schedule Masses in Latin for worshippers who want them. A quite bona fide community of priests exists to provide the Latin liturgy.

The point, regarding the circumstances discussed here, is that the order of the Mass, put into effect by Pope Paul VI, is ordinary, the custom, what is normally and most often experienced and offered to rank and file Catholics.

The rub is that senior priests at times feel that their junior brothers want to get away from the ordinary and mistrust what senior pastors have struggled so long and so hard to accomplish, to bring people actively to the Church.

To the central issue, looking back, it reveals something, and it would be good if the senior clergy thought about what is being revealed before dismissing it as nostalgia but as nostalgia for things never experienced.

Put these younger priests into the broader context of their generation. Seeing them among their peers, and not necessarily only their peers who chose to be priests, places them in the midst of very many young people who seem to yearn for something in religion that they feel is short-changed in, or altogether absent from, many modern pastoral situations.

To be precise, many youths, and expand youths to include younger adults, have come to conclude that the supernatural is ebbing away from the Catholic consciousness. It is not that the godless culture completely has overtaken Catholic life, but it is making inroads.

Not enough attention is given to cultural conventions that clearly violate Church moral teaching, it would be said in these young circles. Precisely because of their youth, they are facing issues such as cohabitation before marriage, with the sexual license implied, contraception, and the wider need of being able to defend Church beliefs in an environment that is not friendly to religion.

They perceive an unwillingness on the part of priests and bishops to address these pressing matters directly enough, or convincingly enough, and they feel that they are not being armed to combat either the struggles within their own nature or critics of traditional Church teaching.

Regarding liturgy, they feel that any sense of the transcendent God has been lost in the effort, albeit well-intentioned, in many parishes to make the Mass a collective event of worship. In their mind, too many parish Masses are opportunities for people to come together but not to go to God with their innermost thoughts, hopes and fears.

As far as being prepared for modern moral questions, I lean to think that they have a point, these young people, who very much want to be Catholics and to live according to the Catholic moral code. For example, not that long ago, I cannot recall the message of the Gospel that weekend, but I used the occasion of Sunday Mass to preach about cohabitation before marriage. I cited Church moral teaching. Then I gave some statistics, gathered by the sociology department of a major nondenominational university, to make the point that cohabitation can be damaging and even very damaging.

After the Masses, I did not think I ever would get away from people in the vestibule as they were leaving Mass. To the last one of them, they complimented me on my homily. They wanted the direction of the Church in dealing with a style of life so very commonplace in this society.

When it comes to the liturgy, I do not unhesitantingly agree with young people who yearn for older models of worship. More senior adults I can understand. They actually saw the Latin liturgy, and they found in it enormous spiritual refreshment, as did, after all, our ancestors for dozens of centuries and saints whose devotion we extol yet today.

The younger generation, however, never had this experience. To be blunt, they never saw the Latin liturgy when haste or dreariness or puzzlement was the predominant factor.

Pastors young and old deal with two issues these days. With respect to the liturgy, the world quite simply is very flashy. People always have loved the beautiful, the colorful and the symmetrical. People today live in a culture, with all its technology and breadth of communications, that is awash in the visual.

Obviously bothered, and perplexed, by the drift away from Mass on the part of an increasing number of persons who identify themselves as Catholics, pastors earnestly try to make their parish liturgies appealing. We all must face it. One person’s meat is another’s poison. Not everybody finds the setting of every liturgy uplifting or even tolerable.

I have seen a lot in my time, being present at liturgies in very many places, and with many groups of varying tastes and circumstances. I consider myself a reasonable person. All this having been said, I have attended Mass more than a few times in places here and there when, only by calling forth from my soul the most basic faith in the Eucharist, can I satisfy myself about where I have been and what I have seen.

Interestingly, the Liturgical Movement that actually began quite early in the 20th century, and was mightily propelled by Pope Pius XII — incidentally, before taking final hold in the rubrics in the decrees of the Second Vatican Council — had at its root the pastoral, apostolic wish to bring people to love the Mass and to pray the Mass.

Why? Being very blunt, but truthful, the old liturgy was not everyone’s cup of tea when it prevailed everywhere in the Roman Church. Church leaders, beginning at the top, thought that the liturgy then the norm in the Church fell short of being all that it should, or could, be. The stress upon Gregorian chant, for example, that came forward just over a century past hardly was an endorsement of what was then prevailing in the vast majority, the overwhelming, majority of parishes all across the Western world. (For that matter, at no time in history have priests and bishops universally and everyday hit the mark on the head when it came to proclaiming the Moral Law.)

So, this pastoral impulse to bring people to the pews at Mass has been around for a long, long time.

Are these junior priests who are fascinated with ways and things once thought to have gone away ever in conflict with their senior peers, beginning with their pastors and bishops? They probably are.

Mea culpa! I remember the days after my ordination. I knew so much more than my pastor knew. I knew more than the bishop knew. Now the junior priests know more than I know. They may in certain cases, but not in everything. Experience is a superb teacher.

Call it generational. Call it inevitable.

It very much helps, however, to realize that seniors and juniors stand on common ground when it comes to priests and the forms in which they lead the worship of God’s people or teach to the people the ways of the Gospel.

The common ground is this: “Thy kingdom come!”

God willing, this one underlying desire will inspire cooperation and respect, expressed in looking hard at realities and in learning, perhaps from each other, among all priests about what evangelization and worship should be. TP 

Msgr. Campion is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.