Today is of course Septuagesima Sunday; the season of fasting has come into view. Perhaps the “of course” can be omitted now, that the celebration has been suppressed for half a century, in the “ordinary form” of the Mass. But I think so long as civilization survives, even as a whisper, Septuagesima must stand. And besides, beloved Benedict XVI restored the old calendar to our use in the “extraordinary form.” Better, he explained in his motu proprio of 2007 that this Mass was never obviated. It had been guaranteed through the centuries; so that permission for its use could never have been withdrawn. It was not in the power of any bishop, including the Bishop of Rome, to take this birthright away from faithful Catholics.
At the moment we are passing through an exceptionally destructive phase, in which the Church herself seems to have gone under strange management. Our best men are pulled down, replaced with sycophantic mediocrities. Vital theological questions are ignored. Public fornicators and adulterers are made to feel welcome, along with all smug in defiance of Church teachings. Politics are everywhere; especially leftist politics. Sworn atheists are welcomed as advisers to Rome; the Vatican hosts Hollywood whores and “settled science” crackpots. Only that dwindled minority of faithful are made to feel unwelcome, under a constant barrage of insults from the Holy Father himself. We watch, with confusion and enveloping sorrow, “a world turned upside down,” where ancient pieties are redefined, and progressively inverted.
I refer to ostentatious displays of piety, condemned on plain scriptural grounds (Matthew 6:5, &c). It is the great gate through which hypocrisy is imported, to the inner sanctum.
There are many reasons why I prefer the Old Mass to the New. Curiously, the worst I find in the latter, is in the aggressively pious tone of the modern congregational responses, open to easy parody and satire. They invite ridiculous pious gestures, such as the hands raised in declamatory prayer, instead of modestly folded; the replacement of God-directed chant with declarative babble. They encourage in the congregation at large, and in each of its members by infection, a habit that substitutes posturing for religion. This came with the turning of the celebrant, from God to “the people.” (God bless Cardinal Sarah, who put his finger directly on that nerve.)
So much followed.
Prior to the revolution of the ’sixties, in everything I can gather from memoirs and the missals, our liturgy was “flat.” By this I mean serene, tranquil. It expressed the eternal, through a language long adapted to meditative stillness. It focused our attention, not on a gesticulating preacher, but beyond him to the sanctuary of Our Lord. A Low Mass was low, a High Mass high, yet for all the musical profundity in the latter, and the drama of messianic seasons unfolding, the “narrative” remained elevate and constant. It never lapsed into a gong show.
I glimpsed, as a child, the old Latin Mass — as it was each morning in the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Lahore, Pakistan. Being immediately adjacent to Saint Anthony’s School, where I was a day boy, it served as our chapel. I was from a nominally Protestant family; my schoolmates were mostly Muslim (some sang in the choir). By a misunderstanding, I was briefly compelled to attend this daily morning Mass. In retrospect I am hugely grateful for this “administrative error,” in which I was mistaken for one of the Catholic boys, shirking, for it gave me what slight experience I have of Catholic worship before Vatican II. Everywhere in the world, this Mass was sung, and nowhere very differently. The Greek, Slavonic, Assyrian, Armenian, and other forms (even the High English) were in a spirit compatible with what I saw there. I did not know this yet, but could have learnt it from only the one location.
Returning to Sacred Heart decades later, I attended the Sunday Mass in Urdu, with accordions and tabla drums. The Universal Mass had been Pakistanified. I love a squeezebox, I can bear tabla drums, I am intoxicated by the lyrical beauty of the Urdu language. I am thrilled like a native by anything that is distinctly Lahori. All of it belongs in a Christian wedding party. None of it belonged in the church.
Indeed the church interior, rather wildly decorated, had become more outwardly “pious” than anything I could remember. It was now, fully, an ethnic cell, suited to Punjabi tastes. Today, all over the world, our churches have become “safe spaces” for the ethnic spectacle, and for that kindergarten creativity that is invariably employed in its expression. The One Church, Holy Catholic and Apostolic, has outwardly devolved into a chaotic Babel. The house of God becomes a “house for the people.”
Pietatem, piety, connotes familial duty, in its ancient etymological forms. It was the genius of the Catholic Church to transform and universalize this, in the liturgical ordering of filial grace. As Saint Paul saith, we aren’t ethnics any more: not in the company of our Saviour. The spirit of demonstrative, external piety, enjoined by the oriental religions, was inwardly harnessed. Whether individually or collectively in the Body of Christ, we are in prayer detached from, not magnified by, the drumbeat of the world.
Lent is approaching, and I pray that, by whatever means He chooses, God will soon show us the falsities that we have embraced, and help us to restore the peace that we have shattered.