On desecration

It is a little-remembered fact — perhaps because those who could remember are increasingly dead — that it is possible to make a thorough hash of the Tridentine rite. Those old enough to recall church attendance in the late ’fifties and early ’sixties of the last century have several times told me that standards were slipping before Vatican II, if they had not slipped long before. In America, at least, preachiness was spreading, and the “sermon” was coming to dominate an abridged Low Mass, performed in the spirit of, “let’s get this over.”

As beloved Pope Benedict (and three predecessors) counselled and showed, an unrushed solemnity is also possible with the New Mass, if the priests are determined. It can also be made compatible with ancient and profound Christian music. In his motu proprio, fully restoring our right to the Old Mass, Benedict was at pains to avoid insult to the practitioners of the New. Both “ordinary” and “extraordinary” forms are valid; indeed, those who are Catholic should know that it will take far more than the common sort of abuse in either form to make a Mass invalid. It is actually very hard to do.

For Christ is present in the Mass, and I doubt the ability of an errant priest, with even the worst intentions in the world, to prevent Him from reaching those who come to Him. It is indeed a modern error to refocus attention from Christ, to his priest or servant. Where the latter stands in His way, the risen Christ passes through him.

But ignoring the most irritating cases — of clown costumes, guitars in the sanctuary, processions on skateboards or whatever — the Mass is the Mass is the Mass. One’s obligation to attend every Sunday is not lifted by any personal judgement of how well it is likely to be performed. Save such decisions for concerts or movies.

It may be that for many, the celebration of Mass is turned to a sad penance. Aheu, I say: the times are the times are the times, also.

A priest, whom I much admire, and who apparently admires me (I shall add “industrial-strength Catholic” to my resumé), wrote earlier this week with this chastisement:

“You referred to ‘the Novus Ordo and related desecrations,’ which I found deplorable language coming from a faithful Catholic. I find it truly disgraceful that any Catholic can refer to any approved sacramental rite of the Catholic Church as a desecration. This right was approved by Pope Paul and was confirmed by Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict the XVI, who greatly improved the text against great opposition. If you are suggesting that Pope Benedict was really in the process of ridding the church of the Novus Ordo, then I think you are greatly mistaken.”

He was referring to a passage in my Sunday Idlepost, “Don’t leave.” A word-search tells me that I have used the term “desecration” on several like occasions in the past. Habitually I make clear that I am not implying the invalidity of the New Mass, but rather, many things horrific in themselves, done in the soi-disant “spirit of Vatican II.” But now I must revisit each use of the word and check my context carefully, for in such circumstances the defence, “you know what I mean,” will not do.

The word “desecrate” is very strong. It was introduced into English in the later seventeenth century as the antithesis of “consecrate,” then used by quick extension for any act by which the nature of something is being destroyed.

I have an English-speaking mind, replete with English-speaking history. This includes the historical memory of the dissolution and physical destruction of monasteries and abbeys; the torching of ancient libraries; the theft and gift or sale of Church lands to a wealthy and self-serving new class; the terrors wreaked on monks and nuns and faithful; the hunting down and murder of honest priests; the stripping of the altars in parish churches right across England; the further destruction of heritage by Calvinist mobs; the systematic obliteration of surviving holy works by Cromwell’s Roundheads; and so forth. Too, the cynical history of Power as, for instance, the Anglican Articles of Faith were written and rewritten over the years, with a constant eye to the diplomatic and political needs of England’s Protestant rulers. And far more: suddenly echoed in the “desecrations” of a later age.

Yet no such act could or ever can touch the reality of transubstantiation; only “make a mess,” and spread a vicious ugliness, while immortally endangering countless Christian souls.

Of course the perpetrators of a former age did not think that is what they were doing. The puritan or iconoclastic mind is by its nature impervious to criticism. Nor can the perpetrators’ distant descendants be held accountable for what forgotten ancestors did; nor we, accountable for ours who took reprisals when they could. Too, all parties are unlikely to know that the longstanding “official” Whig history of England rests upon a tissue of anti-Catholic lies. My use of the term “desecration” is, in my English, full of historical allusion and recollection.

I meant to apply the analogy with the greatest possible force.

But one must take especial care when handling heavy weapons, and in this case I fear the good priest is right. There was far too much “collateral damage” from that particular shot, and perhaps others like it. I rather invited misunderstanding, and in a few days, when my current fevers and chills have subsided, I will go back over my e-paper trail and see what can be fixed.