Is Pope Francis right about traditionalists who love the Latin Mass?

As part of their efforts to draw us into a deeper faith life, my parents brought  me and my brothers to a Tridentine Mass when we were kids. I do not recall being particularly impressed the first few times. One summer Sunday, however, I decided to attend one on my own, mostly for a change of pace from my home parish. This particular Sunday turned out to be the Feast of Corpus Christi, and I was caught off guard by the sheer spectacle of the ritual.

I briefly resented that the hymns and processions would keep me in church longer than I had originally planned, but I was soon overwhelmed by a feeling that I can best describe as communion. This was, I mused, the Mass as it was experienced by so many saints throughout history. Although there was no one in the pews around me, I began to feel as though I was surrounded by the saints who had come to know and worship God through this liturgy. I did not at that point understand that the rituals of the Mass had changed numerous times over the two millennia of Christian history, but learning about these changes never made me doubt the core of my experience that day.

Last year, Pope Francis spoke openly about his misgivings about liturgical traditionalists in an interview that would serve as an introduction of a book of his sermons as Archbishop of Buenos Aires:

I always try to understand what’s behind the people who are too young to have lived the pre-conciliar liturgy but who want it. Sometimes I’ve found myself in front of people who are too strict, who have a rigid attitude. And I wonder: How come such a rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something: insecurity, sometimes even more…. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.

I have been pondering this statement since I first read it. I wondered whether I was the sort of person he had in mind. Was I a “rigid” Catholic? The experience of being surrounded by the saints at the Latin Mass was one of the most profound and formative spiritual experiences of my teenage years.

The experience of being surrounded by the saints at the Latin Mass was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my teenage years.

I have also been thinking about the pope’s words because his struggle to understand young traditionalists echoes the suspicions held by many older Catholics who lived through the Second Vatican Council, particularly priests. (Plus, the pope has recently reaffirmed his commitment to the liturgical reform of Vatican II, saying it is “irreversible.”)

My experience with the Latin Mass offers one possible answer to Pope Francis’ questions about why young people are attracted to traditional liturgies: Having grown up with the Mass in English, these young Catholics have a vague sense of what any given moment in the Mass is about. The unfamiliar rituals and language of the Tridentine Rite, however, allows them to see these moments with fresh eyes. Discovering the Latin Mass is, to many members of my generation, what the introduction of the vernacular Mass was to people like Francis.

Love of God and neighbor runs at least as deeply in them as it does in me, even if that love manifests sometimes in Latin prayers.

As for the “strict” and “rigid” people about whose insecurities Pope Francis frets, he is clearly not referring to everyone who wants the option of attending the pre-conciliar liturgy. Although some of my friends will wrinkle their noses at certain kinds of homilies or deviations from the liturgical rubrics, their tastes are hardly worthy of a psychiatrist’s couch. They do not need anyone to “dig” into their psyches. Love of God and neighbor runs at least as deeply in them as it does in me, even if that love manifests sometimes in Latin prayers.

To whom, then, is Pope Francis referring? The answer may lie in Francis’ own past. As the Jesuit provincial and later the rector of the Jesuit seminary in Argentina, Jorge Bergoglio was known as a strict and formidable figure, and he had a sizeable following among the members of his province. But his critiques of traditionalist Catholic groups are seldom read through that lens.

When the pope suggests that strictness and rigidity conceal insecurity, he may be speaking about people he once knew quite well or even about himself. Francis’ former inflexibility ought to give much more credibility to his warnings about the pitfalls of modern traditionalism. Traditionalists do not take his criticisms as seriously as they probably ought to. But without any additional context, Pope Francis’ statements sound less like pastoral advice and more like the perennial lamentation of older generations about trends among the young.

The same can be said about many of the admonitions I have heard from the Vatican II generation about the flaws of the pre-conciliar church. It was not until I had extended conversations with these Catholics that the depth and relevance of their experience became clear. If I had not taken the time to listen and ask questions, all I would have heard was a clichéd lament about young Catholics trying to turn the clock back to the 1950s.

But when I did listen to my elders, I learned about many ways in which too sharp a focus on enforcing and following rules risks leading people into spiritually empty legalism and superstition. I learned about groups of men who would stand outside the church smoking until the offertory, since that was the crucial point to fulfill one’s Sunday obligation. I discovered that many priests who outwardly seemed firm in their vocations, after the council nonetheless abandoned the priesthood. Criticisms by older Catholics of neo-traditionalist practices and tendencies are not an allergic reaction to the smell of incense. They are caution that stems from experience.

Many young Catholics seek a greater understanding of and continuity with the pre-conciliar church. Many older Catholics who lived through the council and are intimately familiar with the flaws of the pre-conciliar church worry that revisiting old-fashioned practices will bring back problems that Vatican II took pains to correct. Each group has something to learn from the other. Those lessons only become clear when we set aside ideological concerns and have the patience to understand each other’s experiences. The form of rigidity we most need to worry about is the ideological rigidity that prevents us from seeing how God is at work among our fellow Catholics.

We find commonalities when we have the patience to look for them, just as the liturgies we attend look quite different but are at heart the same celebration of the Paschal mystery.

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