The Tridentine Mass has been in the news in recent years and months. Back on 11th October 2006 The Times of London reported that: "Pope Benedict XVI is understood to have signed a universal indult - or permission - for priests to celebrate again the Mass used throughout the Church for nearly 1,500 years. The indult could be published in the next few weeks, sources told The Times" (Ruth Gledhill, The Times, 11 October 2006). Well, the indult didn't come, at least, not yet. The Pope is evidently taking his time, but sources are still saying the indult could come any minute. The lastest, from the AP, came on June 2nd: "Pope Benedict is poised to revive the 16th-century Tridentine mass." Our breath remains bated. And all this, over ten years after your humble columnist noticed the rather spontaneous resurgence of the Tridentine Mass . . .
Reprinted from Gottesdienst 1996:2 (Trinity 1996)
The resurgence of the Tridentine mass in various corners of the Roman Catholic Church ought to produce at least a raised eyebrow among the liturgically aware. What? They want the priest to go back to the Latin chant? They want to hear intoned, “Agnus Dei qui tollis peccatta mundi . . .”? We had thought there was such relief among the people when Vatican II swept away the necessity for that old Latin straitjacket, and opened the floodgates to all manner of new, avant-garde settings for the mass, whose metamorphosis was hailed and glamourized a few years ago in Sister Act. It would now seem that some are tiring of Whoopi Goldberg’s style.
One wonders what nineteenth-century England might have to suggest in the way of predictions of things to come. In the days when the “broad church” with its attendant pietistical distaste for liturgical correctness gave way to a style of worship whose novelty soon wore thin and empty, the populace became ripe for the onset of the Oxford Movement and its champions of the liturgy in all the beauty of its high ritual. Could it be that we now are seeing a similar stage set, as the twentieth century’s tryst with freedom from liturgy likewise comes to the point of finding the thrill of it gone? Could it be that people are discovering they’d rather have the real thing than what they are beginning at last to see as cheap imitations? The comeback of high ritual in Catholicism strongly suggests so.
The Lutherans ought to be paying attention. The value of ritual will surely not be lost on the people who are likely to be tiring of the tomfoolery of church-growth gimmicks before long; some would say the signs of malaise are already beginning to show.
But the challenge is great, for the matter of ritual’s resurgence has to do with a particular frame of mind, an orientation which is strongly at odds with the misoliturgic mind-set so prevalent among those preferring user-friendly worship settings. The Church Growth Institute of Pasadena, California is most prominent among those promulgating a preference for user-friendliness over liturgy.
The mental state which attends those performing the priestly duties of the liturgy is one which is manifestly not user-friendly. Rather, it is one which carries a profound sense of the divine presence in the liturgy. The God who made heaven and earth is here, it says; let us conduct ourselves accordingly. But such conduct will be sure to get one into trouble in a hurry, since the notion carries with it the call to fear Him.
For too long, this sense of the Presence has been missing in places where it ought to be most expected. One would think that churches with a Lutheran heritage would be quite familiar with the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, and correlatively, in the Divine Service as a whole. Instead, we are finding routinely a strong notion of the Real Presence of Visitors, with the result that sensitivity becomes the operative word. The focal point among those intent on being user-friendly at worship is, quite unquestionably, the users. People who visit the church--newcomers, that is--are the ones targeted by the user-friendliness which has led to the demise of ritual and liturgy. Liturgy, they say, is too foreign, too odd. How much better we would do at welcoming and thereby keeping the visitors if we were to seek to make them comfortable with our setting.
But must we not assume that these visitors we are so eager to keep with us are unbelievers, or at least that their faith is not of the sort that leads to regular church attendance? Since this is so, therefore what we are truly dealing with is unbelief, or at least with people under the influence of the world’s basic rejection of Sunday morning worship. Now how would we make such people comfortable? One would think an unbeliever ought to be uncomfortable in our midst, for what company does faith have with unbelief? Someone whose convictions do not include the need to hear and learn the Word of God can only be made comfortable in our midst if we too conduct ourselves in such a way as to suggest that it really isn’t the word of God which brings us here; no, it’s really the hope of making another visitor happy.
That is the real trouble with liturgical worship. The conduct of the pastor is surely going to be a reflection on what he thinks about the place where he stands. Is it holy ground? Or would we rather hide and cover all suggestions of holiness of the place, lest the visitor be offended? User-friendliness and the ritual of liturgy are in essence enemies. One or the other will have to suffer where attempts are made to combine them.
The Lord as seen in Isaiah’s vision was not user-friendly, as He sat on His throne, high and lifted up, and smoke filled the temple while angels called to one another acknowledging His thrice-holiness with such power that the lintels shook. Not really much of a concern to make the uninitiated comfortable there. If ever there was an insensitivity toward visitors, surely it was in Isaiah’s vision. Such visions are surely not frequent topics of conversation in Pasadena’s Church Growth Insititute.
The root question is whether we believe that God is present here, or whether we are giving mere lip service to His presence. And if God were not present, then it would remain for us to go about doing the work of bringing in the people, all the while thinking the Great Commission was given to the disciples because He was passing on to them something He would no longer Himself be doing.
But this thought is not consistent with the Divine Service. There Christ Himself is present in a way that He is not present anywhere else. He is not only present, but active. The Sower of the Seed is Christ Himself, who also said, I will build my Church, even as He was giving the keys of the kingdom to Peter. And for that matter, the Great Commission itself, given to the disciples, was not without this promise: I am with you always, clearly an indication that their ministry was in no way to be understood as something they would do in His absence. Indeed Christ is present and is the active One in our midst in the Divine Service, whether or not we believe that He is.
Yet our refusal to acknowledge it will do us great harm. The challenge of teaching and behaving according to the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Place is that the contrary spirit is at root a spirit which hates to acknowledge these truths. That contrary spirit has been in its heyday for decades now, and has made many converts, resulting in great abuse and neglect of the historic liturgy.
But now, behold! The Tridentine mass is making a comeback. In spite of all our Lutheran difficulties with the Council of Trent with its manifest hatred for what Martin Luther believed and taught, there never was among the Lutherans of the sixteenth century a dislike for liturgical propriety. Lutherans ought to rejoice in seeing this token of a desire among people to return to a respect for the holiness of the Holy Place from which salvation is given and distributed to unworthy sinners.