Sunday, November 02, 2014

Mr Bornhoft on the Latin Mass and evangelisation

Traditional Requiem for Michael Davies in St Mary Moorfields, London
Over on Rorate Caeli I've dissected a blog post or column by William Bornhoft claiming that the criticisms of the liturgical reform made by Traditional Catholics means that they are rejecting the teaching of the Church. Here I want to tackle another claim he makes. It relates to the title of his post, but he says very little about it; it comes down simply to this.

The liturgical renewal came about after the Church—no longer a primarily European institution existing in the age of medieval Christendom—realized that the Tridentine form made it hard to evangelize and communicate with the modern world. For TLM Millennials [ie Traditional Catholics], their personal preference for an older form of the mass is overriding the Church’s essential outreach efforts. It shouldn’t come to a surprise to Guzman, given his claimed expertise in this area, that most men may not be interested in attending an hour-long mass in a language they don’t understand.

This is what a lot of Catholics who don't know much about the Traditional Mass think, so it is worth explaining why it is wrong.

First of all, it implies that evangelisation has become more effective since the reform got going in the 1960s. This is an empirical claim and it is very easy to show that it is complete nonsense. Just look at this graph showing receptions into the Church each year in England and Wales. It really is very simple.

Receptions in England and Wales (1913-2010)

And before anyone says 'oh, there were other factors', of course there were other factors; I've written about them here. It remains obvious that the intense debate about reform from the late 1950s, the introduction of the vernacular in 1965, the complete loss of Latin in 1967, the shortening of the Mass in 1965 by cutting off various elements like the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, the Last Gospel, and the Leonine Prayers, and the exciting and shiny New Order of Mass (Novus Ordo Missae, Mr Bornhoft: that's just the same thing in Latin) in 1969, cannot be said to have had any statistically detectable positive effect. If anyone wants to explain away the negative correlation, well that's their business. What is undeniable is that the liturgical stability of the first half of the 20th century coincided, at least in England and Wales, with a monumentally successful period of evangelisation, and that the era of the Novus Ordo has coincided with a period of disastrously unsuccessful evangelisation. It is not drawing in the crowds.

Resistance to the obvious conclusion derives not from statistical quibbles, but from the genuine difficulty many have in understanding how it could be that an 'hour long Mass in a language they do not understand' could attract people. It seems so obvious that the incomprehensibility of the Vetus Ordo must have been a barrier to evangelisation that all the graphs in the world could not convince them of the contrary. I want to try to explain what the tens of thousands of English converts in the early 20th century, and the young people attracted to the Traditional Mass today, got or get out of it.

The first thing to understand is that not being able to understand the words the priest is saying, as he says them, without reference to a hand Missal, does not mean that the onlooker does not understand what is going on. For one thing he may be using a hand Missal. And then there is the issue of liturgical catechesis: a huge number of mainstream Catholics don't have a clue what is going on in Mass, regardless of the language used. But even leaving these issues aside, there is something which needs to be said again and again, which is well said by the theologian Fr Aidan Nichols OP, when he made a point which is obvious when it is clearly stated (in his Looking at the Liturgy): that sociologists and anthroplogists have noticed that it isn't the clearest symbols which have the most power.

Go to an art gallery: which is the image which have the most powerful effect on people? This one? It is the clearest. But somehow it doesn't fire the imagination.

Open a book of poetry: what is the most powerful, moving, inspiring poem? 'The cat sat on the mat'? But that is is clear.

The reality is that people understand more than they can articulate; they can absorb more, in a piece of art, than can be explained to them in words of one syllable. When Alice, in Alice in Wonderland reads the Jabbawocky, which is composed largely of nonsense words, she says that somehow it fills her mind with ideas. Art can do this. Even a text can communicate non-verbally as well as verbally.

All the more so the liturgy, which is not just a text, and which, in the form of the Traditional Latin Mass, is perhaps the greatest work of art in the Western tradition. The most powerful part of it is, in fact, silent. Talk to theologians about silence, and they will tell you it is God's language. How can you understand something which is merely silence? The answer is that there is no 'merely' about it. It is a silence filled with meaning, a meaning which is not at all obscure to the congregation, even if they are new to the Vetus Ordo. They know that they are in the presence of the Mysterium tremendum. Don't take my word for it: go along and see for yourself. And ponder the words of St John Paul II, who said (Dominicae Cenae (1980)) that the Latin of the Mass 'elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic Mystery'. It communicated something of more significance even than the literal meaning of the beautiful and ancient liturgical texts.

In relation to the New Evangelisation, that is, the re-evangelisation of formerly Christian countries, the Traditional Mass is exactly what we need, for reasons superbly summarised by Bl Paul VI (Evangelii nuntiandi (1975) 42):

‘Modern man is sated by talk; he is obviously tired of listening, and what is worse, impervious to words.’

How can we get through to these modern people? What can we offer them that they recognise, however dimly, as being of interest or value? We have for them something precious, something deep, beautiful, and touching. Not everyone is open to it: not everyone was open to the preaching of Our Lord. But it has the power to soften the hardened heart, to penetrate the jaded imagination, and to draw in the impoverished intellect. That's not bad going.

A number of position papers are relevant to these posts, and you can see them on the FIUV website. Notably:
PP 2: Liturgical Piety and Participation
PP 7: Latin as Liturgical Language 
PP 9: Silence 
PP 11: Western Culture 

Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.


  1. I am happy to find your commentaries here and on Rorate Caeli that have considerable depth. They are most helpful in learning what actually happened following Vatican II. Other Catholic blogs seem to be written for those who already understand, which leaves someone who doesn't to piece things together and frequently get only a partial or even erroneous understanding.

  2. My word - Bornhoft's essay is such a target rich environment that I scarcely know how or where to begin. I appreciate that you've done more than *begin* in your two responses, however, Joseph...

    That said, let me single out just one item. Mr. Bornhoft zeroes in on the Old Mass's (and presumably, all the traditional sacraments and sacramentals) poor ability to evangelize. "The liturgical renewal came about after the Church—no longer a primarily European institution existing in the age of medieval Christendom—realized that the Tridentine form made it hard to evangelize and communicate with the modern world." Why is this? He doesn't provide any real articulation of this, except for one cryptic comment seemingly targeted on the use of Latin: "...most men may not be interested in attending an hour-long mass in a language they don’t understand."

    So is the problem the intelligibility of the Traditional Mass to most Catholics? Or are there other problems? (Surely it is not the length of the Mass being an hour, is it?) Since this is his key complaint - beyond his appeal to authority (Vatican II), I am struck by his unwillingness to explain this concern. Because if it is merely the use of Latin, all we would need to have done was provide reasonable faithful vernacular translations of the 1962 missal and be done with it, at least as an option for celebrants. If it was merely the use of Latin, we would also be at a loss to explain how such a un-evangelical liturgical language did not prevent Latin Rite Catholicism from expanding from a shaky Mediterranean littoral to the largest faith in the world by the 20th century, or to become the dominant and energetic faith of working class Christians in the English-speaking world by the early 20th century (as you have noted here in other posts, Joseph), or even to explode the number of Catholic adherents in Africa from 10 million in 1900 to 100 million by the 1960's.

    But the total abandonment of Latin - which, as you note, was explicitly ruled AGAINST in Sacrosanctum Concilium, which merely called for some limited expansion of use of the vernacular (SC 36) - was arguably the LEAST important change made in the Mass, though it was one of the most noticeable to casual observers. So what ELSE about the Traditional Mass - which had somehow evangelized the West and the World through several ages and innumerable cultures for 15+ centuries - hindered it from being useful to evangelization? Our author simply doesn't say. But I would surely like to know, and I think it is reasonable for me to ask.

    I serve as a board member on a Juventutem chapter here in the States. This essay is, fair to say, an attack on the entire Juventutem project, though he does not name us explicitly. Well, fair enough; the fact that efforts like ours are drawing attention creates a great opportunity to get these questions into the open. Perhaps this can be an opportunity for some useful exchanges between Mr. Bornhoft and some of us. We might come to learn what his other concerns are. And he might learn that some of his concerns are, in fact, groundless.

  3. This comment by William Bornhoft is a classic: "Many young Catholics have misunderstood and begun to believe the documents of Vatican II are optional."

    Maybe he should reflect on what Cardinal Ratzinger remarked in his 1988 address to the bishops of Chile: "The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as part of the entire living tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of super-dogma which takes away the importance of all the rest."

  4. Very well put Dr. Shaw.

    My question would be, why do people think the mass has to be a tool for evangelizing in the first place? The mass is our method of worship. To evangelize is to get people realize truths about the person they must worship and as an extension, how they must worship, think, live their life etc. If evangelization is successful, it is the converted person that conforms to the correct way of worship and not vice versa.

    So I honestly do not see why people require the mass to act as a tool for evangelizing. It also feels like an extension of the current mentality that conversion must be based on some emotional attraction rather than solid objective reasons (which obviously can be conveyed in the vernacular as it always was done for 2000 years).

  5. One other item that should be noted: Mr. Bornhoft closes by saying that "There is a place in the Church for the Latin Mass." I think such an admission would have been very hard to come by, say, 20 years ago (let alone 30!); more to the point, one can't even imagine such a *column* being written 20 years ago. I think this is a measure of progress.

    I also think it's a sign that there's room for discussion and charitable exchange of views with Mr. Bornhoft and the Millennial Journal. I certainly hope so.

  6. My mother should have told me not to take seriously anyone who when writing on the Mass, in either form, writes 'mass', as in his first sentence. Interestingly for the Traditional Mass he uses the upper case. What is that saying about him?

    "In July of 2007, Pope Benedict issued the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, which allowed priests to celebrate mass in the Tridentine Rite, or the Traditional Latin Mass."

    1. If you quote SP correctly, Pope Benedict cannot be taken seriously when writing about the Mass.

    2. Fr Blake was quoting Bornhoft, not SP. Do try to keep up.

  7. Your graph above shows a dip in reception to the Church - the lowest pre-VII being 1939 and then a rise to the highest point in 1959. Then after 1959 the level falls from a median of 12,000 per annum to about 6,000 per annum after 1959.

    Was perhaps the peak in 1959 due to some factor relating to the War? is there perhaps another reason apart from the TLM.

    As anyone who has spent any time discussing these matters with a Catholic born before 1938 (my father for instance) or my mother (nee 1942) often priests rushed Mass, has little interest in the Liturgy and hardly ever preached. If one looks at the Jesuit Yearbook for Ireland in the 1920 - every Sunday the Masses which started at 6.00am were every half-hour (yes Sunday Mass was 30 minutes long!) then there was the Solemn High Mass at about 11.30am with no sermon).

    The BIshops at VII realised that the Liturgy in 1950's often was poor and priests were rishing Mass, careless. As for liturgical abuses my mother recalls priests missing out large chunks for the Mass - all to achieve a quick 20 minute Mass.

    Please let's call a spade a spade. The Liturgy in 1950's was not in a healthy state and that is why the Bishops at VII di not ignore it.

    1. I am in Ireland regularly, having lived there for many years. The Novus Ordo Masses of the 21ST Century are mostly less than edifying there.

    2. I wasn't around before the most recent council, and can remember mass only from the 1980s, but I can accept (I'm sure its true) that the celebration of many masses in those olden days was less edifying than it ought to have been. What I can say with the certainty of experience is that the celebration of many more-recent masses has been deeply unedifying, in England and presumably also overseas.

      Whenever I hear complaints about old-time priests' celebrations (usually, rushing and failure to preach) I can't help wondering how they celebrated the new rites in due course. I am afraid that I suspect that the poor celebrants of the 50s were father to the poor celebrants of the 70s.

      On the other hand, my experience is that almost every traditional mass at which I assist is more edifying than almost every new mass at which I have ever assisted. Doubtless part of that is due to my subjective preference. Doubtless, too, the older form of mass is rarely celebrated by priests who might tend to be negligent of rites or ceremonies; also, I am particularly blessed living in Preston. But I do think it significant (I am sure it is a fact) that those clergy who are more serious about liturgy are more likely to celebrate the old mass.

  8. Another point must be made about Catholicism and the Liturgy in 1950's is that in Eastern Europe. I thoink here of Czechoslovakia especially as I lived in Slovakia for a while.

    In 1950 all the Czech and Slovak Bishops and Religious and, indeed. all prominent Catholic Clergy were arrested and placed in koncentracny klastory - literally Concentration Monasteries. They were not allowed to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass - there was no wine provided to them.

    The Communists hated the Church and wished to destroy Her influence over the people.

    It is clear that at VII the Bishops heard the testimony of the Eastern European Bishops who had been persecuted so savagely by the Communists.

    The Communist authorities banned all teaching of Religion in Schools. They made it clear that priests might not catechise. the only thing left was assisting at Mass. So all the Slovak Church had to preach was the Mass.

    It is not surprising that many Bishops appaled at the rush and irrevent 20 minute Masses, gabbled, garbled and awful sacrilege, hearing the testimony of the Czech and Slovak Bishops believed that Mass in the Vernacular might help to evangelise.

    This, perhaps poorly expressed, is what Mr Bornholft istrying to say.

    We must acknowledge that the 1950's were not a great time for the Liturgy or the Church. The evil that was unleashed during World War II and the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe from 1945 unsettled and upset the old order. War and total war above all tarnished men';s hearts and souls. Cum his qui erant pacifici were works no longer uttered with sincerity for many years.

    In caritate Xp.,


  9. The Jesuit Church was, of course, Gardiner St in Dublin - their Farm Street

  10. I cannot help but quote f(from memory alas as I cannot find the book) rom the Directorium Ecclesiae Partriachalis et Metropolitiana Venetiarum published in around1847 by SRE Cardinal Jacobus Monico:

    that Sacristans are to report directly to the Cardinal Archbishop if a priest says Mass in less than 20 minutes.

    Joseph, let's be realistic there was no golden age of the Liturgy. Priests, like us all, are affected by Original Sin, and take the path of least resistance.

    We cannot look back to the 1950's or 1870's and admire their Liturgy. Were it not for the awful Liturgy in the early 20th Century the Liturgical Movement would never have arisen.

    good wishes,


  11. Where, in this post or anywhere else, have I claimed that the liturgy was perfect in the 1950s? I think you are rather missing the point.

    (In any case Ireland was notorious for its liturgical limitations in the old days - it is far from typical - but even there there were centres of excellence.)

  12. Dear Joseph,

    You criticise Mr Bornhoft for writing:

    "The liturgical renewal came about after the Church—no longer a primarily European institution existing in the age of medieval Christendom—realized that the Tridentine form made it hard to evangelize and communicate with the modern world."

    That appears to me to be an accurate statement for the reasons I give above.

    If you now accept that there was "poor liturgy" rushed garbled and undignifed Masses then you should agree with Mr Bornhoft's sentence which I quote above.


    1. No, he's talking about 'the Tridentine form', not specific Low Masses said in Ireland in 1955. So he's still wrong.

    2. Dr Shaw is correct in his claim about the liturgical standard in Ireland circa 1950 and sadly there are still examples of Mass being rushed through a rate of knots! A number of years ago, around 1990, I was at a Novus Ordo Mass in Ireland and the priest announced that due to a GAA match, Mass would be "done" in 20 minutes.

      But for every poorly conducted Mass there will be many more which are fitting.

      The liturgy is like the shop window of the church. And I suggest that the downturn in customers correlates to when the product was changed and no one wanted to buy from the new display!

    3. Even if we grant---which one can't, because it wouldn't be true---that the Mass was always abused in the manner cited in the early and mid-twentieth century, the fact remains that it tells us nothing about the evangelical efficacy of the N.O. or the evangelical inefficacy of the V.O. said properly. This argument is a strawman.

    4. Such a strange argument. "Some Masses are said poorly by ill-disciplined priests; therefore, we must change the order of Mass." Surprise, the poor discipline of the same priests proved just as harmful to the new Mass as the old.

  13. Mr. Dunne,

    If we "now accept that there was "poor liturgy" rushed garbled and undignifed Masses," how does it follow that the liturgy imposed in 1965-1969 was a "solution" that actually improved matters? If it did improve matters, why does virtually every Catholic indicator collapse beginning in that same timeframe?

    I don't think there are many of us here who imagine the 50's were a golden age - and not just because major liturgical reforms (like the mostly regrettable Holy Week reforms) had already begun in that decade. Some of us have read our Dom Prosper Gueranger, after all. Some of us also know that the legendary 20 minute "speed Masses" of yore were not quite as common as some make out.

  14. One more postscript, Mr Dunne:

    The evil that was unleashed during World War II and the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe from 1945 unsettled and upset the old order.

    An evil which, I might add, the Vatican II Council was forbidden to speak of, in stark contrast to the consistent and emphatic practice of the Church before the Council - all mainly in the quest of Paul VI's Ostpolitik, and his burning ecumenical desire to have attendance of the KGB controlled Russian Orthodox representatives at the Council.

    Not exactly a moment of courage for the Church.