Traditionis Custodes and Families

By Dr Joseph Shaw

The practical effects of Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Letter will no doubt vary from place to place, but one thing is clear: at the highest level, the pastoral solicitude of Pope John Paul II and above all of Pope Benedict XVI, towards Catholics attached to the ancient liturgical tradition, has been replaced at the highest level of the Church by an attitude of suspicion, and even of hostility.

I started attending the Traditional Mass in 2002, and so I had a taste of life before Pope Benedict. Ordinary Catholics, even quite conservative ones, would literally recoil in horror when they heard that I was attending the ancient Mass, regardless of the fact that it had the approval of the local bishop and was celebrated by a priest in good standing in the Church. Ferocious attacks on us appeared in mainstream and, again, conservative Catholic publications. This continued for some time even after 2007, but as time has worn on it has become less and less of a problem.

What effect does this kind of hostility have, particularly on families? Positively, it makes for a strong sense of solidarity and esprit de corps among the Traditional faithful. But it also causes harm. Parents are driven out of the natural social network of the wider Catholic community; children feel as though they are growing up in a persecuted cult. For a number of years my own family had a choice between getting our small children up in the dark, in the winter months, to attend a Low Mass before breakfast, where for a long time we were not allowed to gather for a cup of tea afterwards, or to spend the best part of three hours in the car on a Sunday, if we wanted to attend the Traditional Mass. Many others, I know, were not so fortunate.

Readers may wonder why we bothered. Why not simply go to the ordinary, English Mass? As a matter of fact, for many people locally available alternatives to the Traditional Mass are especially unattractive. Pope Francis does not disagree. In his Letter to Bishops, which accompanied the Apostolic Letter Traditionis Custodes, he wrote:

“In common with Benedict XVI, I deplore the fact that ‘in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions.’”

It seems, however, that the Holy Father has no plans to do anything about the issue of liturgical abuses. No-one watching him washing the feet of Muslim women on Maundy Thursday, in advance of changing liturgical law to allow the feet of women (but not non-Catholic women) to be washed on Maundy Thursday, will imagine that he is deeply concerned about liturgical rules.

Indeed, while Pope Francis acknowledges the problem of liturgical “distortions”, he nevertheless insists that there is no such problem. Later in the same document he declares:

“Whoever wishes to celebrate with devotion according to earlier forms of the liturgy can find in the reformed Roman Missal according to Vatican Council II all the elements of the Roman Rite, in particular the Roman Canon which constitutes one of its more distinctive elements.”

As a matter of fact, in many places the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer 1, is simply never used. In any case, Pope Francis is far from encouraging a style of celebration of the Novus Ordo which accentuates its continuity with the older Missal. Those who have been trying to do this, the “Reform of the Reform” movement, have come in for particularly heavy criticism by Pope Francis. Cardinal Robert Sarah was both publicly and privately rebuked in 2016 for promoting the celebration of Mass facing liturgical East – the  priest facing the same way as the people – and just the other day the Vatican’s publisher noted that it has no plans to reprint the reformed Missal in Latin.

However, the desire to attend the Traditional Mass goes beyond a hope to escape liturgical abuses in the Novus Ordo: it springs from positive as well as negative considerations. We are motivated, ultimately, by a desire to have for ourselves, and to pass on to our children, something which has incomparable spiritual value. Indeed, this treasure is our birthright as Catholics of the Latin Rite. If we might feel obliged to preserve an ancestral home, or the cultural artifacts of a minority ethnic group of which we are members, all the more those of us who recognise the value of this Mass feel obliged to preserve it. This sense of obligation implies that we must be prepared to suffer for it.

Families attached to the Traditional Mass feel particularly committed to the project of preserving the ancient liturgy, both because it comes naturally to a family to consider the next generation, and because the ancient Mass has a particular value for children. As children, especially younger ones, do not engage as readily as adults with words, this liturgy’s use of non-verbal communication – symbolic actions, incense, silence, vestments, chant – has special value for them. It is commonly observed that small children are better-behaved in the Traditional Mass, because (I believe) it is easier for them to absorb an atmosphere of recollection there.

At the same time, families are particularly vulnerable in the liturgical realm. It is more difficult for families to attend Masses at peculiar times and in peculiar places. A lack of parking spaces or facilities at a church makes a much greater difference for families taking small children to church with them than it does for single adults. The cost of fuel in a family car can be a serious impediment to a family’s attendance at a distant Mass, as is the disappearance of so much of the time when families can enjoy common recreation, on Sundays, into staring at the back of the car in front on a motorway. Over many years, many families have made great sacrifices in these and other ways to attend the ancient Mass. Many others, who might have liked to try the older Mass out a few times, have not done so because of such obstacles, and lost the chance to discover it.

Nevertheless, I do not believe the situation in the coming months and years will be as bad as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. All that has been said since that time, by Popes and by others, cannot now be unsaid. Pope Benedict made clear that depriving Catholics of the old Mass was unjust, and that the attempt to banish the Church’s own past creates a theological problem which, as he put it, “calls her very being into question”. The appeal of the Mass to families and to young people cannot now be doubted: indeed, it seems to be the very fact that it is so appealing, that has stimulated these repressive actions. The energy and zeal of the reforming 1960s generation, the ones who smashed the altars and the stained glass windows, and bullied and mocked the faithful who objected, is long gone. In its place there is today a generation of young priests and lay Catholics who are highly motivated to hold fast to the Tradition.

If it proved impossible to suppress the ancient Mass between 1969 and 1988, it will certainly not be done starting in 2021.