The Extraordinary Form – Essential?

To answer the question posed in our conversation – namely, Is the Extraordinary Form of the Mass essential to the life of the Church today? – it might be helpful to examine what we mean by essential. On a very basic level, the Church would exist – and did exist for a very long time – without the Missal of John XXIII, promulgated in 1962. So, in that regard, the answer to the question is clearly no – the Extraordinary Form is not essential to the life of the Church today, because for something to be essential to the life of the Church, it must be part of her substance. That is, if it is not essential in every age, then it is not essential in any age. Clearly, the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist is a substantial part of the Church – without it, we would simply be ignoring the words of our Lord: “Do this in memory of me.” However, the various forms in which this liturgical celebration has been expressed in different cultures throughout time are accidental to the Church. Is the Mass of the Council of Trent any more “essential” than the Mass of Paul VI? For that matter, are either of them any more essential than the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is approximately 1700 years old?

Discussions about the Extraordinary Form often end up hitting on the topic of “organic development.” The Missal of John XXIII, it is said, was an organic development of the Roman Rite, while the Missal of Paul VI represents a rupture. Yet how can we reconcile this with Benedict XVI’s call to read the Second Vatican Council within the “hermeneutic of continuity?” John Henry Newman developed a method for determining whether a Development of Doctrine was authentic or not. Has such a method been developed for liturgical development? If so, from which source?

Pope Benedict XVI is credited with expanding the ability for priests to celebrate the Extraordinary Form with his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. It is important to note that the Missal of John XXIII was never officially abrogated, so Benedict’s decision simply widened the use of something that had already been taking place. Yet he says this: “Needless to say, in order to experience full communion, the priests of the communities adhering to the former usage cannot, as a matter of principle, exclude celebrating according to the new books.  The total exclusion of the new rite would not in fact be consistent with the recognition of its value and holiness.” Thus, Benedict makes the willingness to celebrate the Ordinary Form a litmus test in determining what qualifies one for full communion. He makes no such demands the other way around.

Still, some might argue that the recent trend of young Catholics to seek out the Extraordinary Form shows, ironically, that what some consider a relic of the past is actually a major potential tool in the evangelization of largely unchurched and uncatechized generations. I certainly admit that there are many young Catholics – and I know a few of them – who are attracted to the Extraordinary Form, something which they obviously never experienced as children. Why is that? I have three reasons, which I think could shed light on our conversation.

First, the sexual revolution and related social upheavals of the previous century have caused a complete imbalance in the way people of recent generations experience the world. This is something which can only truly be appreciated by those who are in these cohorts. In a world riven by divorce, in a society deemed “liquid,” in a country where civility has been almost totally lost, young people who stumble upon the Church do so desperate for an experience of lasting significance. They want something which is permanent and ordered, something which has stood the test of time. Enter the Extraordinary Form. It is so out of many millennials’ normal experience that, in its order and reverence, it has truly become something alternative: not the “alt” lifestyles funded by dad’s trust fund or the mass-marketed individuality of Apple products, but a strange, ethereal, pre-modern phenomenon. And one which – so they are sometimes told – for some reason older generations in the Church did not and in many cases actively do not want them to know about. Matthew Schmitz describes the crowd at a clandestine Extraordinary Form Mass frequented by people in their 20s and 30s in New York City: “Dressed in denim and Birkenstocks, with the occasional nose piercing, they could be a group of loiterers on any downtown sidewalk.”

Secondly, there is the importance of beauty. Anyone who has walked into the Museum of Contemporary Art in West Philly and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Philadelphia knows what I am talking about. There is probably no better manifestation of the spiritual sickness, decay, and decadence which characterizes our culture than such a comparative excursion. Art of the past – even when humanism had allowed for the depiction of secular or even pagan images – can often be arresting in its beauty. That is what beauty does: it arrests us, it draws us out of ourselves. It attracts us by bypassing our intellect and will and moving our souls directly. As James Matthew Wilson at Villanova says so beautifully, “beauty is being’s self-gift to being.” And yes, there is something beautiful about the Extraordinary Form. Who has not gotten the chills from hearing the tones of a Gregorian Chant – especially in person? The music of Palestrina, the grandeur of the vestments and accompanying appointments: there is real creativity here, an authentic attempt to create something beautiful for the glory of God and the sanctification of his people. Those who turn on Q102 here in Philadelphia know how desperate the world is for such real art – and how young people who turn to the Lord would be thirsting for such things.

Finally – and this should not be discounted – there are the negative experiences sometimes associated with celebrations of the Ordinary Form. The Roman Rite is characterized by its sobriety and simplicity – principles which have been violated in some places over the last 40 years. Sometimes, this happens in bizarre ways, such as when Santa Claus shows up at Christmas Mass with a birthday cake and presents. Sometimes, it happens in annoying ways, such as when Father alters every other word of the Eucharistic Prayer – or cuts elements out entirely – in the name of “creativity” or “pastoral sensitivity.” But for many young people, while their experience of Mass growing up was not filled with liturgical abuses, their experience nevertheless had a certain sterile and pedestrian sense to it. Millennials, we recall, are the group which has moved out of the suburbs of their youth and back into the gentrifying neighborhoods their grandparents and parents left behind. Whether true or not, many associate their experience of the Ordinary Form with suburban living in general – and often seek something different.

Order, beauty, and reverent simplicity: these are three critical elements of any liturgical act. I have shown here how they are part of the attraction which many people – especially young people – feel toward the Extraordinary Form. Well, then, haven’t I proved the very point I set out to oppose? No, and here’s why: order and permanence, beauty, and reverent simplicity are not the exclusive property of the Extraordinary Form! There is no reason why they cannot be integrated into the Ordinary Form. And, in fact, they are! I know people who regularly attend the Extraordinary Form who have nevertheless been blown away by our liturgies at Saint Charles Seminary. The Cathedral of Saint Cecilia in Omaha, NE makes use of the Gregorian Chant Propers every week. Midnight Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul is breathtakingly beautiful, reverently celebrated, and, yes, something which is far from mundane.

At the same time, the Ordinary Form is flexible enough to be adapted to the forests of the Amazon as well as the gothic cathedrals of Europe. Just because music native to certain cultures is not your cup of tea does not make it absolutely foreign to the liturgy. It is this characteristically Western adaptability which makes the Ordinary Form a great expression of the missionary mandate. One can celebrate a Latin Mass ad orientem or a vernacular Mass with local hymns. The Fathers of Vatican II – it would appear – had no intention of discarding the former, but the fact that they recognized the latter as a legitimate liturgical act is very significant.

What is essential to the Church today is that she encounter Jesus Christ anew and proclaim him to the world. That is who she is and what she is called to do in every age. I am convinced that the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite celebrated as the ritual intends it to be celebrated is just as beautiful, just as attractive, just as real a participation in the life of Christ as the Extraordinary Form. If some are drawn to the Church via the Extraordinary Form, I am certainly pleased about that. But essential to the life of the Church? Hardly.


[A version of these remarks were delivered at St. Charles Seminary during a student debate on the question: Is the Extraordinary Form of the Mass essential to the life of the Church today?]