October 20, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Sparked by the reading of LifeSite author Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s most recent book, Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020), German musicologist and journalist Dr. Barbara Stühlmeyer conducted the following interview, asking the author about his first encounter with the traditional Latin Mass (TLM), whether there’s a connection between the liturgical reform and loss of faith in the Real Presence, the importance of Latin-rite priests everywhere learning the usus antiquior, the difference between the old Divine Office and the new Liturgy of the Hours, the place of the saints and angels in Catholic life, and advice for those who cannot find a TLM near them. A German translation of this interview will appear in the German newspaper Die Tagespost.
Dr. Stühlmeyer: When did you take part in the celebration of a TLM for the first time?
PAK: When I was in high school, maybe 17 years old, I was told that such a thing as a “Latin Mass” existed. Of course I had no idea whatsoever what this would have meant, as I’d only ever seen the English Novus Ordo, and my Catholic education had been sorely lacking in history or theology. Thanks to a “tip” from a teacher, I found out there was a Latin Mass and made an attempt to figure out where I could find it. That led me one Sunday to a hotel conference room somewhere in New Jersey near where I lived, so I went to it. I remember nothing except confusion, lots of people kneeling in a businesslike space with a low ceiling, and not hearing anything. It was not an edifying experience.
The first “real” experience, I would say, came a couple of years later in college, where one of the two chaplains secretly celebrated low Masses in a beautiful Spanish-style chapel at an altar surmounted by a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. That’s where I first fell in love, though as yet I had little clue how this love would dominate my life.
Would you say there is a connection between the postconciliar liturgy and the dwindling belief in transubstantiation?
Yes, I’m afraid it’s impossible to deny the connection. The classical Roman rite as it developed over so many centuries acquired numerous and very expressive gestures of adoration and care toward the Holy Sacrament, precisely because it is not a mere “thing,” but under the signs of bread and wine a divine Person is really present. How we treat Him is how we show our faith in Him and our love for Him. The liturgical reform cruelly diminished these gestures and introduced other practices, now habitual to the point of being immovable, that suggest we are dealing with common food and drink that, in the context of Mass, are given a new symbolic meaning (the technical term for this heresy is “transsignification”). The reformed rite is redolent of a Lutheran or Calvinist conception of the Eucharist. That is the “faith,” if one can call it that, of the vast majority of Catholics in the Western world.
When they learn the true teaching of the Church, they start to see the jarring cognitive dissonance between what we believe (or say we believe) and how we act in the Novus Ordo. And when they see how the traditional Mass works, they realize that it itself is a grand tabernacle for the holy Mystery of Faith, a dominating reminder, a protective enclosure, a gold shining house of God that beckons us while saying “fall on your knees and adore.”
Would you encourage that prospective priests study both rites?
Absolutely. If the usus antiquior is the Roman Rite — as it unquestionably is, both historically and (thanks to Summorum Pontificum) legally — then any priest ordained in the Latin Church to offer the Roman Rite should be able to do so in full, not in a partial and, as it were, handicapped manner. It would be like running with one leg, or boxing with one arm. (I’m thinking that this metaphor doesn’t work so well, because there would be no similar defect in a priest’s only celebrating the old form, which is all that existed for most of the Church’s history and is sufficient unto itself.)
Beyond that, every priest I know who offers the usus antiquior has found it to be a tremendous enrichment to his life of prayer, his sense of priestly identity, and his pastoral ministry. It brings forth new possibilities of evangelization, even if that is not its primary purpose.
How would you describe the difference between the performative power between the reformed liturgy of hours and the traditional form?
The traditional Divine Office is a weighty thing. It has a breadth, depth, and thickness that come from the repetition of the entire Psalter in a week; the varying structure of the major and minor hours (seven in the day and one for the night); the dense interlacing of the Office with the Mass; and the intellectual clarity and rigor of the Latin prayers and hymns. In short, it is serious, and it demands to be taken seriously. In this way it really forms or informs the interior life of the priest and the religious who uses it.
The modern Liturgy of Hours has been satirized as “the liturgy of the minutes” because of its brevity. It displays a typically modern architecture, lacking in ornament and subtlety, and always repeating the same structure (first the hymn, then the psalms, etc.), which is tedious. In fact, it is hard to take seriously, and that is partly why it seems harder for modern clergy to commit to praying this lightweight Liturgy than it was for the priests of old to pray a far more demanding breviary. I’m not even touching here on what happened to communities of monks and nuns who abandoned chanting their daily prayer with the incomparable Gregorian melodies. That was the kiss of death. They have shriveled up like a dry, weary land without water.
Is there a connection between the current state of liturgy and the rather poor awareness of the saints and the angels today?
When people start attending the classical Roman rite, one of the things that surprises and intrigues them the most is how hagiocentric it is: the sanctoral cycle is far more prominent. There are over 300 more saints in the traditional general calendar than in the Novus Ordo, many of them commemorations on top of feasts. The saint of the day determines the whole “tenor” of the Mass, from the Introit through the Epistle and Gospel all the way to the Postcommunion. One has a strong sense of the presence of the saints as intercessors and exemplars, who show us Christ in their own persons and who point the way beyond themselves to Him. So far from being a distraction, this hagiocentricity amplifies the fullness of Christ by displaying His perfections, refracted through the prism of a variegated sanctity. Exalting the saints, especially the Mother of God, makes Christ stand out all the more as the Lord of all, not a chummy brother. The same could be said of the angels, who enjoy many more feast days in the old calendar and who appear much more frequently in the texts of the Mass itself.
We need to return to a liturgy that reflects, as in an unblemished mirror, the biblical cosmos, filled with angels and demons, saints in glory and sinners in need of conversion and deification. This is what all the traditional liturgical rites of East and West present to us. We still live in the same cosmos, but we have tried to forget about it, we’ve tried to fashion a work of our own hands to affirm us in our supposed modern distinctiveness. It was a vain endeavor, doomed to fail. A better way is already at hand, flourishing wherever the traditional Roman liturgy has resumed its rightful place.
What would you recommend someone who is drawn to the TLM but has no possibilities to join one where they live?
I consider it a heavy cross to bear, when a Catholic, who is heir to two thousand years of organically developed tradition, has no option to pray the way the vast majority of saints have prayed, and to benefit from the special qualities of this age-old liturgy. But we can come into contact with the traditional liturgy in other ways — for example, by praying part of the Roman Breviary or the Monastic Diurnal, by meditating with a daily Missal (or even praying a sort of “dry Mass,” such as I describe here), and by making trips once in a while to a monastery or parish where the TLM is offered, as a sort of “retreat” from the busy world of the Novus Ordo. Naturally, in the age of the coronavirus, many are watching the TLM on their screens, and while this is far from ideal, it can nourish the longing for meditative and contemplative prayer.