New generation, old rite: the enduring appeal of Catholic tradition
Father Joseph Kramer, pastor of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims, is pictured at his church in Rome April 27. The parish is the only one in Rome that exclusively celebrates the Tridentine Mass. (CNS/Paul Haring)
By Francis X. Rocca
Catholic News Service
ROME (CNS) — Of all the Catholic Church's modernizing reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council, none was more evident to ordinary members of the faithful than changes to the liturgy. Latin gave way to local languages, women ceased to wear veils in church, and Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony and 19th-century hymns were replaced by devotional music in popular contemporary styles.
Most Catholics embraced these changes or at least accepted them without dissent. But a minority persisted in their devotion to the traditional Tridentine Mass, and eventually the church accommodated them.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI lifted practically all restrictions on celebration of what is now known as the extraordinary form of the Roman rite. In the near future, the Vatican is expected to announce results of reconciliation talks with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which broke from Rome almost 25 years ago in protest against several elements of the legacy of Vatican II, including the liturgical reform.
According to Father Joseph Kramer, pastor of Rome's Church of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims, the enduring appeal of traditional worship is in large part a matter of aesthetics.
Classical liturgical music has an “uplifting, energizing effect, it really moves people to prayer,” he says. “Both Gregorian chant and polyphony highlight the texts of the liturgy. When you're listening to them, you meditate on the words and internalize their meaning.”
The Australian-born Father Kramer is a member of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, which Blessed John Paul II established specifically to serve Catholics devoted to the Tridentine Mass. In 2008, his baroque 17th-century church, which sits about a mile from St. Peter's Square, was dedicated exclusively to celebration of the extraordinary form of the Mass.
A large segment of Father Kramer's flock is people born decades after the Tridentine Mass ceased to be the norm. He says they are frequently drawn by the older liturgy's emphasis on the sacrificial dimension, which makes it “more obvious that Christ is pouring out his blood for the forgiveness of sins.”
The 59-year old priest says that Catholic clergy of his generation, reacting to the severe moralizing that prevailed before Vatican II, were “very reluctant to talk about the punishments for sin.” But the “new generation,” recoiling from the more libertine mores with which it grew up, “needs to talk about sin and how the problem of sin is resolved,” he said.
Younger people also are “more sophisticated than they used to be, and they're looking for something at a higher level,” Father Kramer says. “And I think that is connected with finding the great tradition and richness of the last 2,000 years.”
The Tridentine Mass is a link to the church's vast treasures of art, architecture, literature and music. “These are all things that we need to rediscover,” Father Kramer says. “No other institution has anything like it.”
More specifically, he says, the liturgy offers an education in the faith itself.
“The Latin of the old Mass helps the priest and the laity understand a lot more about the theology of the church right back to the third century, because a lot of the terminology is in Latin,” Father Kramer says. “These are terms that are coming from the ancient world and that in the intervening centuries have accrued other (meanings) and have been enriched as they've gone along.”
Familiarity with the traditional liturgy can thus help the vast majority of Catholics who attend the ordinary form understand it better, Father Kramer says; and such exposure might also help priests who celebrate the newer liturgy to focus on its essential meaning.
“In the old Mass the idea was that the personality of the priest should disappear and that the Mass would have an objective value,” he says. “The new Mass could learn something from that principle … that it's not about the priest, it's about Christ the priest and the priest acting in his stead.”
Yet the church's experience with the newer liturgy also holds lessons for celebration and appreciation of the older, Father Kramer says. Before Vatican II, private and public devotions, such as the rosary and the Stations of the Cross, often overshadowed and even replaced the Mass in the hearts of the faithful; but the liturgical reform reasserted the centrality of the Mass to Catholic worship.
Thanks to the influence of Vatican II, Father Kramer says, “we're not celebrating the old rite as it was celebrated in the 1950s, which tended to be a very mechanical, rather perfunctory way of saying Mass, a bit cold and legalistic” — as well as frequently inaudible to the congregation. In his church, an amplification system ensures that the priest's words can be heard clearly, so that even those who do not read Latin can follow him using a parallel translated text.
Such improvements exemplify the “mutually enriching” relationship that Pope Benedict has written should exist between the two forms of the Mass, Father Kramer says. A rediscovery of tradition can also help resolve the church's internal tensions over interpretations of Vatican II, refuting what the pope has called the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” he adds.
“The important thing is to have a benign attitude to the documents of the council and to be open to reading them in a traditional sense,” the priest explains. “The church can't have a council that contradicts previous councils. That just can't happen in Catholicism. One mustn't come to the documents with a hostility but rather with a mind that wants to see them as they relate to the general tradition.”
For most of the half-century since Vatican II, traditionalist Catholics have been “trying to find a niche in which they can survive,” Father Kramer says. “But now I think it's time to follow the Holy Father in an attempt at integration within Catholicism.”
“That's the challenge of the moment. To have a sense of Catholic identity, to know your religion, practice it well, but on the other hand, be an influence within the church at large and then within the world.”
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Editor's Note: To see an interview with Father Kramer, go to http://youtu.be/ZLeomOG3bN8.
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