The Pope's language lesson

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 30 17:51:07 UTC 2007

May 30, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor

The Popes Language Lesson

By JOHN L. ALLEN Jr.  Vatican City

A SENIOR Vatican official has confirmed that sometime soon Pope Benedict
XVI will expand permission for use of whats popularly known as the Latin
Mass, the service that was standard before the Second Vatican Council.
Though some details remain vague, one point seems all too clear: When the
decision officially comes down, its importance will be hyped beyond all
recognition, because doing so serves the purposes of both conservatives
and liberals within the church, as well as the press. Pope Benedicts
intent, according to Vatican authorities, is to make the pre-1960s Mass
optional, leaving Catholics free to choose which Mass they want to attend.
Because the older Tridentine Mass, named for the 16th-century Council of
Trent, has come to symbolize deep tensions in Catholicism, the popes
decision is sure to trigger an avalanche of commentary.

Many on the Catholic right will hail the move as a death knell for the
liturgical reforms of Vatican II, such as use of the vernacular languages
and modern music, and participation by the laity, most of which
conservatives have long derided as misplaced efforts to make the church
relevant. The older Mass, many argue, has such beauty and elicits such a
sense of awe that, over time, it will triumph, leaving the changes of the
last 40 years as a failed experiment. That argument fails the smell test
of contact with reality. For one thing, Catholics old enough to remember
the pre-Vatican II Mass know that its as capable of being celebrated in
drab, uninspiring fashion as any other rite. Moreover, four decades after
Vatican II, many Catholic priests dont even know the old Mass. Given the
other demands they face in light of a priest shortage, a good number wont
take the time to learn it.

Most basically, theres scant evidence of a huge pent-up demand for the old
Mass. Since 1984, celebration of the old Mass has been permitted with a
dispensation from the local bishop. While some dioceses where its allowed
report that the celebrations are often well attended, sometimes with a
surprising number of younger Catholics, theres been no widespread exodus
from the new rite to the old. In the end, the normal Sunday experience for
the vast majority of Catholics will continue to be the new Mass celebrated
in the vernacular.  (Its worth noting, however, that the new Mass can also
be celebrated in Latin, with all the smells and bells dear to the
high-church set.)

Many on the Catholic left, meanwhile, will make a cause clbre out of the
document because, to them, it symbolizes a broad conservative drift in
Catholic affairs. They will read it as another sign of a rollback on
Vatican II. That argument, too, depends on selective perception. While
Benedict certainly wants to call the church back to some Catholic
fundamentals, evidence of a systematic lurch to the right is hard to come
by. This is the same pope, after all, who scandalized Catholic
traditionalists by jettisoning limbo and by praying alongside the grand
mufti of Istanbul inside the Blue Mosque in Turkey. On the political
front, Benedict has demanded debt relief for impoverished nations, said
that nothing positive has come from the United States-led war in Iraq, and
denounced capitalism as an ideological promise that has proven false.

And, of course, we in the press will abet the hype because its about
conflict, which is the motor fuel of storytelling, and because we need to
sell the story in order to win air time and column inches. Benedict, a
quintessential realist, will probably be among the few who understand
right away that his ruling is not terribly earth-shattering.  Sources
close to the pope I have spoken to say his modest ambition is that over
time, the old Mass will exert a gravitational pull on the new one, drawing
it toward greater sobriety and reverence.

Perhaps although its equally possible that traditionally minded Catholics
will now have a broader opt out clause, making them less likely to pester
priests and bishops about what they see as the defects of the new Mass. In
any event, the real impact of Benedicts ruling is likely to be measured in
small changes over a long arc of time, not in upheavals or revolutions.
That reality, however, will do little to lower the rhetorical volume. If
only we could convince the activists to slug it out in Latin, leaving the
rest of us blissfully oblivious, then we might have something.

John L. Allen Jr. is a senior correspondent for The National Catholic
Reporter and the author of The Rise of Benedict XVI.

N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list