I have always spoken up in favour of the Novus Ordo as being licit and valid: Christ will not allow His Church to poison His faithful with error (though He does seem to have permitted her to be left undernourished!) In fact I converted to the Church when the Novus Ordo was basically all there was to be had; I’d no idea Catholics once worshipped in a completely different way and did so until just ten years earlier. Having been well instructed in the Faith by a holy priest, I had no difficulty seeing the Real Presence or The Sacrifice of the Mass in the words “This is My Body, given up...My Blood which will be shed for the forgiveness of sins”. The Acclamation “When we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim Your death, Lord Jesus,” suggested clearly to me that the Sacrifice of Calvary had just been made present on the altar, and that we were professing our belief in that reality to the Lord now Truly Present there.
It was about six months after being received into the Church that I was asked by Doreen, a great lady of the parish, to accompany her to ‘another Mass’ as she did not want to go alone. It was being held in a hotel room in the City centre; it was ‘banned’ by the Bishop and celebrated by priests who were not pleasing to Rome (priests of the SSPX). But, she said, it was the way the Mass had always been celebrated and she was sure I would like it. I was not sure about going; I prized unity with the Holy See very highly and wasn’t sure what kind of disobedience I might be getting into. Still, after a couple of requests, I decided to go out of curiosity.
My first experience of the TLM was not good. It was held in a small room that weekend, and so silent that I didn’t know what was going on. I did however, value the fact that the silence allowed me to do what I always did at Mass: pour out my heart to God: there were no interruptions in which I was forced to engage in conversation with the priest. I later came to regard the dialogues at the Novus Ordo as ‘pantomime-style worship’, as though talking to the priest was more important than talking to God. Even the consecration seemed to be presented as a ‘play’ as priests ‘acted out’ the Last Supper by holding the gifts out towards the folk while addressing them, “Take this, all of you...” Prayer to the Father was out; engagement with the people was in. Of course the Father was expected to be listening in since this was ‘worship’, but it was far more important to have priests and people face and engage with one another. As the years passed I attended the TLM more frequently, occasionally in a small village Church, said by a Diocesan priest with permission from the Bishop.
After completing seminary studies and ordination I celebrated the Novus Ordo with as much reverence as I could, and stayed faithful to the rubrics. Consequently I was met with some rather uninformed (but not malicious) comments from brother priests and laity. From the laity it was “You haven’t read Vatican II”; from the clergy it was “I’m worried about priests who have no personal relationship with Jesus but are obsessed with Latin and lace”. Personally, I was never attracted to Latin and lace: I’m rubbish at languages so Latin was a bit of a barrier for me, and lace is too effeminate for a guy brought up in a coal mining area where men were men. Further, my vision was always wider than the Mass: even when attending the SSPX in the Hotel I was active in the parish SVP because it furnished me with the opportunity to visit the needy with food, clothing, furniture, etc., and active in the Legion of Mary because it furnished me with the opportunity to visit the sick, the housebound and do street evangelisation. To this day I regret that the bishops did not forcefully promote these two great lay associations after Vatican II, rather than devise councils for this and committees for that along with ministries on the sanctuary, because these committees and ministries focused us on in-house activity and issues, leaving the SVP and Legion of Mary to die a slow and lingering death -and with them the stunning local witness and evangelisation via the pastoral work these lay associations undertook.
What has all this to do with the Novus Ordo becoming more and more unsatisfying for me? Well, the derogatory attitude that because one favours the TLM means one is not interested in people or lay activity is becoming increasingly annoying. The TLM was the Mass which spawned the SVP, the Legion of Mary, the Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust, Aid to the Church in Need, Orphanages, Hospitals, Colleges etc. Further, our parish today, though we celebrate a TLM, has people active in catechesis, bookkeeping, reading, visiting of the housebound and hospital, school support, RCIA etc. We also have a charitable/Justice & Peace coffee morning after Sunday Mass to support the Missions and life projects; Garden ‘Family Days’ in the summer and fortnightly Bingo fundraising in the Club. In short, we have all that other parishes have. But I believe we need a liturgy that lifts us beyond earthly concerns to an experience of the transcendent, and I find the Novus Ordo too community-focused to do that –indeed, it all too often deteriorates into entertainment.
When celebrating the Novus Ordo I cannot help but miss the prayers at the foot of the altar which implore the grace to enter the Holy of Holies (at the Novus Ordo we stride onto the sanctuary without as much as a ‘by-your-leave’). I miss the silence of the Canon (in the Novus Ordo it is prayed out loud as though it were a narrative to be heard -or a play to be acted out- rather than a prayer to be said). I also miss the invocation of the angels and saints in the Confiteor and in so many other prayers of the Mass (the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ spurring us on hardly get a mention in the Novus Ordo). I miss the Offertory Prayers which specifically prepare for the Sacrifice (in the Novus Ordo I ‘prepare the gifts’ with no more than a grace before meals). I certainly miss the genuflections given to the Lord.
And there are things within the Novus Ordo I find positively difficult: I find it objectionable to genuflect at the foot of the sanctuary then going up to kiss a barren altar. Since signs and symbols should reveal our belief, genuflecting at the foot of the sanctuary then going up to kiss the altar will leave an uninstructed non-believer thinking it was to the ‘table’ that I had genuflected. I certainly abhor turning my back on the tabernacle so that the people can focus on me and I on them, for which reason I have celebrated ad-orientem at every Mass in my parish for the last ten years (and I do not like separate chapels for the Blessed sacrament which remind me of schools putting the naughty, distracting child in the corner). I dislike the fact that we have (long) extracts from the Old Testament to demonstrate typology for the reading of the Gospel, with the specifically Christian writings of the New Testament being relegated to a sequential, unrelated reading.
We often hear the description of Mass as given by Justin Martyr paraded as the model of the liturgy in a noble simplicity. Rather, this Mass is the Mass of a persecuted community who could not celebrate their principal act of worship in grand solemnity. As soon as The Faith was made legal and came out of the catacombs it took on all the splendour and pomp of the Emperor’s court. In other words, it came to fruition.
I will always speak up for the Novus Ordo as being licit and valid, but I won’t say I find it the best Form of Mass. When at international Masses we have readings repeated in several languages and intercessions in several languages I am reminded of the tower of Babel, where different languages are introduced to confuse and divide. Latin at least displays us as a Church to be the One, Holy and Universal Mystical Body of Christ. Sadly, the Novus Ordo comes with so much adaptation that even if celebrated in Latin from beginning to end one never knows what is going to happen next: dancing? A mime? A puppet show? A celebrant rushing around to shake hands with all and sundry as if to show a human solidarity. One simply cannot relax at a celebration of the Novus Ordo. There was a time when we thought the former Offertory prayers might be permitted as an alternative to the Preparation of the Gifts. What a difference that would make to our understanding of Mass in the vernacular!