Seven years ago this week, Pope Benedict XVI promulgated the apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, liberalizing use of the 1962 missal and affirming the continuity between it and the ordinary form of Mass. He stressed the seamlessness of the Roman rite in its two forms, the old and the new. In principle, the traditional Latin Mass does not divide the Church, he insisted, in response to the spectacle of Catholics dividing themselves over it, each side accusing the other of being divisive.

Readers who don’t speak Catholic are invited to consider the following analogy.

Suppose that Judaism had a Vatican and that, beginning around the middle of the last century, it decided that the faith would henceforth be officially Conservative though tolerant of Reform liturgy. It would uphold tradition but flexibly, adapting itself to changing social norms while preserving the essentials of the faith. Orthodox liturgy was not technically banned, but only because the Orthodox were assumed to be extinct, except for the occasional oddball rabbi and his small, elderly congregation lost to time in some forsaken shul at the edge of the universe (probably in Brooklyn). The authorities took the prudent course and did nothing, reasoning that, if left alone, the dying would soon enough fade away quietly, out of sight.

That’s a picture of the Church from 1969, when the “new Mass” was introduced, to 1984, when the Congregation for Divine Worship sent to the episcopal conferences the letter Quattuor Abhinc Annos, acknowledging the persistence of the old missal. Bishops could now grant permission for priests to say the traditional Latin Mass, though under narrow conditions: It was to be celebrated “exclusively for the benefit of those groups” that requested it. It was not to take place “in parish churches, unless, in extraordinary instances, the bishop allows this.”

In her compassion, the Church was making it available as a concession to those at risk of joining a schismatic society and thereby excommunicating themselves, but it was not to be promoted as a good in itself. The old missal would be kept in a strongbox. The bishop would hold the key, and a priest could ask to borrow it.

With Summorum Pontificum, Benedict said to priests, in effect: Here, you keep the key. You need no one’s permission to use the 1962 missal when saying Mass without a congregation. For Mass with a congregation, the initiative must originate with “a stable community” of worshipers, but now it may be celebrated in a parish church, and in general the restrictions on its availability to the faithful at large are greatly relaxed. Whereas the widespread assumption had been that the Church’s adoption of the Novus Ordo as the ordinary form of Mass entailed, in effect, a ban on the Tridentine Mass, as it was called, Benedict pointed out that use of the old missal had never been formally abrogated.

On the eve of Summorum Pontificum, about 225 churches in the United States offered Mass in the extraordinary form. Today, the number is nearly double that—impressive growth, though hardly staggering, until you remember that it represents the effort of highly motivated laypeople who had to petition their pastors and, in many cases, must arrange for priests from out of town to come say the Mass if the pastors can’t.

Most church officials tolerate the old Mass, but few speak of it warmly. Rarely do they encourage the faithful to look into it.

Many who fear that revival of the old missal will divide the Church overlook the degree to which Catholicism is already a big tent of liturgical diversity. The Eastern rites alone number about two dozen. Within the Latin rite there are, besides the Roman rite in both its forms, ordinary and extraordinary, the Dominican rite and the newly established Anglican Use. By itself, the ordinary form of the Roman rite is celebrated in more languages than were spoken by the men gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost in Acts 2. The exact wording of some prayers even in an authorized translation of the missal into a given vernacular language may vary from diocese to diocese.

The Church recognizes the value of permitting local custom and culture, including language, to inform Catholic liturgy as it is celebrated in far-flung locations across the globe. After the Second Vatican Council, the Church retired the fiction that the faithful everywhere prayed in Latin, a language of long ago and far away if you were a Catholic in twentieth-century Shanghai or, for that matter, New York.

To be Catholic anymore, you no longer have to be Roman, even in spirit, but you are presumed to dwell, emotionally and intellectually, within a certain range along the spectrum between Conservative and Reform, as it were. But maybe you don’t. If your heart and mind happen to be Orthodox, where do you go? Probably to the traditional Latin Mass. Church leaders could do more to affirm this charism.

“For the body is not one member, but many,” St. Paul observed. He meant the Body of Christ. And so through her generous embrace of many different rites, the Catholic Church honors cultural distinctiveness based in language and geography. Less formally, she recognizes as well a variety of moods, temperaments, or dispositions shared by kindred spirits in the faith: We speak of Dominican “spirituality,” for example, which is distinct from the spirituality of the Carmelites, and so on with the various religious orders.

Catholicism lacks as yet a taxonomy that would do justice to the sensibility of the Catholic whose receptors for tradition are especially keen. Contemporary Judaism, with its three main branches—Orthodox (thesis), Reform (antithesis), and Conservative (synthesis)—offers a reasonable model, although, as with any analogy, it will break down if pressed too hard. It will serve its purpose if handled gingerly.

Fifty years ago, in the eyes of many of their Conservative and Reform coreligionists, Orthodox Jews were dinosaurs, eccentric holdouts incapable of adapting to modernity; today, in New York City, the percentage of Jewish children who are Orthodox has been estimated at about 60 percent. When I consider the large young families filling out the pews at traditional Latin Masses I have attended in recent years, and when I read reports of newly ordained priests electing to say their first Masses according to the old missal, I wonder whether the Catholic Church in America may be on the same course but lagging by a few generations.

This is not to impugn either the Conservative spirit or the Reform spirit, whose place in the Church is secure, though the lesson of the past half-century may be that their application could be more focused and discriminate. Their ascendancy since the Second Vatican Council has coincided with the astonishing growth of Catholicism in what the Church used to call “the mission lands.” Meanwhile, however, Catholicism has collapsed in Europe and, by some measures (vocations, Mass attendance), gently declined here in the United States.

The liturgical revolution of 1970 may have, on the whole, boosted the faith in the Global South while undermining it where it was long established and strong. In Italy, and America, as across the entire expanse of what used to be called Christendom, Mass-going Catholics suddenly found themselves treated as inhabitants of mission territory, where provision was to be made for “legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples,” in the words of Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s constitution on the liturgy. We have taken the message to heart. As Western Catholics, we speak of the need for our “re-evangelization,” which, whatever form it takes, will look different from the recent and ongoing evangelization of large swaths of Asia and Africa.

An unexpected blessing of the liturgical developments that have sidelined the Mass of the Ages for the past half-century is that when we return to it now we see it with fresh eyes. Talk about making all things new. The Holy Spirit never ceases to surprise.

Nicholas Frankovich is an editor at National Review

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Articles by Nicholas Frankovich

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