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Lost in a Haunted Wood

On the anniversary of Summorum pontificum.

Sixteen years ago today Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum pontificum, which acknowledged the right of every Latin Rite priest to celebrate the traditional Mass as part of the patrimony of his ordination. It was the most important document promulgated during his pontificate, and one whose consequences extended far beyond the liberalization of the old liturgical books. (One could argue, in fact, that it was the precise moment when the Church left the “End of History” phase, which She had entered under John Paul II, and heard the ancestral voices prophesying war.)

Rather than lament the state of things since 2021, as I have done on countless occasions (in this space and elsewhere), I should like to take this opportunity to recall the first traditional Mass I ever attended, on the First Sunday of Advent in 2010, in the adoration chapel of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Marquette, Michigan.

One could argue that a pontifical Low Mass was not an ideal introduction to the Old Rite (though now one feels rather proud to have come upon such a rare specimen in the wild). The vesting, for example, seemed interminable, and it gave me a slight impression of fussiness that I would not have felt if there had been music. There were just enough copies of the Little Red Book lying around for everyone to follow along, but I quickly discovered that this was a hopeless exercise for a first-timer and that I was better off simply praying. (Despite being somewhat more knowledgeable about the rites, I find that to this day I still have an aversion to hand missals.)

Anyone who is familiar with the high standard of celebration that would become almost universal in the following decade would probably blanche at what I am sure were the occasional slip-ups. But at the time I doubt anyone noticed. While a handful of those in attendance that Sunday and in the months that followed were old enough to have seen the old Mass in their youth (or, in some cases, more recently in other venues) most of us had come with no expectations. For my own part, the closest I had ever come to the traditional liturgy was descriptions in novels, of which the loveliest is, I think, T.H. White’s in The Once and Future King:

The pontifical nuptial high mass was celebrated by such a galaxy of cardinals and bishops and nuncios that there seemed to be no part of the immense church which was not teeming with violet and scarlet and incense and little boys ringing silver bells. Sometimes a boy would rush at a bishop and ring a bell at him. Sometimes a nuncio would pounce on a cardinal and cense him all over. It was like a battle of flowers. Thousands of candles blazed before the gorgeous altars. In every direction the blunt, accustomed, holy fingers were spreading little tablecloths, or holding up books, or blessing each other thoroughly, or soaking each other with Holy Water, or reverently displaying God to the people. The music was heavenly. . .

As I hope I have made clear, my first experiences of the old Mass were not liturgical extravaganzas; they were very homely affairs celebrated in an out-of-the-way rural diocese by humble clergy who were the furthest thing from fussbudgets. While the beauty of the traditional rite no doubt leaves an enormous impression upon many, I can say without hesitation that my reasons for attending the old Mass today have nothing to do with aesthetics, and that if they had formed any part of my motivation in 2010 I would not have come away, as it were, satisfied.

All of this seems to have been very long ago, far longer than a just over decade at any rate. It will not, I hope, surprise some readers of this magazine to learn that at the time of that initial Mass in the cathedral I was an inconspicuous backslider (I had not yet been confirmed in fact). That Sunday was not the beginning of my return to the Church—something I have written about elsewhere—nor was it the conclusion of the journey, which in a sense lasted until roughly the birth of my first child. But without the traditional Mass, and the liberal provision for its celebration made possible by Pope Benedict a decade and a half ago, I can say without hesitation that my life would have taken a radically different course. In the absence of Summorum pontificum I would almost certainly not be a practicing Catholic.

Why this is the case is difficult to say. Aristotle says that part of what it means to be educated is to understand that it is as absurd to ask for rigorous logical demonstration from a storyteller as it is to take a mathematician’s word for it. At any rate my story (in the abbreviated version I have just given) is not an especially interesting one. Any number of people—my fellow patients in the field hospital, to borrow an image from Pope Francis—could tell one very much like it. When we happened upon the old Mass we were, many of us

Lost in a haunted wood
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good

This, it occurs to me, is also a more or less accurate description of the state in which an untold number of Catholics who have lost their regular Masses and even their churches—places where they were married, where their children were baptized and made their first Communions, where, in some cases, they were themselves received into the Church—now find themselves. I hope they do not consider it untoward if on today’s anniversary, I prefer to recall happier times.