As if the Church doesn’t have enough to deal with, lay and clerical faithful have recently turned up the heat on a debate that the average Catholic had no idea was going on in the first place: which form of the Mass is the better one, the Extraordinary Form (“Latin Mass”) or the Ordinary Form (“Novus Ordo”).
The debate as a whole offers edifying moments. To those unfamiliar with the Latin Mass, the discussion familiarizes the faithful with concepts such as ad orientem (where the priest faces the altar) and the subtle catechesis behind all of the movements within the Mass (the dominus vobiscum is my personal favorite). It also encourages us to pause and consider the form of the Mass that we regularly attend, what it means to us, and what we really get out of it. This is in large part to those who offer intelligent, thoughtful, and charitable contributions to the discussion. Fr. Dwight Longenecker and Peter Kwasniewski are the most recent examples.
Sadly, their back-and-forth is not the norm when it comes to this topic. Rather than an exchange of ideas and well-reasoned arguments, the debate on whether the Latin Mass or Novus Ordo should take primacy of place in the Church feels more like a liturgical pissing-contest. Especially considering the Novus Ordo is, officially, the normative form for the entire Roman Catholic Church. Summorum Pontificum, the 2007 Motu Proprio that “duly honors the venerable and ancient usage” of the Latin Mass in the modern Church, explicitly reminds the faithful of that fact.
For those of us who appreciate both, it is distressing to witness the increasing animus between those who prefer the Latin Mass and those who prefer the Novus Ordo. After all, at the end of the day, there is equal opportunity within both forms for exquisite intimacy with God and abominable abuse to happen. The endless quibbling over the direction of the priest, the size of the processions, the quality of the music, and which Scripture passages should be in the regular rotation ends up seeming petty and almost blasphemous; whose offering looks more pleasing to God?
But underneath all the ugliness, there is a sincere and legitimate question being asked: is the Latin Mass truly extraordinary in a way that sets it apart from the Ordinary Form? After spending nearly a dozen years in the Novus Ordo and less than two years in the Latin Mass, it is with some surprise that I find myself answering “yes”.
There is one thing that sets the Extraordinary Form apart from the Ordinary Form. It is an important thing, one that every defense of the Latin Mass tries to make by virtue of those temporal smells, bells, and the not-really-dead language. In the Latin Mass, God is more readily apparent.
The Novus Ordo, for all its similarity to the old rite, focuses more on the faithful’s response to God’s invitation to communion. The increase in public responses, the use of lay lectors and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, reading Scripture in the vernacular, having the priest face the people, all of it is geared toward acknowledging that the faithful are sincerely desiring to respond to God, and allowing them liturgical room to do so.
This makes the Mass a very busy, noisy affair. And while the uplifting hymns, communal prayers, and Sign of Peace may inspire religious sentiment and an appreciation for God’s goodness, it doesn’t necessarily lead to a deeper relationship with God in the sacramental mystery of the Eucharist. Christ comes to us, fully present on the altar, but we’re so busy singing and praying together that the impact of the consecration and subsequent reception of the Body and Blood of Our Lord is not as transformative as it is supposed to be.
The Latin Mass focuses almost exclusively on God and his invitation to communion. The strangeness of the language, the solemnity, the brain-altering incense, the repetition of the Scriptures, and the prevalence of kneeling and standing act to quiet our selves and make room for God to fill his sanctuary, and us. There is a tangible change in the air of a sanctuary where the Latin Mass is primarily offered. The fear and awe that Moses felt at the burning bush becomes understandable to those who give themselves over to the silence and the strangeness of a form that is increasingly alien to the ways of the world.
Both the Novus Ordo and Latin Mass are valid expressions of the lex orandi. Both give us the same Christ, in the same measure: completely and totally present. But each liturgical form places a slightly different emphasis on Christ. The Novus Ordo emphasizes the Body of Christ: the Church, the communion of persons in imitation of God’s very nature. The Latin Mass emphasizes the head: Christ himself, fully and awesomely present in our midst.
For that reason, the Latin Mass is rightly called “extraordinary.” But superior? Not so much. In Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI advocated on behalf of the Latin Mass because he saw no conflict in the parallel celebration of the two liturgical forms in the Roman Rite. He encouraged both to mutually inform the other for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.