A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI not only made it possible for priests to offer the Extraordinary Form Mass, he encouraged us to do so. Thanks to a well done DVD tutorial put out by EWTN and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, I was able to learn how to offer that form of the Mass. I haven't offered it often--maybe a few times a year--and each time I do, I have to do a lot of preparation work. I need to read through all of the prayers carefully ahead of time so that I am confident about knowing exactly what I am praying. And, if there is going to be a congregation of folks who are unfamiliar with that form of the Mass, I write up a very detailed and easy to follow program. (I remember the first time that I went to an Extraordinary Form Mass, I thought the priest must have forgotten his microphone because everything was so quiet). I want to make certain that if somebody attends that Mass, they have some sense of what is going on at particular moments so that they are not totally frustrated.
The other night, on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, I offered the Extraordinary Form Mass and it was strikingly beautiful. The schola chanted everything and the congregation numbered around a hundred or so. I was impressed by the number of young people who attended and by their reaction afterwards. Despite my efforts to produce an easy-to-follow guide, they did get somewhat lost. But, they expressed to me how deeply moved they were by the whole experience.
I think one of the benefits of Pope Benedict's allowing the broad use of the Extraordinary Form is that it will eventually cause all of the ideological nonsense that surrounds the Mass to dissipate. In the past (and for the present), there have been those who shudder in horror to think about people participating in the Extraordinary Form Mass. There are priests and lay people who visibly grow angry or dismissive towards that form of the Mass. All of the usual lowbrow criticisms get made, "Latin, back to the people etc."
Similarly, there are those who have maintained that the Ordinary Form of the Mass is "less" of a Mass, that it is representative of a Catholic decline, and that it is somehow sinister.
I think that the broader use of the Extraordinary Form is simply going to cause these characterizations to be seen as the uneducated and fringe ideologies that they truly are.
I am not a liturgist nor a partisan when it comes to the Ordinary and Extraordinary Form of the Mass. I write here some simple observations concerning my experience and my attempts to come to a deeper understanding of the Mass through both forms.
I remember the first time that I offered the Extraordinary Form Mass, a thought occurred to me: "How did we get from one thing to the other?" It felt to me as though there was no way that the Extraordinary Form (as it is now called) organically transformed into the Ordinary Form. Again, I am not writing here as a liturgist, so I defer to their expertise.
There are certain aspects of the Extraordinary Form that I wish were maintained more explicitly in the Ordinary Form.
In the Extraordinary Form, I get a sense that "Boy, I've got to work hard to get to the consecration." The offertory prayers alone are fairly extensive and the whole Mass feels like it is building to a crescendo at the Consecration.
I think the Prayers of the Foot of the Altar were a great loss. They are so beautiful and they help me to approach the Sacrifice with greater recollection and with a great sense that I am approaching the Mysterium Tremendum. Along with this, the Extraordinary Form's extensive use of scripture throughout the Mass in its prayers helps me to have a sense that I am linked to all of salvation history. It continually draws upon the psalms, the names of Old Testament figures, and the saints.
The rubrics of the Extraordinary Form Mass, while exacting, do not seem burdensome to me. In fact, in some way, they draw me deeper into the Mass by making me feel more like an instrument. Now, I have heard it said by folks that "priests thought that they committed mortal sin if they failed to hold their hands exactly right." I grew up in another time, so I cannot speak to that question. Something in me suspects, however, that such a characterization might be slightly exaggerated. Either way, I'm not stressing out too much about the rubrics. I follow them as best I can, but I'm not stressing over them.
Ad orientem worship . . . there's no doubt about it for me. It directs everyone's attention toward the same place and especially focuses my attention towards God. From my perspective, offering the Mass in this way makes me feel closer to the people, not more distant.
Silence. I like the silence of the Extraordinary Form, especially during the Canon. Those who know me would be shocked to hear me say that I grow tired of the sound of my voice! But, in the Mass, this is true. It seems to me that during Mass, the voice of the priest has become non-stop. The Canon of the Mass is basically the same every time it is said. The people know what the priest is saying already. Praying it in quiet, I think, provides an opportunity for the people to become more recollected and less focused upon the particular priest's inflections etc. We could regain a lot, I think, by returning to ad orientem worship and by increased silence, especially for the Canon of the Mass.
The Readings: My experience is that the Ordinary Form of the Mass does a better job drawing people into the Liturgy of the Word. The use of lectors (again, not making the priest's voice the only voice) and the facing towards the people for the proclamation of the Word make a lot more sense to me. In offering the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, I've come to a greater appreciation for the Liturgy of the Word as it is celebrated in the Ordinary Form. I also prefer how in the Ordinary Form the homily seems to be more integral to the Mass. In the Extraordinary Form it feels more extrinsic.
Latin: I'm sure there are ways to meld things in terms of Latin. It is good, I think, to maintain some use of Latin in the Mass. Perhaps, the Canon, the prayers at the foot of the altar etc. Or, just having some fluidity in things. Maybe at the discretion of the priest and based upon the circumstances in each congregation, various options are employed. I think the new translation of the Liturgy has gone a long way toward making the two forms of the Mass more alike. The dignity of the language now employed in the Ordinary Form in English has, in my view, re-oriented the Mass toward the worship of God and has become less directed towards ourselves.
Those who seem to understand Liturgy suggest that perhaps some day we would move towards a third form of the Mass that would basically meld the two forms we have now. I think that could be done in some ways quite easily. What would I do? I'd return the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar and the Offertory Prayers. I'd have all of the prayers of the Mass directed ad orientem. I'd have the Liturgy of the Word celebrated towards the people and in the vernacular. I'd have the Canon in silence (or mostly silent) and have the Eucharist received while kneeling and on the tongue.
At the end of Mass, I'd provide some opportunity before the final blessing, for some brief announcements to be made.
There, I put the whole thing together. We're done.
Of course, there are people who know a lot more about these things than I do who could tear my ideas to shreds. And, they're probably right, so I defer to them. I'm just offering some thoughts from my experience as a parish priest who has come to appreciate both forms of the Roman Rite. I'm grateful for the experience of offering both forms because, each in their own way, helps me to deepen my love for the Sacred Liturgy.