The Marian Nature of the Extraordinary Form

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As COVID precautions slowly change across the United States, many bishops are beginning to reinstitute the obligation to attend Sunday Mass in their dioceses and encourage the faithful to return. Some are indeed returning with longing to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist. Still, the suppression of Mass accelerated a certain ecclesiastical decay and liturgical distortion that was already happening within the life of the Church. With not only a loss of belief in the Real Presence but also a pre-existing crisis of faith brought about by various liturgical, theological, and ecclesial abuses, as well as a failure to evangelize; many younger people raised Catholic may not indeed return to the Church. Many pastors and bishops wonder where to start in this storm to reach out to the disaffected Catholics and help bring them back to the Church.

Many priests and faithful are turning towards the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, also known as the old Latin Mass, to answer the crisis of faith evident in the Church today. This has been a growing phenomenon since issuing the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum by Pope Benedict XVI. Catholic intellectuals, spiritual giants, and blue-collar Catholics of simple faith have flocked to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  The mention of the Extraordinary Form can fill bishops, priests, and lay leaders either with joy, enthusiasm, hostility, or bewilderment. Among priests of different generations and different liturgical preferences, such conversations about the Extraordinary Form can lead to a dissonance that seems like speaking Chinese to someone who only speaks English.

The situation then begs the following questions: 1) Why the fascination in the Mass of Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite not only by the Catholic elite but by those of simple faith? 2) What does the Mass in the Extraordinary Form tell me not only about how to pray the mass in general, no matter what Rite or language I attend it in, but how to live my faith in Jesus? 

A danger that can be faced at mass, especially where there is poor formation and lack of reverence is a certain liturgical vanity and self-reverential activism. This spirit and its temptation are presented to us in a certain way by Saint Thomas before he saw the risen Lord after the rest of the Apostles saw him. Just as he said, “Unless I see the wounds in his hands, his feet, and side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25),  often the Church of our age and many of the faithful can say, “Unless I know everything that is going on at Mass with my intellect, I am always doing something at Mass, and I am feeling something, I am not really at Mass.”  This temptation can be introduced especially through a disordered emphasis on relating to people in the liturgy to the disregard of letting the Lord speak through both the Eucharist and the divine mysteries present. It can ultimately lead to religious indifference, sacrilege, and contribute to the loss of the general sense of faith. In recent times, this liturgical disposition has crept into the life of the Church under the “spirit” of liturgical reform.  The spirit of liturgical activism and abuse can occur subtly or in great extremes even at your average parish or in a given country. When left unchecked, this spirit undermines the authentic worship of God in mystery, in spirit, and truth (Cf. Jn 4:24), as well and the salvation of souls. Examples of this include a disordered emphasis on inclusion and involvement in ministries that goes against both liturgical norms and the rule of faith, the theological content of the lyrics of certain hymns, as well as an unbridled creativity that makes the worship of Jesus in the Eucharist at the liturgy into our pet project. 

One can also see this danger of liturgical abuse in both forms of the Roman Rite manifest in different ways. It is often seen when the proper prayers of the liturgy are rushed, omitted, or sloppily prayed by the priest or congregation in a way that hinders reverent participation. The danger of liturgical vanity can even affect the external reality of the liturgy, as seen in architecture and ornamentation. This vanity can be present in an excessive impoverishment of the externals of the liturgy for the sake of certain poverty or false relevancy with the world. This vanity can also be found in an overemphasis of liturgical externals to neglect a reverent worship and participation in the liturgy through personal holiness of life.

One of the strengths of the Extraordinary Form is that it shows that every Mass that the Church offers draws the individual into a greater mystery that is bigger than themselves and the local community that is present at it. A sense of transcendence and divine mystery is conveyed by the fact that the priest offers the majority of the Mass facing ad orientem and prays the Canon silently. A mystical encounter is made with Christ, who seeks to heal and nourish us by his Body and Blood, and through the union of hearts established in the sacrament. This union of persons into the Eucharistic mystery and its bearing fruit in grace is at the heart of authentic active participation in the liturgy (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 14).  This is why taking the time to spiritually quiet my heart and prepare for this union with Our Lord at the Divine Mysteries at mass, especially at the consecration, is just as important as being present. I can show up, but my heart can be a thousand miles away from the person I love. If I do not open up my longing to the mystery of his presence and divine life in the Eucharist – my faith in Jesus Christ risks not only becoming shallow, it risks its own starvation. 

For the Church to authentically be who Christ made her to be – his mystical body and bride – she must remember, see, and understand who she is and act from that identity received from Our Lord. The one who shows us how to act before the Eucharistic Mystery is Our Lady, the one who hears the word of God and observes it in her heart. (Lk 2:19, 11:28) Throughout her life as recorded in Scripture, Mary is always attentive to the divine action of grace that is before her in the present moment. From this attentiveness, She shows us how to unite our lives in worship to a mystery that is beyond us. This posture of receptivity is what she shows us both at the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38) and the Foot of the Cross (Jn 19:25-27).

Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity speaks to us of this reality in the following way:

You are there, O Mary, at the foot of the Cross, standing, in strength and courage; and my Master says to me, “Ecce Mater Tua.” Behold Your Mother. He gives you to me for my Mother! And now that he has returned to His Father, and has put me in His place on the Cross so that I may fill up those things which are wanting of the sufferings of Christ in my flesh for His Body, which is the Church, you are still there, O Mary, to teach me to suffer as He did, to let me hear the last song of His soul which no one but you, O mother, could overhear.” (Taken from Divine Intimacy n. 131, Our Lady of Sorrows)

What Elizabeth of the Trinity speaks to us here is how our Lady’s posture of receptivity in regards to the mystery of redemption. At the foot of the cross and at Mass, Mary as our mother helps us to anchor prayerfully our lives in the same mystery of redemption her son Jesus extended to her in both through her joys and sorrows. Such rooting of one’s life in the Eucharist that authentic active participation at Mass in its interior dimension and then in daily prayer helps us be open and fruitful to the action of grace (cf. Jn 15:4-11). This participation in the Eucharistic mystery of redemption is what authentic liturgical reverence and prayer drive home to the faithful. This is why many in the church seek to be sustained in this reverence and thereby find a home in parishes that regularly offer mass in the Extraordinary Form. They find that the Extraordinary Form of the mass teaches and invites them to enter into the divine mysteries through its various liturgical languages of silence, mystery, reverence, and ritual in a profound and powerful way. From this, the faithful begin to understand that truly praying the Mass involves offering their entire person to Jesus in the Eucharist. This is done first at the moment of consecration in union with the priest and reaches completion in one’s Eucharistic reception of our Lord. It is in this Eucharistic union that we enter into that fiat of divine union our Lady had with our Lord that bore Jesus in her womb and participated in his saving act on the cross. (See also Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 52; Pius XII, Mediator Dei, n. 78 & 165) 

The posture of Marian receptivity shown by the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite also acknowledges that not all people will pray in the same way nor always receive the same benefits in prayer. The believer is helped to realize that effective prayer is the union of our hearts with the Lord and the removal of everything that prevents such union. It will give each person different graces for their healing and salvation, whether they be a saint or a sinner struggling in a particular way, a great theologian, or a struggling parent, of simple faith, with ten kids. This disposition that our Lady desires to help us all gain is something that helps unite the Church and cherish the mysteries that our Lord has placed at the heart of her life for the world’s salvation and sanctification. 

Marian receptivity respects the action of grace in the life of the believer and in the present moment while seeing how it is connected to the past saving action of God. Such action is also humble, confident, generous, and knows how to act and rest according to the promptings of grace and the present moment’s needs. Although the Extraordinary Form has certain safeguards within its structure to foster this spirit of Marian receptivity, this does not mean this form of the Roman Rite is exempt from certain dangers of distortions and abuses that can undermine such receptivity. It also does not mean that this spirit of Marian receptivity is absent completely from the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite nor the non-Roman liturgical rites of the church.  May our Lady through the Marian posture of the Extraordinary Form help us to enter fully into the Eucharistic mystery of her son, Jesus, in a way that challenges, attracts, and welcomes every person. May this posture help us develop a humble reverence of the divine mysteries that is not puffed up by a false nostalgia of the past nor an idolatrous self-referentiality of our present age that leads towards liturgical iconoclasm and distortion. May Our Lady by her maternal intercession and example empower the Church and her pastors to live out the charge given to them to be “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” for the salvation of all people. (cf. 1 Cor 4:1)

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