In his definitive biography of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais takes time to discuss “The Nine,” a band of former Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) priests who went on to form the Society of St. Pius V (SSPV) before eventually splitting apart. The SSPV, contrary to the SSPX, entertains the idea of sedevacantism while remaining loyal to the liturgical books in use prior to Pope Pius XII’s mid-to-late 1950s reforms. “The Nine,” according to Bishop Tissier, demonstrated a typically Anglophone tendency to ground the Faith in ritual, perhaps due to a lack of strong Catholic cultural roots. It is said that Bishop Tissier, like his predecessor Archbishop Lefebvre, has little patience for liturgical minutiae. Another way to frame this is to hold that the SSPX, or at least a significant number of its clerical members, avoids liturgical absolutism, preferring instead to take a broad view of what the fight for Catholic tradition entails. The Tridentine Mass is central; how many Collects are said on this-or-that Sunday during the liturgical year is not. Central, too, are the complicated and contentions issues that emerged out of the Second Vatican Council, including—but not necessarily limited to—collegiality, ecumenism, and religious liberty. For a relatively small but unhealthy number of Catholic traditionalists, doctrine matters little. Maybe it matters not. What does matter, however, is that the priest’s vestments be immaculately tailored, the servers be positioned just right during each liturgical movement, and that their living, breathing wax museum of ritual be left unsullied by the burdens of reality.
Not that there is anything wrong with having high liturgical standards—something that is sorely missing throughout the wider Church. The problem is that there are those who are desperate to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Rather than see, for instance, Summoroum Pontificum as an opening to inch liturgical praxis as it existed in 1962 back toward where it was in, say, 1954, these liturgical obsessionists (some of whom are not even members of the Church) prefer instead to uncharitably denounce those who do not share in their single-minded and arguably shallow perspective on what the restoration of not simply the Roman Rite but the Church as a whole entails. For them there is no horizon beyond the liturgy, which often means that the liturgy loses its character as part of the Church’s life. When the liturgy becomes total, then the Faith becomes secondary, even tertiary. The central question becomes not how can one draw nearer to Christ through firm resolution and perseverance; the central question degrades into which shade of violet is most appropriate for the Lenten season. The suppression of an octave is looked upon with greater horror than the not-so-silent apostasy of millions and millions of Christians.
It is regrettably true, however, that the liturgical culture of the traditional Roman Rite remains somewhat impoverished, partially perhaps because of which liturgical books are now normative, but mostly because few Roman Catholics can recall a time when the Church’s ritual life was splendid. As I opined in an article from the January/February 2014 issue of The Angelus, “Roman Liturgy in the Light of the East,” there is much traditional Catholicism can learn from the liturgical ethos of the Eastern Orthodox, specifically the public recitation of the Divine Office on Sundays and major feast days. Orthodoxy in the West may be a minority religion, but its liturgical life remains by and large much stronger than what is found in most traditional Catholic parishes and communities. Anyone who claims, however, that the “1962 books” cannot be used as a basis for developing a beautiful, reverent, and three-dimensional Roman liturgical environment is either lying or ignorant of those parishes and communities which have already done so. The problem, at least right now, is that the resources and resolve of those parishes and communities have not sufficiently spread out into the wider traditional Catholic world.
Wonderful it would be if traditional Catholics, instead of carping with each other over details that cannot be altered overnight, worked toward building up a robust liturgy as part of the larger project of ensuring that the Catholicism’s authentic doctrinal, theological, and spiritual patrimony remains fixed in the life of the Church. Maybe today, the start of the Holy Triduum, would be a good time for Catholics to add the success of such a project to their prayer intentions. Regardless of which form of the Maundy Thursday Mass you attend, offer your Communion both for restoration of the Roman Rite and in reparation for the sins that are no doubt being committed against it on this day. But above all remember that these holy days present an opportunity to repair our broken bond with God and, by their close, to rejoice in the unfathomable love He holds for us, his fallen and fallible creation.