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A NOBLE BEAUTY – Exclusive interview with Dr Peter Kwasniewski

September 22, 2017
Aurelio Porfiri

We celebrate this year the 10th anniversary of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, a document released by Pope Benedict XVI that liberalized the use of the pre-Vatican II Missal.

If we want to know something more about the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (the pre Vatican II Mass), we could read Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (2017, Angelico Press) by Peter Kwasniewski, a very well known scholar in the field of liturgy. Dr Peter Kwasniewski, choirmaster at the Wyoming Catholic College (USA), certainly presents very strong arguments to defend his position, as can be seen in the following interview.

Your book uses the phrase “noble beauty” in its title. How would you describe the noble beauty of the liturgy?

There are many different kinds of beauty. There is the simple, domestic beauty we associated with well-made furniture, carpets, blankets, plates, and books. There is an austere beauty, such as one might find in the cell of a Carthusian. There is rugged beauty, such as we see in the landscapes of Iceland or Canada or Alaska. But there is a noble beauty that we associate with sovereignty, majesty, occasions of great public solemnity. The liturgy is our courtly audience with the king of heaven and earth. It should be characterized by a tremendous sense of spaciousness, elevation, dignity, and splendor. That is what I am driving at in my title.

What is your ideal reader? How you imagine your audience?

One reader described me as “giving old arguments new juice.” I was born well after the Second Vatican Council ended and after Paul VI had already promulgated a new Mass. All of the traditional things I love are things that almost went extinct. My friends and I had to stumble upon them and discover them anew. For that reason, I see it all with fresh eyes: I have no nostalgic memories. For this reason, my writings seem to speak especially to young people who are in the same boat. This book is largely an “apologia” for the ancient liturgy and the whole world-view it embodies—which is definitely not that of modernity. My ideal reader? Someone who has an open mind to the proposal that the past generations might have had more wisdom than we do.

You use the term “Mass of Ages” in your subtitle. Sounds a bit sentimental, doesn’t it?

Well, I once thought of it that way, too. But something changed for me. My careful study of liturgical history led me to see that, in fact, the Roman Catholic liturgy—by which I mean all of the interconnected rites and uses found within Latin Christendom—is one and the same over all the centuries, developing slowly and organically, until you reach the dramatic break in the 1960s. The core of the Mass of St Gregory the Great was still the core of the Mass of St John XXIII. After Trent, St Pius V for all intents and purposes codified the papal rite of Rome that stretched far back in time. Subsequent popes received this rite as a given. It really is, therefore, the Mass of all the Catholic centuries. It is a Mass that grew to maturity over the ages and reflects all that is best in the Church’s devotion and theology.

You and I wrote together a public (and successful) declaration on sacred music, regarding both forms of the Roman rite. Do you think an exchange between the two forms is feasible?

Indeed, it is possible, but, as many have observed, the traffic seems to flow more easily from the old to the new. There is a certain poverty of rubric, gesture, text, and music in the new form that begs for an augmentation and elevation for which the liturgical heritage of the Church provides ample material. It is fairly easy to implement such improvements because of the open-ended, option-friendly design of the Novus Ordo. The new form, on the other hand, has relatively little that it can give to the old form. The proposals people sometimes make—the new lectionary, the new calendar, the new prefaces—are all controversial in one way or another, and by no means obvious examples of improvement. Beyond this, there is a serious practical difficulty: most proponents of the old form are shell-shocked by decades of liturgical warfare and are not at all interested in seeing any changes at this time, while most proponents of the new form are quite content with its modern features and are not hankering for (or are even downright opposed to) any input from tradition. At this time, it strikes me as a deadlock. Of course, things could change depending on who the next pope is.

In your first chapter you intend to bring us “beyond the long winter of rationalism.” How?

Since the late Middle Ages and the introduction of nominalism and voluntarism, modernity has been on a crash course of ongoing simplification. Instead of a rich blend of faith and reason, we have rationalism, the attempt to reduce things to the immediate comprehension. Instead of a subtle relation of human freedom and obedience to divine authority, we have liberalism, the attempt to make man’s action the driving force. Instead of seeing the transcendent shining through and hiding within the created order, we have materialism, the attempt to escape from the perplexing demands of a God who is both imminent and transcendent, present in all things and utterly beyond them. These and similar trends of thinking have powerfully affected everything we do—including our liturgical worship. The traditional liturgical rites of the Catholic Church were born and flourished long before this brigade of -isms muscled in. They show a fundamentally different way of representing and engaging with the mystery of God, the mysteries of Christ, and the workings of the Holy Spirit. In these ways, they can rescue us from the prison of the fashions of our modern times.

Let me quote you: “Why did the liturgical reform of the 1960s and 1970s fail to produce a new springtime in the Church? What, in contrast, is the secret of the old Latin Mass’s appeal—the reason or reasons for its surprising resurgence in our day, when most of the people who celebrate or attend it were born after 1970? And how is this development good for the Church and for the New Evangelization?” What is the answer?

The entire book is my answer! Complicated questions have complex answers. The common critique made by many about the Second Vatican Council is that it seemed to adopt, or at least to suggest to bystanders, a model of accommodation to the modern secular world. This model strongly influenced the process of liturgical reform. But the revolution of 1968 already announced the death of the main phase of modernity, and the subsequent radical pluralism of post-modernity has not been friendly to the Catholic Church or her now-dated means of engagement. This is why the old liturgical forms can burst on to the scene as something remarkably fresh, vital, captivating, provocative. The traditional Mass challenges our assumptions, our self-centered world-view, our conveniences; its antiquity has a weight to it that nothing in our world of planned obsolescence can hold a candle up to, its density forces us to work harder, with a greater yield; its sobriety calms us, its ritual mesmerizes us, its majesty impresses us, its orthodoxy converts us, and its palpable holiness drives us to deeper sanctity. For all these reasons, the recovery of this pre-modern worship is crucial for the health of the post-modern Church, and for the success of her evangelization among people who are jaded, bored, and tired of the empty promises of our day.

You speak about the danger of simplicity and the attraction of complexity. What do you mean by that?

The idea that people want simple things is a Cartesian myth. I mean, sure, we want a can-opener or a click-pen that’s easy to use, but when it comes to something we see as really important—great public events, culminating athletic contests, award ceremonies, fund-raising banquets, international conferences, even weddings—people still love a certain pageantry, lavishness, sophistication. And this involves a lot of planning, people, choreography, decoration, and finesse. In the pre-modern world, the liturgy of the Church was the single greatest public event. The entire society was ordered to the worthy offering of this objective, public, formal, solemn sacrifice of praise to God, and no cost was spared. That’s why I’m not surprised that today, whenever a bishop or cardinal offers a Pontifical Mass, the church is usually packed with a lot of people, the majority of whom are middle-aged or younger. It just makes sense: if we have the vicar of the Eternal High Priest in our midst, offering up the full, final sacrifice that glorifies God and redeems the universe, why would we not “pull out all the stops”? Conversely, if we simplify and strip down what we do, it will not lead to a Carthusian intensity; it will lead to empty pews as people look for religious ritual and ultimate meaning elsewhere.

This year we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of Summorum Pontificum. There are many rumors about this document, including that of a possible change in policy toward the “Mass of Ages.” Are you aware of this?

I tend to agree with those who think that the generators of these rumors are wishful thinkers who are trying to influence opinion and push their own agenda. Since they have always disliked the motu proprio, they want others to dislike it and view it under a cloud of suspicion as “the document that’s soon going to be repealed.” It’s a classic media strategy. But one thing is for certain: since we are living in such volatile and confusing times, the best strategy for Catholics is to remain faithful to the Church’s tradition—her Scripture, her Fathers and Doctors, her time-honored orthodox liturgical rites. Or if these are unfamiliar, to get to know and love them well.

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