A companion article to a recent "Questions with Father" episode for the SSPX Podcast, where one of our priests shares the advice he usually gives faithful who ask him whether or not "this" Latin Mass or "that" Latin Mass is acceptable.
Since the Motu Proprio of Pope Benedict XVI, in 2007, opening up the traditional Latin Mass for much wider celebration around the world, there has been a multiplication of new venues for the Mass. This greater freedom for the traditional Mass—and so also, to some degree, for the “experiment of Tradition”—was a specific request of the SSPX. As such, we rejoiced when Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio appeared. Indeed, how can we not but be glad at seeing so many more people being exposed to the traditional liturgy in the past thirteen years?
At the same time, the situation in the traditional Catholic world is much more complicated in 2020 than it was in 2007. The more options there are available, the more discernment that is needed. As such, SSPX faithful often come to us priests and ask advice about Mass attendance. In most cases, they are traveling somewhere, alone or with their family, and want to know whether they should attend this or that Mass in a place that does not have an SSPX Mass. At other times, an individual or a family is moving to another place, because of a job relocation, and want priestly advice on which chapel they should be attending.
Some questions regard the set of priests offering the Mass. “Father, should I attend the Institute’s Mass? The FSSP? SSPV? CMRI? IBP? A Motu Mass? This independent priest’s Mass?” Other questions regard the doctrinal position of the ones offering Mass. “Father should I attend a Feeneyite Mass? A sedevacantist Mass? A ‘Vatican II is all good’ Mass?”
The purpose of this article is to explain how I approach advising faithful on these questions. I am not speaking on behalf of the SSPX. This article does not represent an official SSPX position. It simply tries to sort out some of the complexity of this question and help the faithful understand the motives behind the advice that they might receive.
Going to the Novus Ordo Mass
In difficult questions, the best procedure is to move from the more known to the less known, that is, to start with what is clear and straightforward, and then move from there to what is obscure and difficult. When it comes to attendance at the Novus Ordo Mass, SSPX priests do not hesitate to tell faithful that they should not attend that Mass under any circumstances, even on a Sunday and in a place where no traditional Mass is available. It is a very clear and straightforward matter. Thus, even though this article is about attendance at non-SSPX traditional Masses, it will be helpful to consider first why SSPX priests advise against attending Novus Ordo Masses.
The purpose of attending Mass is to give glory to God and to sanctify one’s soul. But we hold that the New Mass is not pleasing to God and so dishonors Him. As such, to attend the Novus Ordo Mass is to go against the very purpose for going to Mass. Instead of honoring God by attending Mass, one is dishonoring God by doing so. If the SSPX is correct about this, then it is right for its priests to dissuade faithful from attending the Novus Ordo Mass, when the occasion is right for providing this advice.
The reasons for the SSPX holding that the New Mass fails to honor God are many, but I will just summarize the primary reason here.
Religious worship is the homage that we pay to God, as creatures who are submitted to Him and owe Him everything. The only act adequate for this is sacrifice. In II-II, q.85, St. Thomas provides the essential characteristics of sacrifice. It includes:
- The offering of some sensible, material thing to God
- With some change being accomplished in that thing by a priest
- With the purpose being to acknowledge God’s supreme dominion and our subjection to Him.
This act of sacrifice is a symbolic representation of the fact that humans are creatures and God is God. Something dear to humans is taken and given completely to God to indicate that God is more important than the most precious of the things here on earth. It is material things that give humans power and enable them to exercise a certain lordship over others. In the act of sacrifice, humans surrender to God what gives them power, to indicate that He has ultimate power, that His power is greater than any power that can come from things of this earth, and that we submit ourselves to His power.
Sacrifice has always been the way in which humans have sought to show their subjection to higher powers. This is true of all the ancient pagan nations sacrificing to their gods, and of the Chosen People before the coming of Moses, sacrificing to the one true God. But those sacrifices were designed by humans. It remained for God to provide explicit instructions on how to worship Him. He did this with the institution of the Aaronic priesthood and the Levitical rites, through Moses, providing the Israelites the most perfect way to worship Him before the coming of Our Lord.
When God teaches a people the way in which He is to be worshipped, they have a duty to fulfill what He has ordained. In the Old Testament, severe penalties fell upon the Israelites when they did not perform the prescribed worship, or they did not fulfill it in the correct way. This happened because humans have a duty to obey God. It is a contradiction if humans dishonor God in the very act that they are supposed to be honoring Him. But it dishonors God when a people takes the worship that He has carefully instructed them to perform and then they willfully modify that worship as they see fit.
Consider how strange it would be for a king to arrive for his coronation ceremony and, instead of him being presented with a crown for his head, instead he is given a top hat. There is a similar, but greater, unfittingness when we take a worship that God has prescribed and modify it.
Now, the traditional Mass honors God’s prescriptions for His own worship, because it is completely attentive to the purpose of performing a sacrifice. At the Offertory, the prayers clearly indicate that the bread and wine that are to be offered are to become a victim for sacrifice. At the Consecration, the form, the way that the form is pronounced, and the bodily posture of the priest all indicate that a change takes place in the sacramental matter, a change that is equivalent to an immolation, because it represents the separation of Our Lord’s Body and Blood. Finally, at the Communion, it is clear that a sacred victim is consumed, to complete the sacrifice.
These three elements of sacrifice—offering, immolation, and consummation—do not have to be accomplished in exactly the way they are in the traditional Mass for the purpose of offering a sacrifice to be served. The words and gestures can be different. However, they must clearly indicate that we are dealing with an offering, immolation and consummation of a victim being presented to God by the priest. It is the glory of the traditional Mass that it does this so clearly, so profoundly, so majestically.
If, however, a liturgy is constructed in such a way as to keep the sacrificial nature of the Mass, but make it secondary and hidden; if such a liturgy is constructed by Catholics, for Catholic worship, when God Himself has come on earth and shown us how to worship God properly; if, finally, this has been done in order to please those who have broken from the worship proper to God and who refuse to worship with priests, sacraments, and the Mass—then, it should be very clear that the worship cannot be pleasing to God.
But this is the case with the New Mass. It purposely hides the fact that the Mass is a sacrifice. The new Offertory does not prepare a victim, but merely represents some gifts of bread and wine being presented to God in exchange for spiritual blessings. The new Consecration does not come across as a ritual formula for the purpose of immolating a victim, but rather as the reading of a Gospel story. And the new Communion does not present itself as the consummation of a victim, but rather as the communal sharing of a meal that helps us remember the Last Supper.
Moreover, this purposeful obfuscation of the Mass’s very essence, and of what adequate worship of God is supposed to be, was done by Catholics who have a clear mandate from God to worship Him in a certain way. And it was done to make the Mass more acceptable to Protestants, who disobeyed God in breaking with the Church and her God-given worship.
This is the primary reason why SSPX priests encourage souls to stay away from the New Mass, even when they have no other Mass to go to for the fulfillment of their Sunday obligation. The New Mass purposely takes away from the proper honor due to God and so dishonors God.
These are the objective facts about the New Mass. I do not make any statement here about the subjective dispositions of those attending it. It is clear that most of those who attend are not aware of the grave problems in the new liturgy and so are not gravely culpable. But this does not take away from the objective fact that the New Mass is bad, and so it is good for SSPX priests to inform others why the New Mass is not worship pleasing to God, when they anticipate that the information will be well received.
Advising faithful about Mass attendance
The reason that the explanation I have just given about attendance at the Novus Ordo Mass is clear and straightforward is that it is based entirely on doctrine. When a priest explains things in this way, it is clear that his concerns are on the level of faith, not on the level of persons. He is not saying that this priest or this faithful is bad, and so you should not attend; he is rather saying that the liturgy, the very manner of worshiping God, is bad. This makes it clear that he is arguing on the level of principles in order to safeguard the faith.
Whenever arguments are able to be made in this way, resting solely on the level of principles, it is easy for the priest to indicate that he is not politically motivated, that is, that he is not making his case in order to promote the interests of a particular group. When someone hears an SSPX priest explaining why he thinks that one should not attend the New Mass, he or she is not likely to think, “The only reason he is saying this is that he wants me to attend the SSPX”. Rather, they are likely to reflect that there are real dangers to the faith in attending the New Mass, and that this priest has reason to be concerned for the safety of their soul if they do so, and so it is out of a pastoral interest, not a personal interest, that the SSPX priest is advising them.
It is impossible for an SSPX priest to attain that level of clarity when he gives advice about attendance at a non-SSPX traditional Mass. Typically, he will not be able to say anything about the Mass at all. The Mass, as such, will not be the problem. The problem will rather be the venue of the Mass or the priest celebrating the Mass. In other words, the issue will be about places and persons, and not directly about principles. The SSPX priest will likely have an issue with the formation of the priest or with the traditionalist group that is offering the Mass. These issues will concern the faith, but he will have to speak about those concerns through the medium of people and places.
Before we get to the counsel that an SSPX priest might provide, though, I think we should first notice something that should be striking, namely the fact that a priest is being asked at all to provide advice about where a person should attend Mass. In the “normal days” of the Church, there was little need for priests to advise the faithful in this way. When orthodoxy is a ubiquitous norm, there are not dangers to the faith lurking everywhere in the Catholic world. As such, a priest need not be concerned if one of his faithful attends Mass with the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the diocesan priest, or whoever. He just generally expects that his parishioner will receive orthodox Catholic teaching, wherever he goes.
Today, however, heterodoxy is rampant and the faithful are very confused. Traditionalists have rightly lost trust in the Conciliar hierarchy, and they look for some firm and stable support for their faith, so that they can save their souls. This is why they come to the SSPX and why they consider the SSPX to be a safe haven. This is also why they feel a bit disoriented outside of the SSPX and want the SSPX to advise them about the safety of other Mass venues.
Parameters of a complex question
Generally, faithful are asking whether they should attend a certain traditional Mass when the only other Masses available are Novus Ordo Masses. As mentioned above, SSPX priests advise against going to a Novus Ordo Mass in all places and circumstances, because it presents a grave danger to the faith: it places one in the position of try to honor God with a liturgy that dishonors Him. If an SSPX priest is going to advise against attending a traditional Mass to fulfill the Sunday obligation, there must likewise be a grave danger to the faith.
Any danger to the faith in attending a traditional Mass will come not from the Mass, but from the doctrinal position of the priest or the particular group to which the priest belongs. The advice I give will correspond to the degree of danger that I see:
- No danger to the faith: it is okay to attend the non-SSPX traditional Mass
- Minor danger to the faith: let me explain the dangers I see, but it is really up to you to decide
- Grave danger to the faith: you really should not attend, even if there is no other way of fulfilling your Sunday obligation
For an example of the first, consider those priests who are not members of the SSPX, but who are termed “friends of the SSPX”. In those situations, the SSPX is very familiar with the priest celebrating the Mass, is confident that the priest is orthodox, and even lists the Mass venue of the priest in the list of SSPX chapels. In those cases, the SSPX is recommending attendance at a non-SSPX traditionalist Mass.
This may also happen when a particular SSPX priest knows personally the non-SSPX priest a faithful is asking about and is completely confident about said priest’s orthodoxy. In such a case, he would generally not hesitate to endorse attending Mass at that priest’s chapel.
On the other extreme are those situations where an SSPX priest knows that a certain non-SSPX traditionalist venue is a grave danger to the faith. Frankly, most, if not all, of the Resistance Masses would fall into this category. In many cases, the behavior of these priests has been and continues to be scandalous, by their spirit, their preaching, and their indiscriminate conferral of the priesthood and episcopacy. To attend a Mass with such ongoing scandals poses a serious danger to the souls of the faithful.
In between these two extremes is that broad area where there are some problematic issues with a priest or a traditionalist venue, but it would be hard to characterize those issues as a grave danger to the faith. For instance, the Institute of Christ the King has a reputation of loving liturgical beauty, but of not being doctrinally profound. While this is a concern, and one that needs to be mentioned and considered, I don’t think it represents a grave danger to the faith. If I were asked about attendance with the ICK, I would mention the concern and tell the faithful that it is for him to decide, unless I had much more specific information about the priest celebrating the Mass.
But why, Father, you might ask, wouldn’t you just advise them to attend the Mass, especially if there is no other Mass for them to attend? Because there are situations in which a priest must not over-advise. Those are the situations when he has a certain general knowledge, but lacks specific knowledge. If the general knowledge is sufficient to make a decision, then he will pass on that advice. However, if it leaves the question open for more determination, he simply passes on the knowledge he has, at the level of principles, and leaves it to the faithful to apply those principles to the particular situation.
Additionally, I might not want to give a positive endorsement to attendance at a Mass that only presents a minor danger to the faith, because of political affiliation. For instance, I would personally find it difficult ever to bless someone attending an FSSP Mass, because the FSSP broke off from the SSPX, was formed of SSPX priests who abandoned the Archbishop when he needed them most, and to this day speaks against the SSPX. As such, I would see myself as being disloyal to the Archbishop and the SSPX if I positively recommended to someone that he attend an FSSP Mass. But, at the same time, I would not tell them they should not attend unless I saw a grave danger to the faith.
Carefulness in giving advice
Regardless of the advice given, the situation is one that is delicate for an SSPX priest.
On the one hand, if an SSPX priest condemns attendance at any non-SSPX traditional Mass, the faithful will get the impression that he thinks the SSPX is the Church. Say, for instance, he advises against attending the FSSP, when they are the only game in town. Then, if he goes on to say that one should not ever attend the SSPV, the IBP, the ICK, the diocesan Latin Mass, and so on, then a person will get the impression that, really, the SSPX priest believes that there is no salvation outside the SSPX. If the SSPX is the only place in the world that one can find salvation, then one might as well say that the SSPX and Catholicism are one and the same. This is the schismatic mentality that our naysayers often falsely accuse us of fostering.
On the other hand, if an SSPX priest endorses attendance at any and every non-SSPX Mass, then the faithful will get the impression that the traditionalist groups are really all the same. It is true that the liturgy is basically the same, but the doctrinal positions, the formation of the priests, and the historical background of the respective groups are different. These differences make a difference. The differences don’t always represent a grave danger to the faith, but even if they do not, they are still significant. We do not want to reduce the discussion to the question of whether the priest is valid and the Mass is traditional, and a priest advising attendance at any traditionalist venue would be doing exactly that.
When it comes to attendance at the Novus Ordo Mass, it is clear that the faithful should never attend, because of the inherent defects that were designed into that Mass. When it comes to attendance at traditionalist Masses at a wide variety of venues, however, the situation is much more complicated. As an SSPX priest, if I know that a non-SSPX traditionalist Mass location presents a grave danger to the faith, I tell the faithful as much and advise them not to go. Alternatively, if I know that it presents no danger to the faith, I am generally happy to recommend their attendance.
Most of the time, however, I only have very general information about the Mass location in question. In such cases, I provide the faithful with certain principles which I hope will guide their judgment, and I pass on whatever information I may have, but I leave them to make the decision.