The Intrusion of the Secular

church, priest, ordination, mass

Chelsea - Mass

For many years, when our sons were young and impressionable, my wife and I did our very best to make sure we all got to mass on time and also made sure we did not leave until the final notes of the recessional hymn were being sung. In short, both I and my wife, who is a certified Catechist who has taught Catechism for 20 years, did everything we could to make sure our children were raised Catholic and to make sure they understood that Sunday Mass is the high point of the week for Catholics.

After our sons were grown, however, my wife and I were left attending mass accompanied by only each other. Being Baby Boomers and traditional Catholics who still loved the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), we hoped that after Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum in 2007, the TLM would soon be offered somewhere within our vicariate; but no such luck. This continues to be a disappointment because even while we did our best to make sure our boys appreciated the Novus Ordo Mass we have missed the solemnity of the TLM.

And this is where I have to admit to my sinfulness. Because we have always found the Novus Order Mass less than spiritually fulfilling (and many of the new hymns somewhat uninspiring) for the last 10 years or so my wife and I have been leaving Mass right after the final blessing. So I was struck by the beginning of Father Bevil Bramwell’s recent essay at The Catholic Thing, “Letting the Secular In” in which he gently chided those who leave mass early.

The Intrusion of the Secular

Father Bramwell writes:

Let’s take something simple, such as when do I depart from the celebration of the Mass? If I am genuinely participating in the Mass, then I would only leave after I had joined in the recessional hymn. Then, after a short thanksgiving, I could leave knowing that I had completely and reverently participated in the high point of my week.

If, on the other hand, getting out of the parking lot or getting to the supermarket have a higher priority than my faith, then of course, I would be hustling to get out earlier and miss out praying and singing with the community. And I might gain – if that is even the right word – a few minutes. Of course, just to notice this fact should lead us to ask: a few minutes of what?

The intrusion of the secular can look innocent, so very innocent, but in fact, it may be depriving me of something that is irretrievable, once it passes.

People have been ‘sneaking out of Mass’ early for as long as I can remember and Priests have been chiding people about it for just as long, so Father Bramwell’s remarks are not unwarranted. What’s more, Fr. Bramwell’s essay was not just about leaving Mass early – it was about the importance of valuing our faith above all else in all aspects of our lives. But his remarks about people leaving Mass early struck a chord.

Leaving Mass Early

Today, more than ever before it seems that more people are leaving Mass early, and doing so quite openly. At least this is what I have observed in our parish. By the time my wife and I leave, the parking lot has already emptied out to some extent. But I have to wonder if it is, as Father Bramwell contends, because people today have “higher priorities,” or is there another reason so many people are leaving Mass early these days? And could that reason be that people today just think it is perfectly acceptable to leave Mass early?

After reading Fr. Bramwell’s words I thought about why my wife and I leave mass right after the blessing. In our case, we are not leaving to go somewhere else or to get home quicker to do chores, or take part in any other secular activities; so, no, for us it is not because of any “higher priorities.”

The simple truth is that my wife and I leave right after the final blessing because even after 40+ years of the Novus Ordo I still have a problem “Celebrating the Mass” as opposed to participating in “The Sacrifice of the Mass.” And it seems like this ‘celebratory’ approach is trending stronger every year as parish Worship Commissions continue to tweak the Mass in an effort to make it “friendlier” and more “welcoming.” And therein may lie the problem.

The Novus Ordo Mass

While the Novus Ordo Mass is ‘celebrated’ everywhere its form does vary from country to country, from region to region, and even from one parish to another within the same Diocese or Archdiocese. The basics, like when to stand, sit or kneel can also be different from locale to locale. And even from week to week the form of the mass changes within a parish. As George Weigel pointed out in a recent essay at First Things entitled “Dear Father: Please Stop It”:

In all the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council, is there any prescription more regularly violated than General Norm 22.3 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy? Which, in case you’ve forgotten, teaches that no . . . person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.

If you’re a daily Mass attendant, the odds are that you hear that norm violated a dozen times a week. Sunday Mass people typically hear it violated two or three times a week, at least. Auto-editing or flat-out rewriting the prescribed text of the Mass is virtually epidemic among priests who attended seminary in the late Sixties, Seventies, or early Eighties; it’s less obvious among the younger clergy. But whether indulged by old, middle-aged, or young, it’s obnoxious and it’s an obstacle to prayer.

All ideas, even good ones, usually have some kind of a downside, and the downside to a Mass that strives to be a welcoming, friendly celebration is that it can lose any sense of reverence, devotion or penitence.

The very definition of the word “celebration” points out this potential contradiction. A “celebration” can be “a formal performance of a solemn rite,” or it can be “a social gathering for entertainment and fun.” It really can’t be both. So when the words “formality” and “solemnity” are replaced with words like “friendly” and “welcoming” it’s only natural for people to begin to think of the “celebration” as more of “a social gathering” than a “formal performance of a solemn rite.”

Silent Contemplation?

Today the ‘joyful noise’ of singing throughout a Novus Ordo Mass pretty much fills up all of the time there once was for silent, contemplative that is part of the TLM. Yet in my parish if you were to look around during almost any Sunday Mass, only about 3 or 4 people out 10 are actually singing all those great the new hymns the Novus Ordo aficionados promised. Most people are just standing there with their mouths closed. Maybe they are singing silently, or maybe, like me, they don’t care for so much singing and/or the ‘great’ new hymns. Maybe I’m just a crotchety old guy but the newer hymns being sung during Mass sometimes seem to me to be more of fit for a revival meeting than a Catholic Mass.

And for many, especially older Catholics who grew up attending the TLM in a more traditional Church, going to a Novus Ordo Mass at one of the newer churches, constructed during the last 30 or 40 years, is more like going to a ‘theatre in the round’ than going to Mass. Stained glass windows, statues of saints, and even crucifixes are often few and far between. If informal, friendly and welcoming were the goals of the new architectural approach it has certainly been achieved.

My father, a Marine who fought on Iwo Jima during WWII, was fond of saying that wherever he went while in the service, no matter where he was, it was nice knowing that when he went to mass on Sunday the mass would be exactly the same. I guess the acorn did not fall far from the tree in my case. But then came Vatican II and the Novus Ordo, and things changed.

I ‘get it’ that for more progressive Catholics the TLM was boring, repetitious, non-inclusive, and even too ‘mysterious.’ So for these Catholics the Novus Ordo was probably a welcome change.

But as is often the case with progressive ideas, when it comes to change the changes just keep coming. (Not to mention the fact that while progressives like progressivism, traditionalists like tradition.) But the new Mass became the norm, and according to most polls and surveys, Mass attendance has been falling off ever since. Whether this is due to the increasing secularization of society or the abandonment of the TLM is anyone’s guess.

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the Novus Ordo Mass had really been offered from the start as an alternative to the TLM, rather than as a replacement, with parishes allowed to alternate between the Novus Ordo Mass and the Latin Mass, just to find out what the laity thought and what the response would be. I tend to think the Novus Ordo aficionados may have been shocked by how many people opted for the solemnity of the TLM compared to the friendly and welcoming Novus Ordo.

Whether the Novus Ordo Mass was part of grand scheme to secularize the Church, a dumb idea from the start, a good idea gone wrong, or something else altogether is a debate that is still going on, and since I’m neither a Vatican insider nor a theologian I will stay out of it. Maybe the Mass did need to be updated because a number of good Catholics I know say they do prefer “the new Mass” to the TLM. But maybe a compromise of some sort might not have been a bad thing from the start – like allowing parishes to offer both the Novus Ordo and the TLM in some kind of alternating arrangement.

Participating Reverently

But hindsight is always 20/20, and the bottom line here is that I wonder if the reason so many people are leaving mass early these days is that they simply do not feel compelled to stay to the end. Maybe it’s not a matter of “higher priorities.” Maybe it’s just that the Novus Ordo Mass does not evoke strong feelings of devotion, reverence, solemnity, piety, or penitence in the same way that the TLM does.

Maybe taking the solemnity and reverence out of the mass and replacing it with friendly and welcoming has not been such a good idea. Just maybe this new way of ‘Celebrating the Mass’ also has people thinking about Mass today in a whole new way as well: Maybe Mass is now thought of as more of a social gathering-type “celebration” where people are free to come and go as they please, as opposed to a solemn re-enactment of Christ’s death on the cross.

If my suspicions are correct, parish worship commissions may want to rethink their mission and goals, and maybe more parishes should consider offering the TLM along with the Novus Ordo Mass. But this may also mean that seminaries throughout the country may have to once again start providing instruction in the TLM rite to seminarians.

At the same time, Father Bramwell is right when he says: “The intrusion of the secular can look innocent, so very innocent, but in fact, it may be depriving me of something that is irretrievable, once it passes.“



Gene M. Van Son is retired after spending 35 years in the automobile business. He is a cradle Catholic who attended a Catholic grade school, high school, and university. He has been married for 42 years to the love of his life, who is a certified Catechist, and they have three sons. He is now putting his BA in Journalism to use researching and writing about topics and issues that interest him. He has had articles and essays published at  and at

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2 thoughts on “The Intrusion of the Secular”

  1. Birgit Atherton Jones

    I agree with you and find myself hungering for sacred silence instead of the busyness of the Ordinary Form. Perhaps a good place to start would be to offer the OF in the way it was intended by Vatican II – Latin and Gregorian chant in places of preference and the organ as the instrument of choice. From there we could sing propers rather than songs masquerading as hymns and return the priestly orientation toward Jesus in the tabernacle. Many of our problems with reverence and belief in the True Presence are due to actions taken despite what the Council said.

    I could go on, but you surely get my drift. For a take on my feelings about songs these days check out:

  2. I believe it is naive to think that had Vat II not changed a thing, or not even happened, attendance ( to
    the recessional even ) would be any different today in so far as the number of closed churches. It took
    a very long time for mankind to reach heights that enabled us to see the curvature of the earth, likewise
    the evolution of worship to a perfected form.

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