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Wending My Way to Journey’s End: How Peter Kwasniewski Found Tradition

The following excerpt is from Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s latest book, The Once and Future Roman Rite: Returning to the Traditional Latin Liturgy After Seventy Years of Exile, (TAN Books, 2022). Within this new book, Kwasniewski’s magnum opus and a work of immense importance, we are given the below glimpse into his personal journey to tradition (pp. 72-74); his own discovery of the once and future Roman Rite. It is presented here with his permission.

In my life as a Catholic, I have gone through several distinct stages over a long period of time, so I have learned to be patient with those who “don’t get it.” I didn’t “get it” either, although it fills me with joy to see how quickly the younger generations today are reaching conclusions that I resisted for years. If I were to try to put into words what I was seeking and finding at each stage, here is what I’d say.

In the first stage, which coincided with childhood and adolescence, I was trying to be a good son and a dutiful Catholic. I obeyed my parents in most regards, went to church with them on Sundays and Holy Days, and held a Ten Commandments morality (with some gaps owing to bad formation). The parish church was a typical suburban church, covered with carpet and Extraordinary Ministers. Midway through high school, a friend invited me to attend a charismatic youth group meeting, and I loved it. Thanks to the adult leaders, whom I would describe as “John Paul II Catholics,” I discovered in that group three important things: first, that the Catholic Faith proposes itself as true and therefore as the truth by which everything else ought to be evaluated (up till then, I’m not sure I had heard this claim!); second, that practicing the Faith did not have to be boring or perfunctory but could be emotionally invigorating and satisfying; third, that those who believe in God, the immortal soul, the sacraments, and prayer are, for the most part, better and happier people who, in turn, make for better and happier friends.

But after spending a couple of years in this group, something started to wear thin about it. I’m not sure I could put my finger on it, but the experience was rather like what happens after a sugar high or puppy love: there was something superficial, inadequate, temporary, insubstantial. It was as if I needed to find the external visible and audible form of the truth of the Catholic Faith that I accepted with my intellect; I needed to find the incarnate Christ, not the abstract word or the fleeting feeling. This is what I began to find at Thomas Aquinas College, initially in the Latin Novus Ordo with chant (what we might call the “Reform of the Reform” approach), where the overwhelming effect was one of reverence, of taking serious things seriously. Yet there was always a disturbing problem lurking in the background. Almost anywhere else in the world—especially in the 1990s—the Novus Ordo was celebrated in a totally different way from the way it was done at TAC. What was wrong with everyone else? Why couldn’t they see how much better a reverent and beautiful liturgy was?

I later came to understand that this is a monumental flaw baked into the Novus Ordo: the “smells and bells” are only optional, at the whim of the people in charge. Consequently, everything depends on the education, good taste, and orthodoxy of the pastor or the celebrant, or whoever is entrusted with decision-making power. Yet such optionitis combined with the current ecclesiastical power structure is a deadly combination: all it takes is one too many complaints to the bishop and boom!, Father Incensa Multa is gone, sent scurrying across town or away to the boonies; Father Plaudite Manibus comes in with a whirl and destroys, in a matter of weeks, the work of beautification and resacralization that may have taken years to build up. We all know this happens. It shows that a liturgy that treats any of the eight elements mentioned earlier as optional is like a building compromised by a giant crack, because of the principle stated by Saint Thomas in the Five Ways: “What is able not to exist, at some time does not exist.” Or, to put it more colloquially: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

Later on in college, I began to attend clandestine celebrations of the Tridentine Mass, and here I discovered yet another secret: the presence and meaning and value of tradition—of doing what has been done for ages, with the same rites that countless Catholics have known over the centuries, praying in the same words as great saints of the past, entering into the mysteries of Christ in a way that demands a transformation of mind and heart even in the very act of worship. I acquired a daily missal and began following it. I could see very quickly that this liturgy was considerably different: deeper in its theology, more truthful to human nature, more obedient to revelation, more beautiful in its presentation; as a matter of fact, it was more emotionally stirring as well, although in more subtle ways. In short: finding this liturgy and yielding to it was the end of a search on which I did not even know I was embarked. This liturgy embraced all that I had found in each stage of my journey, yet went beyond them all. It was, and has remained, inexhaustible: an infinite vista opening backward to history, forward to eternity, outward to culture, upward to heaven.

Image courtesy of TAN Books.

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