Despite Misunderstanding, the Latin Mass Endures

(Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)
The same riches that profited Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Francis de Sales are available to Catholics today.

Not a small group of people will read the title of this piece and, jadedly rolling their eyes, exhale, “Another one?”

By this they mean, another pathetic ode to the traditional Latin Mass, that unfailing attractor of curmudgeons and weirdos. It may feel as though accounts of the excellence of that Mass are issued weekly and persuade no one, instead merely reminding normal people of the limits of atavism.

Defenses of the old liturgy, while not nearly that frequent, nonetheless do usually fail to reach even conservative Catholics. It seems that the precondition for liking the Latin Mass is found in a recessive allele, and that as many people who could like the Latin Mass already attend it. For everyone else, it is too strange, too old, too disconcerting.

Yet one recalls, incredulous, that a few decades ago the entire Catholic world was subject to that Tridentine peculiarity. Ditch diggers and policemen loved it well into the 1960s, not to mention the unlettered peasants, many of them saints, who built and attended the great European churches for centuries.

The last 50 years have caused the faithful such an estrangement from their heritage that when the average Catholic sees the ancient Mass today, he recoils as violently as the tautest Genevan. John Adams, serving in the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia, visited a “Romish Chappell” and relayed his experience to Abigail in his letter of October 9, 1774:

The poor Wretches, fingering their Beads, chanting Latin, not a Word of which they understood, their Pater Nosters and Ave Maria’s. Their holy Water — their Crossing themselves perpetually — their Bowing to the Name of Jesus, wherever they hear it—their Bowings, and Kneelings, and Genuflections before the Altar. . . . Here is every Thing which can lay hold of the Eye, Ear, and Imagination. Every Thing which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant.

Pitying the poor common folk who could be taken in by so overwrought a display, he was grateful that he had been raised in the clear, simple religion befitting a free man. Somehow modernity has gotten the opposite idea, that the overwrought display appeals only to pretentious nostalgiacs who wear bow ties and sing Gregorian chant in the shower. The first response is to be expected from a New England Unitarian, but the second is more unsettling. The Catholic patrimony of 1,900 years is treated as a discarded prototype, flawed and foreign, dialectically superseded by the Novus Ordo.

When one considers, however, the faithful’s uneasiness during the transition from the old form, and the wrenching and massaging that were required to acclimate them to their new liturgical environs, one realizes that the average Catholic suffers not from genetic defect or Hegelian synthesis but from a simple lack of exposure.

Tradition is a muscle that requires frequent exercise to avoid atrophy, and as regards the Latin Mass, Catholics have spent the past half-century emaciating like astronauts in zero gravity. No one is born used to altars and sacrifice and Latin and polyphony and weighty silence. One must learn over time, acquiring gradually a taste for what one at first cannot understand. Practices that seem inscrutable or even absurd reveal at length their ancient antecedents. Bemusement dissolves into confidence, boredom yields to rapture, chuckling becomes awe.

The most active participation there ever was in any Mass was that of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, who neither did nor said anything the Evangelists thought worthy of reporting. In fact the famous hymn says only ‘Stabat mater dolorosa’ — the mournful mother stayed.

The hurdles preventing enjoyment of the Latin Mass are numerous, but they can be overcome. The most intimidating is usually the language, which, it is pointed out, people do not speak.  That is true, but Cicero himself would not apprehend everything said by the priest because half of it is inaudible in the first place. Latin is the Church’s language, Roman and catholic as the Church is Roman and Catholic. Something is to be gained from the story of the woman who approached a priest after Mass with the complaint “Father, I didn’t understand a single word you said up there today.” “That’s all right, madam,” he responded; “I wasn’t talking to you.”

Aside from snark, which is always satisfying, a lesson reveals itself. The priest offers the sacrifice to God on behalf of the faithful; he is our representative to God as were the Levites of the Old Testament, as is Christ even now. Indeed, at Mass the priest acts, per Saint Paul’s phrase, in the person of Christ — that is, as Christ Himself.

That is the reason half the words are inaudible. It is not that the Mass is merely happening to a passive congregation. It is that the priest, our ordained ambassador (or, as the English say, minister), links us to Calvary, and earth to heaven. The traditional form makes this point visually by positioning the priest not “with his back to the people” — as those prone to ecclesiastical glass-half-emptiness like to say — but with his face toward God, as a captain might stand ahead of his men.

What, then, becomes of lay participation, which many Catholics feel is necessary to their benefit from Mass? The answer is that internal participation excels (and is the goal of) external. The faithful unite their intentions to those of the priest; they follow along in the missal or spend time in mental prayer; they weld their souls to the sacrifice. After all, the most active participation there ever was in any Mass was that of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, who neither did nor said anything the Evangelists thought worthy of reporting. In fact the famous hymn says only “Stabat mater dolorosa” — the mournful mother stayed.

Well-catechized Catholics know the foregoing doctrines, which are true of all the different liturgical rites of the Church, yet they shy away from the form that most visibly embodies them. That is, I daresay, a spiritual loss. The Latin Mass is certainly intimidating in its solemnity and otherworldliness, but how else should the Holy Sacrifice be than solemn and otherworldly? The same riches that profited Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Francis de Sales can be available to every Catholic today, and it would be sad indeed to forfeit one’s inheritance because of a little discomfort. St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei — which uses the Novus Ordo and is wildly popular among conservative Catholics — said the Latin Mass daily until his death in 1975, well after the institution of the new liturgy.

“If it is so,” said Sir Arnold Lunn in the Sixties, “that the Latin Mass is only for the educated few, surely Mother Church in all her charity can find a little place even for the educated few?” Though I applaud the wit I cannot concede the premise: The Latin Mass is, and always has been, for everyone.


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