On the Strength of the Latin Mass

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It was 9:30 Sunday morning while I was still attending the round suburban parish closest to where I live. I noticed that the musicians who typically ‘perform’ at 11 o’clock were filling the prominent choir area just to the right of the altar. While I was still very green on liturgical matters, I knew enough that I didn’t care for the concert that typically took place at 11 which is why I frequented the 9:30; something about people clapping at Mass just seemed weird to me. As I prepared to recite the Gloria, I heard a drum kit start pulsating while the guitar and piano built up steam. What was going on?

It was a different take on the Gloria, it had become a hot little ditty that featured rollicking piano licks, cymbal crashes, and it’s own thrice-repeated refrain! It sounded ridiculous. Even at that relatively immature stage in my spiritual life, I knew there was a reason I don’t like pop music with my prayer…or rap with my reading or acappella with my arobics.

I encountered that church “band” a few more times at this carpeted parish, each time seeming more shocking than the last. Then one day a help-out Dominican priest was the celebrant. As my wife and I bowed during the incarnation in the Creed, the entire congregation stumbled on their words when the mic’d up friar omitted “men”: “For us _ and for our salvation, He came down from heaven”. I suppose it was some kind of attempt to appear inclusive, an empty gesture I expect in the politically correct arenas of politics and big business, anywhere but the holy Mass.

The Millennial Perspective

Stories like this are everywhere unfortunately. And, to be sure, they are not inherent to the 1969 Mass of Pope Bl. Paul VI (Ordinary Form, Novus Ordo). But stories like this seem to be all too common in the last few decades. To my own and many of my peers’ detriment — Millennials in our early 30’s — most of our experiences come from these decades. I have watched the majority of my friends raised as Catholics fall away from the Faith, still not entirely sure of basic Catholic concepts. As children of the 90’s, Mass for many of us appeared quite banal. It was something we attended, without really knowing why despite attending Sunday School and CCD. Part of the problem was (and is) that we were being taught all these complex, cumbersome notions about such topics as the essence of the Trinity, transubstantiation, immaculate birth, and so on, but never really saw anything that reflected these lofty concepts in what was supposed to be the pinnacle, the “source and summit” (CCC 1324), of our spiritual life: the Mass.

We grew up seeing a very ‘horizontal’ liturgy, characteristic of most Ordinary Form Masses. Horizontal in that the prayers, words, music, motions, and aesthetics within the Mass clearly drew from common, everyday customs and behaviors. The common Novus Ordo Missae (new order of the Mass) often reflects so many social functions in our culture, thereby stifling curiosity and wonder in even children.

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If the last 20 centuries of counter-cultural, sublime, and often shocking Christian doctine are true, why does the Mass all too often seem to reflect something so painfully familiar looking and sounding? The typical Mass of the last four decades too often displays a priest in ugly polyester drapery whose demeanor is oddly casual; poor music with cheesy lyrics; a priest as a performer; a congregation as an audience; an emphasis on homiletics; downplaying transcendence, sacrifice, or atonement; and general irreverence to the Eucharist. The most important part of the Mass, Communion, is often distributed by an army of horrendously casual laypeople into the hands of the parishioners as if it was– a potato chip–it all unravels from there.

The Intrinsic Weakness of the Ordinary Form

Due to the many opportunities for tweaking within the new rubrics, the priest’s personality tends to form the Novus Ordo rather than the liturgy forming the priest–one of the reasons these Masses are often so different from one another. Or, to put it another way, and to borrow a critique many Eastern Rite Catholics have for the West, we pray what we think rather than think what we pray. Too often the new liturgy is shaped by the prevailing culture rather than culture being shaped by the liturgy.

The point here is that the Ordinary Form of the liturgy, depending on the celebrant, has more trouble conveying the unique mystery of the event before the congregation. And, as I have said many times on this site, why would anyone who is weak in their understanding of the Faith–most Catholics–care to waste an hour on Sunday morning for something that isn’t unique compared to what the rest of the world offers them? Why would a protestant be moved to conversion if there’s little difference of worship in this perceived Sunday “service”? I know I can certainly find better sources of music, inspiration, and good feelings elsewhere! This is part of why Mass attendance numbers among Millennials is so pathetic; why would they waste their time with something that appears so banal, cheesy, and pointless. After all, everyone already knows that we’re supposed to be nice to each other and isn’t that the basic, uncontroversial message every Sunday anyhow?

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Human nature is ingrained with a sense of ritual but where has the Christian ritual gone? It certainly exists in the other major world religions. Can you imagine Jews or Muslims watering down their ritual, prayer life, or universal religious language? Think about Jews ignoring the ancient communal tongue of Hebrew or Muslims trying to modernize Islam by sweeping classical Arabic under the rug? The thought is almost comical. It’s important to realize that Bl. Paul VI did not intend for the complete removal of Latin in the liturgy but, with the many opportunities for priests to personalize the Ordinary Form, that is what happened as time went on. How can the typical Novus Ordo Mass be expected move one to conversion when it portrays itself as something so un-serious, so soft, so banal. Of course, no valid Mass, no matter how unfortunately celebrated, can be any of these things since Christ is truly present, but why wouldn’t we seek to move souls to astonishment through beauty? It begs repeating the popular analogy of having a diamond (the Eucharist) with no beautiful gold ring for it to be placed (the liturgy). It’s hard to imagine anything contained within the typical celebration of the Ordinary Form capturing the hearts and minds of people as does the stoic majesty of a solemn high Mass or the profound silence and precision within a low Mass.

insenseOne of the arguments for the new Mass including the vernacular language was so it could be more “accessible” to Mass-goers. The opposite happened. People going to Mass in an area that speaks a different language, let alone another country, are the ones who feel truly isolated. There are some parishes by me that will have four Sunday Masses, two in English and two in Spanish; talk about segregating and isolating Catholics from one another. Parishes like this have effectively become two parishes all because of language. A universal language makes sense for THE universal Church spread across the world.

Before moving on, I want to state that there are some parishes which feature a very beautiful and traditionally-minded Novus Ordo liturgy. However, these parishes are unicorns, you’re unlikely to stumble across one. Also, a parish with a wonderful Novus Ordo can change the moment the pastor gets relocated, retires, or passes away. A strong Novus Ordo is simply as strong as its weakest link, the priest.

The Strength of the Extraordinary Form

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Okay, enough complaining. Luckily the Church has a solution to all this (doesn’t she always?). Paradoxically, the Church’s future lies in her past. More and more people (especially Millennials), yearning for authentic Roman Catholicism and hungry for an intimate encounter with the liturgy have turned to parishes that offer the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Thanks to Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, the Mass which was good enough for nearly all our favorite saints has become more accessible for the first time since the liturgical revision in 1969, thanks be to God. Its popularity is exploding worldwide and bishops are taking note.

The first time at a Latin Mass can be jolting. It strikes one as unlike any other Mass they have ever heard. One of the most glaring features is the intense focus on the Sacrifice of Jesus. All eyes in the church are facing the Liturgical East–awaiting Christ–being led by their priest who is clearly about very serious business, “about [their] Father’s business” (Lk 2:49). The priest is not there to put on a show, to make people laugh, or to make people feel good. The priest is there to intercede on our behalf with God, the Father, by renewing the eternal Sacrifice of the Son on Calvary. This indeed is serious business…quite the opposite of what the typical priest celebrating the new liturgy conveys. These priests (along with any deacons or servers) are bound to firm rubrics on how to say Mass. There is no room for personalizing the liturgy. Touching back on the point before about priests forming the Mass to their personality rather than the other way around, think of how often you remember a Mass for who the priest was. “Who was the priest?” people will ask. “Oh, I didn’t like when Father said this” or “I love when so-and-so does that…”. At the Latin Mass, the priest is not the focus. Most of the Mass you don’t even see the priest’s face. While he is prominently about his business on the very visible high altar in beautiful vestments, he has a paradoxical aura of anonymity as his precise movements grace the sanctuary.

11913249_10205228307610635_703794848054270774_nThe Extraordinary liturgy is foreign to any other form of Christian worship that exists. Far too many Catholic churches have a liturgy that, when witnessed by a non-Catholic or lukewarm Catholic, doesn’t press one to form an opinion. It’s almost impossible not to have a reaction to the Traditional Mass. The ancient ritual of it is unlike anything else in the western hemisphere. As Peter Kwasniewski says in his book Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis, the Latin Mass “throws down the gauntlet”, so to say. It stirs curiosity in people, it induces awe, it moves a soul to conversion. The setting of our Eucharistic “diamond” should not have a typical atmosphere, appeal to worldly senses, or be laced with familiar language because the Eucharist is not typical, worldly, or familiar.

Another point mentioned in Mr. Kwasniewski’s publication touches upon the different liturgical calendar. The readings for Mass are not only different, but scripture is used in an entirely different fashion. In the Novus Ordo calendar, while admirably offering nearly the entire Bible within a three-year cycle, it further shifts the emphasis away from the sacrificial nature of the Mass. With the “wordiness” already inherent of the revised Mass, having such an emphasis on the ‘Liturgy of the Word’ draws attention away from the mystery before us. While the Word of God is obviously important, the Mass shouldn’t be the only place one encounters scripture. The “first reading” (Epistle) and Gospel are typically much shorter in the old calendar and, along with the other propers (changeable parts of Mass), uses the scripture to to help beautifully frame the respective Mass. These propers form a linear theme relative to the Sunday or Feast on the calendar. Using sections of the Second Sunday after Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday) as an example:

  • Introit – Psalm 32: 5,6
    The earth is full of the mercy of the Lord,
    alleluia: by the word of the Lord were the
    heavens made, alleluia, alleluia…
  • Epistle – 1 Peter 2: 21-25 
    Christ suffered for us,
    leaving you an example, that you should
    follow His steps…when He suffered,
    He threatened not, but delivered
    Himself to him that judged Him unjustly:
    who His own self bore our sins in His
    body upon the tree: that we, being dead to
    sins, should live to justice: by whose
    stripes you were healed. For you were as
    sheep going astray, but you are now con-
    verted to the shepherd and bishop of your
    souls.
  • Gradual – Luke 24:35 
    Alleluia, alleluia. The disciples knew the
    Lord Jesus in the breaking of bread.
  • Gospel – John 10:11-16 
    Jesus said to the Pharisees: I am the good
    shepherd. The good shepherd
    giveth his life for his sheep…I lay down My life
    for My sheep. And other sheep I have that
    are not of this fold: them also I must
    bring, and they shall hear My voice, and
    there shall be one fold and one shepherd.
  • Offertory – Psalm 62: 2,5 
    O God, my God, to Thee do I watch at
    break of day: and in Thy name I will lift up
    my hands, alleluia.
  • Communion – John 10:14 
    I am the good shepherd: and I
    know My sheep, and Mine know Me. Alle-
    luia. Alleluia.

So, while much less scripture is read, the passages of scripture that are used tend to fit together perfectly to convey a single theme or message.

One of the aspects of the classical form I adore is that it doesn’t contain that perpetual “wordiness” mentioned above. Sometimes in the new Mass, it’s almost as if the priest is trying to hold a conversation with the congregation, making people feel awkward when there isn’t someone talking or singing to them. Silence thus becomes an enemy when it shouldn’t be. The Latin Mass doesn’t concern itself with incessant chatter. Many of the Traditional Form’s periods silence are pregnant with meaning and offer the best times for one to really pray, helping unite one’s own concerns, desires, thanksgivings, and sacrifices to that of Christ’s on the altar. The Latin Mass, therefore, is less distracting. There’s not always a hymnal to open, a response to repeat, or a hand to shake. The Extraordinary Form allows Catholics to use the time as they see best to assist in the Mass.

The Latin Missae’s strict rubrics do not allow for priests to remove or interject parts as they wish: Latin will be used, Communion will be kneeling and on the tongue, music will be in chant or polyphony, altar servers will be male, and much more. This standardization makes the celebration of Mass truly catholic (universal) in the literal sense of the word. These rubrics also codify the notable characteristics of a ‘vertical’ style of worship. Everything about it casts our gaze upwards above ourselves, the sights, sounds, language, smells, and prayers. It encourages us to look towards the heavens as we come into contact with God. (Rev 21:1-5)

The Classical Role of a Parish to Families

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From both my experience and the testimony of many others, churches dedicated to the Extraordinary Form have a thriving parish life. Family life tends to be flourishing with large, lively, joyful, and beautiful families. As it has become in all-too-many typical American parishes, children are not seen as a nuisance. Parishioners tend to be welcoming and very kind–they enjoy fostering vibrant community life outside of just sharing glances during an hour Sunday morning. Parishioners are committed to making friendships, helping each other out, and having fun together.

Also, after decades of seeing just about any clothing pass as acceptable for attending the marriage supper of the Lamb, where God is present, it’s refreshing to see people dressing for the occasion. It’s not likely you’ll see someone in sandals, shorts, a tank top, or a football jersey. Equally refreshing is it to see priests dress like priests too, helping make a clear line between clergy and laity–often with nice white shirts and cuff-links under their cassocks, black leather shoes, well-groomed, etc. After all, why wouldn’t someone entrusted to caring for souls not dress like the professional that he is? This is the image young men must see if we wish for more quality men to join the priesthood. Obviously the idea here is not vanity but rather a proper reflection of their priestly office in the secular community–something that was indeed revered by most people not too long ago. Further, outside of Mass, a good priest takes his pastoral role with great care (regardless of liturgical form). They are often engaged with all aspects of parish life and see to it to welcome in new parishioners and help make the community strong. Priests like this seem to be common in parishes dedicated to the classical liturgy.

For those raising a family, a parish with a traditional understanding of its role in the community can be very important. This obviously doesn’t need to be a Latin Mass parish, per se; there are many good parishes in this respect (and growing due to more and more serious and faithful priests coming out of the seminary to help cultivate this parish culture). The reason it is important for a family to have a parish practicing authentic and bold Catholicism is because there needs to be a place where families can recharge from the world. The world presents a fierce battlefield of ideologies and temptations. Many of us take seriously protecting our family from physical threats, but what about spiritual threats? After all, the wounds of an injured soul will manifest in emotional, mental, or even physical despair at some point.

Unchecked, the world wants to devour people, especially children. The prevailing culture wants to drive a wedge between children and their parents, and wants to cheapen the true definition of happiness into desires simply being satisfied rather than the joys associated with selfless love. To the modernist culture, children represent an opportunity to grow the destructive notion of moral relativism, suggesting to them that there are no eternal truths that exist, that reality is whatever an individual wants it to be.

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The world, along with the Adversary, wants your marriage to fracture and your household broken up. Just notice every popular message around you and ponder if it fosters a stronger marriage/family or the opposite. As the oft-repeated phrase goes, Catholics are called to be “in this world, not of it” because we were created for heaven. And, since the road to heaven for most of the laity is best conquered through family life, that is why it is important for a church to so support the virtuous family life of its members. The parish should operate as an oasis, where the souls of the community and the spirit of family life can be renewed, enjoyed, and encouraged by one another.

Another point of optimism as it pertains to parish life is that it’s not only those warming the pews who are growing in number, it’s the seminarians dedicated to the Extraordinary Form. Many of their seminaries are literally overflowing–needing to find alternative places to house these men. While many dioceses are consolidating or spreading the responsibilities of one priest between multiple churches, many parishes dedicated to the Latin Mass have the opposite happening. Not only do these parishes often have their own live-in priest but they have multiple priests available to administer the sacraments.

Final Thoughts

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First Latin Mass in decades – Seminarians requested the Extraordinary Form be taught and celebrated at St. Borromeo Seminary in Philly, the rector obliged.

On a more shallow note, the Extraordinary Form is cool. There’s a lot of reasons to fall in love with the Church and once you do, it’s hard not to fall in love with something so authentic as the classical form of the liturgy–there’s a reason Pope Benedict XVI decided to call it Extraordinary rather than anything else. The old liturgy is serious, reverent, masculine, and beautiful. This liturgy is part of what has helped us stand out so prominently in the world.

Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair

-GK Chesterton

I, for one, have grown tired of vapid, banal, childish, and ugly liturgy. If you agree, know that you are most definitely not alone. That is why there is a resurgence of the Latin Mass worldwide. Who knows, maybe one day people will look back on this era of the “reformed” Mass as an awkward 50-year blip on the enormous timeline of Catholicism. What is certain is this: we are in the middle of a modern-day Catholic renaissance that will surely lead to the next 2,000 years of Christianity and I sure as hell am looking forward to being part of it.

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4 thoughts on “On the Strength of the Latin Mass

  1. It should be noted that a common theme does not always appear when comparing the texts of the Mass in the EF. At the very least, the antiphons for the Sundays after Epiphany are sometimes the antiphons for the last Sundays after Pentecost. Still, this is the exception other than the rule.

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  2. I Love the TLM, the reverence prior to ascending the altar is a significant reminder of our unworthiness, sin, psalm 42 speaks new to me every time I pray it, in or out of Mass. The experience is humbling due to my not knowing all the words but Knowing that the Priest is offering this for me and all. Outstanding Article!

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