The ‘Latin Mass’ is still relevant

Many Catholics would be skeptical to walk into a Mass that seems straight out of the Middle Ages, a Mass they could barely understand. The stigmas surrounding the “Latin Mass” have led numerous Catholics to question it: If the Church changed it, why go back to the “old ways”? Can I even get anything out of it? Wasn’t it invalidated?

But the Tridentine Mass or the Rite of St. Gregory the Great (names for the “traditional Latin Mass”) isn’t bad at all. In fact, many Catholics have “re-fallen” in love with it – not to mention the many saints it has sustained throughout history. It helps the faithful dive into a journey of the Mystery of the Mass through the silence, richness and beauty it radiates – and the fact that it’s in Latin actually helps.

“It takes most people about five or six times – with someone to show you the ropes – [to be able to follow it]. Then when you can follow it, and it starts to click, you might just fall in love with it, as I did, as do many,” said Father James W. Jackson, pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Littleton and member of the Priestly Society of Saint Peter. “Even after that, there will remain depth of symbolism you won’t catch.”

Beauty and mystery are two components of this ancient liturgy that attract the many who experience its silence, music and language, Father Jackson said.

“The beauty and mystery of ecclesial Latin is not an obstacle, but a draw for many,” he said, echoing the words of the German theologian Father Matthias Scheeben, who said that for the heart that thirsts for knowledge of truth, the sublime, extraordinary and incomprehensible exercise a special attraction because “a truth that is easily discovered… [cannot] enchant.”

In a similar way, the preferred use of Gregorian chant, Latin and much silence in this liturgy opens the Christian to the mystery taking place.

Its origins

Tridentine Mass is just another term for the Roman Rite that appeared on the Roman Missal from 1570 to 1962. It gets its name from the Council of Trent, which sought to restore the ancient rite practiced in Rome and make it mandatory in the Latin Church. Scholars say this rite, promulgated by Pope Pius V, can be traced back at least to the fourth century, for even Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) sought to remove contemporary traditions from it. For this reason, many prefer to associate his name with the rite instead of the council’s. The ancient liturgy is believed to have originated with the Apostle Peter, although it has experienced accretions throughout the ages.

“The beauty and mystery of ecclesial Latin is not an obstacle, but a draw for many.” (Photo by Brandon Young)

After the Second Vatican Council, the Novus Ordo Mass promulgated by Paul VI in 1969 succeeded the Tridentine Mass and is now the Mass that most Catholics are familiar with. One of its greatest changes is a wider use of the vernacular language.

The post-Vatican II change of the liturgy brought about many questions that numerous Catholics still wonder today: What happened to the “old rite”? Is it still valid? Why go back to it?

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that the “new rite” from 1969 did not null the “old rite,” which was last published in 1962. Neither were they two different rites or versions. Instead, they must be seen as a “twofold use” of the same rite.

Thus, he called the “new” rite the “Ordinary Form” and the “old” rite (the 1962 Tridentine Mass) the “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman Rite. He also gave permission to all Latin Rite Catholic priests to celebrate the Extraordinary Form without people and with people “who, of their own will, asked to be admitted.”

People are now rediscovering the richness of the ancient Roman Rite that is, at times, easy to miss in the Ordinary form most Catholics attend in the present day.

“If one wanted to experience the older liturgy, it would have been quite difficult when I first started to say it in 1992,” Father Jackson said. “There were around 20 places in North America where one could attend the older use and be in full union with the local diocese and the Holy See.

“There are now around 475 churches which use it, increasing at a rate of about three new parishes per month. That growth is not phenomenal, but it is significant.”

Deep into the mystery

Some of the biggest visible ways the Extraordinary form differs from the Ordinary form in our time include the wider use of Latin (except for the homily and readings which sometimes are read in both languages), the use of Gregorian chant and polyphony instead of hymnals, the priest and congregation mostly facing the same direction (ad orientem, or to the east, toward the altar), much more silence, communion reception kneeling and on the tongue and more.

NORTHGLENN, CO: Father Joseph Hearty celebrates a traditional Latin Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn, CO. (Photo by Brandon Young)

None of these aspects should be taken for granted, for they carry deep meaning – the whole liturgy does. Even what may seem like the smallest details say something, and the silence helps the faithful to enter into the mystery more deeply.

One example is the seven times the priest says “Dominus vobiscum” (“The Lord be with you”) during the Mass.

“This is [as] if to say, ‘May God, the Holy Ghost, be with you,’ and the faithful respond ‘et cum spiritu tuo’ (‘and with your spirit’), because at each time it is said, the invocation corresponds perfectly to the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost,” Father Jackson explained.

Another example is the five times the priest turns to face the people, he continued, “because Christ appeared five times to the faithful after his resurrection.”

Father Jackson highlights the symbolism of this rite extensively in his book Nothing Superfluous: An Explanation of the Symbolism of the Rite of St. Gregory the Great.

Attending and being familiar with the Mass that so many saints knew by heart, may just help us understand what Pope Benedict XVI saw clearly: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.