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: Nothing about us without us

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA