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: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.