Dicas Latinae? (Do you speak Latin?) Fortasse (Maybe).
In the previous post, I described (at somewhat greater length than I anticipated) how I became interested in and curious about what is variously called the Tridentine Rite, the Traditional Latin Mass, or the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Now I’d like to tell you a little bit about my first impressions about my first ever participation in this form of the Mass last Sunday at a local parish. This was an authorized celebration of the Latin form of the Mass promulgated in the 1962 Missal and in accordance with Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum pontificum. This was not another form of the Latin Mass offered by the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) or other schismatic groups.
I was almost an hour early for this liturgy because I had to use the city of Charlotte’s Special Transportation Service (STS) to get there and had to be ready on their schedule. Another Mass in the Ordinary Form (English) was still going on, so while I waited for this Mass to end, I chatted with some other people who were already starting to gather outside. When the first Mass ended, I also spoke with some of the people attending it. To a person, they all spoke very highly of the church’s pastor and complimented him and the church’s staff for their efforts to celebrate truly beautiful and reverent liturgies. I spoke with the priest himself who assured me that “We try to do things a little differently here.” Then we went inside.
I was immediately struck by the physical appearance of the church where this Mass was being celebrated. I don’t know anything about architecture, but if I had to take a stab at describing the architectural style, I would call it neoclassical, rather than modernist; if by “neoclassical” one means balanced and well-proportioned and and by “modernist” one means ugly and full of bizarre shapes and strange angles, as with some newer Catholic churches I have visited. I would describe the interior as very traditional and very much what one might expect the interior of an older Catholic church to look like: a choir loft and a large marble baptismal font in the rear, pews of dark wood, large stained glass windows, large statues of the saints and Stations of the Cross prominently displayed on the walls, crucifix of dark wood, and a large, ornate, centrally positioned Tabernacle, prominently on display. This is in marked contrast to some more recently built churches I have visited where it seemed one needed a microscope to find the Stations of the Cross and a compass and a guide dog to find the Tabernacle. At this tradition-friendly parish there was also a large, old-fashioned elaborately carved wooden ambo that the celebrant had to reach by climbing up steps. I had only seen ambos like these in photographs of older European churches and cathedrals. (I wasn’t trying to be flippant, but in my head I immediately dubbed this the “Ambo What Am.”) If I had to choose a parish solely on the basis of aesthetics or appearance, I would choose this parish in a heartbeat.
Another thing that struck me was the pervasive (and I must say refreshing) atmosphere of quiet. Outside, on the grounds of the church and in the vestibule parishioners were talking with their friends as one might before or after any Mass, but once one went inside the sanctuary there was an air of quiet, contemplation, and anticipation. Something special was about to happen. People talked in whispers, if at all. Mass-goers trickled in by twos and threes, until, I would guess, the church was about half full. Critics of the Latin Mass frequently like to portray its supporters and defenders as cranks, malcontents, and old fogeys who are hopelessly nostalgic for the nonexistent “good ol’ days;” but from what I could see at this Mass, there was a wide range of ages in attendance, from families with young children to retirees and the elderly. Women are still strongly encouraged (but not required) to wear a head covering during the celebration of this form of the Mass, and there are few things cuter in this world than the sight of a girl under six wearing a chapel veil.
Mass began with the ringing of a bell, the chanting of an entrance antiphon, and a procession up the center aisle, much like in the Ordinary Form. So far so good. I knew the entire liturgy, except for the homily, and perhaps the readings, would be in Latin (Duh!) I knew the priest would stand ad orientam (literally, “to the East,” facing the direction from which the sun rises, and symbolically the direction from which the Son of God rose on Easter morning. I knew the servers would answer on behalf of the congregation. What I perhaps knew but did not fully realize, was that I would not be able to hear what the priest and servers said. I suppose that without thinking about it, I had come expecting that the priest and servers would chant the prayers and responses in a voice loud enough to be audible, and I could follow along in my paperback missal which has the Latin text on the left hand page and the English on the right. This was not the case. Most of the prayers and responses were inaudible to me, and I presume to the rest of the congregation, except perhaps the people sitting right up front. This made it extremely difficult for me to follow the prayers of the Mass, and I eventually gave up trying and simply let myself experience it.
The only times I could really hear something were when the priest would turn to the congregation and chant Oremus (let us pray) followed by a prayer; Dominus vobiscum (the Lord be with you); or Ite missa est (the Mass is ended). In the latter two cases, I did know that the proper responses were et cum spiritu tuo (and with your spirit) and Deo gratias (Thanks be to God) respectively. Chants and hymns, delivered by a very fine schola cantorum, floated out of the choir loft at the appropriate points in the liturgy, seemingly as if by magic (or perhaps I should say as if delivered by invisible angels). I suddenly realized the advantages of this arrangement over the usual practice in newer churches of having musicians and choir members at the front of the church. With a choir loft at the back, Mass-goers can hear and appreciate the music of the liturgy without being distracted by seeing musicians and choir members bustling about with instruments and hymnals and whatnot.
The Mass itself was followed by more prayers and the singing of the Salve Regina (Hail, Holy Queen), which happens to be one of the few Latin hymns I know. I joined in and later received a couple of compliments on my voice, which was flattering. Still trying to process this brand new experience, I introduced myself and shared my first impressions with my fellow Mass-goers. I quickly noticed that many defenders of the Latin Mass are passionate and almost fanatical about their favorite subject. One very earnest, well-meaning gentleman was prepared to tell me at great length and in great detail why the Mass in Latin was better than the Mass in English. When he began to mutter darkly about how “they” didn’t want the Church to celebrate the Mass in Latin, I gently cut him off, fearing I was in for a paranoid rant.
Which brings me to the dark side of the Traditionalist movement. I’ve noticed when visiting Traditionalist websites and reading the comments of self-identified Traditionalists on Catholic blogs I read, that there are very unhealthy, uncharitable, and un-Christian strains of pride, arrogance, and paranoia running through much Traditionalist rhetoric. It is one thing to say that you wish to preserve and perpetuate the older traditions, devotions and forms of worship in the Catholic Church because they are ancient, venerable, beautiful, meaningful and great aids to holiness. There you have my sympathy. It is one thing to acknowledge and point out that since the reforms of the liturgy in the 1960s and ’70s, on occasion there have been gross liturgical abuses committed in the name of “the spirit of Vatican II,” or some other such foolishness. There you also have my sympathy.
It is quite another thing to let that zeal for the ancient traditions of the Church harden or transform into pride and arrogance and come to believe that YOU and and YOUR PARTICULAR GROUP of Catholics are the only REAL Catholics because YOU and YOUR GROUP are the only ones who celebrate Mass “the right way” (i. e. your group’s way, as opposed to the way defined by the Universal Churcheither the Ordinary Form or the Extraordinary Form set forth in the 1962 Missal). It is another thing entirely to heap scorn and contempt on your fellow Catholics who might not share your zeal and affection for the Traditional Latin Mass, and to insinuate or claim outright that they are not really Catholics because of it.
Finally, it is completely unacceptable to claim that any Pope who promulgates or accepts the reformed, vernacular liturgy is somehow not the real Pope, as the “sedevacantists” do. Either the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ and built upon the Rock of Peter, or it is not. Either the man chosen by the College of Cardinals is the legitimate successor of Peter or he is not. If the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ, and the Pope is the successor of Peter, than it is the radical Traditionalist and sedevacantist who has strayed from the truth, not vice versa. If the Catholic Church is not the church founded by Christ and built upon Peter and his successors, I submit that the radical traditionalists, who claim to love the Church so much, are calling Jesus Christ, the founder and head of the Church, a liar.
So much for my own rant. Will I go back? I don’t know. Everyone I talked to acknowledged that the Extraordinary Form takes some getting used to, and may take a while to learn to appreciate. They urged me to keep coming back and keep giving it a try. When I pointed out that most of the prayers are inaudible, one gentleman tried to persuade me that this is actually an advantage. One can either follow along in the missal or pray silently on one’s own knowing that the sacrifice of Christ is being re-presented, he said.
We’ll see. I want real truth. I want real beauty. I want real transcendence. I believe these things can be found in the Catholic Church, and I believe they can be found in the Mass. It just might take some work to find them.