Dicas Latinae? Prima pars. (Do you speak Latin? First part)

Dicas Latinae? (Do you speak Latin?) Fortasse. (Maybe).

Yesterday, I attended my first ever Mass in the Extraordinary Form (aka Traditional Latin Mass, Tridentine Mass) at a parish here in Charlotte and lived to tell the tale. It was new. It was . . . different.

First, a few words of explanation.  I was born in 1963, smack dab in the middle of the Second Vatican Council, and by the time I was coming along, the reforms of the liturgy had been completely implemented and the Mass was entirely in English with the priest facing the people (versus populo, I believe it’s called) and the liturgy structured as a dialogue between the priest and the people. I knew, of course, that there was an older Latin form of the Mass, but I didn’t really know much about it. When I began blogging on Catholic topics in 2005, I quickly noticed that there seemed to be no faster or better way to start a virtual fistfight among Catholics on the internet than to venture an opinion, pro or con (See there, I used Latin!), on the Latin Mass.

Advocates said it was beautiful, mystical, ancient, and holy, and the de facto (See there, I used Latin again) suppression of the Latin Mass in favor of Mass in the vernacular after Vatican II was one of the worst things to ever happen to the Church. The virtual disappearance of the Latin Mass after Vatican II was alleged to be the root cause of plummeting Mass attendance and nosediving priestly vocations. (I always thought this was an example of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, but no matter). Why on earth did the Church decide to change? Some advocates for the traditional Latin Mass claim that Dark Sinister Liberal Forces [TM] both inside and outside the Church, ranging from closet Protestants to Freemasons and neopagans deliberately suppressed the older form of the Mass and implemented their version of the liturgy for the purpose of destroying the Church. Some of these same advocates denounce even the motu proprio of Pope Benedict XVI, Summorum pontificum, authorizing a wider use of the Latin Mass in the 1962 Missal, as a mere piece of camouflage designed to draw gullible traditionalists into a carefully concealed and orchestrated modernist agenda.They claim that the Mass promulgated in the 1962 Missal is a “bastardized” form of the authentic Traditional Latin Mass.

Critics of the Latin Mass, on the other hand, usually argue that this form of the Mass is incomprehensible, in a language most people cannot understand or even hear, because the priest says most of the prayers with his back to the congregation and in a low, even inaudible voice. The people cannot see what takes place on the altar. Furthermore, critics claim, this Mass is elitist and exclusive because the altar boys (girls and women are not permitted to serve on the altar in the Extraordinary Form) answer on behalf of the congregation. The people are not permitted to speak for themselves except at certain times and are reduced to passive spectators.

For most of my life as a Catholic I would have put myself squarely in the modernist and contemporary camp. I took courses in church history in college and loved the sound of Latin words and phrases, but I couldn’t imagine not being able to hear, understand, and verbally pray the prayers of the Mass. I couldn’t imagine not being able to see what took place on the altar. I loved the music of the St. Louis Jesuits and the “folk Mass” movement of the 1960s and ’70s.  I had a moment of revelation, however, when I first heard——really heard——sacred polyphonic music, first on a public radio classical music show, and then via Limewire and iTunes. I can recall stopping what I was doing just to listen, absolutely transfixed by the beauty of the blended voices. When I realized this was music for the liturgy, I was astounded. Why had I not heard this before? Why had every Catholic not heard this before? I wanted to hear more. After listening to the music of Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina, and Victoria, I concluded that the “folk” music I had loved so much when I was younger now seemed insufferably shallow and cheesy by comparison. More recent compositions, that sounded as if they belonged at a Celine Dion concert, and “praise and worship” style songs played on keyboards, electric guitars and (shudder) drums were even worse. When I realized that all this glorious music I had come to love was composed for the older form of the Mass, I concluded this older form, so often derided, disparaged, and dismissed, must have something going for it.

I began to study and try to learn more. I learned that the Second Vatican Council did not forbid the Latin Mass. Rather, it permitted the Mass in the vernacular. I learned that in the older form of the Mass, the priest does not stand “with his back to the congregation.”  He stands facing the same direction as the people. Since the priest offers the Mass before God on behalf of the people, it makes perfect sense that he would face the same direction they do. I ordered a paperback Latin-English missal and a copy of Let’s Read Latin, a short introductory course in ecclesiastical Latin created by the late Ralph McInerny, author of the Father Dowling novels. I set out trying to learn Church Latin, but it’s tougher than it looks, and I couldn’t keep up my enthusiasm when I knew that there wasn’t a a parish near me that offered the Latin Mass . . .

Until I came to Charlotte, that is. Facebook friend Katrina Fernandez, author of The Crescat blog, recommended I try her parish, which is very tradition-friendly. When I saw that the parish regularly offered Mass in the Extraordinary Form, I decided to go and see what all the fuss was about. In my next post, I’ll tell you what I found.

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