‘Till I Go Yonder…’ An Apology for the Traditional Latin Mass

by Ben Koons

There is an absolute hush, and even kneeling as close as I am to the priest I can only barely hear his whisper, ‘Hoc est enim corpus meum.’ He speaks these words of consecration softly to what was mere bread and what is now Our Lord and then as he kneels a bell rings. He stands up and lifts the consecrated Host, the body of Christ, above his head for the congregation to adore and again the bell rings. He genuflects a second time as the bell sounds and everyone kneeling bow their heads in reverence.

These words of consecration over the Body and Blood of Christ are the essential act of the mass.

St John Chrysostom described the consecration as a moment of ecstasy:

For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar,…are you not straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven?

The loveliness of Chrysostom’s prose can only hint at the transcendent beauty and overflowing grace a person with a charitable and faithful disposition experiences during the mass.

This liturgical beauty, which represents the heavenly realities present with earthly signs visible, is beneficial for all who participate. This is the sense of the Catholic sacramental doctrine ‘ex opere operato’, when sacraments confer some grace that is entirely dependent on the mere performance of the sacrament rather than on the holiness of those participating.

Those of us who participate could speak of those ebullient moments in life where the presence of God is an exceeding joy or times of great anger at God over his absence, to which the liturgy provides us with an emotional and spiritual anchor. We go through lulls of spiritual acedia where even the thought of prayer is tiresome. We find ourselves ‘in a desert land, where there is no way and no water.’

It is especially in these spiritually dry places that we require liturgy; we need the ‘muscle memory’ that develops through liturgical prayer and action. It is difficult to pour out one’s heart to God every day, but it is easier to participate in communal and consistent prayer especially when that prayer appeals to our natural sense of beauty.

When I first learned that Catholics only celebrated the mass in Latin before the 1960s, I was scandalised. I couldn’t imagine the Catholic Church using a dead language for so many centuries after the Protestants had switched over to vernacular liturgies, and it seemed to confirm all the stereotypes about medieval Catholics I had learned growing up as a Lutheran.

The traditional Latin mass or the Tridentine mass is what the Roman Rite of the Church before the 1960s has come to be called. It is called ‘Tridentine’ because following a decree of the Council of Trent (‘Tridentine’ refers to Trent) Pope St Paul V edited the various Roman missals that had been used in Rome since at least around the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth/seventh century, and Pius V made it the standard form of the mass except in places with their own sufficiently ancient forms. In the 1960s, many significant changes were made to the mass, and the Novus Ordo – a new form – was promulgated.

The traditional Latin mass has experienced a resurgence in the Catholic Church in the past eight years as a result of Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio ‘Summorum Pontificum,’ which gave individual priests more liberty to celebrate this traditional mass. Since becoming a Catholic, I’ve come to appreciate the greatness of this older form of the Roman Rite, and I’d like to explain something of its appeal to the ordinary person whether or not that person knows Latin.

Parishes provide little handouts and missals that provide a facing English translation for the Latin prayers, so even people without Latin can follow along. Most of the prayers in the mass are the same every day, and anyone who attends the Latin mass three or four times will begin understanding what is happening when.

Although the Epistle and Gospel are read in Latin, many priests will repeat them in English during the homily. The readings are more about honouring Holy Scripture and the ritual proclamation of God’s revelation than about catechesis. People in mass should already know the Gospel, and the mass is not an apologetic exercise or a means of evangelism (at least not primarily).

The Roman Catholic Church is not exceptional for using a special liturgical language for its liturgy. Christian churches use several different ancient languages: Latin, Greek, and even Aramaic. Other religions have their own liturgical tongues: Sanskrit for Hindus and classical Arabic for Muslims.

There should be no real worries about celebrating the mass in Latin, but what end does it serve?

Primarily it provides continuity both doctrinally and practically and through both time and space. The doctrines of the Catholic Church were developed and articulated in Latin and Greek, not in any modern language. Indeed even today the authoritative version of any papal statement is the Latin one. Maintaining the same language is important for maintaining the same beliefs.

The process of translation is an opportunity for ‘updating’ beliefs. One group will try to express the Latin as literally as possible creating clunky and inartful prayers, but the opposing temptation will be to express the traditional words (like ‘concupiscence’) in such a way that ‘the common man’ can understand them. Thus translation becomes a power struggle that provides a constant occasion for division within the Church. We can see this in a recent controversy about the English translation of the mass, in which a looser translation from the ‘70s was replaced by a more faithful one causing some dissension because doctrinal issues were also at stake.

Latin is a beautiful language, and it sounds loftier than the stilted English prose of the 1960s. Its prayers were developed over centuries, whereas the Novus Ordo was formed within a decade, and it is difficult for a modern committee to approximate the beauty of an organically developed liturgy.

A preference among many Protestants for the more artful prose of the King James Bible shows that many people appreciate a liturgy that speaks in words and phrases estranged from our mundane conversations. We enter a different realm when we pray in a different language just as we turn a switch in our heads when we enter a language class. It is a different space, and when we enter a different space there is a chance for us to experience a separation from the everyday and a unity with the transcendent.

When my dad drove us to our Lutheran church on Sundays, he liked to play Gregorian chant from the classical music station, which always drove my mom crazy. I didn’t care either way about it at the time. Yet in my time at college, I’ve come to see the beauty of this relatively simple form of music.

It is easy to learn how to chant, and although I have no choral training I’ve been able to pick up the rudiments of chant. In many ways, chanting is easier than any form of modern singing because it is just sung prayer. Chant’s simplicity though does not prevent its becoming ethereal.

The old phrase ‘singing the mass’ mystified me because I thought the mass was said and one might sing at mass. Yet the standard mass is the missa cantata, or chanted mass, and every Sunday I have the chance to hear the mass sung. Even the Nicene Creed becomes music when it is chanted, and hearing the long narrative of the Passion sung on Palm Sunday is one of the most significant musical and liturgical experiences I have had.

Chant speaks first and foremost to the mind calling it to heavenly realities while calming our passions. In its very form, it teaches and enlightens, and it draws its words from the Psalms and Gospel and the pens of saintly Church Fathers.

In contraposition to the music of the mass is its silence. When I started going to the Novus Ordo after a childhood of Lutheran liturgy and evangelical worship services, I noticed the long moments of silence in the mass as the priest said prayers to himself.

I was uncomfortable in those moments, and among many people in our culture there is this same discomfort with silence. We find moments without chatter awkward in our conversations, and when we watch television we expect a constant stream of words. The moments of silence in the Novus Ordo pale in comparison to the minutes of silence in the traditional Latin mass.

This silence makes evident the focus of the mass.

The priest is not even looking at the congregation for most of the mass. Rather he faces towards the altar, towards the East, which is the direction of Jerusalem and but also of the rising Sun, which is a common symbol for Christ. He speaks most of his words after the homily in a low voice, so that only a few can hear him. It is to God whom he speaks and not us.

The mass is not primarily a dialogue between the priest and the congregation. It is first and foremost a dialogue between Christ, in whose person the priest acts, and the Trinity. We participate by uniting ourselves to Christ, which we have the ability to do by dint of our baptism into his life and passion.

The mass is a rent in the fabric of space-time as we witness the same sacrifice that Christ made on Calvary. We become like St John and the Blessed Virgin Mary standing at the foot of the cross, our station keeping. The intrinsic and extrinsic beauty of the mass and liturgy can help lift us up, but if we do not also rise to the heavenly sphere then we remain dead. We must keep our station and remain vigilant.

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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