LATIN MASS – St. Odilo-- 2007 You may have noticed in the papers recently that Pope Benedict XVI has just issued a document about the Old Latin Mass. In a nutshell, the Pope is decreeing that this Mass will be available again for priests and people and parishes who desire it. He is not demanding that we all have to go back to the old Mass. He is just saying that this Mass is so beautiful; its riches should be available for the whole world and not lost any longer.
I was privileged to be able to say that Mass almost every week for about ten years in my last assignment. And truth to tell I learned a lot—including how to celebrate the regular English Mass more properly.
I learned that it actually has very little to do with Latin—because most of it is whispered or sung. It has very little to do with the age of the congregation—I found that half of the congregation that went to that Mass were too young to have ever even seen it before. I remember one young woman who went to it the first time and her reaction was “Awesome.’
Anyway I remember when we were first asked by Cardinal Bernardin to begin providing the Old Latin Mass for the Southside. It took at least three months of preparation. I remember hunting down and obtaining the old altar cards, the appropriate candlesticks, the right vestments, the correct books, training the altar boys and preparing them for a ritual they had never even seen before.
And that wasn’t all, because I had to learn to say Mass all over again—only this time in the Latin style. I practiced it three or four times a day- a dry practice Mass- I even practiced on the dining room table. I had to learn, study, and memorize every new sign of the cross and genuflection- and there are dozens more of them than in the English Mass.
I had to learn New chants, new notation—new language.There are turns and steps that you must do—this way and not that way.Your arms are to be held thus far and no farther.There are three voices—spoken, soft, and whispered. Nothing is left to chance nothing is left to the design or creativity of the celebrant because if anything is clear by the way you have to say the Mass in exactly this way and no other—is that the Mass is not about the priest and his ever-bubbly personality or even the people. This is about Jesus. And all the little personalisms that we priests tend to do only distract from Him. If you learned anything learning how to say the Latin Mass—you learned that this was one serious prayer.
And as nervous as I ever get- which is not that nervous- I was concerned that everything be done properly- that we dot our i’s and cross our t’s, that this incredible departure from everything to which we had grown so accustomed over the previous three decades would be successful- or at least that we would not be lynched by irate parishioners..
By the time I was finished celebrating my first Latin Mass, I was startled.I don’t know what I was expecting but I said to myself, “That was truly beautiful! What a wonderful prayer! What beautiful texts! What dignified prayers and gestures and movements.” What startled me was that the impression that the liturgical establishment had made for all the years since the 60’s- was that even the gentlest yearning to see the old mass again- the faintest curiosity about it--was dark and sick and spiritually corrupt. If I had ever breathed a word in my seminary that I was curious about the Old Mass, I really think they would have tossed me—because that Latin Mass stuff was outlaw religion.When you think of how difficult it was to get permission to say that Mass, you might have thought you were asking to slaughter chickens on the altar.
That is why it is so marvelous to read this document because His Holiness is telling us this Latin Mass has its place in the Church—right alongside the new—that each way of saying mass will inform and improve the other and we—the members of the Church will be all the richer for it. Stay tuned.