LATIN MASS - St. Odilo - 2007 This evening I thought I would talk about the new permission that Pope Benedict XVI has given for the celebration of the “old Latin Mass”. It is such an extraordinary thing in the life of the Church—to bring back that way of saying Mass— that I just don’t think it is proper to ignore or simply relegate to last week’s news what the Pope has actually done.
There is not a soul in this church today who thirty years ago would not have believed that the old Latin Mass was dead. Dead and lost to the Ages. But HisHoliness has said that that older form of worship cannot die—because it is so beautiful, so rich in history and human experience and supernatural value that it must not be withheld from the world any longer—it must not be lost to the world that so badly needs it. And so he has freed it.
Of course, there is a whole crew out there—including bishops— who are beside themselves with outrage charging that the Pope is rolling back the reforms of Vatican II. That he is returning us to the Dark Ages where it was priest vs. people. Well he is not doing any of the sort. The Pope does note in his instruction to the Bishops that he is rolling back what he terms the mistakes of the Church leaders for the past 40 years and he is decreeing simply that those people who wish to go to the older form of Mass now have complete and total freedom to do so. What could be less threatening?
He could have said, “Time out, the noble experiment of the 60’s is over. It didn’t work.” He could have looked at the lack of vocations—the empty seminaries and convents, he could have looked at the ever-lowering number of people who go to Mass—the ever-increasing number of Catholic people for whom the Church and her teaching means nothing—he could have said, “Well whatever we changed about the Mass in the 60’s—thinking it was going to help—well… it didn’t—so everybody back to the old ways.”
But he didn’t say that because he knew in his heart of hearts that huge immediate changes are problematic—at least when it comes to the Mass. He has long taught that the Mass grows and changes—organically—slowly—little by little over the course of centuries. Many centuries. That you cannot say to a committee—“Give me a way of saying Mass that will be peppy and modern and get everybody praying.”It would be nice if it were that easy.
But it doesn’t work that way. Offering worship to God is the most sacred thing people can do, and there is an instinct on the part of people—that you really ought not change things too drastically—or that will unbalance the people—tip them over the wrong edge—and make them lose whatever successful path to God they may have had. That is one of Pope Benedict’s points: that when we changed the Mass back in the 60’s – it was done too harshly. It was imposed from above and came from academics instead of from the people.
The Pope has taught many times over the last few years—and even before he was the Pope-- that the only way the Mass can ever be changed is to let it naturally and slowly adjust itself to whatever is going on around it—that the Mass ideally is to be left to itself to develop over time— to grow from natural changes that bubble up from the people themselves—not from committees of scholars.And little by little those changes, subtle and delicate, take hold, and, over the centuries, and spread from country to country- culture to culture.
The Mass that Peter and the Apostles said—and at which the earliest Christians assisted—used songs and readings from the Bible and an early version of the Eucharistic Prayer and in some similar order to what we have always seen. The first few years it was probably a bit loose, but within a few decades the Mass began to take a definite shape and pattern. It started to lock in. The priest and the people faced the Cross together—there is a genuflection here, a sign of the cross there-- and pretty soon each province of the Empire had its own set manner of doing the Mass.
And in that way, over the slow march of centuries, in a world of cataclysms and invasions and turmoil and strife, the Mass becomes the only constant.The way in which the Mass is celebrated, the music that is sung, the language which is used—all of it becomes a great comfort to the people. Yes, the Mass always changed and always developed—but so slowly, that it could link generations to each other—I am linked to my father and to my grandfather and then we even to Charlemagne—pretty much the same mass. And that is kind of amazing.
So what the Pope is saying is that many of the changes in the Mass after the Vatican council were a little too artificial and superficial and gave some of us the impression that the Mass was more about creativity and entertainment than about the sacrifice of Christ.
More than that he is saying that if we had ever been given the impression that that old way of saying Mass was forbidden and terrible and to be thrown away—well that impression was wrong. He wants us to be confident that the older way of Mass has its own special genius and beauty and grace—which we in this modern world cannot afford to dismiss or lose. And that we can learn how better to worship God from the old Mass being celebrated alongside the New Mass. I am convinced that His Holiness has a vision that in a hundred years the good elements from the Mass of John XXIII and the good elements from the Mass of Paul VI will coalesce-- organically and naturally-- into a most fruitful and beautiful Mass of some future Pope.
But for now he says that those who find that they can pray better at one Mass or another, well, as a wise loving father, the Pope has said, “Please do so.”