Recognizing the beauty of the Latin Mass

  • November 23, 2009
{mosimage}Earlier this autumn, the Oratorians who operate Toronto’s St. Vincent de Paul Church, my liturgical home base, decided to make the principal Sunday service, at 11:30, a celebration of the 1962 Latin Mass.

At first, I was dismayed by the strangeness of it all. The Mass in English had always seemed entirely reverent and otherwise satisfactory, at least the way the Oratorians do it; and it surely is a satisfactory way to thank God for His many blessings. (I have fortunately never witnessed one of those eccentric vernacular Masses the fervent Catholic bloggers complain about.)

Too, I had no childhood experience of the so-called “old” Mass, since I have been a Catholic for only 10 years. I had taken part in this style of liturgy only once or twice, and come away feeling alienated, largely (as I now think) because I went in the irreverent spirit of curiosity. All told, the change decreed by our parish priests for the 11:30 Eucharist came as an unexpected, unwanted surprise.

But now that several weeks of attending this service have rolled by, I find myself content again — and wondering why I felt some discontent in the first place.

The general shape of the Divine Liturgy is the same, of course, whether the Mass is said in Latin or in English. This basic architecture of prayer and thanksgiving is very ancient, and is central today throughout the worlds of Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, as well as Catholicism. The liturgical revisions initiated by the Second Vatican Council provided new clarity and new articulation of the way the parts of the Mass fit together. But the essential pattern is wholly present in the Latin Mass, hence immediately recognizable to anyone coming from an English-language eucharistic tradition.

My way into the Latin Mass has also been eased by the music. While some may miss the fine old Anglican and Lutheran songs that have become part of Catholic hymnody over the last half-century, the very beautiful plainchant and polyphonic settings of the Latin texts, which are among the glories of Western music, more than make up for that absence. These settings, sung well — and in my church they are sung very well indeed — complement the spoken Latin in a manner that makes for overall coherence, a resplendent unity.

And there are some other things that the Latin liturgy offers that the English Mass does not. One of the most attractive is the great silence that opens at the very heart of the celebration, as the priest inaudibly consecrates the bread and wine and offers them to God. Because I was accustomed to the liturgy in English, I initially found this sudden hush following the Sanctus and Benedictus to be off-putting, somehow beside the point. But it has rapidly grown on me, and now I am beginning to understand it as an experience of the silence in which the heart always meets God. It seems appropriate to me that this silence should pervade the centre of the Mass, where all that we have and are is presented to God in Christ for His loving transformation.

All that said, however, I doubt that I will ever share the fierce, even angry attachment to the Latin liturgy I occasionally encounter on the web and in conversation. The Latin Mass, rigourously celebrated, indeed contradicts a certain self-satisfied worldliness that, I am told, has crept into Catholic worship since the Second Vatican Council. (I have had no personal experience of this worldliness, though I can believe it exists.)

But the Latin Mass cannot be turned into a weapon in anyone’s argument with the present state of Western culture. To do so would be to miss its beauty as an expression of the essential business of the People of God, which is to love and enjoy the Holy Trinity forever.

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