Can you go home again?

I’m not usually one for telling long, involved stories, instead preferring to distill things down into coherent, hopefully well-argued essays, but I find my coherence has left me. So, instead, for my Sunday Lenten reprieve, y’all are going to get the story of Ed’s first trip to a Latin Mass.

After Mass (Novus Ordo) this morning, my old sponsor, Chris, turns to me and asks, “Ed, how many people can your car hold? Because I think it’s time for a trip down to the Latin Mass, and we’ll have to take the boys since Georgie has to work.” So, three hours and two booster seats safely secured in the backseat later, the five of us, including Chris’s three sons aged between 5 and 9 and their Ziploc bag full of plastic knights with which to do battle, were off for a road trip.

The one Latin Mass offered in our diocese is 75 miles away from home, but with the miracle of interstates and little traffic, it took us only about 75 minutes to get there. With the kids fortified with sundaes and a quick romp around the elaborate space-station-like play area at the local McDonald’s, we ventured over to the parish. We opened the door to the small, old building, and incense wafted out. I wonder how many parishes in the U.S. still have altars against the wall, tabernacles in place, and a communion rail? Well, this one does. It felt exactly like a church should feel–intimate, reverent, and imbued with symbolism, down to the words “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” engraved on the steps up to the altar.

We had arrived a half hour early, in time to catch the praying of the Rosary before Mass, and Chris was able to get in a confession as well. (Yes, they have old-style confessionals too.) Mass started with singing of a good, old-fashioned hymn, played from a pipe organ located in the loft above our heads. The young priest and two altar servers entered, and it began. Despite having read the Missal beforehand, I was immediately lost. I caught up at the Kyrie Eleison, and managed to follow, more or less, the rest of the way. Not being able to hear most of the priest’s words was disorientating to say the least. I have little trouble following Latin if I can hear it, but just following along (or rather, reading and hoping I was in the right place) in the Missal while watching his back was a different experience.

I was struck by how the ad orientem orientation refocused the Mass on God, not on us. I can see no good rationale for celebrating the Mass ad populum, because it stifles reverence and focuses our prayers inward. We also heard a wonderful, orthodox homily, comparing the Transfiguration and the Mass. And, though I did not go up to receive Communion because I had already done so that morning, the altar rail and receiving on the tongue also aided in a general atmosphere of prayer and reverence. It was also edifying to hear the prologue of the Gospel of John read and various prayers, including the Leonine prayer to St. Michael, recited. The whole experience of the Latin Mass was profoundly focused upon God, our Lord, and the awesome Sacrifice He made.

After the Mass, I met back up with Chris and the kids–they had had to leave shortly after the homily because the boys just couldn’t sit still and quietly any longer, and played ball out in the field beside the church the rest of the hour. We returned to McDonald’s for dinner (kids do so love McDonald’s) and engaged, while the boys resumed their exploration of the multi-leveled fake space station play area, in a post-mortem of sorts. Despite the reverence, despite the beauty, despite the orthodoxy, both of us had mixed feelings, remarkably similar ones.

I don’t think I’ll be making regular trips back. The distance, while inconvenient, isn’t a real factor. I wouldn’t mind making the drive once a month, or even more often, if I thought it necessary. But, I don’t. First of all, I am completely accustomed to the Novus Ordo, and my parish, for all its flaws, doesn’t have flagrant liturgical abuses. I’d imagine I could get used to it, but just reading along, with little interaction, and not even being able to hear much of what was going on, does not engage me. While I do agree that the priest should be oriented in the same direction as the people, not facing them, to project audibly more of the prayers cannot be a bad thing. While I also agree that the English translation used in the Novus Ordo is in places abysmal, I honestly fail to see how English faithful to the Latin is inferior to Latin. The liturgies of the Eastern Catholic Churches are almost all in the vernacular, yet haven’t lost an ounce of reverence or beauty. English isn’t the problem; liberal translation hell-bent on desacralizing the Mass is.

As I sit here trying to sort out my mixed thoughts, I keep coming back to one thing: that there is nothing intrinsic to the Novus Ordo that keeps it from being as reverent as the Tridentine Mass. If we fixed the pitiful translation to clear up some theological problems, turned the priest around, got rid of sappy music, and started praying to Our Lady and to St. Michael again, we’d end up with a pretty reverent Mass, and one in which everyone could be engaged. I’d even be fine with making those changes gradually in order to ease the transition and not drive away another generation of those wedded to a particular rite, this time the Novus Ordo.

No, even after such an experience, I have not become a radical traditionalist. I value tradition, I would even go so far as to say that I admire the Tridentine Mass, but in the end, it is a thing of the past. To have an Indult is necessary for pastoral reasons: to shepherd those who are so attached to the old Missal as to be scandalized by any variant of the Novus Ordo, and who would go into schism rather than conform. But, because the vast majority of Catholics know nothing other than the Novus Ordo, gradual reform to orthodoxy is the only route to take in the future. Our mission in the Church is first and foremost to save souls. The Indult is necessary to save some, the maintenance and reform of the Novus Ordo, to save many others.

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5 Responses to “Can you go home again?”


  1. 1 Sharon April 9, 2006 at 6:10 am

    My first comment was lost.

    This is an abriged version in case it happens again.

    I so agree with you. I liken most Masses I attend today to a Beethoven Symphony played by a High School band.

  2. 2 dcs April 18, 2006 at 2:20 pm

    there is nothing intrinsic to the Novus Ordo that keeps it from being as reverent as the Tridentine Mass.

    Well, I might disagree; since there are fewer prayers in the Novus Ordo, even when celebrated in Latin, it is intrinsically less reverent. Compare, for example, the new Offertory with the old, or the new prayer before the Gospel with the old. You will see. However, this isn’t evident to the layman in the pew since these prayers are often said inaudibly. So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the NO can be as reverent as the TLM. We’re then faced with the issue that the NO “can be” reverent while the TLM is reverent. There’s nothing, for example, intrinsic to the NO Mass that keeps it from being irreverent.

    If we fixed the pitiful translation to clear up some theological problems, turned the priest around, got rid of sappy music, and started praying to Our Lady and to St. Michael again, we’d end up with a pretty reverent Mass, and one in which everyone could be engaged.

    That’s a lot of ‘if’s. But there’s still a lot more. You have women in the sanctuary: lectors and altar girls. You have Holy Communion being distributed in the hand. One could go on (but I won’t — trashing the NO is too easy and only invites attacks on the TLM); but I hope you see my point.

    The last NO Mass I went to (Holy Thursday) could be described as “reverent” and I suspect it would have satisfied the Adoremus crowd. There were altar girls but only three of them and they wore the alb rather than the cassock and surplice that the altar boys wore. The music was very good, but unfortunately overbearing because of the banality of the Liturgy. That is, it became a “performance” because the Mass couldn’t compete with it. And Holy Communion was a bit of a circus. In addition, it was concelebrated and that added to the chaos.

  3. 3 Edmund C. April 18, 2006 at 3:21 pm

    Point #1: This is, in my opinion, a case of begging the question: the Tridentine Mass is assumed to be reverent a priori. However, giving you that point, which I think is debatable, here’s a little thought experiment: what if we stepped back in time to 1955 and the self-selection of more reverent people attending the Tridentine Mass hadn’t happened yet? We could step even further back in time to Mass in Medieval times, when the laity were often utterly uninvolved in the Mass until the point of the consecration.

    Part of what makes the TLM today more reverent than the NO is the nature of the people who attend. Those who attend the TLM are by definition more attuned to it. When it was all there was, were the laity as involved in it? As you mention, the prayers are often said inaudibly. From some things I’ve read, it sounds like many of the laity were off doing their own thing, like reading primers, praying the Rosary, or any number of other devotions. Perhaps many were twiddling their thumbs, even. Frankly, that image is every bit as irreverent as the “NO Circus.”

    Point #2:

    I wish communion on the hand would end; I wish there were no altar girls. The first is sheer irreverence (FYI: I will not receive on the hand, and neither will decent number of my fellow parishioners.). The second I need to think about the theological rationale against, but surely deprives us of many vocations and gives women a taste of service at the altar that perhaps they should not have to avoid all the talk of priestesses.

    Not sure what the big deal is about lectors.

    In the end, is much of our debate purely one of aesthetics?

  4. 4 dcs April 18, 2006 at 3:45 pm

    Part of what makes the TLM today more reverent than the NO is the nature of the people who attend. Those who attend the TLM are by definition more attuned to it. When it was all there was, were the laity as involved in it? As you mention, the prayers are often said inaudibly. From some things I’ve read, it sounds like many of the laity were off doing their own thing, like reading primers, praying the Rosary, or any number of other devotions. Perhaps many were twiddling their thumbs, even. Frankly, that image is every bit as irreverent as the “NO Circus.”

    There’s nothing irreverent about praying the Rosary during Mass and in fact at least one Pope (Pius XII) recommended it in the event that one could not follow the Mass itself. (In fact, if one becomes distracted during Mass, such as during a long, boring sermon, then praying the Rosary is an excellent way to refocus on the Mass.) If the Mass can be followed by everyone, easily, then I think it loses a good bit of its sacral character. Shouldn’t there be an air of mystery about the Mass? Or should it be ordinary and humdrum? And surely you can’t say that the conduct of one who is praying the Rosary or some other devotion, or even twiddling his thumbs, remotely compares with the irreverent and casual attitude with which many of the laity (and some of the clergy!) approach Mass these days.

    Still, my point wasn’t fundamentally about the conduct of the people at Mass. I don’t think the measure of reverence is the percentage of people who are paying attention at a given Mass. Isn’t reverence better measured by the glory given to God and the honor given to the Saints, through which God is also honored and glorified? The cult of the Saints has almost disappeared from the New Mass.

    Not sure what the big deal is about lectors.

    Well, (a) most of them are women, who ought to be excluded from the sanctuary in all cases when the sacred rites are offered; and (b) the privilege of reading the Lessons more properly belongs to the clergy (in particular, the deacon and the subdeacon).

  5. 5 Edmund C. April 18, 2006 at 8:26 pm

    …in the event that one could not follow the Mass itself.

    If the Mass can be followed by everyone, easily, then I think it loses a good bit of its sacral character. Shouldn’t there be an air of mystery about the Mass? Or should it be ordinary and humdrum?

    For the life of me, I will never understand this attitude. Mystifying is not the same as mystery. A mystery is something to be delved deeply into, despite never being able to plumb its true depths. It invites understanding, although never fully. There is no connection between being able to be followed and loss of mystery. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, in English no less in most Eastern Rite churches, is a prime example.

    I cannot separate what is happening in the Sanctuary from what is happening outside it, because my experience of the Mass is affected by both. Perhaps I wasn’t evocative enough: the scene I am envisioning for a pre-modern Mass was almost a circus of different people doing different things, almost no one paying attention to the clergy since why bother when you don’t understand it. Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars paints a rather unimpressive picture, for example, of medieval English practice.

    Maybe I’m just too liberal, or maybe I’m just too Protestant, but to me it’s silly to imagine that making the Mass more accessible to the laity is a bad thing.


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