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.