I had the privilege of being on the Catholic Answers Live radio program on Monday. The topic was the Traditional Latin Mass. The Host, Patrick Coffin, presents an excellent show each night and is heard on most Catholic radio stations 6-8 pm Eastern Time.
You can hear the whole, hour long interview here: Catholic Answers Live – The Latin Mass.
I would like to mention a few of the topics that came up in the show either by Mr. Coffin, or by callers.
Mark your Calendar – And while we discuss some Liturgical topics please also mark your calendar for a splendid celebration of a Pontifical Solemn High Mass at the High Altar of the Great Upper Church of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington DC. It will Take place Saturday, April 9, 2011 at 1:00pm. The Celebrant will be Archbishop Joseph DiNoia, OP, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Liturgy. Here’s a flyer you can print: Pontifical Mass Flyer. The picture from last year’s Mass is to upper right of this post.
Among the issues discussed in the radio interview are some of these:
1. To Re-propose tradition rather than to impose – Several of the questions surrounded the issue of how far to go with diversity in the liturgy and what can be done to root the Church more deeply in traditional forms of the liturgy. In this matter I have found that Pope Benedict has taken an approach wherein he has chosen to re-propose traditional elements, and the extraordinary form of the Mass rather than to impose them.
There are some in more traditional circles that would like him to use a heavier hand and simply abolish what they consider less desirable things such as modern instruments, Mass facing the people, communion in the hand, and so forth. There are others who fear that some of the freedoms they now enjoy in the ordinary form of the Mass will be simply taken away by the Pope.
But in all this Pope Benedict has a pastor’s heart. He has written clearly of his concerns over certain trends in modern liturgical practice. However, it would seem that his approach has been to re-propose more traditional practices and allow them greater room in the Church. In so doing he signals bishops and priests that they should be freer make use of such options. With the faithful more widely exposed to traditional elements, their beauty and value can be appreciated anew by the wider Church, and they will also excerpt increasing influence. But this will be done in an organic way that does not shock some of the faithful or provoke hostile reaction.
I must say that I have come to appreciate the value of this approach. As a diocesan priest I minister to a wide variety of the faithful, many of whom would not easily understand or accept a sudden imposition of the things preferred by Catholics of a more traditional bent. Mass said, ad orientem is appealing to me for a wide variety of reasons. But many are not ready for a shift back. The Pope has modeled the option in the Sistine Chapel for the new Mass. I have made occasional use of this option at my own parish by using side altars for smaller Masses. The wider use of the extraordinary form in my own parish and throughout the world will also reacquaint the faithful with this posture. Little by little (“brick by brick,” shall we say) there will be a greater comfort with this eastward orientation. The same can be said for the use of Latin, Gregorian Chant having pride of place, communion on the tongue, kneeling for communion and the like. If the Pope were merely to impose such things we might find that pastoral harm was caused and open dissent might also be a problem.
2. The silence of the Traditional Latin Mass was praised but also raised some questions. It is obviously harder for the faith to follow the Mass when much of it is whispered. Indeed, it had often been the practice of the faithful to quietly pray rosaries while Mass was going on, or say private prayers. The bells would signal them as to important moments requiring their attention. By the late 1940s and into the 1950s there was strong encouragement made for the faithful to use missals and follow along with the Mass while reading vernacular translations. The widely viewed black and white video of a Solemn High Latin Mass narrated by Fulton Sheen, (HERE), was an attempt to teach the faithful more about the Mass and get them to use their hand missals. There were also experiments with using microphones on the altar, and beginning “dialogue” Masses wherein the faithful were encouraged to make the responses along with the server. So, while the silence of the Traditional Latin Mass is prayerful for some, others find it challenging to follow along. It takes a while to learn the visual cues as to where the priest is in the Mass and be able to follow. Some who experience this quietness are even provoked to anger that they are so “left out” of the Mass. Hence there are many different reactions to it.
3. The use of a sacred language. Some are bewildered by the use of a language that “no one understands” for the the Mass. But to this there are three answers.
First, the prayers are directed to God who understands Latin perfectly well. There is a tendency in modern liturgy to think its “all about me.” But the use of Latin makes it very clear we are directing our prayer to God, rather than to the edification of the congregation per se.
Second, liturgical Latin is not that hard and most of the faith have a familiarity with many of the responses. Some of the collects and other changeable prayers were obviously less well understood. But the English translation is readily available with the use of a hand missal.
Third, the use of a “sacred” language is not uncommon in human history. Notably, at the time of Jesus, the people spoke Aramaic in the streets and houses, but Hebrew in the synagogue and temple. There is no evidence that Jesus ever railed against such a practice and he, himself, read the Hebrew Scriptures in the synagogue. He had many concerns he expressed over the elitist and scornful religious leaders of his day and over certain religious practices. But the use of a sacred language in the liturgy was not among his listed concerns.
Balance – The use of the vernacular has many benefits, to be sure. But the loss of a common liturgical language is sad. Greater familiarity with the “mother tongue” of the Roman Catholic Church should be encouraged. Those who call the use of Latin “wrong” go too far. Latin can and should have a more frequent use than it currently does while not neglecting to appreciate the value that the vernacular has also brought.
4. One caller had an interesting question about the pronunciation of Latin. He had been trained in classical Latin, and found that Church Latin sounds more like Italian. I got the sense that this grated on his ears! To be fair, the classical method of pronunciation has scholarly roots, but to me it sounds like Castilian Spanish. Theories abound about how the ancient Romans pronounced Latin. What puzzles me is why anyone thinks there was one way it was pronounced. Latin was spoken over a wide area from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, and north into Europe, later. Just as here in America, English is spoken with a wide variety of accents and pronunciation, surely Latin must also have had a wide variety of “sounds.” Church Latin simply took up the accent common in and around Rome. No doubt it does sound like Italian, for the Italians are descendants of the Romans who lived in that region.
5. Problems in the Past – When I learned the Traditional Latin Mass back in the mid 1980s I interviewed a number of older priests and wondered why their generation had discarded something I thought was so beautiful. Most of them told me that in fact the Mass was often poorly celebrated. The Mass was hurried, the Latin was mumbled, the genuflections were half-hearted. There was great pressure to get things done. Low Mass on a Sunday morning could be as short as 18 minutes. The more beautiful sung forms were rarely done and choirs had little skill when it came to executing the Chants.
There were exceptional parishes where things were done with greater solemnity and care, but the older guys told me the big picture was pretty bleak. Thus most welcomed the changes and found that the English imposed on them a more careful celebration in terms of how they said the prayers. It would seem therefore, before we idealize the past, we ought to have some sobriety that certain lacks and abuses may have given rise to the felt need for reform.
That said, we have tragically suffered and whole new series of abuses and problems. And the hoped for reforms were dashed on the rocks by a cultural storm that was blowing through the West. Continuity was lost and most have experienced a great tearing away from tradition and the Mass that the saints knew. With God’s grace we will find our way back to a greater continuity as the Pope re-proposes the tradition and seeks to knit together what is currently good with what has been lost.
Listen to the show if you get a chance, the link is above.
Plan as well to come the Pontifical Solemn High Mass here in DC if you live here or nearby. You won’t regret that you did. There is just nothing more splendid than a Solemn High Pontifical Mass. Archbishop DiNoia is also a fine homilist. Last year’s Mass was a great blessing with Bishop Slattery who is also a fine homilist. Here is a video clip of the day and info on how you can order the DVD if you so wish.