Thoughts on the Traditional Latin Requiem Mass – Not Really as Dark or Dreadful As Many Say

111213Perhaps as a concluding post on funeral masses, this is my third post on the subject this week (omni trinum perfectum – all things are perfect in three), I would like to re-post an article I wrote over a year ago.

Many of the comments these past days mentioned the Traditional Latin Requiem Mass, which I have been privileged to celebrate many times in my 25 years. It is a beautiful and gentle liturgy, so consoling and yet also sober and mindful that someone has died and that we ought to pray.

And while I do not say that everyone must like this form, I also think the Requiem Mass has been unfairly panned, especially by some (not all) older clergy. What follows is my answer to those critiques in hopes of establishing greater understanding and mutual respect:


When I was in seminary back in the mid 1980s I was informed by some of my Seminary teachers, that the old funeral masses were a very dark affair. Black vestments and somber prayers all focused on judgment were supposedly an “extreme” that had to give way. Never mind that the new Mass permitted black or purple vestments, the point was that we were not to use black vestments and were to wholly avoid any “negative” themes like judgment, purgatory or (the absolutely forbidden) hell.

Discussions about funeral masses were common in my seminary years since the revised rite of funerals was coming out at that time and, just like the new translation we have recently inaugurated, there were many vigorous discussion about the funeral rite of 1970 and how the one coming out in 1987 (in think) was either an improvement or a “step backward.”

By the time I was ordained in the late 1980s it was once again permitted to offer the traditional Latin Mass, and though some argued that this didn’t include funerals, we routinely celebrated them here in DC as early as 1987. I have been privileged to celebrate at couple of these traditional Latin funeral masses per year, by request all 24+ years of my priestly life. (The photo at upper right is me celebrating one last November in one of our Maryland Parishes).

And I must say, find these funerals (called Requiem Masses) anything but dark. Let me explain.

To begin, though, early in my priesthood I had little of no memory of the older funeral rites. I was, in those days before the current motu proprio, one of the few priests permitted by the diocese to celebrate the TLM. Thus, as I began my study of the old Requiem Mass when requested to do one in 1989 and  I expected, based on my training to find and read dreary and depressing prayers.

I noted first that the “dreaded and dark affair,” described so by some, was called a “Requiem Mass.” Hmm…. in other words, a “Mass of Rest.” That doesn’t shout of foreboding things, seems rather peaceful actually, and far more comforting that the more usual modern word, “funeral.” Indeed the opening words of the dreaded Requiem Mass read (translated) Rest Eternal grant unto them O Lord and may perpetual light shine on them. Hmm… I thought, we’re not off to such a terrible start.

Greeting the Body at the door of the Church, though less baptismal in focus, contains these beautiful wishes:

Come to his assistance, ye Saints of God, come forth to meet him, ye Angels of the Lord….receiving his soul, offer it in the sight of the Most High…..May Christ receive thee who has called thee….and may the Angels lead thee into Abraham’s bosom.

The opening prayer too, appeals to God’s mercy, though (heaven forfend), it does mention Hell:

O God, whose property is ever to have mercy and to spare, we humbly entreat Thee on behalf of the soul of Thy servant whom Thou hast bidden to pass out of this world: that Thou wouldst not deliver him into the hands of the enemy nor forget him for ever, but command him to be taken up by the holy Angels, and to be borne to our home in paradise, that as he had put his faith and hope in Thee he may not undergo the pains of hell but may possess everlasting joys.

As we have well discussed here, to many modern ears the very mention of Hell is “dark,” but the whole prayer is premised on God to whom it is proper to show mercy and to spare. Hence it is a prayer uttered in confident expectation that through grace and mercy we stand a chance. And, as for that little mention of “Hell,”….isn’t that….like….in the Bible or something? (Well again we have well discussed here that Hell is both biblical and reasonable).

So, in my study I still had not found where we had gone to dark, negative places, as I had been taught to expect.

The readings also surprised me. The Epistle is from First Thessalonians 4: Brethren, we would not have you ignorant concerning those who sleep, lest you be like the others who have no hope. Then comes the great teaching on the day of resurrection and the conclusion: Therefore console One another with these words. The Gospel too is of Jesus’ dialogue with Martha in John 11: Your brother will rise…I AM the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Beautiful and consoling, really.

There is of course the Dies Irae in between these two readings. I recall an older priest many years ago when the subject came up proclaiming exultantly: “Thank God we got rid of that dreadful thing.” It does truly begin on an ominous note: Day of wrath and doom impending, heaven an earth in ashes ending….Oh what fear man’s bosom rendenth, when from heaven the judge decendeth, on whose sentence all dependeth. True, these are dark lines, but they are biblical lines, almost direct quotes. Yet the same Dies Irae contains some of the most hopeful and tender lines in all Christian writing:

Faint and weary thou hast sought me:
On the cross of suffering bought me:
Shall such grace be vainly bought me?

Through the sinful Mary shriven,
Through the dying thief forgiven,
Thou to me a hope has given.

Loving Jesus Lord most blest,
Grant to them eternal rest.

The darker lines thus highlight the lightsome ones. So even the Dies Irae is not all that bad. It is a well balanced description of our sinful condition, and of God’s mercy accessed through repentance. I have written more of the Dies Irae here: Sing the Dies Irae at my Funeral

I obviously cannot reproduce the whole Requiem Mass here but consider just a few other highlights of the hopeful and gentle themes that are struck in the prayers

  1. From the Preface: …through Christ our Lord, in whom the hope of blessed resurrection has shone on us, so that those who are saddened by the certainty of dying may be consoled by the promise of a future deathless life. For to thy faithful people, Oh Lord, life is changed, not taken away, and when the home of this earthly sojourn is dissolved, an eternal dwelling place is being prepared in the heavens.
  2. From the Communion verse: May light eternal shine on them O Lord, with your saints forever. For you are kind. (Quia pius es)
  3. Finally, if there is any “darkness” at all in the old Requiem Mass, it is more likely due to the fact that we have departed a great degree in modern times from the notion that, after we die, we are certainly judged. And this judgement is a moment of honesty before God. Surely all of us will need much in the way of grace and mercy. The prayers of the older Requiem give honest acknowledgment of that, but draw heavily on Biblical themes. In the end, these prayerful reflections are always couched on the fact that God is rich in mercy. One of the final prayers, at the commendation of the soul shows this balance. Standing before the casket the priest says:
  4. Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, O Lord; for, save Thou grant him forgiveness of all his sins, no man shall be justified in Thy sight. Wherefore suffer not, we beseech Thee, the sentence Thou pronounce in judgment upon one whom the faithful prayer of Christian people commends to Thee, to be a doom which shall crush him utterly. Rather sustain him by Thy gracious favor, that he may escape Thine avenging justice who, in his lifetime, was signed with the seal of the holy Trinity. Who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.

Disclaimers – Most of you know that I love the Traditional Latin Mass, especially in its sung forms. However, I also like the Ordinary Form of the Mass and it is the way I celebrate 99% of my masses.

The New Funeral Mass is not intrinsically flawed. If there are imbalances in modern funerals it is not wholly the fault of the liturgy. Rather, the imbalance of our culture and the clergy’s emphases seem more at work. (As we discussed these past two days).

For the record, black vestments can still be worn in the newer rites, as well as purple. There is nothing to prevent the clergy from preaching clearly on judgement and purgation, as well Heaven. I surely do (as we discussed yesterday), and also issue a pretty sober “come to Jesus” talk in the sermon, since so many who are at funerals are not practicing their faith.

Thus, balance can be had in the newer rites. This post is simply meant to express that a pronouncement of the Requiem Mass as dark and somber, which I was regularly subjected to in my training, is simplistic.

The reality I have come to experience in over 24 years of celebrating Requiem Masses is that they are both gentle and hopeful, sober about judgement but well steeped in mercy and confidence in God’s loving kindness.


Here’s the “In paradisum” from the Faure Requiem:

Sing the Dies Irae at My Funeral – A Meditation on a Lost Treasure

Yesterday, for All Souls Day, I was given the grace to celebrate a Funeral (Walter Gallie, R.I.P.) in the Traditional Latin Form of the Mass. Referred to as a Requiem Mass, (Requiem means “rest” in Latin), it features black vestments and prayers steeped in consistent yet confident pleas for God’s mercy on the departed.

Though many depict the Requiem Mass as a gloomy affair, I beg to differ. Black vestments, to be sure, speak a different language than the white usually worn today, (though black or purple are permitted). But death, after all is a rather formal affair. And the readings for the Requiem on the day of burial are quite hopeful. The Epistle is from 1 Thessalonians 4, and begins, Brethren we would not have you ignorant concerning them that sleep in the Lord lest you be sorrowful like those having no hope…… The Gospel is Jesus’ discourse with Martha in John 11: Your brother will rise…do you believe this? Jesus then assures her that he is the resurrection and the life. Hardly gloomy. And all the pleas for mercy in the Requiem are based on hope expressed in these readings.

At the heart of the Requiem Mass is the astonishing and magnificent masterpiece, the Sequence Hymn, Dies Irae. Yes, I am of the mind that one of the great treasures and masterpieces of the Church’s Gregorian Chant is indeed the sequence hymn of the Requiem Mass, Dies Irae. It is almost never done at funerals today, though it remains a fixture of the Extraordinary form Mass.

Some see it as a “heavy” with its sobering message, but it sure is glorious. The gorgeous chant was one of the more beautiful and soaring melodies of Gregorian Chant and many composers, such as Mozart and Verdi, set the text to stirring musical compositions. With November, the month of All souls perhaps this hymn deserves a look.

It’s syllables hammer away in trochaic dimeter: Dies irae dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybila! (Day of wrath that day when the world dissolves to ashes, David bearing witness along with the Sibyl!) Perhaps at times the text is a bit heavy but at the same time no hymn more beautifully sets forth a basis for God’s mercy. The dark clouds of judgment part and give way to the bright beauty of the final line Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem (Sweet Jesus Lord, give them [the dead] rest).

The hymn was not composed for funerals. Actually it was composed by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century as an Advent Hymn. Yes, that’s right an Advent hymn. Don’t forget that Advent isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas, it is about getting ready for the Second Coming of the Lord. And that is what this hymn is really about. At this time of year, as the the leaves fall and summer turns to winter, we are reminded of the passing of all things. The Gospels we read are those that remind us of death and the judgment to come.

Journey with me into the beauty and solemn majesty of this hymn. I will give you an inspiring English translation by W J Irons, one that preserves the meter and renders the Latin close enough. A few comments from me along the way but enjoy this largely lost masterpiece and mediation on the Last Judgment. (You can see the Latin Text along with English here: Dies Irae)

The hymn opens on the Day of Judgement, warning that the Day, spoken of in Scripture as “The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord,”  will reveal God’s wrath upon all injustice and unrepented sin. God’s “wrath” is his passion to set things right. And now it is time to put an end of wickedness and lies:

    • Day of wrath and doom impending,
    • Heaven and earth in ashes ending:
    • David’s words with Sibyl’s blending.

And all are struck with a holy fear! No one and no thing can treat of this moment lightly: all are summoned to holy fear. The bodies of the dead come forth from their tombs at the sound of the trumpet and will all of creation answer to Jesus, the Judge and Lord of all:

    • Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth
    • When from heaven the judge descendeth
    • On whose sentence all dependeth!
    • Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
    • Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
    • All before the throne it bringeth.
    • Death is struck and nature quaking,
    • All creation is awaking,
    • To its judge an answer making.
    • Lo the book exactly worded,
    • Wherein all hath been recorded,
    • Thence shall judgement be awarded.
    • When the Judge his seat attaineth,
    • And each hidden deed arraigneth:
    • Nothing unavenged remaineth.

Judgment shall be according to our deeds, whatever is in the Book (Rev 20:12; Romans 2:6)! Ah but also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy and so our hymn turns to ponder the need for mercy and appeals to God for that mercy. It bases that hope on the grace and mercy of God, his incarnation, his seeking love, his passion and death, and his forgiveness shown to Mary Magdalene and the dying thief:

    • What shall I frail man be pleading?
    • Who for me be interceding?
    • When the just are mercy needing?
    • King of majesty tremendous,
    • Who does free salvation send us,
    • Font of pity then befriend us.
    • Think kind Jesus, my salvation,
    • Caused thy wondrous incarnation:
    • Leave me not to reprobation.
    • Faint and weary thou hast sought me:
    • On the cross of suffering bought me:
    • Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
    • Righteous judge for sin’s pollution,
    • Grant thy gift of absolution,
    • Before the day of retribution.
    • Guilty now I pour my moaning:
    • All my shame and anguish owning:
    • Spare, O God my suppliant groaning.

    • Through the sinful Mary shriven,
    • Through the dying thief forgiven,
    • Thou to me a hope has given.

Yes there is a basis for hope! God is rich in mercy and, pondering the Day of Judgment is salutary since for now we can call on that mercy. And, in the end it is only grace and mercy that can see us through that day. And so the hymn calls on the Lord who said, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37):

    • Worthless are my tears and sighing:
    • Yet good Lord in grace complying,
    • Rescue me from fire undying.
    • With thy sheep a place provide me,
    • From the goats afar divide me,
    • To thy right hand do thou guide me.
    • When the wicked are confounded,
    • Doomed to flames of woe unbounded:
    • Call me with thy saints surrounded.
    • Lo I kneel with heart-submission,
    • See like ashes my contrition:
    • Help me in my last condition.

And now comes the great summation: That Day is surely coming! Grant me O lord your grace to be ready:

    • Lo, that day of tears and mourning,
    • from the dust of earth returning.
    • Man for judgement must prepare him,
    • Spare O God, in mercy spare him.
    • Sweet Jesus Lord most blest,
    • Grant the dead eternal rest.

A masterpiece of beauty and truth if you ask me.

Some years ago I memorized most of it. I sing it from time to time over in Church late at night, the hauntingly beautiful chant rings through the echoing arches of our Church.

When I die sing it at my funeral! For I go to the Lord, the Judge of all and only grace and mercy will see me through. Surely the plaintive calls of the choir below at my funeral will resonate to the very heavens as I am judged. And maybe the Lord will look at me and say,

    • I think they’re praying for you down there; asking mercy, they are.
    • “Yes, Lord, mercy.” (I reply)
    • They’re making a pretty good case.
    • Yes Lord, mercy.
    • Then mercy it shall be.


Dies Irae from elena mannocci on Vimeo.

Traditional Latin Mass in Dance Time? Sure!

Every now and then I hear the Old Latin Mass described as a somber affair. Many think only dirges are sung and that everything is quite subdued. Granted a low Mass can be rather quiet as the Priest whispers much of the Mass.

But a sung Mass in the Old Latin Rite (Extraordinary Form) can be quite elaborate, especially if the Choir sings in polyphony (harmony). Some of the greatest music in history was composed during the Renaissance in a form known as “Renaissance Polyphony.” It is a kind of harmonic singing that features four or more independent melodies sung simultaneously in rich harmony. Much of this Church music was written in a kind of Dance Time, such that you can almost dance to it! While I am celebrating a Traditional Mass and this sort of music is sung, I sometimes tap my toe even though the rubrics don’t call for it. And while the Gregorian Chant is sung there unfolds a kind of mystical contemplation. No, Traditional Latin Masses are not somber, they are, especially in their sung form, joyful and even exuberant.

Enjoy a few videos that demonstrate this joyful and rhythmic singing.

Photo Credit: From the Website of St. John Cantius, Chicago, Ill.

This first Video is of setting by William Byrd. The text is Haec Dies quam fecit Dominus Exultemus et laetemur in ea, Alleluia! (This is the Day which the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it, Alleluia!). Enjoy, it’s rich harmony, jovial tone and dance-like rhythm

This second video of the Angus Dei (try not to tap your toe). The song was recorded at the Oratory of St. Francis De Sales in St. Louis – one of the most beautiful churches in the Country. The text is Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis, dona nobis pacem (Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us…grant us peace). Enjoy another beautiful sample of Renaissance Polyphony in toe tap (dance) time.

To Re-Propose Rather than to Impose – A Reflection on The Latin Mass and Traditional Forms

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 CalendarAnd 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.

Liturgy at the End of an Era

Author’s note: I am away this week preaching a retreat for priests in Connecticut. I may post some new material this week but I also thought in my absence to re post some of my older articles that some newer readers may have missed. Here is one I posted back in Sept 2009:

I received my First Holy Communion in 1968 on my knees at the altar rail in our parish church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help  in a suburb North of Chicago called Glenview. I received from a very elderly pastor, Fr. Dussman, whose hands shook from Parkinson’s. It was an awesome and fearsome event. I was more nervous since Father’s hands shook and receiving communion from him could be a challenge, especially for the first time.

I remember well how seriously we took Church in those days. We had special Church clothes (always a coat and tie), special Sunday shoes and approaching the altar rail was something quite wonderful but very formal: hands folded before the chest, fingers straight, right thumb crossed over left. Kneeling and waiting for the priest and altar boy to pass by was a time of anticipation, a kind of distracted prayer, alert and ready, don’t make the priest wait! Suddenly a altar boy slid a Paten under your chin. Head back, tongue out (not too far!) just over the lower lip! The priest spoke in an ancient language (Latin). Only years later did I learn exactly what he said. I am sure the Sisters taught me but I couldn’t remember(I was only 7 going on 8): Corpus Domini Nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam (May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ guard your soul unto life eternal). And suddenly there he was, Jesus in Holy Communion. Pretty awesome, very special, beyond my comprehension but no doubt this was holy, this was serious and sacred.

But little did I know I was at the end of an era. Within a year strange things began to occur that I did not understand, things that did not comport with my training. I remember my mother telling me that we were going to a special youth mass. I had heard of a school mass, but not a youth Mass. We got there early and I noticed something that confused me. “Mom!” I whispered, (you always whispered in Church in those days), “What are those drums doing there? Right in front of the Mary Altar, behind the rail too, were electric guitars, a drum set and chairs. Then out came these guys I had never seen before, a couple of them were wearing jeans too (a major no-no in the old days). After Church my mother asked me if I liked it. I said no and she was surprised. “But Mom, I don’t know those songs and they were so loud.” I was confused. The sisters said we should dress well, be very quiet in Church so others could pray and only talk or sing when it was time to do that. It all seemed “a violation of my training.” But an era had ended. Something was taking its place. Little by little the familiar gave way to the new. The transition was at times startling, at times exciting.

I do not write this post to “bash” the liturgical changes. Just to document an experience. I have become quite accustomed to the “new” Mass. I am also privileged to say the Traditional Latin Mass. I guess I am blessed to enjoy the best of both worlds. I am proud of the glory of the new Mass as it is celebrated in my parish. We have a wonderful gospel choir which also does classical very well. There is great joy at every Mass. I am also  so happy to be able to celebrate ancient Latin Mass that reminds me of the joy of my youth (qui laetificat juventutem meam).  I merely document here, I leave the judgements to you my faithful readers.

The following video depicts a Mass in the year 1969. It is from an Elvis movie entitled “Change of Habit.”  What an amazing little video for me! It’s just as I remember it as the changes set it. Notice the still strong presence of traditions: people all dressed up for Church, nuns in traditional habits, the priest at the high altar facing east. But notice too the guitars and “informality”  of the musicians. The music is up front not back in the choir loft. And many struggle to understand the new lay of the land. It was 1969. It was the end of an era.

Is the Old Latin Mass Charismatic?

Some of you know that I am pastor in an African American Parish. Our liturgies are dynamic and very celebratory. We don’t rush the Holy Spirit and so the masses often go well beyond an hour and our principle liturgy is often two hours. People respond during the homily with “Amen” and “Yes Lord!” They often clap hands during many of the songs. Over all it is a very charismatic experience.

I also celebrate the Old Latin Mass on a monthly basis, usually in the Solemn High Form where in there is a Priest, Deacon and subdeacon, six torch bearers, incense Gregorian Chant and a polyphonic choir that usually sings a Mass from the Renaissance period by Palestrina, Victoria, Viadonna et al.

Now both communities wonder about me. “How can you celebrate Mass THAT WAY?!” they both say. The attendants at the Gospel Mass think the Latin Mass to be a bit stuffy. The Latin Mass folks think the Gospel Mass is off the hook, far too exuberant and some even think irreverent.

But having lived in both worlds as a priest for over twenty years I see more similarities that you might at first imagine. “Similarities?!?!” you might say, “Impossible. These forms of the Mass are worlds apart!”  Not really. Let me explain.

The Latin Mass became very formalized over the centuries. What I am about to explain really has to be done in a spoken format. You can’t actually just read it. So I hope you might view the video I have made at the bottom of this post. But here is my point: the origins of the Old Latin Mass show forth a very exuberant and charismatic quality. Consider the following:

1. Gregorian Chant has an ecstatic quality. Long melismas extend syllables sometimes for more than an page. Al-Le……….Lu……….ia………….. Some have likened Gregorian Chant to singing in tongues. While it is true that these sung texts were eventually written and formalized it seems clear that their origin emerged from an ad libitum (free) improvisation by the cantor who was (ideally) moved by the Holy Spirit. It is a kind of ecstatic praying, a yielding to the Holy Spirit who, although we do not know how to pray as we ought makes but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. (Rom 8:26).

2. Many of the Prayer of the Latin Mass are quite exuberant, almost flowery and exhibit a kind of charismatic enthusiasm:hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam, Panem sanctam vitae aeternae et Calicem salutis perpetuae.(!) (this pure sacrifice, this holy sacrifice, this spotless sacrifice! The holy bread of eternal life and the Chalice of perpetual salvation! An exuberant and almost charismatic sense of joy at what lies upon the Altar. Earlier the priest said: Te igitur, clementissime Pater, per Iesum Christum, Filium tuum, Dominum nostrum, supplices rogamus ac petimus, uti accepta habeas et benedicas + haec dona haec munera, haec sancta sacrificia illibata (You therefore most loving Father, through Jesus Christ you Son, Our Lord, we humbly ask and beg that you might have as acceptable and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unspotted sacrifices(!)) There is a vigorous enthusiasm and ecstatic joy in these prayers. Where five words might have sufficed 25 words are use. Surely these prayers emerged from a very enthusiastic and charismatic experience.

3. One of my favorite forms of music is Renaissance Polyphony and it is often quite exuberant and written in dance time. I’ve posted an example of it in the videos below. And don’t tell me that the Church music from the Baroque period isn’t  toe-tapping. Mozart’s several Regina Caeli’s, his Church Sonatas, A Scarlatti Mass, Beethoven’s Mass in C….all wondrous and exuberant in their way.

Over the Centuries the Latin Mass came to be very strictly regulated and some of the spontaneous and charismatic qualities were codified and formalized. But such was not always the case. In each era the Church showed forth joy and exuberance in ways often subtle to us now. But when they were first experienced, before they were formalized there was a kind of charismatic quality to it all.

To those who think the Latin Mass dull, I tell these things. To those who think the Gospel liturgies too exuberant I tell these things. I hope to build bridges. There are more similarities in the roots than we might think. One of the fruits of the Spirit is Joy. And when God is truly encountered in the sacred liturgy, joy can’t be far behind.

As I say this post is better heard than read and here is a humble(!) video version I made. The video is old and grainy since I recorded it on a old iphone ten years ago.

Another video follows that illustrates the exuberance of Renaissance Polyphony often written in dance time: Byrd’s Haec Dies (This is the Day the Lord has Made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it).

The third video is Agnus Dei for Hassler’s Second Mass

Dance Time

Every now and then I hear the Old Latin Mass described as a somber affair. Many think only dirges are sung and that everything is quite subdued. Granted a low Mass can be rather quiet as the Priest whispers much of the Mass. But a sung Mass in the Old Rite (Extraordinary Form) can be quite elaborate, especially if the Choir sings in polyphony (harmony). Some of the greatest music in history was composed during the Renaissance in a form known as Renaissance Polyphony. It is a kind of harmonic singing that features four or more independent melodies sung simultaneously in rich harmony. Much of this Church music was written in Dance Time such that you can almost dance to it!

Enjoy this brief video of the Angus Dei (try not to tap your toe) and perhaps you’ll see what I mean. The song was recorded at the Oratory of St. Francis De Sales in St. Louis – one of the most beautiful Churches in the Country. (See photo above). The text is Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis, dona nobis pacem (Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us…grant us peace). Enjoy a beautiful sample of Renaissance Polyphony.

Diversity on Display – Priests Learn to Sing the Latin Mass

The Traditional Latin Mass can seem challenging to many priests today for several reasons. First many have not studied or mastered the Latin Language. The Latin of the Mass and Breviary is not difficult Latin but it can take a few years for most to feel comfortable celebrating Mass in that language. Second, the ceremonies of the Traditional Latin Mass are much more detailed than the more simplified rituals of the modern Mass. There are more genuflections and signs of the cross, there are details about where to stand at the altar even how to extend one’s hands. These too are not impossible to learn but it takes a little training and a while before a priest might feel comfortable. Third, even if a priests gets comfortable with the low (recited) form of the Mass, the music of the sung form can also provide challenges. Here too the chants are not hard but they are slightly different than the tones used in the modern liturgy.

All these challenges can be met with a little training and time. The following video shows a workshop designed to teach priests how to sing the Traditional Latin Mass