Cleansing Fire

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Loving the Latin Mass

December 24th, 2018, Promulgated by Diane Harris

About writing “Loving the Latin Mass”

This has been more of a journey than expected. When I promised to write about the Latin Mass (in the Ticker comments for December) it didn’t seem difficult at all. So, the following evening I composed a draft in praise of Mass in the Extraordinary Form, illustrated with a variety of situations and examples. When I finished and went back to make minor corrections, I was appalled to see how much “positive” was referenced by contrast to weaknesses in other liturgies, especially Mass in the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo).  It’s not that there isn’t some justification for such a comparison; nevertheless the Latin Mass, i.e. “The Mass of the Ages” is strong enough to stand on its own, without needing to tear down anything else. So I deleted the first draft, gave myself some time to pray over it, and restarted the effort, painfully slowly. What follows is simply a personal perception of why I do love the Latin Mass. It is NOT an attempt to exercise any authority which I don’t possess; it is ‘just’ personal. Here are only four reasons, not an exhaustive list, but a ‘taste.”

 

Four Reasons Why I Really do Love the Latin Mass

#1:  I love the Beauty, sheer beauty, of the Latin Mass.

It is not a matter of listing everything which adds to the beauty of the Latin Mass, because its beauty is not a summation of individual beauties, and not all Latin Mass churches have all the elements. True, the setting for many centuries, especially in the now-almost-abandoned-architectural-space-turned- museum of medieval cathedrals, was highly conducive to wanting to add more and more beauty into the setting of the Mass, but that alone didn’t cause the beauty. Rather, it stimulated the desire to offer the highest and best of everything because it was (and is!) about the worship of God. It is a statement of our unworthiness. With that perspective, nothing is “too good” for God. Decisions are easily made about the noble metals for vessels, extraordinary silks and brocades, damasks and embroideries, for vestments. Thus, elements of worship include highly detailed patterns in exquisite lace, crystal decanters for water and fine wine, magnificent illustrations in books from which the Holy Word is read, hand-carved wooden and marble sanctuary furnishings, the murals and frescoes, and perfectly scented incense which carries our own prayer aloft and, of course, the unmatched voices of Gregorian Chant and pipe organ.

Only Judas looks at the cost of giving the best to God, and betrays his own covetousness by avowing that the value in money could have been given to the poor. But there is no shame in giving excessively to God, and the traditional Mass, with all its perfected elements, still admits that it all falls short of what is due to God. Mother Angelica is said to have lined the inside of the Tabernacle at The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery with diamonds gifted to the monastery!  The setting and accoutrements of the Latin Mass are not beautiful out of excess, but rather out of a desire to worship, which is always bound to fall short of the Glory that is due to God, but which shortfall of its own nature provokes the soul with more and more desire to please Him.

St. Mel’s Cathedral             before the fire

Passed down in my own heritage of family identification was the bragging right: “Shure, and didn’t we build the Cathedral at Longford?” That came from lowly carpenters, an expression of the peak of their life’s work, even if they lived in peat-heated hovels during the “Hunger” (i.e. the potato famine). Ten years were lost in finishing the Cathedral due to the famine. About a million died; another million emigrated, especially  to the U.S.

St. Mel’s Cathedral after    Christmas 2009 Fire

But the family claim was inherited by future generations on both continents, bringing delight at their having descended from tradesmen called by the Church to contribute their abilities to build from foundation to spire. Underfed and enduring physical pain and punishing weather, they created sacred space where, indeed, the Latin Mass was celebrated regularly. Work began in 1840 and continued until 1856, but the Cathedral wasn’t consecrated until May 19, 1893.  St. Mel’s, named for a nephew of St. Patrick, is in the Diocese of Ardagh-Clonmacnoise. Tragically, St. Mel’s burned down in 2009 from a mysterious Christmas fire of unverified cause, right after Midnight Mass. The loss of what it was is still deeply mourned. An extraordinary reconstruction was undertaken.

 

#2: I love the Continuity and Perpetuity of the Latin Mass.

To be able to enter into, on a daily basis where available, an interactive worship of the Creator of the Universe, a specific worship perpetuated for almost two millennia, both personal and communal, is an extraordinary human participation. We may not know the names of most of our prior ancestors over the millennia, but the Faith was handed on through many hands, and received as a precious treasure, in both joy and in suffering, yet unlimited by our own weaknesses and errors. It is a Faith which transcends (and will transcend) all human vagaries and even betrayal, to strive and thrive within the Divine Will. What we have received has passed carefully through the hands of many generations, not as an obsession to remain minutely unchanged, and not as a tainted result of the ever-changing culture in which it subsists and is pressed to accommodate, but to grow faithfully through its own inherent organic growth, always present even if not always discovered. And, for our own peace of mind and verification by conscience, we are also given the written, unchanging and divinely inspired teachings of 2000 years of Scripture and other credible writings, like the Didache, set within 5000 years of consistent and precedent preparation, to which neither a tittle nor jot, neither an iota nor dot, has been vanquished.

For some, that grander scale is also balanced in simplicity of personal experience. What a delight, for those still able to attend the church of their childhood, to be able to sit in the same pew and to receive the Eucharist at the same communion rail as parents and grandparents. It still happens, though less often in such a mobile society.  It is not just a passing fancy of the imagination, but a bonafide connection to the invisible and spiritual, to what is most explicitly real.

St. Mary, the childhood parish church of Karol Jozef Wojtyla. Life sized statue of JP II in lower right.

To illustrate, let us remember Pope John Paul II’s return visit to the Polish village of his childhood, Wadowice, and to the church right across the alley from the apartment in which he was raised. The Vicar of Christ went into that church, and knelt devoutly beside the baptismal font, and embraced and kissed it out of sheer joy for the gift of his Faith that had begun in that very font.

But even if we no longer have the same church building in which to sense our connections, nevertheless, at the Latin Mass, how can we not be aware of generations of family, now unknown to us, having heard the same words of Scripture, celebrated the same Feast Days, received the same consecrated Eucharistic gift, prayed the same prayers, Mass after Mass, and brought the next generation to be baptized, sealed the marriage covenant within the Nuptial Mass, and commended the souls of those, who passed on the Faith to us, into the Hands of God. The very stability of the prayers and actions of the Mass give solace and comfort over the centuries. We need not ‘make it up’ each time, and the Latin Mass does not make us hunger for variety in boredom, but for increasing depth in awe. We need only come simply and humbly to append our own worship to the generations before us and those present with us today. No wonder the Latin Mass is called “The Mass of the Ages.”

We do not simply imagine those who have gone before, or testify to an empty wish; rather, we practice a key tenet of the Faith in recognizing what St. Paul calls the “cloud of witnesses” who have preceded us, and cheer us on, whether we know them personally or not. We have every reason to firmly believe the key creedal doctrine of the Communion of Saints, and the efficacy of our mutual intercessions. So many of those whom we recognize as canonized saints, and who don’t in themselves need our prayers, nevertheless would be right at home attending the Latin Mass with us, the form of the Mass with which they would be familiar. Even new converts, lacking a personal genealogy in Catholicism, would recognize many names of those who were sustained by the Latin Mass in their lifetimes: the saints: Catherine of Siena, Theresa of Avila, Monica of Hippo, Clare of Assisi, Aloysius of Gonzaga, René Goupil, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, and especially the priests who celebrated the Latin Mass for the people, the saints: Anthony of Padua, Augustine of Hippo, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, Thomas Aquinas, Alphonsus Liguori, and Dominic who received the Rosary from the Holy Virgin Mother, to name but a few. There is something special about attending a Mass so close in form to that which was attended by those holy figures.

And what of Perpetuity? It is not only about what parents pass on, and the intercession of saints. I have also been told on good authority that vocations to the priesthood occur at a far greater rate among the young men who have been nourished by serving the Latin Mass. Or, said another way, the Latin Mass attracts and thus provides for its own continuity, without the much bemoaned “priest shortage.”  We must not underestimate what the very young are able to comprehend and execute under priestly tutelage and the whisper of the Holy Spirit into their souls! That such young boys desire to take the more difficult road, i.e. offering themselves for altar service in the Latin Mass, speaks to a very basic hunger of the soul and its recognition of opportunity to draw closer to God.

 

#3. I love the Sense of the Sacred and Holy in the Latin Mass.

I am caught by the words of the Book of Wisdom 6:10a: “For they will be made holy who observe holy things in holiness.” Of all the things we are called to do on our path to holiness, shouldn’t those words of Wisdom be the easiest? And yet, failure to treat the holy as HOLY, seems to come surprisingly easy sometimes. Perhaps we feel that God doesn’t really care how a priest vests, or how we dress for Mass, or if one word is substituted for another, or if the preaching is opinion rather than truth, or if crockery is used instead of gold vessels, or if we barely pray a Thanksgiving, or if we talk casually to each other as the Real Presence tabernacles in front of us?

There are three readings in the Old Testament which can acquaint us with the answer to “Does God care?” Consider Leviticus 10:1-2 in which two of Aaron’s sons are struck dead for using the wrong incense! Consider how God Himself designed the vestment detail of the priests of the Old Testament! And consider how Uzzah put out his hand to steady the Ark upon the cart when the oxen stumbled, and was struck dead immediately (2 Samuel 6:6-7 and 1 Chronicles 13: 9-10.) Repeated Councils through the centuries, including Trent, and a number of popes as well, have emphasized that the Eucharist is not to be touched by unordained hands.  Yet, in the early Church, there is evidence of the communicant’s building a little throne with his hands, to receive the Sacred Body of Christ. And, today, the Church does allow reception of the Eucharist in the hand. But it is hard to ignore the many pronouncements down through the years calling for excommunication of those unordained who touch the consecrated host. Even today, in the Latin Mass, all communicants do receive on the tongue, kneeling if possible, another element of our continuity to centuries of receiving the Eucharist.

Growing up with the Latin Mass I was always impressed with how carefully and thoughtfully every action was done. Some of the priest’s actions are even more noticeable today, when they are incorporated into his reverential handling of the Eucharist.

Note the thumb and index finger kept together after the priest has touched the consecrated host.

One example would be what is called “Canonical digits.” A priest who follows that practice keeps his thumb and index finger (both hands) together after the consecration, lest any tiny fragments on his fingers be inadvertently dropped before purifying his fingers after distributing Communion. I remember when we had Mass in the school auditorium, the priest would set aside the vessels he had carefully cleansed after Communion. Following Mass, one or two of the nuns would walk the vessels about 100 feet back to the convent (we were several miles from the Church) and keep them in their chapel until the next “School Mass.” What impressed me was how those nuns used part of their habit to cloak their hands to carry the chalice and ciborium. Thus, the vessels were carried in and only touched by a blessed covering.

I also remember the first Mass at which we were allowed to use tongs to pick up an unconsecrated host and put it into a dish to be taken to the altar. When my mother reluctantly picked up the tongs and reached toward the supply of hosts, she burst into tears and put the tongs back down. And she was a convert. When we received Communion we waited until the next person had also received so that we wouldn’t disturb them, or accidentally trip and fall forward toward the priest who was distributing Communion. And we were trained not to chew the host. (Yes, Christ uses the word gnaw in John Chapter 6 to make clear that he is talking about EATING the Body of Christ, but that wasn’t seen as an invitation to chew; not as just another meal.) It was more a matter of being gentle with the Lord, and mindful of the Gift He gave us. Actually we were told to let the host dissolve, trying not to chew, which is why we also needed a bit more time at the altar rail instead of walking back to our seat with the host still in our mouth.  Today, we see many people chew the host, and the Church makes no rules forbidding chewing; even my own noticing is simply sharing a personal experience.

When we saw a priest taking Communion out of the Church, to someone at home or in the hospital, we immediately knelt. We also rang bells and carried candles to follow him if we were prepared to do so. And because there were no lay “ministers” of Holy Communion, so only the priest distributed Communion, there was usually plenty of time to make a thorough Thanksgiving while others received the Sacrament.

What I am trying to describe is great attention to the detail surrounding all interaction with the Holy Eucharist. In some regards it was like a fence of protection, and reminiscent of the fence established at the base of Mt. Sinai, to keep people and animals at a distance (and to protect them from retribution) when Moses climbed the mountain to meet God. The theme of these particular incidents is an assertion of belief in the Real Presence.  It is one thing to say that one believes in the Real Presence, but quite another to testify to that belief by every action.

 

#4 I love the Supernatural Touch of Mystery in the Latin Mass 

We become aware of the mystery through frequent attendance, and by recognizing what may be new or different. It parallels to some extent the sense of mystery which comes from frequent and repetitive reading of Sacred Scripture. One discovers in the Bible that each reading can bring additional meanings, understandings, interpretations and revelations, deepening but not refuting what has gone before. With Sacred Scripture, one gets the sense “Oh! I never understood that before” or “WOW! All of a sudden I really appreciate that passage.” Eyes are opened and ears can hear in a new way, in both reading Sacred Scripture and in worshiping at the Latin Mass.

The Latin Mass occurs on many different levels of meaning. The mystery even of an unstudied language lifts itself away like a cloak, beckoning us to come closer, to understand more, focusing through different lenses at various times, as we become ready to embrace the meaning. What might seem at first to a newcomer to the Latin Mass like a jumble of words, music, priests’ movements and gestures, the theme of the readings, the liturgical seasons, the hidden-ness of the sacred, over time makes us realize the many different levels on which we enter and participate. What is most graphic and brings clarity is the priest’s facing forward, toward God, is his offering sacrifice for the people, standing in a position of duty, which in no way waits on the lay response or action for the Mass to proceed. The Mass has an unshared momentum of its own. We are invited to enter, but it does not wait on us or on our responses.

There is a real difference between participating in “community” with the priest, and realizing his work of the unbloody sacrifice is being offered in the presence of God. One is more clearly on earth, looking up. The other has more of a sense of being already on a higher level, as if heaven itself descended and invited us into the Presence of the Almighty. But it is always our free will to participate or not, to explore, to sense, to be grateful, to seek with our hearts.

What is your experience of the Latin Mass? Your kind comments are welcome.

For those who would like to learn more about the Latin Mass, please consider “Treasure and Tradition: The Ultimate Guide to the Latin Mass.”

 

 

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2 Responses to “Loving the Latin Mass”

  1. avatar christian says:

    My experience from a young age, was the awe of being in God’s house and experiencing the Divine come to meet us in the music of the choir, and at the altar of God. The high altar was most aptly representation of the Divine.

    Because we were going to the House of God, we were to make sure we cleaned and groomed ourselves well, and wear our best clothes. We were to prepare ourselves spiritually as well.

    When I made my First Holy Communion, we were told Jesus came to meet us at the altar rail. The sanctuary and altar was the Divine and represented Heaven, and we in the pews, were Human, representing Earth. So in essence, by coming to the altar rail, Heaven met us on Earth; a great and beautiful mystery. By no means am I insinuating that the priests and altar servers were/are Divine, but they were/are there at great privilege and honor, especially priests, so they need humble themselves even more, and prepare themselves for the sacred duty of the altar.

    From the earliest age, we were told we were in the House of God when we entered Church, and we needed to show reverence by being quiet and kneeling once we got in the pew, and praying quietly before Mass began. During Mass, we were to be attentive and follow the Mass, and meditate on the mystery and pray. (Our entire family stayed seated and were attentive during the Mass). After Mass, we were to stay in our pew and kneel, and pray quietly after Mass.

    The one thing I found questionable, were people who recited the rosary during Mass. I regard the rosary as a great devotion and practice it myself, but didn’t think it belonged during the Mass, but before and after the Mass, and at home and rosary groups. I wonder why these people weren’t following the Mass by the Missal. What I found even more questionable, were people who got up from their pew while Mass was going on, to light a candle and kneel and pray before the lit candle, or go to a side altar to do a private devotion. They obviously didn’t seem centered on the Mass, and in fact, were distracting from the Mass. Getting up during Mass and doing your own thing appeared more at some churches than others.
    During Mass at a Conservative church during the mid-80’s, we had some people attend who got up to light a candle, visit a side altar, as well as pray the rosary during Mass. I commented to the priest pastor about this after Mass, and he commented that these people were still doing practices connected to the Tridentine/Latin Mass and left it at that.

    What I don’t understand is why these unusual practices weren’t addressed when there was the Tridentine/Latin Mass, and why nowadays, talking loudly during and after Mass (when people are trying to pray) isn’t addressed.

    More recently, at one church, one man brought coffee to Mass and began sipping it during the liturgy. Another man, apparently upon seeing him, brought coffee to Mass and began sipping it during the liturgy also. It was presumed that these parishioners were spoken to about bringing coffee to Mass and sipping it during the liturgy, because it ceased abruptly. That’s what needs to happen when some questionable and/or bad practices are started by one or two people, because what is not dealt with and corrected, is taught and spread.

    In conclusion, the Divine readily portrayed by the Latin Mass should be portrayed in all other Mass forms.

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