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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Latin Masses

           Two or three years ago the diocese of Springfield in Illinois gave permission to use St. Rose Church in Quincy (closed since 2004) for the Latin “Tridentine” Mass. A priest from the Society of St. Peter has been living there and providing daily and weekend Masses in Latin.

          I love Latin. We were exposed to six years of it in the seminary. I was ordained in 1962, and at that time had memorized the entire “ordinary” of the Mass in Latin. Over the years I have continued to use the language occasionally, especially in homily preparation. Sometimes reading how St. Jerome translated a scriptural passage into Latin gives me an idea for how to preach about a passage. Then, four years ago, I was asked to teach introductory Latin to students at Quincy University, and have done that ever since. Why shouldn’t I offer to help the priest at St. Rose by filling in for him when he cannot be there? Why shouldn’t I enthusiastically support movements to restore the Tridentine rite as the normative way for Catholics to experience Eucharist?

          Throughout my years as a priest I have tried to pray with people, even when their styles of prayer were not the ones I would have preferred. I sang songs like “Here we are” and “Kumbaya.” I have joined in Masses in Spanish and in youth Masses, Masses with Black Catholics that went on for three hours, charismatic Masses in which people spoke in tongues, and Christian Family Camp Masses outdoors where I had to worry that the card table altar would be bumped by unruly children. Why should I not preside at Latin Masses when my background is so well suited to it? Is my reluctance mostly political, because I think liberal Catholics would object?

          I have two problems with the Tridentine Mass. One is that it would make me relate to the congregation in a way that I can no longer accept. It is true that turning my back on the congregation and facing the east (though there are certainly old churches in which the priest does not face the east, among them St. Rose in Quincy) would not in itself separate me from sharing in the people’s worship. But that action would be for me a symbol of a relationship in which the people’s role becomes silent and secondary. I have become used to a Eucharist in which I share roles in the Mass with a variety of lay people. The phrase used by the Vatican Council was “full and active participation” by all the people, a phrase that has roots in Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei. I begin the service with a procession from the back of the church, through the midst of the congregation, singing with the congregation. Lay people, sometimes very young people, read some of the Scripture. A lay person reads the intercessions at the “prayer of the faithful.” Lay ministers help distribute Communion. All this I would lose in the Tridentine rite.

          A friar confrere called attention to another aspect of the Latin rite that I had not considered. The rite reinforces an individualistic approach to worship. The worshipper can be present silently without any interaction with other human beings. There is no greeting of peace. I presume that the worshipper does not even respond in Latin to the priest’s “Dominus vobiscum.” That innovation (which people called the “dialogue Mass”) came into existence only in the late 1940s after Mediator Dei. We Americans are individualistic enough without having that tendency reinforced in our public worship. We need to be reminded that we do not come to God alone. I once read that the prototypical Protestant stance before God is the individual sitting silently reading his or her bible alone. The Protestant stress on Scripture, a healthy reaction against Catholic avoidance of lay reading of Scripture, led to an overly individualistic spirituality. Catholic worship has traditionally been communal. The famous French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, developed a whole theory of suicide out of the Catholic tendency to depend on the group, as opposed to the Protestant tendency to go it alone before God. He claimed that suicide rates were lower in Catholic regions because Catholics feel supported by the community.

          I do miss some of the Gregorian chant. My Liber Usualis is one of my prized possessions. Few pieces of music move me more than the Gregorian Pentecost sequence (Veni Sancte Spiritus. . .), and I love the Gregorian Kyries, Glorias, Sanctus’s, and Agnus Dei’s. I even tried once to translate one of those Sanctus’s into English in the hope that I might be able to use it with people who do not know Latin. I do not miss the Sunday “proper parts” (Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion), which were seldom familiar enough to allow me to sing them with devotion and pleasure. Even in the seminary, where we had a congregation who knew Latin and had to practice beforehand, singing them was almost always an ordeal.

          People speak of missing the atmosphere of awe and reverence in the Tridentine rite. My memory is of a priest rushing through the prayers at the foot of the altar so fast that I could get out only the first two words of each server response. Solemn Masses can be awesome, but I did not experience a solemn Mass until the sixth grade, because it took three priests and we only had two. Too many high Masses featured an organist ripping through the sung parts (by herself) so that the Mass would not take more than a half hour. (The priests and sisters at St. James in Decatur were not guilty of such carelessness.)

          Priests and people can be reverent in any rite, and careless and irreverent in any rite. I like the theology of the Vatican II rite, and will not return to a theology that I believe was rejected by that Council. Pope Benedict believes that the Tridentine rite is compatible with Vatican II theology. I think that in the context of the ordinary parish in this country, it would not be.