Jan 13 2009

Why the Latin Mass? #6: What It’s Not

(This is the sixth in a series of posts called Why the Latin Mass? I’ve been asked by several people why I like the Traditional Latin Mass—why people will drive a hundred miles to get to one, or spend a lot of time and money bringing it to their area. I’m trying to answer that from my perspective in this series.)

I’ve been trying to keep this series positive, focusing on the pros of the Latin Mass (also known as the Extraordinary Form) rather than the cons of the Ordinary Form (aka the Novus Ordo), which is used in most churches today.  To avoid that topic completely, though, would be ignoring half the story, because my dissatisfaction with the implementations of the Novus Ordo was part of the process that brought me to the Latin Mass.

Let me start by making clear that I don’t think the Novus Ordo is invalid.  Most of the Catholics I know, including my family, still attend the NO Mass, and I don’t think they’re being bad Catholics or failing to get the full Sacrament.  The NO is valid.  It just seems to invite problems in a way that the Latin Mass doesn’t, and didn’t for over 1500 years.

If you go to YouTube and search for “Catholic liturgical abuse,” you’ll see every goofy thing imaginable being done at Mass: priests dressed as clowns, half-naked dancers, Doritos used as Communion, magic tricks, huge skull decorations, and even mimes.  In many Catholic churches today, anything goes, if someone thinks it’ll be fun or attention-getting.

Here in the rural Midwest, fortunately, you can still expect a sane Ordinary Mass.  We keep our experimentation more subdued: applause during Mass for things like birthdays and anniversaries, having wine every Sunday even after the Pope reminded us we shouldn’t, distracting arm-waving and hand-holding, dragging the Sign of Peace out forever, people dressed for the beach or the ball-field, the homily replaced with lay people giving fundraising or political speeches, pastors ad-libbing the prayers according to their own preferences, and the Eucharist being handed around like nothing special.  These may not be as harmful as Clown Masses, but they take the focus away from the Sacrament and make the Mass seem like something less than it is.

So why did this happen?  How did more weirdness and novelty sneak into the Mass in thirty years than in the previous 1500?  Modern society has to take some of the blame: weirdness and novelty are idolized throughout our culture today.  “Change!” has gotten two presidents elected.  I don’t think that’s the whole story, though, because there have been other morally permissive or confused periods in history, and the Latin Mass didn’t change to accommodate those cultures.  On the contrary: its permanence seems to have been one of the things that helped the Church survive persecution and scandal.  It seems to me that where there’s smoke, there’s fire: the room for interpretation and innovation in the Novus Ordo, which was meant to make it more approachable, in practice opened it up to whatever a priest and his congregation wanted to make of it.

In the Latin Mass, the priest stands in a certain place and holds his hands in a certain way for each prayer, speaks or sings the words as written, and even cleans the vessels a certain way.  Maybe that amount of detail in the “rules” isn’t strictly necessary:  if he doesn’t keep his fingers and thumbs together for the entire time he’s supposed to, no one will notice and the Mass will be just as reverent.  But at least that strictness protected the Latin Mass from the influences of the many secular societies that conflicted with it over the centuries.  The New Mass doesn’t seem to have that built-in protection.

One problem I see is that parishes try to work everything else into the Mass.  It’s the one time everyone is there (or it was, anyway, when Catholics still attended weekly), so if you want to involve as many people as possible in something, it’s only logical to do it at Mass if you don’t know any better.  So the Mass gets used to welcome strangers, chat with friends, teach bible school for kids, collect funds for various activities, applaud parishioners, and hold folk music sing-a-longs.

None of these things are bad in themselves.  They could be great things to do in the hall after Mass, or to get a group together for some weekday evening.  They just aren’t part of the Mass, and I think dragging them all into it is one reason people have lost track of what the Mass is really about.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that regular Mass attendance has dropped drastically in the last thirty years, or that polls show most Catholics today don’t think God is truly present in the Eucharist.

So I’m thankful that we have the Latin Mass in Quincy again, not just for what it is, but also  for what it’s not.  It’s not casual.  It’s not changing.  It doesn’t try to accommodate society’s wishes.  It doesn’t relax its standards to make us comfortable; it expects us to raise our standards in order to be worthy of it.  God willing, it will continue to do so for a long time to come.

We are what you once were.
We believe what you once believed.
We worship as you once worshipped.
If you were right then, we are right now.
If we are wrong now, you were wrong then.
— Traditional Catholics’ Motto

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