I’m not a “Latin or Bust” Catholic. but I do admit a certain fondness for Latin left over from my days as an idealist who studied the language in high school and college in order to become like the old-fashioned scholars I admired. (I drew the line at Greek — so much for my ideals.) But I am outside the walls of the fierce, at least in some circles, fight over whether the old mass in Latin, the new mass in Latin, or the new mass in English is the best for all mankind.
In an effort to explore just what is the big deal about Latin mass, I went to St. Cecilia’s in Oakley Friday, where Fr. Earl Fernandez is celebrating the new mass (that’s “novus ordo,” for us Latin fans) every other Friday morning as an experiment. I offer my impressions to you, gentle readers, as a public service:
1) It is definitely more reverent. With (male) acolytes in cassocks and lace-trimmed albs, no extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, two priests, at least half of it sung, and all the music chanted, the mass was beautiful and centered on the Eucharist. It was restful not to cringe at music choices or at the apparel (or lack of such) of laypeople crowded around the altar. It was less about “the assembly” and more about the mass itself.
2) It is not hard to chant. Before mass started, Fr. Fernandez helpfully went over the chants (except the “Salve Regina,” which was chanted after the mass and which your correspondent could not even find in the missal). Only the Our Father (“Pater Noster”) gave me much trouble. Being longer and complicated, it probably takes a few times to master. Chanting prayers is not a brain drainer and is not beyond the abilities of the average person.
3) It is not all that hard to respond in Latin. The prayers and responses that are not sung are a little harder than the chants, because it’s harder to read quickly in another language than it is to sing. But not beyond mastery.
4) I didn’t understand a word. Having left the house without my handy-dandy book of the mass in six languages, I was forced to rely on the little handout for the responses and for understanding the Eucharistic prayers. Studying Latin decades ago does not, I discovered, help much when you hear it sung or said very quickly. I was hoping to pick out some words here and there to figure out where we were (after all, I can practically recite the mass myself in English having heard it so many times) but it was the printed translation that saved me. Having the complete text, which St. Cecilia plans to do in the future, and then hearing it frequently would change that.
In all, I found that attending the mass at St. Cecilia helped me to appreciate both the Latin and the English versions. The N.O. mass in Latin emphasized reverence, the liturgy, and the Eucharist. Much of what I find lacking (or too abundant) at masses in English was not even an issue. Listening to the Latin, even though I didn’t understand it by ear, was not dull or like listening to nonsense syllables. On the other hand, I discovered that I pay more attention than I knew to which prayers in the liturgy change every week or every day, and which of the Eucharistic prayers are being said. The immediacy of hearing and understanding my own language is a dear and valuable thing.
Most of all, I saw clearly the need for a common liturgy. The Tridentine mass (that’s the one used before Vatican II, for those still learning all this) is beautiful and reverent but is very different from the N.O. mass. At St. Cecilia’s, even though the language was different, I felt a real connection to the same mass being offered at altars all over the world, all the time. What was different about this N.O. mass in Latin were its “accidents,” to borrow a Thomist term. In essence it was the same. Any resistance to offering the N.O. mass in Latin seems to me to be misplaced. Surely offering the same mass in two different guises is an acceptable way to accommodate many different people. I understand the reluctance pastors have to start dividing their parishes up into passionate devotees of this type of mass or that type of mass — and never the twain shall meet. But what many parishes have is a compromise that satisfies no one, and a flashpoint for people who prefer tradition and reverence to complain about, often with good reason.
They’re the same mass, folks. I can hear people say, “Well, if they’re the same mass why bother with the Latin one?” To which I can only say, why NOT bother? Why deny a perfectly valid option to people, one that is beautiful and valuable, for the sake of conformity to an arbitrary standard? Getting rid of Latin was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It divides the church for no good reason.
I’ve been to a mariachi mass. Yes, all the music was really played by a mariachi band wearing big sombreros and costumes by the same folks who gave us “The Three Amigos.” If the Catholic Church has room for mariachi masses, it surely has room for the N.O. in Latin. I would like to thank Fr. Fernandez and St. Cecilia pastor Fr. Jamie Weber, for trying this experiment. I hope it is a successful one. As they say, “Fools laugh at the Latin language.” Rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated for centuries. May it continue a long and happy liturgical life for many years to come.