Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The first in a series of posts on the Traditional Latin Mass

I went to a Latin mass for All Saints Day. The reasons for my doing so, as they say on FaceBook, are "complicated" so I won't go into them here.

Unlike most people, however, I have a long history with the traditional Latin mass (TLM). My father was a huge fan of it so I went often as  child and continued to do so long after it had disappeared from most parishes. I was still occasionally going to the TLM well into my twenties. I went quite often in university for the not terribly profound reasons that there was a church offering it right down the hill from my campus and I found the women that went more attractive than most of the women I would see at the regular mass available on campus.

Anyway, I eventually gravitated towards the Novus Ordo (that's the official name for the mass most Catholic churches use). I hadn't been in more than a decade until last Friday.

Before going back, I dug out one of my old missals and reviewed what was in it. There is surprisingly little difference between the two masses when you consider them on paper. If you'd never been to the TLM and looked at the missals, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Novus Ordo was just a streamlined version of the TLM. You'd quickly realize that was an illusion very quickly if you actually went to one. The main difference between the two masses is one of execution.

On the other hand, there is an argument that says, actually, there is very little difference between them and the seeming differences of execution are a consequence of the TLM usually being well-executed and the Novus Ordo being badly executed. This argument goes on to say that if the Novus Ordo was said as it should be said, it would come to resemble the TLM much more than it currently does.

So, what's it like

The first thing that hit me was the start. The thing about the TLM is that it just starts. No MC comes out to say good morning and tell you how welcome you are. Similarly, no cantor comes out to tell you what this morning's hymns are or to make you practice the refrain to the psalm. No one says, "Please stand and join us in our opening hymn." No, the music just begins and the altar boys, deacon, subdeacon and priest just begin processing (this was a solemn mass).

That may seem like a small thing but it really hammers home an important truth and that is that the mass (any mass TLM or Novus Ordo) is an event that happens independent of your presence. It doesn't require you.

In modern parlance, this sort of attitude, and there is lots of it in the  TLM, is treated as a barrier to full participation. That's not crazy, there are hurdles you have to clear to fully participate in the TLM—not the least of which is figuring out what is going on—but these aren't necessarily barriers.(Although any hurdle will be a barrier to the person who can't clear it.)

By way of analogy, is courtship a barrier to love? From the point of view of the lonely person it can often seem to be. Why do I have to go through all this ritual when I just need a little love? Of course, the person who just wants sex and isn't particularly interested in love will say the same thing. But is it just trust issues that make us go through courtship? Do we do all this just to get to know one another? Or is there something about going through all those steps, and facing the fear of rejection,

I wonder if the traditional rites of the mass don't serve a function like that. The TLM makes you work for certain but that work could be the making of a deeper bond. That is to say, far from being a barrier to full participation, these hurdles actually make for a more profound participation in the long run.

I don't know the answer to that. There will be more posts on the subject here on an irregular basis.


  1. I'll be interested to read your comments. I went to my first TLM not too long ago and have been to a couple since then, and I have to say, especially at my first one I was a bit put off. I like old school stuff so I was expecting to like it, but I found it obscure and hard to follow. Not surprising for the first time, I guess. The last one I went to was a Requiem mass on All Souls, and I'm very glad I went to that--your new header sums it up, cum mortuis in lingua mortua.
    On the topic of well executed novus ordos, one mass I often attend is a novus ordo in latin, which I think is a great middle ground, since you get to use the settings of the missa de angelis (or whatever) but the readings are in English. (Maybe my least favorite part of the TLM is the fact that the scripture readings are sung in Latin. I know the Sanctus, the Credo, and the Gloria but there's no way I'm going to understand the Gospel reading sung in Latin.)

  2. Very much looking forward to reading your posts on this subject. Thank you for your care in explaining terms.
    Couldn't agree more with your point about the lack of an MC improving things. An MC at the beginning generally means an MC interrupting things regularly. And then adding more and more. And then performing standup comedy, which teaches the kids (i.e. the adults, i.e. the Boomers) in the pews to goof off too. I wish I could tell you that I'm imaging a scenario here, but the parish we attend when visiting family is like this--we call it the [Parish Name] Comedy Hour, not endearingly. (You'll be glad to hear it is not RC.)

    I would like to attend a TLM, but worry I would only be looking aesthetically and critically. I do love the reverence and ceremony in the Mass at the local Anglo-Catholic parish. My favourite part at the moment is the baptismal Asperges Me. The choir is not in the quire, but up behind out of sight (much, much better) singing the Latin while the celebrating priest is nearly carried about by deacons while sprinkling the assembled. It's magical.
    (The scripture of course is chanted in English. Phew! :) )