Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Traditional Latin Mass: Romantic or Modern?

I know, talk about questions that no one is asking. And why would anyone ask such a bizarre question?

I think it's a question we should ask.

Humour me and start by considering that the TLM is a revival, a restoration. That, in itself, may seem crazy. Surely, you may think, it was continuously celebrated. The "spirit of Vatican 2" fabulists may have done all sorts of crazy things but they didn't succeed in entirely eradicating the TLM! Well, it's complicated.

For starters, the TLM was changed over the years and it was especially changed in the years leading up to Vatican 2. You can find comments from before the time of John 23 where people deplore how the once-great liturgy has been debased beyond recognition. They didn't mean the order of the mass but the ways in which it was celebrated. And that is the problem: there is no shortage of missals, but how do you interpret them?

I don't know what was going on world-wide but I do know that the people who fought to "preserve" the mass that I knew in the 1970s and the 1980s were often uncertain about what exactly they were preserving.

At first, the project was a matter not of re-establishing the Latin mass but of finding places where it was still said. I remember my father driving us to a little white clapboard church in a little community on the edge of the city when I was a kid. But this mass, even though it seemed interminable to my sister and I, was a low mass, not sung, and not elaborate. The little church had neither the resources nor the knowledge to celebrate a solemn mass. Already, a lot had been lost.

 And the Latin Mass had been modified a lot. When the reformers set about imposing the newer Liturgy (and that "imposing" is not a value judgment but simple fact) they ended up dividing the few remaining Latin Mass churches into isolated communities. There were "convents" here and there where the community was able to resist the pressures of the local bishop and continue to celebrate in the old form. These communities had to be careful, however, that they didn't achieve too high a profile for if large numbers of the outside community started attending, their internal matter could become a diocese matter and, therefore, subject to the authority of the bishop. Why does that matter? Because these communities had a local practice and no way of comparing with what was going on elsewhere.

There had also been a lot of experimentation with the Latin Mass in the 1940s and 1950s, most notably with the dialogue mass. This mass allowed the congregation, rather than just the server, to make some of the responses. But which ones and how much? Again, local practice varied.

This is not a scholarly examination of what happened and I'm not the person to do it. My anecdotal evidence, for what it is worth, is that the return of the Latin Mass was very much a restoration. It might seem that it was simply a mass of pulling out the old hymnals, of which there are thousands upon thousands still floating around (I own a least a half dozen myself) and following the directions. But that is never true because any ritual involves hundreds of interpretative decisions (compare various attempts to do authentic recreations of what the music of Haydn and Mozart "originally" sounded like). I remember listening in to many long, and often heated arguments, about what should and should not be done.

It's not quite like creating an authentic performance of Gregorian chant or even of Bartok, but there are very real questions. I mention Bartok because there are recording of Bartok playing his own piano music and, when these were studied, scholars quickly determined that he played his own music in a  style that differed significantly from current practice. Bartok died in 1945!

And I'll stop there for now. More this afternoon.

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