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Coming Clean About My Latin Problem

Image: screengrab of SanctaMissa.org

My name is Steve, and I go to the Latin Mass – but I don’t know Latin.

It’s been this way for years. At first, when I started out attending an indult Mass in the days before Summorum Pontificum, I thought someone might notice. But I was good at masking the symptoms, and nobody caught on. If I was looking at my hand Missal, they had no way of knowing which side I was reading. When I’d be invited for dinner at the house of a fellow Latin Masser, I’d quietly demur as they said the “benediction” instead of good old-fashioned “grace.” Eventually, through repetition, I learned how to pray most of the rosary in Latin, and that just gave me more cover. Once in a while, I’d throw out the only line I could remember from the Latin course I took during the one year I homeschooled:

“Non tam praeclarum est scire latine quam turpe nescire.”

They tell me it’s from Cicero. When I say it, it sounds sort of Italian. But that’s probably because that’s how the instructor on the audio cassette sounded. It means, ironically enough, “It is not so much excellent to know Latin as it is a shame not to know it.” Or at least, that’s how I remember the translation, but I can’t be sure – because I don’t speak Latin. I could have it totally wrong, like those college students who get tattoos of Chinese characters that are supposed to say something like “Hope” or “Love” or “Serenity” and in fact say, “I charged this stupid American $50 for a tattoo that says how stupid they are. Stupid. Stooopid.”

When it finally dawned on me that nobody would ever figure me out, it was a little surreal. I realized that I was what they call a “functional Latin ignoramus.” I’ve been going to the Traditional Latin Mass every Sunday since 2004. I get through the whole thing, I do my prayers, I even go up to communion. I smile. I shake hands. Sometimes I joke around. “How about that Collect, eh?” or “Wow, that Introit was spot on today, amirite?” Nobody knows the truth, and they don’t need to.

So really, I thought, who am I hurting?

It got weird, though, when people started arguing with me about how Latin in the liturgy is exclusionary. How it raises the bar too high for entry for most folks. How it makes it impossible for people who never took Latin to have any idea what’s going on. I’d feel the flop sweat start, the bile rising up in the back of my throat as the fear of discovery seared through me like a wave of hot panic. I wanted to tell them. I wanted to get it off my chest. I wanted to scream from the rooftops, “I GO TO THE LATIN MASS AND I DON’T KNOW ANY FREAKING LATIN! DOES THAT MAKE ME LESS OF A PERSON? AM I SINGING THE SALVE REGINA CORRECTLY? DOES GOD EVEN LOVE ME?!?

But I kept my mouth shut. I had a family. A reputation to consider. I was, by this time, writing in defense of the Traditional Latin Mass pretty regularly. I might not survive being exposed.

Like any addict, I told myself I was different. That things wouldn’t catch up to me. That I could just keep going to the TLM and just keep reading the English parts and watching where the priest was and figuring it out by way of the various easy-to-use resources available for that sort of thing and I could maintain my facade. And I knew, deep down, that the priest didn’t need me. I knew that like the Levitical priests of the Old Testament, only he could enter the Holy of Holies and offer the oblation of sacrifice, the sin offering, the Perfect Victim. I knew that not a single thing I did, whether I prayed my missal, walked a crying baby, zoned out because I was tired, or even prayed my rosary during some portion of the liturgy, made a whit of difference as to whether the sacrifice was efficacious. I was completely irrelevant to the outcome of the liturgy, even though the outcome of the liturgy was the most relevant thing in the world to me.

You might think that not mattering would bother me, but it actually made everything easier. In a way, it made me more co-dependent than ever before. I didn’t have to hold anyone’s hand during the Pater Noster. I didn’t have to touch anyone during the sign of peace. I wasn’t expected to mumble my assent to the responsorial psalm or vocalize my participation in the prayers of the faithful. I had left all that behind. I had put myself right smack in the middle of a liturgy where I had absolutely no exterior job to do other than kneel, stand, sit, and receive the Eucharist. It was the perfect cover, and the priest was my enabler.

But then it happened.

My oldest son, who struggled to pay attention during Mass even after he made his first communion, was given a hand missal. It wasn’t even a full-fledged one. No ribbons, no propers, not one of these thick books with all kinds of things in it that might daunt a young mind, just a straightforward text with some sacred art that he could follow along with. I didn’t think much of it at first, but the next thing I knew, it was too late. He was following along. Eight years old, hyperactive, unable to focus on anything except Legos and TV, and suddenly there he was, instead of writing on the back of parish envelopes with stubby little pencils, beginning to show the signs of following me into addiction. I thought he would be immune. Everyone always said it was too hard for kids. That even adults couldn’t follow this dusty old Mass. The barriers were too much to surmount. But there I was, watching a child, my own flesh and blood, turning the pages of his little book and knowing where the priest was and what he was doing, his small whisper occasionally reaching my ears, “Dad, which page are we on now?”

He was just like me. He was going to the Latin Mass, getting something out of it, and all without knowing a word of Latin.

I had ignored the signs, I guess, when his older sisters and mother had done the same. Tried to tell myself that they were not really paying attention, but just holding the books while they thought about kittens and rainbows and makeup and other girl stuff. But to see my son, the oldest of my four boys, following in my footsteps? I finally realized that I was leading by example, and it was all my fault.

So I’m coming clean. I am here to admit the truth: I get more out of the Traditional Latin Mass than I ever have from any other liturgy, and I’m a complete and total poser when it comes to “Latin, the living language of the Church.” (If I wasn’t, I might know how to write that in Latin. I tried. It came out all wrong. Even with the help of Google.)

More to the point, though, I’ve decided not to run from who I am. Instead, I’m here to embrace it. I have no intention of changing. My addiction is not going to go away. I need a meaningful Mass, one rich with symbol and gesture and prayer and reverence. One that has stood the test of time over many, many centuries, and has spiritually nourished countless saints. People say it’s too difficult, that they couldn’t live like that, but maybe they should walk a mile in my shoes before they condemn me. I’m not a bad person because I love the TLM but am clueless about the “L” part. We’ve all got our problems. And what I get out of it…it’s worth it to me. Who are you to judge?

I also wanted to speak up for those afraid to speak for themselves. A lot of you out there are probably just like me, quietly hiding your ignorance of Latin as you come to Mass in your suits and long skirts and chapel veils and go through the motions along with the rest of us, silently reading the prayers at the foot of the altar on the English side with an occasional glance at the Latin just because it sounds cool and you can make out a few root words here and there.

I am here to tell you that YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

Do not let them shame you! It’s okay to want Mass to be mysterious. It’s okay not to understand everything that’s going on 100%. Do you think the people knew what the High Priest was doing when he went in to offer sacrifice on the day of atonement? For heaven’s sake, they stayed outside. They tied a rope around his leg to pull him out if anything happened because nobody was allowed to go in except him. Did that stop them?

It’s also okay to want to step into a sacred space and time. To step out of the banality of the every day world and into something transcendent. Sublime. We don’t come for something quotidian. This is something secret, something special. It does not speak to us in common words. It causes us to sit up and take notice. To pay attention. It demands something from us – as good liturgy should.

The Church recommends Latin for all. No less a pope than Pope St. John XXIII, who invoked the Second Vatican Council which is largely (and somewhat falsely) attributed with the abandonment of Latin in the liturgy, spoke beautifully of the importance of Latin in the life of the Church in his apostolic constitution, Veterum Sapientia

Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.

Nor must we overlook the characteristic nobility of Latin formal structure. Its “concise, varied and harmonious style, full of majesty and dignity” makes for singular clarity and impressiveness of expression.

[…]

[T]he Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular.

The pope went on to order the bishops to ensure the study of Latin for those entering the priesthood and teaching theology. He also wanted the traditional curriculum restored, so that all students could have a grounding in this ancient and venerable language.

As everyone now knows, his orders were disobeyed.

Catholics like me, therefore, are bereft of the treasure of knowing Latin. But if we come clean, if we step forward into the light, perhaps we can effect change. As that one awful, awful, just really terrible hymn they made me sing at my first communion said, “Let our tears be turned into dancing.” I can’t quote any more of it without risking nausea, but perhaps the realization that we love the Church’s liturgy enough to want to be there even when it’s in a language we don’t know might help bring about a restoration of Latin study to edify the generations that follow.

Until then, we will persevere, and I am here to tell you that it is not so difficult as you may believe. There are even certain benefits to our condition. When you have to follow along in a hand missal, for example, it’s a bit more challenging than attending a liturgy you know by heart. It requires you to check, if you’ve lost yourself in prayer, to see where the priest is. You have to turn pages, check propers, and ensure that you’re in the right place at the right time if you wish to follow along. Believe it or not, this is a far more active form of participation than mere repetition “like zombies” (to use the words of my 9-year-old daughter) can provide. If you don’t believe me, try it some time.

And as long as you have your handy missal, you can go anywhere in the world where they have a TLM and get the same Mass – a Mass you can follow along with eye, mind, and heart. Whether you’re in Manhattan, Vienna, Budapest, or Hong Kong, you can experience the universality of the Church through a single, structured liturgy and a single, structured language. (Conversely, pick a different parish at random out of a phone book each Sunday for a month just in your own diocese and you’ll find a vastly differing experience, to say nothing of what you’ll find during international travel.)

Many people think that Latin Massers are hung up on Latin in the liturgy because they love the language so much. I certainly like the way it sounds, and care deeply about what it represents, but I suppose it’s hard to truly love what you don’t know. In that sense, Cicero was right. For Catholics, it truly is excellent to know Latin. It’s also a shame not to know it, but I get by. Many do.

In discussions of liturgy, I’ve often told people that Latin is, in many respects, the least important thing that distinguishes the Traditional Latin Mass from the new missal. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. It means everything in the ancient liturgy is.

Do not be ashamed. It’s okay to admit the truth. Non-Latin speaking TLM-lovers of the world, unite!

Originally published on March 11, 2015. 

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