Many of those who grew up in the pre-Vatican II era can’t understand why anyone born after, say, 1970 could possibly be attracted to the traditional Latin Mass. After all, they reason, who wants to go back to the days when the priest “turned his back to the people” and “mumbled in a dead language,” when only a “few old women” went up for Communion and most of the congregation “daydreamed” while these same old women said their Rosaries? I can still remember hearing these arguments, when I, as a 16-year-old, went to RCIA classes at St. Albert’s parish in North Tonawanda, N.Y. in the mid-1990s. “Ya like Latin, huh?” said Deacon Brick, my instructor, with an incomprehensive look on his face when I told him I preferred the TLM. Deacon Brick and others of his generation couldn’t fathom how any young Catholic would want to return to a past they thought they had buried for good.
My experience was unlike Deacon Brick’s. We used missalettes that weren’t easy to flip back and forth fast enough between the opening prayers and the readings for the day. The pastor would call out sarcastically, “I can’t hear you!” if the congregation didn’t make the responses loud enough. Some congregants talked all through Mass. People wandered in late continuously almost up until Communion time. Everyone received, no matter how late he came in or how little he paid attention to what was going on. The music was always either Peter, Paul, and Mary-style folk tunes or selections from Marty Haugen and Dan Schutte. Occasionally, we would sing the opening lines from Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” When it was time to say the Our Father, we ended with the Protestant doxology of “for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever, amen.” In those days, nobody held hands during the Our Father and raised them up toward the ceiling during the doxology, which came later on. I dreaded the Sign of Peace because, inevitably, a person with a cold or what sounded like tuberculosis would come to Mass halfway through, sit in front of me, and thrust his hand out.
My Mass experience was not spiritually uplifting, to say the least. I never felt as if I was in God’s presence. It just seemed like something bland and trite that Catholics had to suffer through one hour a week.
When I was 15, I found out through watching shows on PBS such as David Macaulay’s Cathedral and Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth that there was this thing called the Latin Mass that, until 30 years earlier, was the ordinary way most Catholics had worshiped for century after century, until Pope Paul VI got rid of it and replaced it with the watered down, Protestant-style service I was used to. I was determined to find one of these Latin Masses and see what it was like.
During those days, that was way easier said than done. In the mid-’90s, the traditional Mass was almost nonexistent. Summorum Pontificum wasn’t for another 13 years. Providentially, soon after I watched Cathedral and The Power of Myth, I noticed something strange in the Buffalo News religious advertising section. St. Joseph’s Cathedral in downtown Buffalo, N.Y. was celebrating a Latin Mass on Easter Sunday. I somehow convinced my family to attend.
If you’ve never been to a traditional Mass, find one at a cathedral on Easter Sunday if you can. The choir opened with Resurrexi, et Adhuc Tecum Sum. To this day, I’ve never heard any choir sing the propers quite as beautifully. Clouds of incense wafted from the high altar. Almost everyone there, from the celebrant down to the congregation, behaved with reverence and solemnity. The sense of the sacred was overwhelming. It made me imagine what it must have been like in old St. Paul’s in London or Notre Dame in Chartres before the Protestants and modernists took over. The Mass was night-and-day different from and superior to anything I’d ever attended before. Even all these years later, I’ve never found any TLM to equal it.
Six months later, I was taking RCIA classes with Deacon Brick. The reason I hadn’t had First Communion at a younger age was because I’d never been officially baptized. My parents couldn’t find anybody to be my godparents because everybody they knew had lapsed by the time I was born. My grandparents eventually agreed to become my godfather and mother, but that didn’t happen until high school. So a hospital chaplain had baptized me when I was 18 months old and in danger of death, but the Church didn’t recognize the baptism. I had to drop out of religious instruction classes, and I flirted with becoming a Protestant and didn’t fully return to the Faith until I was well into my teens, thanks to the traditional Mass. Yet the Mass that brought me back to Catholicism was almost anathema to the priest and deacon who finally received me into the Church. Many years later, the pastor, Father Fisher, retired around the same time Pope Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum. In his last sermon, Fisher criticized the move, saying Latin is a barrier to participation because the people in the pews have to understand everything going on.
Why do so many of us who were born after Vatican II prefer the traditional Mass and devotions that those in charge of the Church then, and who still run the Church now, disparage and oppose? I’ll mention a few reasons from my own experience. The first one is that everything about the Mass – the Latin language, the vestments, the rubrics, the celebrant’s orientation – points to God. The Mass is not about you; it’s about God. Eastern Catholics call Mass the Divine Liturgy because it has divine origins. Every prayer, gesture, and ritual action comes from Our Lord himself, the apostles, or other saints throughout the centuries. Each addition deepened our understanding of the Mass’s purpose and ends. All of the subtractions and changes that Annibale Bugnini and his committee made to the Mass eliminated its sacral character and supernatural effects. The vernacular language, stripped down vestments, reversed table, Protestant hymns, and Communion in the hand make the Mass look like less of what it is – Christ’s sacrifice on Cavalry – and more like an ordinary social event.
The second reason is related to the first. Because the traditional Mass emphasizes reverence, it attracts people who want reverence and take their faith very seriously. People who attend the Novus Ordo can still be devout and serious, and priests can celebrate the New Mass reverently, but it’s a lot harder. A regular Novus Ordo Mass-goer who is serious about his faith is more likely to rub shoulders with those who are not and encounter people who are casual about what they believe and how they act, and the New Mass encourages rather than discourages those tendencies. Simply put, a more reverent liturgy helps the average pewsitter become a saint, and it’s easier to do this surrounded by like-minded people focused on their salvation instead of on the things of this world.
A third way the traditional Mass is superior is because it’s not your grandparents’ Latin Mass. Elderly people who tell us youngsters that in the old days, the priest rushed through the Mass, that it was almost always a Low Mass and nothing special, wouldn’t recognize how much care and effort most celebrants and choirs put into their Latin Masses now. A sung High Mass is the norm, and the choir more often than not knows how to sing Gregorian chant. The priest at the altar is usually devout, and he says the Mass slowly and with great reverence.
A fourth advantage the Mass of Ages has over the Novus Ordo is in the cycle of readings. The Vatican II revolutionaries scrapped the old cycle of readings because they thought there wasn’t enough Scripture. Instead of a one-year cycle that emphasizes our falleness and need of God’s grace, the new cycle is a three-year run designed to get through the whole Bible. The new lectionary also took out, incredibly, a lot of passages that point to the Four Last Things and our need for a savior. The old Mass readings are quality over quantity. Someone who attends the TLM regularly will get weekly reminders that make it more likely he’ll examine his conscience, repent of his sins, and work on his weaknesses.
These are just a few of the reasons younger people have returned to the liturgy their forbears rejected. Many of those who love the Novus Ordo can’t understand why anyone could go back to the bad old Latin Mass. Many of those who prefer the Latin Mass can’t understand why anyone was so eager to get rid of it.
Jeff Dahlberg is a freelance writer who lives in the Western New York region of the United States. As he is a revert from lapsed Catholicism and practical atheism, his salvation is a work in progress.