I’ve had the privilege of being able to attend the traditional Latin Mass for going on nine months now. I can say without hesitation that this transition has been the single best change of my life. I’ll forever have an ongoing love story with Catholic tradition, and I’ve been blessed to discover that nowhere is Catholic tradition manifested with more breathtaking beauty than in the traditional Latin Mass. Here, largely forgotten rites, prayers, and symbols still exist in all their spiritual strength and efficacy, as they have for the past 1,500 years.
As a woman, the traditional Latin Mass resonates with me in a unique way. “There is something extraordinarily great and mysterious about femininity,” Dr. Alice von Hildebrand proclaimed. The woman has been one of the most beautiful mysteries of God’s creation since the dawn of time, ever since Adam first beheld his spouse in Eden and exclaimed words of praise with wonder and love.
This is something that’s dawned on me slowly, week after week, as I’ve knelt in my pew (holding my desert-island 1962 Missal) and prepared to attend the traditional Latin Mass. I spent the first twenty years of my life attending the Novus Ordo, and while I certainly had a deepening relationship of love and adoration with Our Lord all throughout those years, I’ve realized that it was only here, at the Latin Mass, that I felt truly cognizant of my beauty and mystery as a woman – as I knelt before the beauty and mystery of God.
This may sound odd, especially to those who view as negative the face-value appearance of a traditional Latin Mass, where women are veiled, in which they never serve at the altar, lector, cantor, administer Holy Communion, or do anything apart from adoring the Lord from their pews, (other than sing in choir, which I happily do!). Many might call a woman’s role in the Latin Mass odiously stifled and suppressed.
Yet here are several points where the traditional Latin Mass honors womanhood even more than the Novus Ordo. This discussion seems all too timely: over the past century, our culture has become overrun by so many false ideologies, not the least of which is feminism, and sadly, our post-conciliar Church has not been immune to its pervasive influence. Yet now, as many Catholics are beginning to re-embrace what the Church calls the Extraordinary Form after Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, more than one Catholic woman will be transitioning, just as I have done, into an entirely new and beautiful experience of the Mass, where her former roles no longer exist and she instead has the opportunity to rediscover the beauty of womanhood, as the traditional Latin Mass uniquely witnesses to it in four special ways.
1) The veil
Over the past sixty years, the tradition of women veiling in the Sanctuary has largely either been forgotten or been made into an issue of contention and resentment. But rather than the veil offending my womanhood, I conversely discovered that the veil actually honors and uplifts my womanhood to a new level of dignity, one that I didn’t experience at the Novus Ordo. At the Novus Ordo, I blend in; I dress as I would to a nice evening out, but nothing liturgically speaks of my femininity, and I am little different from the worshiper next to me. At the traditional Latin Mass, however, the woman is singled out with respect. I am asked to veil my head and announce to God and to others that I am truly a woman, that I am His beautiful and mysterious creation, and that the Mass is about the Beauty from which my beauty came.
This is such a simple but necessary point to grasp. Before a woman can become authentically aware of the beauty of her femininity, she has to be made aware, as deeply as possible, of Who God is and who she is before Him – not just as a woman, but a human being. The Mass was fashioned especially to do just this, through its reverence, its silence, and its beauty of liturgy. The traditional Latin Mass guides both men and women to orient themselves entirely toward God and consequently to efface themselves before His re-presented Sacrifice. From there, the Mass proceeds to speak to a woman of her own dignity, because she has humbled herself before God.
The veil was the starting point in my journey to realizing how the traditional Latin Mass honors womanhood. I first had to discover the beauty and necessity of self-effacement, of realizing I am nothing before God and that the Mass is entirely about Him. The veil wonderfully aided me in doing this. The veil reminded me I was in the courts of my King – and that I was beautiful and sacred enough to require a veil, so as to not distract from, but rather to point others to His beauty.
2) The repeated mention of the Blessed Virgin
One of the most striking differences I’ve found between the traditional Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo is how often the Blessed Virgin is honored in the Old Rite. The Blessed Virgin is the model for all Catholic women; as St. Louis de Montfort described her, “God the Father gathered all the waters together and called them the seas (maria). He gathered all his graces together and called them Mary (Maria).” And the traditional Latin Mass seems to truly grasp Our Lady’s sacred and unrepeatable role in salvation history, as well as in our journey through this vale of tears – and it accordingly honors her time after time throughout.
Even before the Epistle is read, the Blessed Virgin has already been invoked four times: twice in the Priest’s confiteor, and then twice again in the servers’. She is honored once in the offertory, once in the canon, and once after the Pater Noster. Immediately following the Low Mass, the prescribed Leonine prayers include three Aves and the Salve Regina. In total, Our Lady is honored and invoked up to twelve times at every Mass, and even more so when it is one of her feast days.
The homage the Old Rite pays to the Blessed Virgin witnesses to the fact that it also honors the dignity inherent to all women. In a special way, the traditional Latin Mass continually places the Blessed Virgin before the heart of every woman present, urging all women to grow in her virtues and example for the sake of the Church.
3) The invocation of female saints
During each traditional Latin Mass Mass, seven female saints are invoked and honored directly after the Consecration: Ss. Perpetua and Felicity, both mothers to infants and heroic martyrs under Diocletian, and Ss. Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, and Anastasia, early Christian women who suffered horrible tortures for the sake of Christ (and, for the former three, for their virginity as well).
This is such a powerful moment following the profundity of the Consecration! The 1962 Daily Missal proclaims alongside their names: “One of the joys of eternal salvation will be the ravishing society of all the other citizens of heaven, who are now praying for us to join them.” This gives my heart a thrill of joy and anticipation, and respect for these heroic women, and how they used their gifts of femininity – the same gifts I possess as a woman – to serve God until the end.
At every Mass, those who attend the Old Rite are called to remember the example of these seven Catholic women who suffered martyrdom, and to be mindful of the strength and beauty of their femininity, which, in cooperation with God’s grace, enabled them to give all for Christ. What an incredible tribute, paid by the traditional Latin Mass, to the noble design Our Lord has for all women.
4) The symbolic integrity of the woman’s liturgical role
This topic has already been argued eloquently here by Benedict Constable, so I would like only to stress how I’ve personally come to appreciate the distinction of roles between masculinity and femininity as manifested in the traditional Latin Mass. The more I’ve come to understand and embrace this liturgy, the more I appreciate that I am authentically integrated into it as a woman, where I serve as a profound symbol simply through my own femininity – and not through any external, and imperfect, actions of mine in my attempts to “contribute” to the liturgy of the Mass.
I’m able to say this from years of experience as a cantor and a lector at the Novus Ordo. I was blessed and honored to have been able to serve God in that way and to have used whatever talents I have for His glory – but at the traditional Latin Mass, I feel doubly complete and at peace fulfilling the liturgical role meant for me and for all women since the beginning of the Church, which is simply to be present in my womanhood and to represent the receptivity of the entire Church to the Word of God. How amazing and beautiful it is that my identity as a woman is enough – that I need not do anything more of my own efforts to serve as a sacred symbol in the liturgy!
I’m sure there are many more ways that the traditional Latin Mass helped me to embrace the beautiful gift of my femininity, and to rejoice in my traditional role in the liturgy. However many I might have forgotten, I’m deeply grateful for all of them. It’s my heartfelt prayer that more and more Catholic women will discover these beautiful tributes to their womanhood lying hidden in the Old Rite – and that they will all realize that while, on the surface, women appear to do far less in the Traditional Latin Mass than in the Novus Ordo, it is because the Traditional Latin Mass, along with Catholic tradition for the past two thousand years, has gently told her: You are woman: you are beautiful: you are enough as you are.
Mary Donellan is a freelance writer from the Deep South, and is deeply passionate for traditional Catholic living and for sanctifying the domestic Church. She blogs at marydonellan.wordpress.com