Sunday, December 23, 2007

Attending a Latin Mass

It's always worse when you have high hopes for something and have gone out of your way to do it. So how was the Latin Mass I attended today in the Diocese of Arlington?



I wanted to walk out half-way through it. The priest talked a mile a minute, the altar servers were in creepy harmony as they responded, and the pre-Motu Latin/English guide had apparently nothing to do with the actual Mass. Even knowing the order of the Mass and the basics of the Kyrie, Credo, Agnus Dei, Gloria, and so on, I got really lost very quickly and the fact that 75% of what was said was said silently (with most of the rest being obscured by kneeling benches being put down as the priest faced away from the congregation). Some awful-sounding overly-loud bells got rung every few seconds as well. Is this really what all the fuss has been about for the past forty years? I'm baffled as to what anyone sees in this form (especially as hardly anyone in the crowd would have even have hit adolescence by the time of Vatican II). By the end I wanted to declare my own Reformation.

This is why Catholicism is so poorly-regarded in English-speaking countries: the Novus Ordo is like a subpar Methodist service and the Latin Mass is impenetrable. I'm starting to understand why there was so much trepidation about Kennedy becoming President. If I wanted to come up with something designed to horrify Protestants into the belief that they should be suspicious of Catholics are secretive foreigners, I couldn't do a better job than the Latin Mass. The beauty of Palestrina's and Byrd's sung Masses were utterly absent; it was just a dark ampitheatre with plaster statues and a priest speaking a foreign language while we looked at his back. About the only thing I can come up with to commend it was that the presence of hair lace among the women let's me report that there was a scintilla of mantilla present.

This is why it's so important that the Holy Catholic Church find a place for Anglican worship. Evangelicals are going to be less-than-enthusiastic about Novus Ordo folk Masses and creeped out by the Latin form. Mainline Protestants are going to be horrified. The culture gap is just too wide. There was a chance back when everyone's stereotype was of folks like Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Catholicism was seen as being Anglo-American with an Irish brogue, but ecclesiastical Latin sounds menacing to my English-language ears. An Anglican form or Rite would give English-speakers (by this I mean as a culture, not as a language group) something to latch onto. The Episcopal Church is going down in flames, but Episcopalianism/Anglicanism offers something that Catholicism doesn't have: a sort of familiarity that allows it to at least get its foot in the door with Protestants and Evangelicals. An Anglican High Mass is a truly beautiful thing (if you're ever in London, attend the one at St. Paul's Cathedral) and even a Low Mass has a certain dignity to it that speaks well. It's not a matter of content, but how it's communicated.

For whatever reason (pick your favorite), Catholicism in this country pretty much only expands through reproduction, marriage, and a very small number of people who study history and theology enough to decide to convert. Evangelicals (including Pentecostals/Charismatics) may not keep as many of the folks the draw, but at least they get them in the door.

I'll probably give the Latin Mass another shot at a different parish; it's entirely possible that I simply was there on an off-day. However, what does it say when someone who knows what's going on and is inclined to give as much benefit of the doubt as possible comes away from a service upset and even slightly angry? For those who suggest that new Catholics might like the various Eastern rites: I'm not being blasphemous here, but for the love of God don't send them there. If the Latin is this atrocious, what chance do they have with Greek, Russian, or Syriac?


Anonymous said...

I am sorry you were disappointed in the Latin Mass. I converted to Catholicism more than ten years ago, and I have still not attended a Latin Mass.

I grew up Anglican, learned the scriptures from evangelicals and charismatics, and attended an evangelical college. Over the course of time I became disenchanted with every Protestant denomination. One imploded after the other.

I tried being an Anglo-Catholic. The liturgy was beautiful, but I never lost the sense that the Anglicans were Catholic wannabes with better taste.

Good taste, however, won't necessarily lead you to the truth, though it might lead to some of the world's finest restaurants, opera houses, art galleries, performances, and architecture. (You'll have little to tithe.)

I became a Catholic because I concluded that sacraments were fundamental to Christian worship (does that make me a fundamentalist?) and that without sacramental authority, there could be no sacraments.

Anglican sacramental authority I concluded was not valid; it was all post-Henry VIII pretense. The Lutheran claim to apostolic authority is even weaker.

That left me with the Orthodox and Catholic bishops. Choose one. The authority of the Orthodox bishops is valid, but their lack of a chief who can judge ecclesiastical disputes makes their episcopacy little more effective than that of the Anglicans. Moreover, their caesaro-papacy can turn their bishops into mouthpieces for the state more easily than Roman bishops. (Just look at Russia's bishops now.) I concluded that the Orthodox were superior to the Anglicans in having genuine apostolic authority, but inferior to the Catholics in having no head but an endless argument over the meaning of the early Church councils.

For this reason, I became a Catholic and ceased my quest for the perfect liturgy in the perfect parish. Liturgically, we are all in Plato's cave, and occasionally we get a glimpse of Christ's liturgical glory in something better than the usual form. I don't experience the Tranfiguration every Mass, and sometimes I shake my head and say: "2000 years of Christendom and they can't find a better song than that?"

Nonetheless, I am Catholic because I believe the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, the bishops are the successors to the apostles, and the liturgies won't lead me astray, even if I might find something inspiring or more to my personal tastes someplace else. Being in the best possible union with the communion of saints through Catholic authority is more important than the form and beauty of the liturgy. It was a tough hill to climb, but I am glad I'm here.

Take your time. Read, think, and pray. The Church is 2000 years old and will wait for you.

Merry Christmas! TQ

Thomas J said...

I hope you give it another shot. You may want to try St. John's in Mclean.

HokiePundit said...

I probably will try again; sometimes you just hit a dud when things just don't sync up. Besides, there are several parishes with a Latin Mass in the Diocese of Arlington (and a few in the Diocese of Richmond for next semester as well).

One thing I've noticed that Roman Catholics might benefit from following the Anglicans is taking a moment to let everyone know where they are in the service, with announcements such as "we will now sing such-and-such hymn, number 842" and "...the Nicene Creed, located on page 345." Looking back, I think the guidebook had about six different Mass formulas and so a moment to announce where to find our place (seeing as the whole thing was done in a foreign language) would have been helpful.

Maybe it's just a learning curve. I like the theory, but the practice I've seen so far hasn't lived up to the potential.

Mike Bradley said...

I'm sorry your first experience with TLM wasn't what you expected. I was greatly confused on my first visit when I attended the indult mass in Columbus, OH ten years ago. I'd had my mother's old Fr. Lasance Sunday Missal from 1949 and had read through it a number of times and was familiar with the text and with how it differed from the Novus Ordo mass. Somehow I hadn't realized (or wasn't paying attention if my parents had mentioned) that most of the dialogue was between the priest and acolyte/server. As you noted, this made it disorientating. I also hadn't realized that the cantor/choir would sing their part while the priest continued on with the mass. Again, very confusing. After attending a few more times, and using both my missal (which had the Propers for that particular Sunday) and using the provided mass guide, which had notations in the margins explaining what was going on and why (bells being rung, etc.), I was then able to look for "landmarks" in the gestures/orientations of the priest and acolyte which greatly facilitated my following along. I suppose if I was born into this mass it would come very easily to me. After my father, and generations before him learned to be altar boys at this mass while in grade school. I like to think I am at least as smart as a fourth grader. has some great resources. I also don’t think the culture divide is that wide for all. I know more than a few converts/reverts who attend the Extraordinary Rite exclusively. Also my grandmother converted from the Swiss Evangelical Church in 1940 on her own initiative.

Although, this does bring up some of the chief complaints of TLM in pre-Vat II times: the mass was a 3 ring circus with the priest and servers doing their thing, the choir doing their thing, and the laity not paraying along, but using mass time to do private devotions.

I have attended the TLM in the diocese of Richmond. The mass at St. St. Joseph's Villa was a beautiful High Mass in a non "wreckovated" church complete with Gregorian chant. I haven't been there since they moved to their new location. I've also been to the early morning Low Mass at St. Benedict's Chapel in Chesapeake. This was is in a very tiny chapel, which facilitated hearing/seeing what was going on. I also like the Low Mass with it's no singing/silence aspect. It can be nice change and more contemplative. St. Benedict's Chapel is now staffed by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and I understand they are planning on building a new church.

I'm not a regular Extraordinary Rite goer, although I do like for a change of pace, or to cleanse the palate if I've been to a horribly goofy Ordinary Rite Mass (I did mention that I live in the diocese of Richmond, right?). I hope, and I believe that it is Benedict XVI's intent that the Ordinary and Extraordinary Rite will "cross pollinate," that the reverence/seriousness will rub off on the Ordinary Rite. The main abuse of the TLM might have been that it was "rushed," said quickly and garbled, but that was about it. Facing ad oreintem prevented the priest from being a performer/personality, and emphasized the vertical aspect of the Mass. Facing ad orientem also emphasized that the Mass is not a dialogue between the priest and people, but rather the priest leads us in prayer (hence we're all facing the same direction) to God. This can be lost when we're all in a circle. worship turns inward, as Benedict XVI noted in Spirit of The Liturgy. On the other hand, I do like the revised Lectionary and streamlining of the calendar in the Ordinary Rite. Seriously, I wonder if priests had to take a class in figuring out the calendar (is today a double major of the first class with a simple octave, or a double major of the first class with a privileged octave????).

A mass more to your taste might be the Novus Ordo Latin Mass at 10am at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in D.C., complete with Gregorian Schola and Palestrina. And of course the noon mass at the National Shrine of The Immaculate Conception in D.C. always has the most reverent Ordinary Rite Mass with an excellent choir.

HokiePundit said...

Mike Bradley,

I think you're probably right in that it was likely a mixture of overly-high expectations on my part and a rushed job by the priests and acolytes.

I guess I just got caught up in all the hoopla about how this was supposed to be so much better than the Novus Ordo, when in reality it's simply different and subject to being done well or being done poorly. I've been blessed in that all the Anglican services I've attended have been very well done (it's a lot easier to figure this out beforehand if you know the telltale signs to look for); if I'd been at one of the more egregious Anglican parishes perhaps I'd be singing a very different tune!