Friday, January 6, 2012

Why I Love the Tridentine Mass

When I lived in Fort Bragg I would sometimes drive to a Church forty minutes away so that I could attend a Tridentine rite Latin Mass. It was so worth the drive, although the drive itself was a forty minute time for prayer, and therefore quite worthwhile in its own right. I was mildly amused by the irony of the numerous billboards along I-95 outside Bragg, advertising "Adult Entertainment". Amused because I saw that on the way to Mass, but saddened on a deeper level. Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.

But something a lot of people don't understand is why the Latin Mass is worth forty minutes of driving one way. Why would you drive that far to attend a service in a language you don't understand when there were five Catholic churches with ten minutes of my apartment that are all in English?

Well, that is a good question, because it gets right to the heart of what liturgy is, but I'm going to save that for last. Actually, there are a number of lesser reasons why I go to the Tridentine mass. For one thing, I like being surrounded by families. I grew up in a large family, most of my friends growing up came from large families. My cousins that I visit on weekends come from large families. Right now I'm mostly on my own, but I still like being able to see families. For instance, another soldier I knew slightly from Afghanistan usually brought his wife and seven kids to the Latin Mass. I just like being surrounded by kids. It makes me happy, even when I'm ignoring them to concentrate on the liturgy. Their presence makes the Mass seem complete. Fr. Matt, the Chaplain on Fort Bragg, said once in a sermon that he never minded crying children at Mass because He didn't feel like explaining to Jesus why he wouldn't let the little children come to Him.

I like the music better. I don't know why it is, but Catholic church music in most Catholic churches is frankly horrible. I was literally embarrassed for the music director at the saturday evening Mass on Bragg. She sings boring, lame hymns with tame lyrics at a painfully slow pace, and you can tell from her face she's uncomfortable. The congregation is mumbling along as if they are embarrassed to be associated with the whole thing. I don't know why this should be. Our Catholic heritage contains the greatest Church music ever written, music that is performed in concert for its exquisite beauty and majesty even today, long after the religious meaning is forgotten and bypassed. We have hundreds of years of beauty to avail ourselves of, from Gregorian to Palestrina to Lutkin to Bach. There is more contemporary music also that is also very beautiful. You can find CD's of it anywhere. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has a huge repertoire of magnificent praise music in English. Why are we singing praise and worship songs that were tired when they were written? Why are we singing music that no one would ever want to sing or listen to if it were not "church" music? Why is all the music we use to celebrate the most profound Sacrifice of God to God on the Cross, unutterably dreary?

I like the Latin, because I actually understand Latin somewhat, and I find the sound of the words to be melodious and pleasing. People sometimes accuse the Catholic Church of having kept things in Latin so that they would remain a secret known only to the few. That's simply ignorant. The Church adopted Latin because it was the universal language. Everyone who knew how to read or write for most of church history, knew how to read and write in Latin. It wasn't until after the fracturing of the Church with the Protestant revolution, that Latin began to decline, and even until less than a century ago, Catholics learned Latin as a part of schooling. Latin was used to unify the world in worship.

I also like being able to worship in a Catholic Chapel building, where the architecture is designed to be an aid to worship, to lift the mind and heart to the mysteries being enacted, rather than simply to fit as many people as possible.

All of these are peripheral, they don't really matter. They don't really matter because they have everything to do with me, and nothing to do with the worship. You see the question of the Latin mass, or of any mass, really comes down to the sacrament being enacted. The sacrament is the action of God, making present under forms of bread and wine, the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Against this reality all the details of other people, music, atmosphere and language fade into insignificance. To hold these things important in the face of the Sacrifice of the Eucharist is to say that our works are the important thing, not the action of God. This is the heart of Catholic worship, the insistence that in the end worship is not something we do. Whether we get a good vibe from it or not is largely unimportant. What is important is God's action, our business is to surrender to that action on faith. It is for this reason that I sometimes think that evangelicals have things rather backwards. By all means, read the scripture together (although I think you'll find there is more scripture in a Catholic weekday mass than in even the longest Evangelical service), listen to sermons and pray together. These are good things, but really, they kind of are our things. They are works. I am not denigrating them by saying that. I believe in works. But to have that as the sum total of your worship, just stuff that we do, that's a bit sad. If that is all worship is, us doing stuff, then it is a clumsy and ineffectual business. And incidentally, it is not even Biblical. In the Early Church the Breaking of the Bread was the center of worship.

But if the Catholic Church has the correct, sacramental interpretation of worship, then things begin to make sense. Worship is something that God does, God makes the sacramental reality present, God calls us, God is the source and summit. We respond. We accept. We surrender.

It is against this reality of God's action in worship that all these peripherals make any sense at all. Of course the sacrifice of the Mass on a plywood table in a tent in Afghanistan is just as much the center of the universe as the Easter Vigil Mass in the Sistine Chapel. The peripherals of the liturgy are not to benefit God, and certainly not to impress Him. He can't be impressed. They exist entirely as our response to His action. Some are better and more suitable because they are better responses. We respond more fully when we respond with all our senses, with music that is beautiful, with architecture that is fitting, with demeanor that is reverent, with dress that is honoring. But our liturgy is only a response; it is not the soul of the worship. God is that.

It is for this reason, above all others, that I love the Latin mass. Because I don't perfectly understand all the words, because most of the talking is done by the Priest, because there are so few responses compared to the Novus Ordo, precisely because of all of these things I am freed from the illusion that worship has anything to do with my action. I am not here to make my prayers, I am here to join into other prayers, the prayers of those in the building with me, the prayers of the priest as our pastor, the prayers of the Church around the world, and the prayers of all the Saints throughout all of history, past, present and future. All of these are gathered up together in the communion of Saints, which is the Church, and united with the prayer and Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, through our Celebration of the Eucharist. Without this celebration, I grant you, what we do is a bunch of meaningless mumbo jumbo. But because we all have one Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Jesus, our worship that we surrender to and enact becomes a holy offering, pleasing and acceptable to God.

"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread." 1 Corinthians 10:16-17.


  1. What I have always liked about the Tridentine Mass is that it is the Letter to the Hebrews come to life. Thanks for your insights.

    By the way, If you aren't already familiar with Francisco Guerrero, I think you might like his music.