I see an awful lot of chatter on social media these days about the Latin Mass. There seem to be two basic camps. The first consists of die-hard Latin Mass folks convinced of its superiority over the Novus Ordo (what most would call “regular Mass”), and therefore incensed (no pun intended) over Pope Francis’ apparent hostility toward the traditional rite. The other group is made up of those who generally see Latin Mass goers as condescending and holier-than-thou types, and therefore defend the pontiff’s recent moves to promote “unity” by restricting the traditional rite.
There is, however, yet another camp, one to which I suppose I might belong (though, frankly, I rarely feel as though I really belong anywhere these days). This perhaps could be called the camp of the objective observer. I was born in 1969. My earliest memories of Mass consist of things like: altar boys with shoes polished to a mirror shine; hymns such as “Onward Christian Soldiers”; people dressed in their Sunday best; the smell of incense and candles; receiving communion on the tongue; and, more generally, just entering into a space that had an overall atmosphere of reverence. Even as a child, I understood something special was happening when the priest raised that host.
For the better (or worse) part of my 20s, I went through a sort of prodigal son period during which I was away from the Church. Pains me to even think back on it now. By the grace of God, I did eventually return. But when I did, things looked, well, a bit different than I’d remembered. I immediately noticed, for example, that things were more casual. The suits and dresses that were once the norm had become jeans and t-shirts. There was a guy with a guitar playing a folksy version of On Eagle’s Wings. Altar boys had become girls. And when it came time for communion, a small army of “ministers” appeared to distribute the sacred hosts into the hands(??) of the faithful. If I hadn’t known better, I might have thought I’d inadvertently wandered into one of the neighborhood Protestant churches. And everyone seemed so…old. Where were all the little kids?
I would later learn that things had indeed changed during the years I was away. I suppose the changes were somewhat gradual, but they struck me hard on account of my prolonged absence. (Kind of like seeing someone’s kid you haven’t seen in years.) At any rate, I accepted the changes. After all, who was I, a returning prodigal son, to question the state of the house upon my return? I was just grateful to be permitted back in! Still, as the years rolled by, there were many things that nagged at me. What used to feel like steak and potatoes now felt more like a Happy Meal. The music sounded poppier, homilies were devoid of challenging substance, people were holding hands or raising them during the Lord’s Prayer, the reception of communion seemed hardly distinguishable from a line of a checkout counter. In general, a sense of the sacred had somehow disappeared.
Some years later, a friend and colleague invited me to attend a Latin Mass. I was somewhat surprised to learn such a thing still existed. Being a language teacher, and just someone who is generally curious, I gladly accepted the invitation. I didn’t really know what to expect, but what I encountered was something I’ll always remember. Though I was wearing a shirt and tie, I still felt a bit underdressed. Even the little kids, and there were a lot of them, were dressed as if they were attending a wedding (which, in reality, the Mass is – a wedding between Heaven and earth). Folks were lined up before Mass for confession – something I don’t think I’d ever seen before then, but which actually makes perfect sense. I could go into the details of the Mass at great length, but for the sake of brevity, suffice to say it was quite unlike anything I’d experienced since childhood. The atmosphere of reverence was palpable. Was it tricky following the Latin? A bit, but that was almost inconsequential (and certainly not insurmountable). The Gospel was delivered in English, as was the homily. (The substance of the homily alone was enough to satisfy the mind and soul.) Moreover, there was a tangible link to the past that made me feel connected to the faithful of generations past.
I would attend several other Latin masses over the years. And every one stands out in my mind like a gourmet meal or fine bottle of wine. For the sake of convenience, I typically attend my hometown parish. I do not question the validity of the novus ordo. However it is very hard to deny the aesthetic superiority of the Latin Mass. And given the typical sizes of the families of Latin Mass goers, it’s hard to deny a fidelity to the teachings of the Church in that regard. I’ve heard the arguments from both “sides” of the Latin Mass debate. But for my part, it’s very difficult to understand why Francis would want to restrict the traditional rite. Matter of fact, I believe Benedict XVI should have celebrated the Latin Mass at Yankee Stadium some years ago. That would have showcased for U.S. Catholics, as well as the entire world, this gem of our Catholic faith. It’s a gem we should be polishing and displaying, not trying to bury.