Saturday, May 14, 2011

The return of the Latin Mass?

I don't own the copyright.
Many traditionalists are more or less pleased with Universae Ecclesiae, the instruction released yesterday on the application of Summorum Pontificum. While it does have a couple of loopholes through which bishops resistant to the Latin Mass can escape — "Ah, well, no real pastoral need" — in general it reinforces Papa Benedetto's desire that the TLM be celebrated as much as people wish.

However, Steve Kellmeyer over at The Fifth Column has declared, " ... Rome has essentially announced the end of the Novus Ordo and the eventual full-throated return of the Mass of the Ages." It's not so much that I think he's wrong; rather, I think he's looking further down the road than I can. 

Put it another way: unless I demand the EF in my will, I believe my funeral Mass will most likely be celebrated in English.

I wish I owned the copyright!
To make my point, I submit to you two comparisons, Hebrew and Irish. 

Hebrew was never a dead language. Since it had been the liturgical language of the Jews for time out of mind, most Jewish men still knew it and could speak it when the State of Israel was formed in 1947. As well, there were already Jews in Palestine that had kept the language up-to-date with words for objects and concepts unknown in Jesus' time. So when the Israeli state made it the primary language, there was little trouble adopting it.

By contrast, by the time the southern counties of Ireland had gained autonomy in 1921, the Gaeltacht had been stamped out by the British except for some enclaves, mostly in the west. As Miracle Max would say, it was mostly dead. Ninety years later, despite intensive efforts of the Republic to educate children in the language, for the majority of the people English is still the first language. On the one hand, this has given us Anglophones some brilliant benefits in Irish poets, playwrights and authors (except for James Joyce, whom I think is terribly oversold). On the other, it'll be a long time — if ever — before Irish regains its pride of place as the first language of the Irish.

Latin today is worse off than Irish was in 1921. It hasn't been a primary language for anyone in centuries ... not even in the Papal States prior to their dissolution in 1870; not even in the Vatican. So far as it's taught at all, it's hardly taught as a language of conversation; even among traditionalists, you find few people trading Latin quips back and forth.

Occasionally you find people so fluent in Latin that, like the late Cardinal Giuseppi Siri, they can write traditional Latin poetry (and I do have in my bookshelf a translation of that classic childhood favorite Cattus Petasatus, aka The Cat in the Hat). And there have also been efforts, like those of the Hebraicists of the last century, to keep Latin "alive" with neologisms to cover modern devices such as cars, televisions and computers. But that doesn't necessarily bring Latin back from the dead ... not even so far as to the mostly dead.

Frankly, I think traditionalists overstate the demand for the Latin Mass. It's the romance of the idea, an association with a universal reverence for the Mass, the longing for an idealized pre-Vatican II Church that goes beyond the aesthetic merits of the EF. I believe they expect that anyone exposed to the TLM will be so caught up in its beauty and mystery that they'll never be satisfied with the vulgar Mass of Paul VI again. 

And it's right there that warm sentiment is leading where cold reason won't follow. C. S. Lewis, remarking on his experience as a teacher, said in The Abolition of Man, "For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity." For many people, mystery is just that — a puzzle, an irritating obscurity which they have neither interest nor willingness to penetrate. Many of us who are aware of liturgical abuses and the dreadfulness of the Gather hymnal (or the cacophony of "worship and praise") would be satisfied just to see the OF Mass done reverently, with better music written as prayers rather than as show tunes or pop songs.

Between the idealized pre-Vatican II Church of the traditionalists and the idealized post-Vatican II Church of the Woodstock generation, what the rest have had imposed on us is a false dilemma: Aut Palestrinus aut Martinus Haugenus. Or, as the Hegelians might say, thesis and antithesis. I'm not willing to rule out of court a synthesis, where the two Masses meet to create a good OF. For one, the new translation is on its way, with less than 200 days to go. For another, a new generation of composers and liturgists is on the way. For a third, the "biological solution" is slowly but surely eroding the hold of the "spirit of Vatican II" crowd. 

Twenty years from now, the Mass of Paul VI will be at least two orders of magnitude better than it is today. I doubt the EF will have gained enough traction by then to put it on the road to derogation. 

Don't get me wrong: if tomorrow Papa Benedetto said, "Hokay, vat der heck, ve do avay mit der Ordinary Form and bring back der Latin der whole vorld ofer," my only problem would be getting a Latin-English Missal; my local Catholic bookstore is closed on Sundays. But I'm not going to strain my eyes looking for it to happen.


  1. Well put. I was born in 1952 so can remember when the Mass was celebrated in Latin. IMO going to the vernacular was a BIG improvement! Example: as an altar boy I was never told what those words I'd been reciting meant. This was calmly accepted by everyone, I recall my father reasoning that "At least you'll know how to pronounce the words properly." Which would have been okay I guess if I was in line to become a Latin scholar. Didn't happen.

    Once we went to English I finally had to learn what I was saying. Amazing how the mind focuses better on your prayers when you understand the words.

    As far as the music, well I know the wife likes it. It reminds her of the Methodist services she attended before converting, so she feels more at home. When it really grates I "offer it up" and stay silent.

  2. I was born in '64, so I have no conscious memory of the TLM, though I can remember some of the stranger things that went on (singing CSNY's "Teach Your Children Well" and Cat Stevens' "Morning Has Broken"). I've seen the NO done very well and I've seen it done poorly. As I said, it wouldn't kill me to go to the Latin Mass; from an aesthetic standpoint, I'd probably love it. But I'm not there for the music — I'm there for the Eucharist.

  3. "Frankly, I think traditionalists overstate the demand for the Latin Mass. It's the romance of the idea, an association with a universal reverence for the Mass, the longing for an idealized pre-Vatican II Church that goes beyond the aesthetic merits of the EF. I believe they expect that anyone exposed to the TLM will be so caught up in its beauty and mystery that they'll never be satisfied with the vulgar Mass of Paul VI again."

    Frankly, you couldn't more incorrect. Like many mainstream Catholics with limited or no exposure to a liturgical expression other than the novus ordo, your evaluation deals more with the exterior aspects of worship. I invite you to delve a bit deeper into the spirituality of the Traditional Latin Mass. I strongly recommend you start reading Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B. That's where anyone interested in understanding traditional Catholic prayer and thought should start.

    And, of course, there is a reactionary side to modern traditionalism.

    Yes, shameless self-promotion, but here it is:

    This was an eye opening essay. Before reading this unbiased, scholarly essay I would occasionally attend a novus ordo. After reading it, I finally decided that I simply could not in good conscience continue to participate at the novus ordo.

  4. Sorry, I copy and pasted the wrong link. Here is the correct link to Dr. Pristas' essay:

  5. I think you're missing my point, David. I don't question the deeper spirituality of the TLM. My point is, the majority of weekly communicants aren't panting to have the TLM back. Without casting any aspersions on their spiritual depths, they believe the NO does them fine, and they have no interest in digging any further. They won't necessarily get the benefit of the deeper spirituality if they have to work through a language barrier at the same time. That's why the exterior aspect isn't irrelevant.

    Can they be taught to dig deeper, to appreciate the deeper spirituality? Sure; I'm not saying they're idiots. But that's gonna take time, and we're still trying to climb out of the catechetical hole the CCD crowd dug us into in the 1970s. That's why I say, if the TLM is going to replace the NO, it probably won't happen in my lifetime, even given ever-extending lifespans.