Et Cum Spiritu Tuo
I don’t know more than a few Latin words and phrases. A former Episcopalian, I take for granted the liturgy in the vernacular. I’ve never been punctilious about ritual. I can’t tell you the difference between the “Introit” and the “Gradual.” The names for clerical regalia escape me. And there is little in my theological outlook that would attract me to the old form of the Mass, often called the “Tridentine rite” because it arose out of reforms mandated by the Council of Trent. I went to the Latin Mass two or three times in years past. I was disoriented and put off. In spite of all that, I’ve been attending a Latin Mass in Manhattan for more than a year.
My initial reasons for switching to the Tridentine rite had to do with the revelations about Theodore McCarrick in the summer of 2018. I was angry, exasperated by the feckless leadership of bishops and their tolerance of moral corruption in their own ranks. But anger, however righteous and fitting in the moment, can turn into bitterness, even despair, corroding faith and undermining the spiritual life. So I knew I had to find an affirmative way to express my disgust with the status quo in the Catholic Church.
Under these circumstances, I turned to the Latin Mass. In church parlance, it is called the Extraordinary Form, as opposed to the order of the Mass established after Vatican II by Paul VI, which is called the Ordinary Form. These terms are exactly right. The Ordinary Form is the almost universal mode of worship for American Catholics, while the Extraordinary Form marks the exception. Thus, my decision to make the Tridentine rite my regular Sunday Mass was a vote of no confidence in the status quo, but not one that pushed the Church away. Going to the Extraordinary Form was a way of drawing nearer, entering into the great storehouse of the Catholic tradition.
There are Mass booklets for the Extraordinary Form that allow you to follow along with a facing-page translation. Even with this aid, it takes time to get oriented. It is not easy to know where you are in the Mass amid the cascading Latin, long silences, and sudden shifts from kneeling to standing. It took me a couple of months before I was comfortable enough to begin to appreciate what the Latin Mass has to offer.
From the outset I was romanced by the long silences. The Tridentine rite emphasizes the priest as mediator. He faces the altar, not the congregation, and he speaks many parts of the Mass in a whisper. His words are directed, on our behalf, toward God, not toward us. This dynamic of prayer—a dialogue between priest-as-representative and God—affects the worshiper in subtle ways. It encourages each individual member of the congregation to enter into his own silent conversation with the divine. This is especially true during the consecration of the elements.
The Extraordinary Form uses the old lectionary, which means that the Sunday readings differ from what the rest of the Church hears when worshiping in the Ordinary Form. The old rite also has two readings rather than three, one from the Epistles and the other from the Gospels. The Old Testament is present only in brief verses, usually from the Psalms, chanted at various points in the liturgy. The reform of the liturgy after Vatican II restored the Old Testament to its place in the Liturgy of the Word—an important and salutary change. Nevertheless, I’ve been enriched by the pairings of Scripture in the old lectionary, which tend toward resonances that are more mystical and evoke the Church Militant more often than does the new lectionary.
For example, during Lent last spring, one of the Gospel readings was Luke 11:21–22: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace, but when one stronger than he assails him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoils.” The reading sharpened the focus of my Lenten preparations for the triumph of Christ over sin and death. Jesus is that stronger man. He is a triumphant warrior, defeating the fell powers that would hold us in thrall.
Many priests are suspicious of the Latin Mass. Some are hostile. These responses are understandable. Going to the Latin Mass requires me to decide against attending the Ordinary Form, which is of course widely available throughout New York. And because the priestly vocation comes into its most intense focus in the sacrifice of the Mass, this decision can easily be seen casting doubt on the education and formation of priests over the last fifty years.
But my experiences with the Extraordinary Form have been otherwise. The more familiar I have become with the old rite, the more I see and feel the profound continuities with the new one. The elements of the Mass are the same in both. Furthermore, my experience with the Tridentine Mass allows me to appreciate the intentions of the liturgical reformers of the twentieth century. The old rite is colder and less immediately communal. It presumes a well-catechized congregation. By contrast, the use of the vernacular, the more fulsome lectionary, and the clear articulation by the priest of all the elements of the liturgy make the Ordinary Form more effective as a means for inculcating into the faithful the basic teachings of the Church about the nature of God and the role of Christ as the sacrament of our salvation. And not just the faithful. The Extraordinary Form has an other-worldly allure that might attract unbelievers, but both the Latin language and the ritual remoteness of the rite make it difficult to hear the gospel message. By contrast, the Ordinary Form makes the gospel audible.
At the same time, by attending the Extraordinary Form on a regular basis I have learned more about what has been lost. In the Latin Mass, the priest risks tending toward the caricature of remote hierophant engaged in mysterious rites at a distant altar. In the Ordinary Form, he risks tending toward the caricature of mediocre TV host chatting with his daytime audience of distracted housewives. If forced to choose between the two perversions, I vastly prefer the former.
The Extraordinary Form may lack Old Testament readings, but it is closer to Old Testament realities than the Ordinary Form, at least as it is currently celebrated. Aside from Yom Kippur, synagogue services retain few echoes of the temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. By contrast, a priest celebrating the Tridentine Mass operates according to ritual patterns that reach back to the Old Testament priesthood. The altar, however close to the congregation in physical terms, is spiritually remote. The priest engages in careful, precise ritual preparation before entering the Holy of Holies to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. All of this is present in the new Mass but attenuated by the imperative of congregational engagement.
In simple terms, the Extraordinary Form invites a more transcendent orientation in worship. There is something about the liturgy in Latin that discourages the use of childish Andrew-Lloyd-Weber-goes-to-church melodies, bad folk-inspired praise songs, and felt banners. In the Tridentine rite, the priest faces God, not the congregation, and this lends itself to an unturned countenance—not just his, but that of all engaged in worship. The solemnities of silent prayer invite contemplation. The faint whispering of the priest reminds us of the mysterious, intimate commerce between God and man made possible in Christ Jesus, a commerce into which we, too, can enter in our own stumbling, barely audible words.
Benedict XVI observed that the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms are two usages of the self-same Roman rite. This does not mean that they do not have distinct charisms, as it were. The Ordinary Form is well suited for evangelization and catechism. My own entry into the Catholic Church was greatly eased by the accessibility of the Mass in the vernacular. Its more horizontal orientation encourages a sense of Christian community, as the liturgical reformers intended. The reduced emphasis on ritual precision shifts attention to the central gospel truths announced in the readings and reiterated in a liturgy readily heard in the language of the people. All these elements enrich the Catholic Church.
The charism of the Extraordinary Form is needed as well. At a time when all the institutions of the West, including the Church, are wobbling, the antiquity of the Tridentine Mass anchors corporate worship deep in the Church’s past. The remoteness of Latin, a “dead” language, builds a spiritual wall around the Church that helps protect her from capture by the whims and fashions of the contemporary world. The vestments, incense, and ritual create another world, in which it becomes easy to see oneself entering into the precincts of the divine, a prospect at once daunting and joyful. Centuries of use have tuned the Latin Mass to a near perfect pitch. In its more elaborate forms, the orchestrated layers of music, movement, and prayer interweave into a liturgical Gesamtkunstwerk, which is why, although the Mass I now attend is thirty minutes longer than the Ordinary Form liturgy, it seems shorter.
I have not become an ardent proponent of the Extraordinary Form. It has limitations, which is why it was reformed in the last century. But I have come to think the Latin Mass can make a contribution to the Church’s renewal. In the twentieth century, influential theologians called for ressourcement, a return to the sources of our Christian faith. We need always to soak ourselves in the living water of the tradition. The Tridentine rite offers an opportunity for ressourcement. This is not an opportunity to be shunned, because Ordinary Form, too, has it limitations, as most of us know only too well. Those limitations are to be expected. We are only at the first stage of what will be an ongoing refinement and perfection of the Mass in the vernacular. And this process, so needed in order to realize the full promise of what was begun at Vatican II, can be enhanced by the example and inspiration of the Extraordinary Form.