Why Latin? Nobody understands it!

As Roman Catholics, Latin is integral to our history and tradition. It remains the official language of the Church, and the Second Vatican Council stated in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (SC, 36).

Following Vatican II there were many changes to the Sacred Liturgy, which over the past 50 years have produced the form of the Mass with which most of us are familiar. Reform of the liturgy was an important decision of the Council; however, the Mass as it was celebrated prior to the Council, according to the 1962 Missal of Pope St. John XXIII, was “never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principal, was always permitted” (Letter to bishops on the occasion of the publication of the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum). Pope Benedict XVI goes on to say in that same Apostolic Letter,

There is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal.  In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture.  What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.  It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.

Pope Benedict’s desire was not to turn back the clock and revert the Church to former ways. He is clear that the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is not to become the Ordinary Form. For Pope Benedict’s complete explanation of the reasons for promoting the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, please read both the Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum and his letter to bishops on the occasion of the publication of Summorum Pontificum. Both are short, combined less than 30 minutes of reading, but they are essential to understanding the place of the Extraordinary Form in our present context.

When Summorum Pontificum was published in 2007, I was studying at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, Barry’s Bay. Some of my friends at the Academy grew up in parishes where Mass was celebrated according to the 1962 Missal, and they were very excited about the document. It provoked many discussions, and I’ll admit that I was usually on the side that argued for keeping things the way they were. This wasn’t because I was opposed to Latin – I had been studying Latin for two years at that point. And it obviously wasn’t because I had a negative experience of the Church prior to the Council – I was born in the 80s. I just didn’t understand the purpose of it.

Clearly, my mind has changed over the past nine years. Pope Benedict wanted priests (taking into account pastoral need) to be familiar with the Extraordinary Form, and I wanted to be a priest, so I decided to make an effort to become familiar with it. While I was at the Academy, I attended a few Latin Masses at St. Clement’s, Ottawa and at St. Hedwig’s, Barry’s Bay. When I entered seminary for the Diocese of Pembroke, I was sent to St. Philip’s Oratory, Toronto. Many of the priests at the Oratory celebrate Mass using the 1962 Missal, and I was the only seminarian with prior experience of the Latin Mass, so I quickly learned how to serve. It became an important part of my life and greatly shaped my experience and understanding of the liturgy. I loved being a server at those Masses! Note, however, that even in those circumstances the norm was still to attend Mass in English. I only served at Latin Masses once or twice a week.

My love for the Extraordinary Form continued into my theological studies in Rome. There were opportunities to attend EF Masses and to serve, and as I approached ordination I was encouraged to learn how to celebrate Mass according to both forms of the Roman Rite, i.e., the Ordinary and the Extraordinary. This was much more difficult than I had anticipated. The two forms are similar in their structure, but there are many differences in both word and action. Some of these differences are small, such as the added signs of the cross, and some differences are big, such as the language. All of these variations account for a celebration that, for most people, appears to be an entirely different Mass.

After a couple months of being back in Pembroke a parishioner approached me about offering Mass in the Extraordinary Form. At that point, I buckled down, continued my study of the Mass, and made the appropriate preparations. With the support of Bishop Mulhall and Fr. Jim Beanish, the Cathedral was chosen as the parish for the Masses because of its centrality. Faithful from many different parishes in the Diocese have been attending the Saturday Masses, so it only seems fitting that it continue to be offered at our head parish.

Before I close, I should address the three big questions that are almost always asked about the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

1) Why have Mass in Latin if almost nobody understands Latin? Good question. As I mentioned above, Latin is the official language of the Roman Catholic Church, it is the language that has been used by the Roman Church for almost two thousand years, and the Second Vatican Council stated that Latin should be preserved in the liturgy. It is a problem that most people don’t understand Latin, and this problem should not be ignored. Familiarity with the universal language of the Church would be good for all of the faithful, and so we should make an effort to become familiar with it. To help with this goal, there are booklets (Latin/English) available for those who attend these Masses.

2) Why does the priest face away from the people for most of the Mass? Mass is celebrated “ad orientem” (i.e. toward the east) for three key reasons. The first is that facing east, the rising sun, is a sign of our hopeful anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming, the “rising” of the Son. The second reason for facing east, which technically is not always geographical East but is always liturgical East, i.e. the Cross, is that the majority of the words spoken by the priest in the Mass are prayers directed to God. At many points in the Mass the priest does turn to the faithful because at those points his words are directed to them (e.g. The Lord be with youPray Brothers and Sisters…, the Mass is ended, the homily, etc.). The rest of the prayers are directed to God, so he faces God. The third reason is a practical consideration. God is, of course, present in all directions, but in order to help ourselves direct our minds to Him in the liturgy and to avoid certain distractions (e.g. becoming focused on the personality of the priest) we face the same direction.

3) Why is there so much silence in the Latin Mass? Most of the Mass should be pronounced audibly by the priest. From the entrance to the Offertory prayer, with a couple exceptions, it is ideal for the priest to enunciate and to speak loud enough that everyone can hear him. This may not always happen, but it is preferred. Following the Offertory up to the Our Father, the priest prays quietly. This section is known as the Canon or the Eucharistic Prayer, and it is said quietly to show the great sanctity of the prayers. This silence also provides the faithful with the opportunity to bring their own spiritual offerings to the altar. This is essential to the “active participation” called for by Vatican II. The faithful are not meant to be spectators of the Holy Sacrifice, but rather they are meant to unite their offerings (e.g. their prayer intentions, joys, sorrows, needs, etc.) to Christ’s offering on the Cross, which is being made present by the priest. The silence allows us to enter profoundly into the mystery of what is taking place in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

I hope and pray that this article has been helpful. The Mass, whether it is in English or Latin, should not be a source of division in the Church. The Mass is supposed to be where we enter into Communion with Christ and through communion with Him we are in communion with one another. The Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is a sacred and beautiful part of our Catholic heritage, and, thankfully, it continues to be part of our Catholic present.