Receiving God in the Mass

On the morning of Saturday 25 March, my husband and I opened the door to the Saint Columbkille Cathedral to attend the Latin Solemn High Mass, the voices of the practicing choir flooding our senses as we walked in. We exchanged knowing smiles and I took a deep breath to fully take in the haunting beauty of the ancient choral music. We’re only in our thirties, but we are old fashioned in our tastes for many things; chief among them is the so-called “Latin Mass” because it feels, as my husband describes it, “so reverent”.

My husband espouses the belief that just about everything was better two hundred years ago. While I lack the age reference to think I could really produce a relevant opinion on the subject, it makes me smile that he says this and means it, because indeed there are certain things that I believe were done with more thought and honour bestowed on them than we seem to have the appetite for in our contemporary culture.

One of these things is music. In contrast to the lack of complexity of the music we are generally surrounded by in today’s pop culture, the music created for use during Masses hundreds of years ago had beautiful, breathtaking layers. The choir from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, Barry’s Bay did a tremendous job at helping to prepare our senses for the beautiful Mass we so thank Fr. Scott and the Dioceses for arranging. This style of music seems to lend itself to providing an environment for people to close their eyes and be touched by it, to lean into the mystery of all that we believe. The role of this beautiful sacred music is to cause a celebration of the senses that provides the impetus to remind us that each Mass we attend is both sacrifice and celebration, a reason to dress up and join others to share in recognition of a meaningful event.

In his warm, welcoming, and clearly articulated homily, Fr. Peter spoke to the fact that tickling the oratory senses with the beautiful music produced by this accomplished choir, stimulating the olfactory senses with the lovely incense that wafted throughout the cathedral with every  “clink, clink” of the censer being swung, and cuing the visual senses with handsomely choreographed ritual movement was key in engaging us all in sharing this celebration and recognizing it as such.

As a rather recent convert to Catholicism, I am fascinated by the fact that there is an Ordinary and an Extraordinary Form of the Mass for priests and Mass-goers to “choose” from. It’s extraordinary to me (please excuse the pun) that in the 1960s it was decided that Latin just wouldn’t do anymore, the priest would need to switch sides of the altar, and receiving the Eucharist went from the altar rail to procession lines. Since I was exposed to both forms early on in my conversion, I never had the chance to “get used to” either one or the other, but I can imagine that for the majority of Catholics, who have grown up with the Ordinary Form or the Novus Ordo, as it is named in Latin, it could come as quite a shock to the system to experience an hour-long Mass in a foreign language, particularly one often referred to as “dead”. There is a lot of time built in for calm and personal prayer during the Extraordinary Form Mass, also known as the Tridentine Mass, because much of what the priest says is inaudible, and so it tends to feel somehow more quiet and peaceful, and perhaps this is a contributor to the “reverence” my husband appreciates.

Just as disconcerting as the language could be for those new to the Latin Mass, seeing the back of the priest during most of the Mass could also be hard to get used to. A priest I met in Spain, who had a pronounced preference for the Novus Ordo, once explained to me that this practice, in his opinion, is “rude”. “You’re not supposed to speak to people with your back to them!”, he explained to me. And then one asks oneself the question – to whom is the Mass being addressed? The way I see it, the role of the priest is to unite the congregation in joint prayer to God, so I’m fine with the priest having his back to me since I am “following” him, as it were, in a disciplined and ritualized form of prayer to God.

Perhaps the most distinct difference experienced by those for whom the Extraordinary Form is a departure from what they are used to is the way in which Holy Communion is distributed to the congregation. Communicants kneel in a side-by-side fashion to receive the Eucharist from the priest directly on the tongue. As many of the rituals of the Mass (both Ordinary and Extraordinary) can be traced back to symbolically represent moments from the Old Testament, this ritual in particular has caused me to think. I’ll leave you with a last idea brought on by some recent contemplation on why we Catholics do the things that we do – food for thought, if you will (last pun, I promise!). God’s instruction in Eden to take from any tree in the garden, which included the tree of life, but not to take from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, could essentially be interpreted as: take as much life as you need to fulfill your material needs, but spiritual life is not something that can be taken, and it is not yours for the taking; it is given to you by God. By the same manner in which we (by way of Adam and Eve) have sinned we will also be redeemed; through an act of eating. To see parishioners kneel for Communion, humbled by the promise of spiritual redemption, is a striking bodily reminder that we cannot take but only receive the Bread of Eternal Life.

Since I am new to Catholicism as well as to Canada, I’m rather used to being a little different by now. So don’t mind me if I kneel and take Communion on the tongue next Sunday. I apologize in advance if I slow down the lineup a bit with the clunkiness of my nearly seven-months of pregnancy, unlike my husband, who drops and pops back up in line without missing a beat in an enviably sprightly manner. God bless.

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.