A newbie to the TLM writes with observations after which Fr. Z rants

From a reader (edited and with my emphases and comments.  This is very good for people who went to a celebration of the older form of Mass and had a hard time with it, who found it difficult to follow along.

Thank you for your blog keeping Catholics informed about the Traditional Latin Mass and the various issues surrounding it. I am 49 years old and though my memories of the TLM have long faded I have a very vivid recollection of the specific mass I attended as a child where reception of the Eucharist was changed from going up to the railing and kneeling to receive to lining up along the centre aisle of the church and receiving on the hand. (a silly story I won’t get into)
I have always desired to attend a TLM to "see what it would be like". I was away from my home in Halifax, NS this past weekend visiting Oswego, NY for a conference. While there, looking for a Church to attend for Sunday Mass, to my surprise I noticed that St. Marys Church offered a 1:00 pm TLM. I went.

I do not understand Latin. In spite of being provided with a good Latin/English missal I had a great deal of trouble following the mass. I did not know how to pronounce the responses. There was, as I have read in the past, parts of this mass that were said silently. (By the way the mass was said by Father Morisette and despite my ignorance it was evident even to me that it was very well done.)  [NB: The critical importance of the priest’s competence and also his style.]
I love this mass. It is so appropriate. [He didn’t understand it and had a hard time following it… but he got it anyway.  Read what’s next… ]  It’s not about me but God. I want to emphasize that my experience was not an emotional one (emotions can be passing and flighty) rather it was an experience of faith. Those who built this mass up centuries ago knew exactly what they were doing. The mass honours God the way He should be honoured. It brings to my mind the last part of Malachi 1:14 – "For I am a great king, says Yahweh Sabaoth, and among the nations my name inspires awe[A constant point of my writing and preaching and talking when I mention the point of any Mass is that it must produce "awe at transcendence", and encounter with mystery.]
As far as all of the difficulties mentioned above..I don’t mind! I can learn. The problems I encountered are not with the mass – they are with me. [Not the Mass.  That is humble.] I need to brush up on my faith and on the TLM and perhaps on Latin.
I live in the Halifax area of NS. We used to have a Latin Mass Society here. I don’t know if it is still around. To my knowledge there are no TLMs in my diocese…if there were any nearby I would start going. 

A good note.

No… a great note.

Folks, it is okay not to understand everything on the intellectual level.  There is also comprehension at a deeper level.

I wonder very often about what people really "get" from Mass when so many things have been simplified into order to increase "intelligibility" or to "aid comprehension".  

Sure, we gain something when we use the vernacular. 

But do we not also lose something? 

Something beyong the content of the prayers, which is of course also compromised in translation? 

Do we not lose also a sense that what is going on is important in a vital, mysterious, awesome, challenging, even frightening way?

What do the prayers really say? 
  There is a psychology to our worship as well.  Just as anything in human affairs, when you make something very familiar, you increase the risk of it not seeming important anymore.

I think people who are curious about the TLM, the older form of Mass, and who are perhaps afraid of it or anxious that they will not understand, should relax and perhaps let themselves be a little afraid. 

After all, these are sacred mysteries. 

This is an encounter with mysterium tremendens et fascinans.

Go ahead… be afraid, be very afraid.

Not in the sense of base fear, but of awe and reverence.

It’s okay not to understand everything.  It’s okay to be a little uncomfortable, for Mass to sieze you and take you where you would prefer not to go.

So often people require entertainment and distraction from the encounter with mystery, which is nothing other than a confrontation of the central mystery we face each day, namely, that even though our Lord rose from the dead, we still must die and pass to our judgments we know not how.  We are confident as Christians, and joyful at God’s promises, but this is a fearful mystery.

It is precisely what is being represented in Holy Mass.

It is okay not to understand it all. 

It is okay to be overcome with awe.  

It is okay to struggle with it.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Howard says:

    I’ve seen some CD’s like “The Latin Mass for Nostalgic Catholics”, but is there a DVD, perhaps with explanatory commentary, that could help a Catholic who has only experienced Novus Ordo Masses understand what is going on in the Extraordinary Form?

  2. Al says:

    I am going to be 48 this month and I relate. I remember when too. I enjoyed the way you said this. It’s okay not to understand everything and okay to be taken away by the mystery…

  3. Beau says:

    Reading this post reminded me of my first exposure to the TLM. I’m the father of five kids, four of whom are still in the “has a hard time sitting still at Mass” age range. The first several times I went to the TLM, I didn’t even try to follow along in the missal, because it’s hard to hold a two-year-old and follow along ;). We also sat near the back so we could take fussy babies out if needed, so I couldn’t even hear very well what was being said.

    In any event, the “encounter with mystery” that you speak of so often was still there – even though (and maybe because) I had no idea what was going on. In time, I learned how to follow along in the missal, but the sense of the sacred and mysterious remains, even when I can’t follow along.

    Thanks to the “newbie” who wrote the letter!

  4. Ohio Annie says:

    Howard, I have seen a DVD of the Mass narrated by Fulton Sheen.

  5. Ohio Annie says:


    Further looking, the DVD is called Immemorial Tridentine Mass and is available from a number of outlets including EWTN’s religious catalog.

  6. Ed says:

    I teach at an all-boys Catholic high school, and we recently re-introduced the extraordinary form to the willing. Fr. Terrance Gordon, FSSP, offered Mass on the Feast of the Guardian Angels, and despite the 7 am start time (homeroom begins at 8:04), nearly 25 students attended, more than 20 of them never having attended an EF before.

    Each boy I’ve talked with remarked something along these lines, “I got lost in the first half, but then I started to follow it. It was awesome! I’m coming next month.” (Fr. Gordon is celebrating the EF on each First Thursday.)

    Anyway, today a boy said, “I found it easier to be really involved in the Mass because of the silence. You know, sometimes when you’re talking, you’re just responding and not really thinking. The silence just makes it easier to recognize the reason for the Mass: to worship God.”

  7. Joe says:

    I guess we are blessed in our parish. We have a priest who celebrates the TLM every Sunday at 5:00PM. He has be doing this with the Bishops permission of course for a few years now. Several young priests come on occasion and a Solemn High Mass is sung. It is always a special event in the parish and very well attended. The altar is placed back in its original position and Father says Mass facing the “liturgical East”. We have altar boys trained in the TLM and our parish has been a place where altar servers have come from around the state to be trained. Since we never got rid of the altar rail, communion is at the railing, kneeling, and on the tongue.
    At 75 years of age I can say that I have seen Catholicism as we know it here in the US both before the Novus Ordo and after. I have no axe to grind and while I have always been comfortable with the Church post Vatican II (well, mostly) I have become uncomfortable with the way the Novus Ordo has been interpreted in the various parishes I have visited while traveling. A couple of weeks ago we attended Mass at a church in a neighboring state. There was a big choir on the right next to the altar which was distracting since they were singing most of the time. The celebrant relegated the homily to the Deacon who received applause at the end of the homily. Applause was again in order two other times during the Mass and at the consecration the celebrant was quite liberal in his interpretation of words found in the missal. It seemed more of a “production” than Mass. Not exactly what John XXIII had in mind I would think.
    Finally, I am glad I saved my St. Joseph Sunday Missal, copyright 1963-1953, and with the Imprimatur of Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York. I guess in a way it is a collectors item but I am also glad that I have the opportunity to use it again from time to time. The TLM to me is important in that it takes the “cult of personality” out of the celebration. There is no possible extemporaneous interpretation of the written Latin I would think! I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t the original intent. In any event, whether one knows latin or not there is a spirituality in attending a TLM that in my opinion is not felt in the Novus Ordo. Besides, anyone truly interested can follow in the side by side english. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend and not an interesting experiment.

  8. John Hudson says:

    With regard to the difficulty that some people have following the traditional Mass when they first encounter it, it was only after I had been attending such a Mass regularly for some time that I realised why I had not encountered such difficulties. I am a convert from ‘High Anglicanism’, and the structure of the Mass was completely familiar to me: more familiar, in fact, than the novus ordo service.

    Of course, I wouldn’t recommend to any Catholic that he or she go to experience an Anglican service as a preparation for attending the traditional Roman Mass — apart from the heresies one is likely to be exposed to, even in so-called ‘Anglo-Catholic’ parishes, there is the difficulty of selecting an appropriate Anglican service if one isn’t familiar with the various nuances of Anglican culture –, but perhaps one of the ‘Anglican Use’ Roman parishes might provide a suitable introduction to the form of the traditional Roman Mass via the vernacular?

  9. Isn’t it interesting? When we stopped praying in Latin, a lot of us started praying…in tongues!

  10. Fr. LaFontaine: Indeed!

  11. Andy K. says:


  12. Joel L says:

    A most EXCELLENT post!

  13. Ottaviani says:

    Sometimes to struggle at the Holy Sacrifice is grace… familiarity always breeds contempt.

  14. The Immemorial Tridentine Mass video mentioned above was filmed at a 1940 Easter Mass in Chicago, and reflects well both the spirit and the video technology of that time.

    The narration is vintage Sheen, and at the 9:30 minute mark–while describing the Asperges–the good bishop delivers my nominee for the most memorable (and hilarious) single line uttered by a human being during the 20th century:

    “It is a long-established principle of the Church never to completely drop from her public worship any ceremony, object, or prayer which once occupied a place in that worship.”

  15. Kradcliffe says:

    I have tried to give myself permission to not follow along in the missal (which is impossible when you’re wrangling toddlers) but I find that I feel like I’m “doing it wrong” unless I’m praying along with the priest. I know in the old days, many people would say the rosary, but that came to be discouraged. I believe a Pope said something about it. Am I to understand from this that I am supposed to do my best to follow along in the missal?

    Is there a “middle way” where perhaps I am aware of what is going on at the altar, I’m paying attention to the priest at the altar, but I’m quietly meditating within myself and praying?

  16. Jack007 says:

    If I may, Father?
    Your comments are amongst some of the best I’ve heard from you.
    Perhaps the Sabine air at this time of year…
    Most inspiring.
    Thank you.
    Jack in KC

  17. Kradcliffe: Someone else might better answer your general question, my personal belief being that there are a wide variety of good ways to prayerfully assist at Mass, ranging from following every prayer in the missal to not using one at all and instead uniting yourself in meditation with the priest’s actions and prayers.

    However, I seem to recall a warning somewhere by Cardinal Ratzinger to the general effect that we’d best not be too quick to assume smugly that the “little old lady” with her rosary is less worthy in her participation than we ourselves with our fancy missals and prayer books. Perhaps someone can supply the reference.

  18. Kradcliffe says:

    Henry, I hope some others give their opinions. For some reason, this is a source of anxiety to me.

    To be honest, if my active participation is key – particularly if my vocal participation is expected – then I would probably prefer a reverent NO Mass. One of the primary appeals of the EF is not having to get up and down and shake hands and respond out loud, and if I can’t understand – or even here – what is being said, then I don’t feel guilty if my mind wanders a bit. I don’t mean wandering in the sense of thinking about errands I have to run (which inevitably happens) but I mean just allowing my thoughts to flow and maybe pray for various things….

    I think maybe I’m a tiny bit scrupulous on this point.

  19. tzard says:

    “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom”.
    Psalm 110

    I remember as a child struggling to know when to kneel, when to sit, how to respond. I learned eventually, even though I didn’t really KNOW the depth of what I know now. Perhaps I understood it in the simplicity of childhood. I am often surprised at my own childrens’ responses about the Mass.

  20. Son of Trypho says:

    I’ll contribute to this from a non-Christian perspective as it might provide some insight.
    In Judaism, like Christianity, we have services in Hebrew and in the vernacular. I come from the Orthodox position (Hebrew) and I have to say that those who use the vernacular seem to have lost something in their services and, in many cases, beliefs. Its’ odd but I suspect that changing long-established traditions does have a deleterious impact on faith if not handled very strictly and cautiously.

  21. Phillip says:

    I remember my first Latin Mass very well. It was last March. Every exploring the traditional mass, reading this blog and other sites on the web, and growing vary tired with the OF masses in my area. I always heard of solidly celebrated OFs, but where I live the music is bad, altar girls, the typical stuff. Last October I saw that Fulton Sheen narrated mass, and I immediately fell in love with the EF. As I explored and learned of how many bishops including my own attempted to impede the motu proprio, I wondered why, and realized solid liturgy begets orthodoxy. During that Sunday in March I was lost. I had seen videos and commentaries, read books and articles, and bought a missal, but I was confused. But I still enjoyed it, and it became addicting. Every mass I went to, I remembered more and more, and the mass became clear to me. Now, I know all of the responses, the prayers, everything. The Latin Mass gives me peace, and I love it. Good men like Father Z opened the door for me in discovering many treasures which I may have never experienced. Father, thank you and God bless for all the good you do.

  22. Tiny says:

    First timers should

    1. Use the Ecclesia Dei red booklet, (or something similarly illustrated)

    2. sit off to the FAAAAR left or right of the Church (so you can see EVERYTHING the priest and the servers do at the altar with an oblique view)and

    3. If lost, use the rubrics of the Mass to find their place, then try following along again.

  23. Tom says:

    I too have young children who have a difficult time sitting through the Novus Ordo weekly and it’s usually completed within 50 to 60 minutes. I took them to the Extraordinary form one Easter Sunday here in Pittsburgh. Mass is held in an old style church that really looks like a Catholic church, the incense the Latin and even with the priests back to us – my children sat through a 1 hour 30 minute mass and were quiet as church mice and mesmerized the entire time – transcendent, reverent.

  24. Aine says:

    The Tridentine Mass Part I:

    Cardinal de Hoyos – The Mass is for all?:

    In the introduction to the new DVD, which can be seen at http://www.fsspdvd.com, Card. Castrillon Hoyos says in particular:

    “It [the Latin Mass] is not a gift for the so called Traditionalists, no, it is a gift for the whole Catholic Church. […] and then by the will of the vicar of Christ, [priests] must accept the petitions and the requests of the faithful who want this mass and must offer it to them. And even if it is not specifically asked for or requested they should make it available so that everyone access to this treasure of the ancient liturgy of the Church.[…] The Holy Father want this form of the mass to become a normal one in the parishes so that in this way young communities can also become familiar with this rite.”

  25. Aine says:

    The Tridentine Mass Part I – linked above – happened to be celebrating Sunday in the Octave of Christmas. I just noticed this thread of Fr. Z’s while I was hunting for “priest mail” and thought it might be interesting to connect them. I keep getting waylaid…

    WDTPRS – Sunday in the Octave of Christmas – Holy Family
    CATEGORY: SESSIUNCULUM — Fr. John Zuhlsdorf @ 8:46 pm
    A liturgical “octave” is an eight day period following and including the feast. In a way, the Church suspends time so that we can “rest” within the mystery we have celebrated while contemplating it from different angles.

  26. wsxyz says:

    I have tried to give myself permission to not follow along in the missal (which is impossible when you’re wrangling toddlers) but I find that I feel like I’m “doing it wrong” unless I’m praying along with the priest.

    I do not believe that “active participation” was ever intended to mean “following every word in the missal”. In fact, I don’t think a missal is required at all for active participation.

    Consider a Catholic society, such as now probably nowhere exists, but before 100 years still existed in some places in Europe. Most everybody attended Mass, as required, but certainly many attended pro forma – body there, mind elsewhere. Obviously that would not be considered active participation, so it makes sense that people were urged to participate actively in the Mass: to understand the structure of the Mass, to follow the action, to prayerfully unite oneself to the Holy Sacrifice. None of this requires a book – indeed, some parishioners were not able to read – but it does require one to stop daydreaming or chatting in the vestibule.

    As for myself – I have a missal and I use it most of the time. But sometimes I don’t. What is important for me is include myself in the group of those faithful mentioned in the commemoration of the living:

    Be mindful, O Lord, … of all here present, whose faith and devotion are known to Thee: for who we offer, or who offer up to Thee, this sacrifice of praise for themselves and all their own, for the redemption of their souls, for the hope of their safety and salvation, and who now pay their vows to Thee, the eternal, living, and true God.

    And it is certain that this does not require a book.

  27. Ben Trovato says:

    I think this touches on something very important: the false God of (immediate) Understanding. It is in the name of Understanding that our children are taught in year 1 that God loves you, and by year thirteen they are still being taught God loves you – and nothing much more complex than that. Likewise, it is in the name of Understanding that Bishop Trautman and his like oppose better translations of the Mass into English. And it was in the name of Understanding that the vernacular was introduced and… (I could go on).

    But read the Gospels: how often do we read that people, including the disciples, failed to understand Our Lord? He didn’t see immediate understanding as The Most Important Thing. He knew that if he lodged truth in their hearts – even if not immediately understood – then the Holy Spirit would in time lead them to understanding.

    I teach my kids things they can’t understand – yet. Otherwise they would never advance more rapidly than with baby steps on the path to wisdom. And now, at least the elder two, truly prefer the Latin (EF) Mass – though we only get to it once a month. The younger two – well that’s work in progress, and that’s fine.

  28. Brian says:

    Dear Fr.,

    I agree! Great note! I think there is a real danger in making “intellegibility” or “comprehension” the primary goal of the Mass. In short, by making everything main and plain it leads one to stop when one has only just begun. We suffer in our society from the deception that understanding rather than faith is the key to transformation–if we’re even interested in transformation at all. And so we make the Mass so common that people are too easily led to say: “I’ve got it; I’ve understood; I’ve arrived.” The reason for this is that a simple Mass aims to set the mark low, and as such it does not pose any sort of challenge to the faithful. In becoming so ordinary, we sit and think, “here’s something very much like me; easy to approach and sit comfortably with.” Whereas with the Extraordinary Form we are confronted with something that is not very much like us at all; it is something we instinctively know that we will never be able to approach unless we allow ourselves to be transformed by it–allow ourselves to become more like that which we stand in awe of. When we rid ourselves of the awe, and strive to make the Mass accessible, what we are left with is a Mass that says: “Stay where you are, you’ve already arrived.” No! No matter where we are, there is always more! We may never be able to completely plumb the depths of God’s majestic love for us, but that does not imply that we should not try! There is always more! We have never arrived! And any liturgy that leads us to think in this way is sadly misleading.

  29. Sid says:

    This particular article and comments are already a bit stale, but I add my 2 cents for what it’s worth.

    I thank Fr. Z for mentioning Rudolf Otto, the mysterium tremendens et fascinans. As we reflect on the liturgical questions, I ask if the real division in our social order isn’t between the religious and faithful vs. the secular and atheist, but between those who recognize the holy versus those who don’t (the mundane).

    For I know three individuals, all agnostic-atheistic, who still encounter the holy. One friend gets is emotionally hostile to religion, yet recognizes the holy in its aesthetic appearance: the sublime. And not just the grand sublime (the adagio of Bruckner’s 7th, Messiaen’s Apparition de l’église éternelle), but also the late Gothic delicacy of Josquin’s Inviolata, integra, et casta es Maria. His wife finds her holiness, her sense of the numinous, in scientific and natural wonders: the crash of waves at Scoodic Point Maine, the Milky Way deep in the night in Wyoming. A third friend, utterly agnostic, has a deep sense of the sacrosanctity – and thus sanctity – of human life. Even Christopher Hitchens, one of our village atheists, is anti-abortion, or so I’m told.

    Then we who read this website know all too well the opposite: religious folk who believe The Faith yet who have no sense of the holy: the chatters before, after, and even during Mass (the holy imposes silence); who gladly stand at the Consecration (the holy imposes making oneself smaller, “I am but dust and ashes in Thy presence”); who receive in the hand (one doesn’t touch holy things); and who don’t miss the altar rail (one doesn’t enter holy ground). Let’s call these people “the mundane”. Their children, when adult, likely will not go to church at all.

    There might be a third group: “the profane”, “the polluted”, the “anti-holy” – those who recognize the Holy yet who openly oppose it, attack it, desecrate it. We know those types as well. Some call themselves “liturgists”, others “theologians”; I wonder if McBrien be one of them, or at least among the mundane. The mundane are indifferent to the holy, the profane hate it.

    The Wikipedia q.v. “Rudolf Otto” is superficial yet will do to arouse interest in his famous book. The first 6 chapters of his book are essential reading. Worth a look into the division between the holy, the mundane, and the profane is http://www.friesian.com/newotto.htm
    however overwrought the article might be.

  30. paul says:

    Excellent comments Father, you summed up my feelings about the EF quite clearly. I pray as often as I can for more traditional latin masses. Brick by brick.

  31. Supertradmom says:

    “This is an encounter with mysterium tremendens et fascinans.” Thank you, Father Z. for this comment, and this is one reason why the EF engages even young children, who are rather more open to mystery than many skeptical adults.

    The Byzantines are comfortable with mystery, as witnessed in their beautiful Rites. As Westerners, we have forgotten about the Transcendence of God and the great Mystery of Truth, especially in the Holy Eucharist.

    Thank you, Holy Father, again, for allowing the freedom of the EF.

  32. This is such a timely and important post for me. I’m going to be going to my first TLM this weekend, a high Mass does by FSSP priests in Scranton, PA here (if anyone’s from around this area and going, contact me).

    It puts things in proper perspective. “What mystery” may be the response of most people going to Mass, unless they guess that you may mean the Eucharist as the correct answer.

    Thanks, this is what I needed to hear before going to the TLM this weekend, or just in general.

  33. Devin says:

    Great post, reminded me of the homily at the first mass of the north American martyrs in seattle. Dr saguto compared the Latin in the Mass to the veils many of the women were wearing, saying that important, sacred things are veiled lest they become profane by exposure. Something about that clicked with me, that like it isn’t important to see every part of someone to know them, it isn’t important to understand the words being spoken to understand their meaning. I think that has revamped my view of Mass in both forms… Which is after all the point of Summorum Pontificum and personal parishes for the EF. His Holiness is a genius, IMHO.

  34. J W says:

    I’ve always found it interesting that so many people like to follow along with the mass word for word – I’ve never done so, regardless of whether it is in English or Latin. I’m happy so long as I know the deeper base meaning of what is happening.

    When I attended my first Latin mass earlier this year I wanted to make sure I knew what was going on. I was filled with anxiety that I would stick out as an outsider and that my own ignorance of the mass would make me not like it. Because of this I went about trying to familiarize myself with it before actually attending. I watched a few EFs on youtube (and I should mention that I think masses filmed by someone in the congregation are infinitely more helpful than professionally filmed ones with multiple angles). I read through the ordinary of the mass a few times, learned some of the easier responses, and memorized at least the first line of each “mass part” in Latin (“Gloria in excelsis Deo,” “Credo in unum Deum,” etc.). I wanted to give myself some little “cues” so that I could find my place in the missal if I got lost.

    When I finally went to my first mass, I only used the missal for the readings. I watched the altar for most of it, and followed what the congregation was doing for the sit/stand/kneel stuff. It was great. I’ve only been to one other since then, alas, but I plan on attending one for All Souls Day (which I know for the EF is moved to the 3rd).

    The two EFs I attended were at the same church, but were celebrated by different priests. It was interesting comparing the two masses because there were things the first priest did better (way more audible), and things the second priest did better (he was harder to hear, but made the sit/stand/kneel pattern easier to follow by not sitting down in the middle of the Gloria and Credo).

  35. plisto says:

    Thank you for the great post! I am much relieved to see others recognizing the Sacred and putting it into words. It is really discouraging to see people acting so irreverently at NO mass, so lukewarmly etc. as if God is not there, as if it was not Jesus, whom they receive so casually.
    I am a musician and I think recognizing the sacred in arts really can help one to recognize it in liturgy as well. Though not all artists want to encounter the sacred in the Church’s rituals…. Church’s moral teaching is demanding for many people nowadays and so some prefer to pretend it doesn’t concern them, then.

    blessings and peace to everyone!

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