QUAERITUR: It is hard to learn the “Tridentine Mass”?

From a priest reader:

I’ve been a priest since 1984 and when I was ordained my bishop did not look favorably on the traditional Latin Mass.  Therefore my seminary training at St. Meinrad did not include any mention of the Tridentine Mass, other than the occasional joke about it.  I love to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass in English because I know what I am saying, but continue to be drawn to the traditional Latin Mass because of its solemnity, history and beauty.  My question to you is, how hard is it to learn to celebrate the Tridentine Mass?  I earned a "D" in Latin back in college, and have been told by a former Latin teacher to stick with English.  I don’t have a gift for languages.  For the past three years, during Lent in my parish, we have chanted the Pater Noster at Mass, and I still have to have the words in front of me.  I am not good at memorization.   I’ve seen two different workshops available, one offered by the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius and the other by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.  Any recommendations?  Comments?


Thanks.  I am sure there are many priests who hesitate even to start because they think it must be really hard.

That said, it is sure going to be hard for some priests, but not impossible.

Think about it this way: there were many generations of men who learned how to say Mass who weren’t exactly rocket scientists.  Right?  If they did it, anyone can do it.

It helps a great deal to have strong Latin.  But a priest is to be idoneus, suitable, to say Mass.  He must have the minimum tools for Mass.  He must be able to pronounce the words properly, at the very least.  He doesn’t have to be a Latin expert. 

The workshops mentioned above are very good.  They will be able to steer you toward good tools.

Memorization is important, but not an absolute obstacle: that’s why we have books and altar cards on the altar!

It can be done.

Finally, you would also need to make it clear to any overly zealous trad lay people that if they decide to snipe at you from the pews because they think you didn’t wiggle your pinky finger the right way at the third comma according to the final authority in all things rubrical – their own recollection of how old Msgr. Guido O’Leary did that at St. Ipsidipsy in Tall Tree Circle when they were ten and following their authoritative St. Joseph Daily Missal – then they can just wait… and wait…. and wait … until the good is no longer the enemy of the perfect.

I think, dear Father, the best thing to do is just to start. 

Build it up, brick by brick, and you will find that it isn’t so hard as all that once you get used to it.

That said, I invite PRIESTS to chime in with their comments about learning to say the TLM.

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  1. I have found the DVDs, CDs and books by the Canons Regular to be very helpful. They’re clear and comprehensive (even if the celebrant reminds me of the father in Family Guy and I hardly watch that show!). I bought a swathe of their stuff through the kindness of my Guardian (Superior) and I’ve been tinkering around ever since. Worse than your correspondent we were taught no Latin. We were sent to Moral instead and later only NT Greek was available. I’ve made various abortive efforts to learn some (I can handle basic pronunciation) but I’m also lazy. At least the Benediction in the Churches is usually in Latin and that’s been my guide. If St. John Fisher could learn Greek in his forties I can learn Latin (eventually). [Repetita iuvant!]

  2. TJerome says:

    Priests like this need our prayers and support. It’s so gratifying that Father wants to do this. I go to St. John Cantius quite regularly and I would imagine their aids would be tremendous. Tom

  3. phd12699 says:

    I had two year of college Latin (and did not earn very high grades — out of laziness rather than lack of ability I am ashamed to admit) and was ordained in 1986. I remembered nothing of the TLM, except that my father would always bring his missal to the Novus Ordo masses we always attended. This being said, I found learning the TLM to be quite easy if you put your mind to it. I spent about 2 hours per week over July and August of 2007 learning the rubrics and practicing (I have found the practicing is a must; the actual “doing” makes the rubrics become clear), saying “dry masses” — no altar bread or wine. If I didn’t have time to go through the entire mass, I would do just one portion. Also, I would often just repeat a portion until I had it down cold.
    I said my first TLM on September 15, 2007, without a server, as I knew of no one who could serve, and it took me almost an hour and a half, since I was reading the rubrics as I went along just to be sure I had it right (I am now saying a low mass in about a half hour, normally with a server).
    It was a wonderful experience and, as has been said by many others, it gave me a deeper experience of what it means to be a priest. [Yes!] I am now saying at least three TLM’s per week in two different parishes.
    The larger manuals (O’Connor and Fortescue/Reid) are fine, but I found them to be too extensive when first learning. A small pamphlet manual called “Learning the Mass – A Manual for Seminarians and Priests” by Fr. Walter J. Schmitz (published by Veritas Press) I found to be most useful — short, clear and not intimidating at all. Also, don’t be fearful of using a “cheat sheet” [Good.] for the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar — even though I have them memorized now, I keep it handy in my sleeve in case I get nervous or the server forgets!
    Simply put, the TLM is easy to learn, the more you offer it the more of the Latin you come to understand and it is worth any and all effort for what it does for your spiritual life. Hope this helps.
    Fr. Jim Byrnes

  4. pipponeri says:

    I was ordained in 1991 and had never experienced the TLM. When Summorum Pontificum was published I began preparing by using YouTube! I found some videos that were in short 5-7 snippets of a priest of the SSPX offering the TLM. I watched and followed along in a Roman Missal I had. I also used O’Connell’s book (The Celebration of Mass, A Study of the Rubrics of the Roman Missal) and Schmitz'(Learning the Mass). I also made it a point to say the prayers at the foot of the altar right before going to bed to help me memorize them (although you can use a card for that if necessary). I also prayed them while driving to the parish, etc. This helped me a lot–having the prayers memorized. I started doing this in July and didn’t start doing a “dry mass”, until September. I just read and studied until I had a pretty firm grasp of what to expect once I was at the altar. (I had a goal of starting the TLM on the 1st Sunday of Advent.) [good point: set a goal] When I started preparing myself I also began to prepare 7 altar servers. I used O’Briens How to Serve Low Mass and Benediction. Then in September we began having “dry masses” as a team. We would do parts of the Mass until everyone, servers and priest, knew what they were doing. We practiced weekly. I had no idea what the TLM was in 2007 but with God’s grace, determination and patience I offered my first Low Mass on December 2, 2007, the First Sunday of Advent. It’s now 2010 and we have a Missa Cantata twice a month! Brick by brick. [Brick by brick indeed!]

  5. David says:

    Years ago, the bishop said, “Learn the TLM, now!” So, I looked at one of the earlier DVDs, with its accompanying booklet. Stared at the Missale Romanum for a while, practiced three times, and then started offering regular Sunday TLMs at the Cathedral. Wonderful.

    The idea is not to scare yourself. Just DO it! You’ll be fine. [Very good observation: Just Do It…. and remember that “nike” means “victory”!]

  6. ipadre says:

    Not everything good in life is easy. I wanted to learn to say the Mass in the Extraordinary Form for quite a while. Even wanted to learn before Summorum Pontificum, but I felt it useless at the time. When Summorum came out, I wanted to learn but was fearful. I decided it best to go off for training and took a seminar with the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius. At the beginning of the seminar, they told us we would be prepared to celebrate by the end of the week, I doubted that possible. At the end of the week, I probably could have done it, but took two more weeks of study at home. You just have to jump in the water, take the leap or you will never do it. [That’s right. Don’t buffalo yourself into thinking you can’t do it.] It took me about 5 Masses to feel comfortable, now I can say it without a hitch.

    My next challenge is to say a Missa Cantata on Easter Sunday. I put it in the bulletin and word is out. Only have a little more than a month to be ready, but I am going to do it. The most difficult part is overcoming our fear. We have had it too easy for years! A 10 year old altar server could say the Ordinary Form.

    Best advice you can follow Father is that of Pope John Paul II “Do not be afraid”. Like Peter, get out of the boat and walk toward Jesus. These are exciting times!

  7. frdgss says:

    Father, you need help! I was ordained in 1996 and here’s how I did it:

    Latin isn’t the real difficulty – though it does help if you can at least say the words with some confidence! Just remember to forget any antiquarian (ie. made-up) notions of “classical” Latin pronunciation originating from the English Public Schools. If you can learn to speak modern Italian, you can speak Church Latin – same rules for pronunciation.

    The real challenge, in my humble opinion, is to “assimilate” the rubrics. What I mean by this is to learn how to “do the red” with priestly elegance, graciousness and professionalism while “saying the black”: how to lengthen the downward arm of the Cross to cover the words so that your hand is not left hanging in mid-air for the rest of the sentence; how to co-ordinate the descent from the altar without turning your back to the Tabernacle etc. In years gone by, this “ars celebrandi” was instilled and taught in the seminaries. Now, we have to fend for ourselves. Which is why you need help! And don’t expect much help from our so-called Apostles – in spite of SP they’re not that interested. It’s up to you.

    Instructional DVDs are good. Personal tuition is better – if you can get it. Find a local sympathetic priest or make contact with one of the traddy congregations if you can (FSSP etc). They will be only too pleased to help you. If you get the chance to attend a training conference, jump at it. And don’t feel intimidated or self-conscious about your lack of knowledge – it’s not your fault you’ve been sold a pig-in-a-poke by those crypto-protestant Modernists who have tried to hijack Vatican II. [RIGHT! But in the end, it is not they who will be victorious.]

    With perseverence and God’s help (and it does get easier the more you do it!), you’ll soon pick it up and prefer it…and really, Father, it’s what you were ordained to do!

    God bless and go for it!

  8. jbas says:

    It seems to me it is easier to learn to pronounce a romance language by listening to it being sung. Listening to a sung TL Mass repeatedly (and I mean repeatedly!) could help.
    Personally, I found learning the TLM rubrics to be more demanding than the public use of Latin.
    One more thing, Church law has always required priests to know at least enough Latin for liturgical use (e.g. Jubilate Deo 1974), even in the ’80’s. [The current Code of Canon Law, c. 249 says that all seminarians must be “very well versed in Latin”, “lingua latina bene calleant“.] The failure of some seminaries in recent decades to provide for this creates a sad situation today, since there is no getting around the fact that it is easier to learn a language when one is young. But liturgical zeal can be a powerful force, even when it comes to learning a language later in life.

  9. Rev. Philip-Michael says:

    I am a recently ordained diocesean priest. I say the EF Mass on a near daily basis. It is not too hard to learn and the only obstacle, for me, was memorization, which comes naturally just by saying the Mass. One easy way, if you have the time, to learn the Mass is to first learn the acolyte’s role, then sub-deacon, etc…each role increases one’s participation in the role of the priest, naturally then, one learns more progressively and its not like the entire priestly role is dumped on you to learn all at once.

    Everybody makes such a big deal about Latin….get over it! As priests in the US we are expected to say Mass in Spanish but don’t necessarily understand Spanish…what’s the big deal with Latin?! [good point] Its actually quite easy and if you look over the prayers in English beforehand you will notice that when you then learn the Mass in Latin you have a knowledge of what you are doing and saying…its really not that hard.

    The learning of the ceremonies of the Roman Mass in the EF is really easy if you have one thing…DISCIPLINE! That’s all it really takes. I never had a Mass practicum in the OF only in the EF, which as a newly ordained priest that is not in the FSSP or something like that I think I am a unique exception. I say the OF just as often as the EF and have to say that if you learn the EF first the OF is a “walk in the park”! Knowing both forms has enriched my fledgling priesthood and has made both forms more enjoyable and rich in celebration and understanding for me. God Bless and be assured that knowing both forms is of great spiritual and liturgical benefit not just for you but for the people you serve! Have a blessed Lent and if you don’t have a natural disposition for either the EF or the OF than maybe make it your penance to learn it!

  10. southern orders says:

    I’ve been ordained since 1980 and began celebrating the EF on September 14, 2007. As a prelude to that celebration, I had many “dry runs” with an older permanent deacon. I looked at videos on the internet and from already mentioned sources. I got the rubrics in English as this is really, really important. I understand and speak somewhat well Italian and some Spanish, so the words in Latin that befuddled me I made sure I learned.
    But after my first experience, I began celebrating it every Tuesday as a Low Mass, and once a month as a High Mass and on All Souls Day we pulled off a “Solemn Sung High Mass” with deacon and subdeacon and full choir singing the Requiem. I sing liturgically, so singing isn’t a problem for me.
    But what has really helped me is repetition of the every Tuesday low Mass. [repetita iuvant] I find the High Mass easier with choir support. I still haven’t memorized all the prayers as the foot of the altar, but use a small card as my cheat sheet. I feel more secure with it.

  11. Father S. says:

    Learning the EF is by no means difficult. That being said, it cannot be learned in fifteen minutes. Even if the Latin is no obstacle and you understand perfectly what you are praying, it takes a while to find the rhythm. But, as repetitio est mater studiorum, so, too, presbyterorum. Of the available videos, the FSSP video seems to me to be better, though it has the disadvantage of not being online, to my knowledge. The videos from sanctamissa.org can be viewed from the computer which makes them very fine. My question to priests who feel that it will be too hard to learn but would like to learn is, if the celebration of Holy Mass is at the center of your life, why not take the time? You do not have to know this by tomorrow. It is a nice practice for Lent, I think, too. Perhaps an added Lenten task could be to spend thirty minutes a day practicing parts of the EF. BY the end of Lent, you would have it down pat. It is certainly more profitable than watching television!

    As for altar cards and the like, it is helpful to do a little shopping around. Some places are truly exorbitantly priced. I picked up my cards from adoremusbooks.

  12. Father Totton says:

    I was ordained in 2004 and I learned how to say Mass in the EF in 2007 (I had just finished a weeklong session with the FSSP when PBXVI issued Summorum Pontificum – how fortuitous). I would encourage any priest who has any inclination at all (even if you don’t think there will ever be a “pastoral application” in your future) to do all that you can to become familiar with and to fall in love with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass of the Roman Rite. Is it hard? Yes and no. Nothing is easy unless we are willing to try it. We can sit around for years pondering the difficulty, but unless we take the first step, that will never be dispelled!

    Do not fret about the Latin. Is it important? Yes. Can you learn it enough to be Idoneous? Without a doubt. one program, which is based on the Latin of the Mass (EF) is called Simplicissimus and is published by the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales. You can find it in PDF at their website. It is an easy way to become familiar with the grammar of Latin. For pronunciation, look around at some of the videos on youtube or from the FSSP or other groups. The Gospels are a great way to learn Latin because as a priest, you should already be very familiar with them in English. When you read a Gospel in Latin, the sense of the story comes through easily enough, even if you are not a great scholar. Fr. Goodwin, FSSP, at our training did stress the importance of coming to have a reasonable command of the language, but that will come as you begin and move along with the Mass. Don’t wait until you have mastered Latin before moving into the Mass. Also, don’t be discouraged by your bad experiences with Latin in the past. In 25+ years, you may have developed a better capacity for langauges than you had when you were 25! This does and can happen.

    As to training, it is crucial. I recommend the weeklong session at FSSP’s seminary in Denton, NE. The Society of St. JOhn Cantius can also provide good training. If you don’t have time to do an intensive, then approach a local priest who is already saying the EF Mass on a regular basis (I don’t recommend going to an elderly priest who has not celebrated it since 1970) and ask him to teach you. Meet with him once a week for coaching, get the training video from FSSP, use the preparatory prayers in conjunction with your night prayers – first go through them in the vernacular, so you have a sense of what is being said, then begin praying them in Latin EVERY NIGHT. Finally, I would also recommend, if you are not currently doing this, in your daily celebration of Mass, use Eucharistic Prayer I exclusively (or nearly so). Since this a translation of the Roman Canon, it will benefit you greatly to be very familiar with it. Someone said it above, SET A DATE! Give yourself a timeline, be realistic, but don’t have a vague notion about when you will learn by. Advent is a great time for new beginnings, so why not make a plan to say your second “First Mass” on the first Sunday of ADvent – that gives you PLENTY of time, but use it well.

    Also, it is helpful if you have someone to learn with. If you know of another priest who is inclined to learn the EF, see if you two could get together to practice. If there is a young man in your parish who would like to learn to serve it, or a like-minded seminarian of your acquaintance, run through “dry Masses” with him.

    I can tell you that my regular celebration of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form has truly transformed my way of celebrating Mass (in whatever circumstance) it has given me a greater appreciation for the huge impact the smallest detail can make as we offer these little things to Almighty God.

    Father(s) please be assured of my prayers and fraternal support as you embark upon this all-important work.

    Finally, don’t let anybody convince you that it is irrelevant to or a distraction from your ministry, the transformation that comes from learning the celebrate Mass in the EF, will radiate to every extremity of your priestly being. Count on it!

  13. I’m still in the afterglow of celebrating my first EF Mass last Sunday (said my second one today). I’ve been ordained a priest for five years now, and have celebrated NO Masses in Latin all that time, although never as frequently as in English. So the Latin bit of learning to say the EF didn’t faze me so much. I’d been trying (half-heartedly I admit!) to learn the EF for the last few months, but it’s only because I put myself down to say the EF on the First Sunday of Lent that finally pressured me into learning it. I used the DVD produced by the FSSP. In the end, it was a matter of ‘just get on with it’. Lots of priests have done it before me and, God willing, lots of priests will do it after me.

    The EF Mass struck me as being just so beautiful. It’s funny, I actually feel the same kind of joy and serenity I had in the days following my priestly ordination. Just the structure of the EF itself calls for reverence and prayerful recollection, and it never ceases to remind you that you are God’s unworthy servant, supported by His grace and the love and prayers of the saints and angels. It’s a terrible thing to say (terrible because I ought to be conscious of this all the time!) but I actually felt like a priest when saying Mass in the EF. Not in the sense of being elevated and remote from the laity – like the progressives and rupturists are so worried about – but in the sense that I was conscious of being what I was ordained for, an intercessor.

    And then at the end of Mass, I had time to recollect myself and make my thanksgiving, without being badgered by angry or irate parishioners. I wonder, does the NO lend itself to creating a mentality among the laity that they are ‘customers’ of some description, who can barge into the sacristy and demand a ‘refund’ if they’re not happy with the Mass (or indeed, just not happy in their lives)? In the EF I was praying with and for the people, all of us turning towards God. Not customers; just the Body of Christ praying with and through their Head.

    I have to confess, there were some scary moments when I thought, ‘Dear Lord, what do I do next?’ And at certain points I thought, ‘If the server hands me anything, do I bless it or kiss it? Just to be on the safe side I’ll do both!’ It was a blast though. I had so much fun, and I can’t wait to do it regularly. Might have to do it every day! My advice to any priests reading this who are contemplating saying the EF: ‘Just do it!’ You’ll love it!

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