A priest’s first public Traditional Mass: his reflections

A kind reader alerted me to an entry on the blog Specious Pedestrian by Fr. Dominic Holtz, OP, who wrote about his experience of saying Holy Mass with the Extraordinary Form publicly for the first time.

Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments:

Reflections on the public celebration of the Mass according to the usus antiquior

One of my readers has asked me to consider reflecting here on my recent celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal on April 29, which was also my first public celebration of the Mass according to this form. While the impressions are still fresh in my mind, I thought that fulfilling his request would be a worthwhile endeavor, for me at any rate, even if not for my readers.

I should point out a few things. First of all, I have celebrated, but only privately, the Mass in the extraordinary form a few times. Also, I have also celebrated publicly, indeed starting even two weeks after my ordination, the Mass in the ordinary form in Latin, ad orientem, with chant and some polyphony, etc. I cleave to the text of the Missal, try my best to conform my gestures, posture, and the like to the classic forms, make generous use of opportunities for silent prayer (especially at the Offertory), and so on. In other words, my impressions here truly are based on the public celebration of the classic form of the Mass, and not the result of other sorts of factors.  [So, he is a Say The Black – Do The Red sort of guy.]

I also want to say, by way of preface, that I recognize that, musically, I had a superb and likely rarely to be repeated privilege of hearing a choir (with portative and instrumental ensemble) sing a setting of the Mass, both Ordinary and Proper, along with motets, likely heard together rarely, if ever, since the time and place of the royal courts in Bavaria and Austria in the late sixteenth century. The music was simply sublime, and I admit that my wonderfully positive and uplifting experience was, at least in part, due to the glorious music supplied by students and faculty from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Even so, I intend rather to speak more directly of my own experience [Finally!  o{]:¬)   ] of the celebration of the Mass qua celebrant, i.e. as a priest.  [Systematic, isn’t he!  He is a Dominican after all.]

From the outset, when the initial jitters quieted in my stomach, I was impressed existentially by what I already grasped notionally, [yep… he is a Dominican!] namely how spiritually useful the whole "fore-Mass" was, and most especially, the prayers at the foot of the altar. There was, once the servers and I began, a real spiritual calm, as well as a clear sense of the seriousness of what I was about to do when I finally approached the altar. To be sure, the vesting prayers and my own other recollections before Mass, which I would do anyway, were important, but this splendid antiphony between me and the servers, the mutual (not merely communal) confession of sins, the at once sobering and yet hopeful words of the Aufer a nobis and Oramus te, all the while not needing to worry whether I was "holding up" the celebration of the Mass, gave me a sense of purpose and intention from the start unlike I have had often before at Mass. [It is interesting that this phrase "not having to worry about" appears in nearly all accounts from priests who begin using the older form of Holy Mass.]

At the same time (this was a Missa cantata) I found real solace in the quiet recitation waiting on the choir to complete its Kyrie and Gloria. It was a kind of waiting that at one and the same time afforded my a space for private, recollected prayer and kept me attentive of my role as servant to the rite. [You don’t make the older form into your servant.] As crucial as my role was, it was not "my" time to direct the action, but my time to wait.

I should mention here that the distinction of the whole Mass of the Catechumens as more vocal, more choral, more audible, if you well, also became experientially apparent, however I already knew it conceptually. What I, and the whole congregation, experienced from the beginning of the Introit through the conclusion of the Gospel was an extended and continuous act of praise and proclamation. To be sure, I wasn’t continuously audible, but whenever someone was not singing or chanting, someone else was. I note this because the contrast with the Mass of the Faithful as more remarkable for its meaningful silences (more on that below) became, in the course of the Mass, all the more clear. [It is good to remember that the the sung Mass is the norm for the older form.  Low Mass is not the norm, though it is more common.]

One curious note is the feeling of the homily as, not alien or foreign or even inappropriate, but at least a caesura, a Luftpause in the celebration. As any poet or musician will tell you, these are not inconsequential, and can really and truly "belong" where they are placed. Even so, they are breaks, stops, pauses, all the more obvious here ritually in my removal of the maniple, topographically in my movement away from the altar to the ambo, vocally in the shift from the singing of Latin to the speaking of English, [For me, that does create a break.] and intentionally in the shift away from the words, movements, and gestures received from the Church to my own words, received from the prayerful encounter with the Scriptures in preparation for preaching. I at least "get" now, as I did not before, what homileticians meant in worrying over the older homily as not "liturgical". [A lot of pretentious bunk, more often than not.] For the moment, whether this is or is not a good thing, I will withhold judgment. One thing the homily did evoke was how deeply I had entered into the sancta sanctorum I had prayed to enter in the Aufer a nobis since it was a real pulling away from one mental and spiritual place to another (as it involved a leaving not only my orientation but the space of the altar itself), even in ways that the turning at the Orate fratres or the admonition and preparation of the faithful for Communion was not (the Ecce Agnus Dei and triple Domine non sum dignus).

It is perhaps neither remarkable nor surprising, but nonetheless it is true, that I was most profoundly affected by the silent celebration of the Canon. [Ditto.] There was an intensity, a presence, an abundance of content in that silence unlike any I have experienced before. Perhaps it was due in part to the contrast of the nearly continuous and sublime music I had heard up to and including the Sanctus. All the same, when the final Hosanna in excelsis came to an end and all that could be heard was the silence of my prayer … It is an experience quite difficult to put into words, and all the more so were I to try to evoke what it meant to say the words of consecration without trying to communicate them meaningfully and vocally to a disparate gathering of the faithful, but to say them under the veil of silence so that they might be what they are in plain and profound simplicity … I can only note here that it was transformative, or better, I hope it will be. [Do I hear an "Amen!"?]

As I said above, I was also struck by the relative increase of silence in the Mass of the Faithful, the several, indeed frequent "interruptions" when nothing is heard. Even so, these were not mere pauses, nor simply my "finishing up" prayers that were too long for the music to cover. They were filled, meaningful silences, and they directed me at least, and I hope the faithful, to Communion in a way the ordinary form does not. [I agree.] I hesitate at this point to make a judgment here, but the experience was certainly different and notable.

One confirmation I had was this: it is infinitely more practical and at the same time more fitting, that the faithful (as they were able) receive the Eucharist on their tongues while kneeling. [Ditto.] Mind you, I am delighted that any of the faithful, properly disposed, should come forward to receive our Lord in the Sacrament, and were the other option that they did not come forward, I would rather see them come hopping on their head than draw back in fear. All the same, from the practical point of view, having everyone’s head, except the smaller children or taller men, at more or less the same place, not having to guess where or how or even whether this communicant was going to receive (hand or tongue, standing far back or up close, etc), permitted me to be more at ease in communicating them. [A variation of "I didn’t have to worry about"…] (I note this from several years of experience helping out at the Cathedral Basilica of St Louis, where, for all of its laudable celebration of the Mass, the people coming to receive Communion can and do present themselves in a curious variety of ways!)

I should also add that, despite the relatively longer ritual surrounding both my own Communion and the ablutions, I did not feel remotely rushed. Again, the strong sense of being in the holy of holies, and the prayers which assisted me in doing so, truly kept me focused on the affairs of the altar more than simply orientation has been able (although, I would not want the best to be the enemy of the good here, and wholly endorse the goods which I also know experientially come from the celebration of the ordinary form of the Mass ad orientem). Likewise, the Placeat (which I pray at the end of Mass even in the ordinary form, but usually on my way back to the sacristy) and the Last Gospel did not feel appended, but wholesome ways to lead me away from the altar and back to the world beyond.

It should be fairly easy to see that this was a powerful and beautiful experience for me. Was every rubric observed perfectly? I doubt it. Did some of the beauty come from the music? Certainly. Was some of the power the result of the "novelty"? Perhaps. Time and experience alone will tell. What I can say for certain is that I now speak existentially what I would have before said rightly, but more notionally, namely, that there are real and great goods that come from the classic celebration of the Mass of the Roman rite, goods which priests and the faithful as a whole would do well to encounter. [Do I hear an "Amen!"?]

Posted by Fr. Dominic Holtz, O.P.


Kudos to Fr. Holtz!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    It is always nice to read about a priest’s appreciation of the older form of Mass being moved from potentiality to actuality.

  2. QMJ says:

    I was most struck by what Father said about “the silent celebration of the Canon.” I have only once been to a TLM and that was five years ago. I have forgotten much of my initial impressions, but reading this has reminded me of at least one: the mystery of the consecration. I too was struck by the silence. That one of my senses was not involved, added to the sense of mystery of the event. I had a similar experience while attending Divine Liturgy at a Greek Catholic church. During the consecration I could hear everything, but all of the doors on the iconostasis were closed; I wasn’t able to see into the sanctuary at all. Again, not being able to use one of my senses brought out the mystery.

  3. Tremendously inspiring! Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Adam Welp says:

    Wow! I have now seen, well, read it all. I never thought I would see the day when a TLM would be celebrated in Bloomington, let alone on the Indiana University campus at St. Paul’s. It’s too bad word of this Mass did not make it the short trip down I-65 or else I would have been there. I hope this becomes a regular event. If so, I will definitely go.

    With a choir from the Jacobs School of Music, I’m sure the music was phenomenal!

  5. gloriainexcelsis says:

    Again, I am moved to tears when I read such wonderful insights and picture in my mind what Father was experiencing.

  6. Fr_Sotelo says:

    Fr. Holtz is a very articulate and perceptive writer. I’ll bet he is interesting to listo to as a preacher. I think this is one of the best reflections, Fr. Z, which you have published from priests who celebrate the EF Mass publicly for the first time. He has approached the offering of the EF Mass, I believe, with an open mind, an open heart, and a pastoral sense.

  7. This is wonderful! Clear, insightful, and deliberate. It is especially helpful for lay people to read such a clear argument, as to
    what it feels like to mine the inexhaustible treasure of the Extraordinary Form. An enthusiastic AMEN!

  8. Arieh says:

    A beautiful reflection. I truly love the silent prayers of the classical liturgy. It is a “pregnant” silence that is so saturated with content and anticipation that one can almost feel the weight of the Cross on his shoulders.

  9. Ferde Rombola says:

    A loud AMEN from me, too. I was similarly moved by Fr. Holtz’s account of his first public Mass in the Extraordinary form. We got a whole row of bricks there!

  10. ASD says:


    The other side of the “didn’t have to worry about it” coin: It so nice for an ordinary layman to go to Mass without worrying, at some level, about when somebody is going to do something, um, novel.

  11. Hieronymus says:

    Adam —

    I, too, was floored to hear about this. This Mass may someday be used to forward Pope Benedict’s cause for canonization!

    On a more serious note, I think such events do show the extent to which this pontificate is changing the culture of the Church. One of the things which struck me about the mass was the stark contrast between the liturgy and the architecture of the building. I had two very strong sensations while assisting:

    1) This is everything the mass should be — I will let Fr. Holtz’s excellent commentary speak for itself.
    2) This building was most definitely not built for a ritual of this dignity. It was kind of like seeing Pius XII vested in the full glory of his papal ornament . . . sitting in a Moon Bounce.

    The restoration of this Mass will certainly bring about a more full understanding of what the mass really is — as Father’s commentary records — but I think it will also be attended by a restoration of the Catholic sense of beauty in architecture and music; the contrast is simply too much to bear for any length of time.
    Many thanks to Fr. Holtz and all who put so much work into this, and other similar events around the country (like the recent mass in DC).

    Save the liturgy, save the world!

  12. The silent celebration of the Canon was one of the big things that struck me, too, the first time I attended Mass in the Extraordinary Form. You could have heard a pin drop in the church. Although there were not many people there, this was not the silence of an empty church. It made me think of (what I imagine must have been) the expectant hush on Calvary in the last moments before Jesus breathed forth His Soul. It was, in fact, the height of active participation.

  13. irishgirl says:

    Wow-very insightful!

  14. Servant of the Liturgy says:

    W as in W. O as in O. W again as in W.

  15. asperges says:

    What a spendid and lucid account and most uplifting. I am sure it will inspire many would-be EF celebrants to take the plunge.

    St Pius V, primary re-orderer of the “Tridentine” rite in 1570, was a Dominican, of course. He left his stamp well and truly on his revisions. Much of what Father encountered and felt would have been no accident therefore.

    Having said that, the Dominican rite (left well alone by St Pius V) is very edifying and interesting too.

  16. mfranks says:

    Could someone be so kind to expand upon these comments:

    I at least "get" now, as I did not before, what homileticians meant in worrying over the older homily as not "liturgical". [A lot of pretentious bunk, more often than not.]

    What was the “worry” and apparent controversy here?

  17. Fr_Sotelo says:


    If I could take a try at it, I interpret that comment of Fr. Holtz as saying that it is easy to sense that Mass is suspended, for a moment as it were, as the priest removes the maniple and physically leaves the altar.

    The worry was that by 1) not seeing the homily as an integral and essential part of Mass, flowing from the liturgical season and the Sacred Scripture 2) and by not commenting upon this Scripture in such a way as to transition from the Mass of the Catechumens to that of the Faithful–the danger was for an “aliturgical” sermon. The worry was that it was too easy for the priest to step up to the pulpit and say anything that did not spiritually prepare the faithful with a true liturgical piety.

    There was also a worry from some liturgists that the EF Mass was fine enough without a homily that good liturgical preaching somehow interrupted Mass and was to be tolerated. I think that Fr. Z is saying that although that danger may be in the liturgical minds of some EF Mass folks, the EF Mass itself can never be blamed for that type of thinking.

    However, in no way does Fr. Z accuse Fr. Holtz of agreeing with homileticians. Fr. Holtz merely states that because of the sense of suspension at the time of the homily, some people might be led to have those homiletic concerns.

  18. Fr. Andrew says:

    My good friend Fr. Holtz vested me as a priest last year and as you can tell from this article, it was an honor as he is a great inspiration to my priesthood. He is a tremendous teacher and preacher and I bear the news here that he will be teaching in Rome very soon, so head on over to the Angelicum for more of the same.

  19. Mitchell NY says:

    How well was this Priests’ experience put into words. It always strikes me when Priests talk about the Tridentine Mass and how they explain the most minute details, as if every action has been thought out and worked out for centuries. Everything means something. It was wrong for that Concilium to think that the Faithful did not have a certain grasp of this as well(we did not ask for the bulk of change) and hack the Mass to pieces. It all meant something. Thank God for this Holy Priest and all of them who understand and can relay to the faithful so well their experiences. This, in itself is Cathechis.

  20. Martial Artist says:

    Yes, Fr. Z, you hear a hearty Amen from me. His description of his experience provides me with words I didn’t have prior to reading him. Words that enable me to communicate some of my experience of the EF Mass that I viewed on EWTN.

    And Mitchell NY almost captures one of the reasons. It isn’t, as he puts it, that it is “as if every action has been thought out and worked out for centuries.” The part of that statement with which I would tend to disagree is his “as if.” It was thought out in a way that would make it last for the centuries. Every part, every action is there for a purpose, even those for which we laymen, and particularly this new convert from Anglo-catholic Episcopalianism, may not yet fully understand. And what is said and done is effectual, even when we don’t fully and consciously understand the whys and wherefores. So long as we allow God the Holy Spirit to work on us inwardly through those words and actions, we are transformed and, simultaneously, transported to a foretaste of heaven. To an awareness that present at the Lord’s table with us, in addition to our Lord, are the members of the communion of saints who have preceded us. Given our free and attentive participation, we are taken out of the present time into a place of timelessness. This is an experience that I have been led to understand the Greek word ????????, which we might translate as symbol, actually signifies.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  21. Martial Artist says:

    The blog software has replaced with question marks the word I copied and pasted, which was συμβολον. I apologize for not noticing it in Preview.

    Keith Töpfer

  22. mfranks says:

    Thank you Fr. Sotelo.

    Perhaps my puzzlement and lack of understanding here is more fundamentally rooted in the difference between Homily and Sermon? Forgive my ignorance, I always thought they were synonyms. Perhaps also it may be due to the seemingly inconsistency in preaching by priests that has led me to this erroneous understanding.

  23. Maltese says:

    Great piece!

    Wonderful impressions and arguments, though espoused before, almost never together in one piece, or as nuanced.

  24. Tom in NY says:

    How did Toepfer get that “symbolon” in there – Greek keyboard didn’t work.
    Tibi gratias ago.

  25. Martial Artist says:

    Tom in NY inquired of me how to get greek into the combox, his Greek keyboard didn’t work.

    I don’t have a Greek keyboard. On my first try, I used Babelfish (http://babelfish.yahoo.com/), retrieved the Greek for sacrament, and used copy & paste, which didn’t produce the desired result on this site, hence my apology and addendum. (Note: it also doesn’t necessarily return the correct case of the Greek word, it didn’t include the final letter ‘nu’ to the Greek for the word in question.)

    The comment engine on Father’s site renders a lot of HTML, so I resorted to entering the HTML Entity Name (I could alternatively have entered the Entity Number) This works for a great variety of characters and symbols (œ, ñ, ™, &hearts, ≠, Θ, Σ, just to cite a few examples).

    You can find listings of Entity Names and Numbers at the following pages:

    Math and Greek at http://www.w3schools.com/tags/ref_symbols.asp, Symbols and Characters at http://www.w3schools.com/tags/ref_entities.asp

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Toepfer

  26. Martial Artist says:

  27. MAJ Tony says:

    Fr. Holtz made a comment about having heard the Mass parts performed by the IU school of music. One of their choral groups performed religious works in the Archabbey Church at St. Meinrad a few years ago. I was duly impressed (and I’m a Purdue alumni, their biggest in-state rival). BTW, my alma mater’s other big rival is Notre Shame, and we’ve done respectably well against their football team in the last 15 years. Anyone, besides me, think that might be less than coincidental.

  28. Tom in NY says:

    &chi &alpha &rho &iota &sigmaf
    But there won’t be cut-and-paste from NT on the ‘net.

  29. hoosier says:

    i am a student at IU and was at this Mass. when it was first announced several months ago no one believed it. Bloomington is an extremely liberal town where anything goes and st. paul is a VERY liberal parish (for example – there’s Adoration only a few times a year, crazy music (sometimes bongos), and everyone got their feet washed on Holy Thursday).

    a very traditional church right outside of bloomington has had two TLM masses this year that Jacobs students also sang at.

  30. Tom in NY says:

    &chi &alpha &rho &iota &sigmaf
    Causa patientiae gratias ago.
    Graece loquendum mihi finitum est.

  31. Tom in NY says:

    ????? ??? ??????

  32. parishioner says:

    With semi-colons after the code for each Greek letter,
    “&chi &alpha &rho &iota &sigmaf”
    “χ α ρ ι ς”

  33. Tom in NY says:


    Tibi gratias!

  34. Tom in NY says:

    Perhaps Rev. Moderator can explore the powerful effect on priestly psychology which the EF exerts. This effect seems to be the mechanism of the “gravitational pull” the EF can exert on other liturgies. The focus on the Deity (rather than congregation) and the awareness of sacrifice may only be two aspects mortals can comprehend.
    Thanks to Keith and Parishioner for their help.
    Salutationes omnibus.

  35. Martial Artist says:

    Tom in NY,

    I am glad that I was able to be of some small service.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith (Töpfer) in Sodom on the Sound (Puget, that is)

  36. Father Michael says:

    I am the Pastor of the “very traditional parish” outside of Bloomington. Yes, we have offerd the EF Mass on three occasions: one a Low Mass during Lent, one a Solemn High Mass on the occasion of the anniversary of my Dad’s death and this past Lent, a Solemn Requiem Mass…all magnificent. Excellent attendance; many IU students and with the Jacob’s musicians, the music was glorious. More are planned for the future!

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