“It is possible to fully understand the Mass.”…. NOT.

My friend Jeffrey Tucker over at the Chant Cafe has a great entry on music and matters liturgical… and you.

He provides bullet points which are each food for thought.

Here is how he begins:

What We Think We Know That Is Wrong

A director of music at a Catholic parish, obviously of long experience, sent me a list he has been keeping of things that people believe that are not so.

1. It is possible to fully understand the Mass.
1a. Having Mass entirely in the vernacular facilitates this complete comprehension.
1b. The more Latin we use, the less we can comprehend the Mass, unless we know Latin.

2. Mass is really about the words.


We can understand many things about Mass and that occur during Mass… but Mass is really an encounter with mystery.

Good work Mr. Tucker.

Check out his excellent post and say “Hi” from Fr. Z

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I found this comment at Mr Tucker’s other blog, the New Liturgical Movement, by Jose L Campos:

    “The way I look at these facts is the following: I drive to church and leave the car together with many other people in a desertic asphalted plain that I choose to consider Purgatory. I proceed through the little garden that surrounds the church, a pale remembrance of the terrestrial Paradise, into the church proper. There, the faithful form orderly rows, it is like an intimation of the heavenly court. The mass proceeds step by step as far as its culmination, the raising of the Host over our heads, and the solemn contemplation of It. The silence is wondrous until some children alert us to the fact that they also participate. Eventually the honey of grace is distributed from the beehive to the bees that will be strengthened by it and carry its power after the slow descent from the liturgical mountain into the world. We will traverse the terrestrial Paradise again and cross through the Purgatory in to the world, but dialectically we are not the same persons, we have been transformed.”

  2. wmeyer says:

    Superb! I am greatly fatigued by the banality of the music in my parish, and the apparent belief that it’s a communal meal. I remain there because my pastor is slowly correcting the aberrations, and needs support.

  3. Andrew says:

    1a. Having Mass entirely in the vernacular facilitates this complete comprehension.
    “Having Mass”? OK. Let’s say that means “celebrating the Holy Mass”.
    1. There are many vernaculars, but most people understand only one of them. (At so called bi-lingual or tri-lingual Masses, at any point, a significant portion of the faithful present do not understand the language used).
    2. A vernacular translation raises questions of accuracy, or even outright mistranslation.
    3. Not even the most accurate and faithful translation can substitute a direct comprehension of the original text.
    4. Excessive emphasis of vernaculars causes linguistic and cultural fragmentation.
    5. The elimination of Latin is not a praiseworthy goal to strive for.
    6. The significant benefit and the didactic value of Latin is of great consequence.
    7. The Roman Catholics Church should not abandon its language which is sacred, ancient, unchanging, universal, non partisan, precise, non ambiguous, easy to pronounce, easy to sing, venerable, etc.

  4. tobiasmurphy says:

    “14d. Chant is most appropriate for penitential times (like Lent) and least suitable for joyful times (like Easter). ”

    I was just thinking this yesterday at my school Mass. Whoever plans the music for the Mass sticks any chant or Latin in Lent and avoids it the rest of the year. It leaves me thinking that they have the impression that chant from the “dark ages” is for the “dark times” on the liturgical calendar.

  5. benedetta says:

    What a coincidence. Was just penning a brief love note to local liturgical gurus and lackeys…

    Friends, It has come to my attention that you are laboring excessively under a tired and shop-worn mythology and I wonder if it may help to relieve you of your burden. According to this established, hierarchically-based and authoritative mythology, Catholics today attend church to relive their living rooms. According to the lore, our ancestors worshipped a priest who gave his backs to them and spoke in gibberish. They were not really faithful but engaged in superstition and quackery. Fortunately at the opportune moment the workings of the spirit was able to cut through all the gibberish and there were special empowerments. Through these empowerments, we can gather round in a beige space and sing a new church into being, every week. Since no one reads anymore and the cues from organ are meaningless to us a helpful emcee announces which songs we must sing as we gather. Then we have a prayer meeting. We hear stories of old. Then the priest coaches us through the readings and our week. Sarcasm is permissible. Jokes and funny stories help a lot because we love to laugh at the ironies of life. We might get a sprinkling of Chittister or zen Buddhism but for the most part we don’t notice. (If we do notice we say nothing for such is the province of the illuminati and you must be ordained or elected to discuss such matters openly). We never talk about religion or politics though as that is not polite. We never discuss anything that might be controversial. Jesus is our friend and guide. Notice how Jesus deals with the Pharisees. We can do this too towards all of the mean old Pharisees who worship the letter and not the spirit and didn’t diet properly and confused religion with their diet. We don’t do that anymore. We still read the letters of St. Paul but we don’t generally reference him as we all know his issues. Sometimes we will point out how much things have changed for everybody and how we needn’t be like St. Paul anymore. We don’t always kneel anymore, we don’t have a lot of statues or stuff like that around because our living rooms don’t have these items so it would ruin the seamless effect of sameness and lack of difference or novelty and make us feel sad and empty that we lack specialness without statuary, candles and tabernacle. If your grandmother had the infant of prague that’s to be ridiculed and nothing more and serves for a basis for showing how far we have evolved since those bad old days, showing how children are not sacred or holy but our possessions to be reflect all of our preferences and style and show up the next family in the pew next. The flora can stay though we like that as it’s natural and shows that we respect nature and it brings the outdoors in. On special days we bring our pets on leash for a priest to make a sign over the cross over them. We love our pets and they love us and we take care of them as caretakers of the earth. Anyone who would think that our pet deserves not a special blessing in the church can buzz off and we still can have a woman’s right to choose because that’s about her body and it’s not God’s creation.

    Then the priest does some assorted rituals, we gather round the inner circle within the circle making concentric circles and we all head up and then disperse and go forth to love and serve the Lord.

    Now I realize that an essential part of the mythology holds that “the people” prefer it all this way. It’s just that, if there have been no alternatives offered in this way of doing worship for such a long time, then, can you really say with any degree of confidence that the people do in fact prefer it to anything else, including the back to you with the gibberish? Or is this somehow more coherent that we all get the symbolism (or lack thereof), the musical sentiment, the meal, the beige as it helps us to grow, spiritually?

    With expectation I await your condemning reply describing my thoughts as derisive and ignorant of Vatican II. When I receive your reply and explanations, I anticipate that I will be so chastened that I will run, not walk, to the nearest confessional. After unburdening myself face to face in the requisite 20 minute period on Saturday, I will then go over, line by line, the Vatican II texts which you supply to help me to become a fully fledged member of your faith community.

    b. pandora

  6. jaykay says:

    I think one can say that all this push to understand the Mass, with the tiresome didacticism that tends to go along with it, has largely accompanied (if it hasn’t actually been caused by) the development of 20th century technology i.e. the microphone and amplifier. What’s the point of trying to make something understandable if it can’t even readily be heard by most present? People take all this so much for granted, but just look what happens in any large-ish church when for some reason the speakers cut-out: very little can be heard and – when the panic has subsided – the celebrant’s voice soon tends to give way with the strain of speaking too loud because, of course, everyting just HAS to be heard, doesn’t it?

    It happened in our church not long ago, which is pretty big. Even though it has a lovely acoustic the priest soon gave up the unequal struggle with the result that those more than half-way down could hear very little. Skies did not fall-in, ladies did not swoon, strong men did not blanch. Yes, they got over it. And moved on.

    Another (welcome) side-effect was that our celebrant, who is of the more than usually loquacious variety, gave up the unequal struggle and so we didn’t get the customary mini sermons 2 and 3 i.e. before and after communion, and the usual “humourous” quips before the blessing. Quite honestly, the effect was so good that I felt like sabotaging the amps. every Sunday.

  7. pfreddys says:

    The Mass is an Infinite Act. What human mind can contain The Infinite?

  8. Fr. Basil says:

    Talking about microphones…..

    One of the reasons that the prayers and readings were originally chanted was to make sure they were heard in the days before electronic amplification.

    Have Latin rite priests–especially in the USA–forgotten how to do this? The traditional chants for collects, lessons, and the like will work in English, and surely in other languages as well.

  9. jaykay says:

    Fr. Basil: “Have Latin rite priests–especially in the USA–forgotten how to do this?”

    Fr: yes, I think that’s the case, with some honourable exceptions, at least among those who only celebrate the NO. While I can only speak for Ireland, I very much doubt that they are even taught about it in seminary. But then again, since the only remaining seminary here in Ireland (Maynooth) seems to be dominated by wacko dissidents and magisterium of nun types, that’s hardly surprising.

  10. Nathan says:

    Jaykay, I think your insight about our modern dependence upon microphones and speakers is a good one. I would add that a contributing factor to that dependence is inherent in the Novus Ordo itself. To pray the Mass in the Ordinary Form, it is necessary to hear what option is being chosen at a given moment; by far the majority of the cues are aural. In the TLM, by contrast, to pray the Mass it is necessary to see what is occurring on the altar at a given moment; the vast majority of cues are visual (even at High Mass, since the priest continues to pray while the choir sings). Hence the perceived need for vocal amplification in the NO. That difference not only plays out when the PA system fails, it often provides the common confusion when people who only have known the Novus Ordo attend the TLM for the first time.

    Fr. Basil also makes a very good point. Even in very large churches, I have been able to hear the Epistle and Gospel better when sung well than I have at Low Masses. The principal of singing the texts makes a lot of sense for the Eastern rites, especially since the [wonderful, IMO] liturgical use of the ikonostasis would require more aural than visual cues.

    In Christ,

  11. The traditional chants for collects, lessons, and the like will work in English, and surely in other languages as well.

    Not really. Not in English. English and chant really make a clumsy combination.

    I say go back to Latin. We cannot completely understand the Mass, but now that we have Mass in the vernacular, we understand it less than ever.

  12. Nathan says:

    Oh, dear. It is “principle” not :”principal.” I obviously need more Mystic Monk Midnight Vigils Coffee this afternoon.

    In Christ,

  13. Traductora says:

    The point about amplification is a good one. I think it has encouraged a multitude of abuses.

    But the other point about “understanding” is that even when the Mass was in Latin at a time Latin was no longer a spoken language, people understood what was going on. In later days, they had missals (with a vernacular translation) that they read throughout the mass, but back before the invention of printing and universal literacy, people obviously knew what it meant from the instruction they received from their priests and their culture. This is not to exalt ignorance or passivity, but simply to say that people always understood the Mass, although their understanding came from aural or cultural routes.

    In terms of current needs, however, I think vernacular languages can work perfectly well in the appropriate settings, and people need to get rid of their missals (which they use even though the mass is in English and amplified so that nobody can miss it). But the big problem is the translation.

    As a translator, I am not in favor of “dynamic equivalency,” which is essentially a paraphrase. And it can be a highly manipulated and tendentious paraphrase, as we have had in the old ICEL translation. We need an accurate, good translation, and this is true whether it is in spoken or written form. (That said, I think we need to go back to the old rite, either in Latin or in the vernacular.)

  14. MJ says:

    Miss Anita Moore, O.P. — I tooootally agree with you!

  15. Thomas G. says:

    And underpinning all this obsession with comprehending the Mass is rationalism, or a hyper-dependence on the intellect, to the neglect of the memory, will, imagination, and sensible appetites (by which we apprehend and are drawn to beauty, and by which we are repelled by the ugly), all of which have important roles to play in worship.

    I’m convinced that, under the influence of rationalism and Protestantism, Western man has lost the concept of worship and its necessary element, sacrifice.

  16. JKnott says:

    Thomas G: Very well said!!!!

  17. Ef-lover says:

    ss Anita Moore, O.P. says:
    14 April 2011 at 12:21 pm
    The traditional chants for collects, lessons, and the like will work in English, and surely in other languages as well.

    Not really. Not in English. English and chant really make a clumsy combination.

    I say go back to Latin. We cannot completely understand the Mass, but now that we have Mass in the vernacular, we understand it less than ever.

    Yes, I totally agree with you– the chants should be in Latin — I listened to some of the chant settings for the new translations and the English sounds very clumsy. The Latin has a certain flow to it which the English does not have

  18. Fr. Basil says:

    \\[Me:]The traditional chants for collects, lessons, and the like will work in English, and surely in other languages as well.

    [Another:] Not really. Not in English. English and chant really make a clumsy combination.\\

    In my days as an Episcopalian, the normal Sunday Eucharist was chanted throughout, including the Collects and Readings to the traditional tones. Even the Sursum Corda and Preface were chanted.

    Different settings were used of the ordinary, which were sung by the congregation. Among them was the beautiful Missa Marialis (Kyrie cum jubilo in the Liber and Kyriale).

    It all worked out just fine. Also, incense was the norm.

    Orthodox and Catholic Byzantine churches in this country sing the traditional chants adapted to English without turning a hair.

    See why the NO holds no charms for me?

  19. Hugh says:

    Having sacred rites in a non-vernacular, sacred language is an anthropological constant. Christine Mohrmann begins her superb little book “Liturgical Latin: Its Origins and Character” making this point, and referring to a passage in the Odyssey, Book 10 which alludes to a language spoken by “the gods”.

    I know this to be true of our native people in my own country. The Australian aborigines have held their sacred rituals in sacred, non-vernacular languages, it seems, for thousands of years. Importantly: they don’t even understand the words they utter. A friend of mine once did a masters thesis on an aboriginal composer who used sacred words and sayings in his compositions. It was explained to her neither he nor anyone else of his people understood the words. But that was of no consequence: the “gods” understood the sacred words being chanted.

    Such intuitions made it quite easy for the Australian Aborigines to adopt the sense of ritual embodied in Latin Rite when they were missionised in the early 20th century. Here is a striking vignette concerning the Tiwi people of northern Australia – devastating in its implications for the Post-Vatican II liturgical auto-demolition – provided by Fr Peter Hearn, M.S.C.:

    “At the funeral Mass of Bishop O’Loughlin in 1985, the Tiwi singers began the traditional chant from the old Latin Mass for the Dead, the Dies Irae. It was unscripted, not in the official booklet. The assembled bishops and clergy and religious took up the singing with them. It is a long chant, and one by one the bishops and others began to drop out of the singing as memories failed. But not the Tiwis—they sang it to the very end.”

    So, somewhat paradoxically, celebrating the Liturgy in Latin (or another sacred language) is by no means a gesture of fruitless introversion: it can have a vital missionary dimension.

  20. benedetta says:

    Perhaps one day soon Vatican II will really be implemented where I am. That it is given as cover for what has actually been done does not mean that what is done is consistent with Vatican II. That there hasn’t been a “crackdown” on what they are doing does not mean that they are right, that it is ok or permitted either. It just means that Rome (for decades apparently) is not composed of the mean meanies out to get everyone as they assert. It means that they are free and have been free to make their own choices and churches are closed, vocations are few and far between, schools shuttered, a whole generation lost faith on their watch and all the while embracing all that has been taught locally since it is socially prohibited to reference Rome or a Pope or whatever it is in an encouraging way.
    People don’t know what hit them really, as they thought they were doing it the “right” way all in line with Vatican II but as it is pushed and promoted it winds up signifying nothing. Yet people crave and seek out the sacred in so many other ways that are not helpful or mean good for them.

  21. BobP says:

    >But the big problem is the translation.<

    Always has been. It seems to be Protestant thinking (at least in the Western civilization) that everything translated must be 100% accurate, and the translation can replace the original and can be used as the ultimate guide. If the Mass is in Latin, keep it that way. Absolute truth can't be compromised.

  22. benedetta says:

    Perhaps our elites in the media will do a write up about the distressing fact that Sanskrit is still being used for the sacred prayers in Hindu religious ceremonies but that no one knows Sanskrit.

    And everyone at yoga at the Y puts their palms together to say to each other “Namaste” but how many of those sweet old ladies on their mats nearby have a clue what they are saying?

    The idea that “Holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are filled with your glory” is totally and instantly comprehended just as it is, literally and completely, when it is said, with instantaneous and universal understanding is preposterous.

    I can understand that missionaries must learn the vernacular in the remote regions of the world they visit and in order for newly converted to enter into the sacraments more fully the vernacular could be one aid to that. But to say that cultures already using Latin must now be prohibited from using it, it does seem rather, abrupt and dictatorial. Sometimes…actually quite often it is slated to sing Pan de Vida. In white suburbia. I’m guessing maybe, one, two at most on a given Sunday are fluent or native speakers of Spanish. So even if pretty much no one in the congregation speaks the Spanish language, it’s still on, just because it’s in church. But the propaganda goes, if the congregation were asked to turn to a Latin hymn at one point or another, people would trample each other sprinting for the exits, is that correct?

  23. AnAmericanMother says:

    Fr Basil,

    I agree. I was a choir singer from age 6 in the ECUSA until we swam the Tiber in 2004. Anglican chant manages English quite well. It has developed some conventions over the years to smooth down English’s sharp corners and make it more singable. (have you encountered the Mastersingers’ chant version of the British Highway Code?)

    We chant the psalms at our parish in a slightly modified form of 4 part Anglican chant. It works very well.

  24. AnAmericanMother says:

    I should have added that WHAT is being sung is an entirely different issue. As the Mastersingers demonstrate.

  25. AnAmericanMother says:

    Here is the score for “The Highway Code”, pointed in the Anglican style:


    You can hear it, with a slideshow, here:


    (I know it’ll go in the moderation queue, but it’s too funny to miss.)

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