ASK FATHER: What’s so difficult about learning to say the Traditional Latin Mass?

children playing at MassFrom a reader…


Maybe this question is too broad, but here goes: What is so difficult about saying/learning the EF? My pastor recently mentioned that he simply does not have time to learn the EF well enough to say it himself (he is open to it and even attended some local Juventutem events, but he is the sole priest in charge of two large parishes). As an outside observer, I realize that learning how to pronounce the Latin may be a bit difficult, and a priest needs a bit of help learning where to start, but isn’t everything the priest says and does in a TLM (especially a low mass) provided in the books? And if not, couldn’t new books be written to provide for details in the margins or more clear directions in the priest’s native language to guide him right though? It seems that a lot of smart and not-so-smart men learned to say mass over the last 500 years, I would presume the same should still be able to hold true today.

There are a lot of factors to consider.

First, many priests are up to their eyeballs in tasks.  One more task gets to be daunting.  We have to have compassion and patience when considering their time.

I know, I know… this is a really important task, and it touches on the very identity of every priest of the Roman Rite.  Who are we if we don’t know our Rite?  And we don’t know our Rite, if we don’t also know the Usus Antiquior, the TLM, which is arguably the expression of the Rite which is richer and has the greater track record by far.  Hence, many tasks a priest has on his plate ought to be set aside for this more important project.  But we all know what human nature is like.

Another aspect is, surely, that many priests have heard that it is sooooo haaaaard to learn the older Mass, and, not knowing Latin well or at all, they are simply intimidated.  Moreover, some intimidated priests who are serious and pious, in their desire to do it well and without mistakes, hesitate to start because they are afraid they won’t do a good job of it.  Of course a lot – and I mean a lot of really dumb priests in the past learned how to say Mass and the world continued to spin on its access.  If they could do it, we can do it.

There’s one guy I know who is pretty nervous about the whole thing.  I’m about to ship him a box of Depends with a sharply worded note.



There is a Latin phrase: Fabricando fabri fimus… we become carpenters by doing carpentry.   We have to get our of our heads and get our hands dirty, as it were.  Also, we mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  That’s a killer.

It really helps some men to be shown what to do, one on one.   Listening to recordings of the Latin can be useful.  Doing a workshop, if possible, can be productive.

Priests should be encouraged, enjoined, badgered, beckoned, cajoled, urged, wheedled, exhorted, implored and pressed to learn the older form, for his own sake, and for the sake of the congregation he serves.

Also, be willing to step up and provide anything and everything he needs.

Father says, “I don’t have the books.”
You reply, takingthe paper from your pocket, “Here are several editions, Father, which would you like?”
“I don’t have the right vestments.”
“Father Z says that Gammarelli in Rome is not too expensive and they do good work.  Which colors would you like?  I’ll order them.”
“My Latin isn’t very good.”
“Here are some great resources.  Let’s work on it together.  I’ll bring the wine and cheese.”

The knock on effect of knowing the traditional ways pays back a thousand fold all the efforts paid to learn them.

Fathers, you CAN do this!  You SHOULD do this!  Your life as a priest will change once you know the older form and people will be grateful for the ongoing dividends your efforts will provide.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    The Fraternity of St Peter have produced an excellent series of You Tube videos, which are useful if you don’t have a friendly priest to help you. The only point I would make is that you don’t necessarily have to say Mass at the speed that the priest does here. The older manuals (e.g. Slater and Prummer) said that a EF Low Mass should never take less than 20, or more than 30, minutes. I think you would have to say the words at breakneck speed to comply with these desiderata. It is better, surely, to say the words at a normal conversational speed. Anyway, here are the videos:

    1. From the Beginning to the Offertory

    2. From the Offertory to the End of the Canon

    3. From the Pater Noster to the End

    4. Principles of Gesture and Movement in the Liturgy

    5. Fr Goodwin’s Spiritual Commentary.

    If there are any priests in the West Midlands area of the UK who want to learn to celebrate the Extraordinary Form, just e-mail me at and I will be happy to help. It really isn’t that difficult. If I can learn it, anyone can!

  2. Fr. Hamilton says:

    I myself had in my possession for years all the materials to learn the Traditional Latin Mass… and being up to my eyeballs in pastoral tasks for multiple parishes (as well as with diocesan assignments) it still took me years and years to finally…umm… ride the darn bike! For me, and perhaps for the priest referred to in the question, and for many priests, the key was personal accountability to another priest who was taking his time to train me. It gave flesh to the many training books I had. It helped make the videos more accessible. It’s rather like the success rate of going to the gym alone versus going with a workout partner. “Ugh, I’m exhausted but Z is expecting me so I’ll put the sweats and the weight belt on.” In context: “Ugh, I’m so busy and don’t have time, but Fr. Z is training me through the offertory today so I’ll open the training book again and I’ll put on the maniple.”

    Fathers, this is possible. Get the resources, yes. But get a priest accountability partner. It will make a significant difference and, goodness, in the busy and fractured world we live in it just might be some excellent priestly fraternity you need. Drinks and dinner after TLM practice? I’m there!

    Father Z: Hmm, TLM priest accountability partners… Maybe it needs to be a registered trademark with some Z swag?

  3. Andrew says:

    “My Latin isn’t so good”.

    Dear Father: Here is what I can do for you:

    15 minutes of Latin a day: each segment covers a certain topic. This is how I would proceed if we had a chance to sit together. I start with pronunciation. Give an overview. Introduce the concept of declensions. Go on to conjugations. Prepositions. Imperfect and perfect tenses. Indicative and subjunctive mood. Participles. Giving examples along the way.

    This is an ongoing project, but so far, I have 23 lessons: try and see if you like. No charge. What’s in it for me? Absolutely nothing.

  4. Dirk1973 says:

    Latin isn’t that hard too learn. You don’t have to speak it fluently, understanding and reading it is good enough. I remember when i started to attend the EF, in no time i had learned to understand the Latin used in Mass. Normally all Missals have the vernacular translation next to the Latin texts so understanding goes pretty fast.
    There is a lot of good study material out there so don’t be afraid. What i don’t understand is why seminaries stopped teaching Latin, Latin still is the language of the catholic Church.

  5. M. K. says:

    I can appreciate the lament of the “up to their eyeballs” priests, because I’m also a busy priest who put off learning the TLM for a over a year because I felt too busy, even though I had already gathered everything I needed for the task (missal, vestments, altar cards, FSSP training video and other instructional materials, etc.). After making various excuses, I finally ripped off the metaphorical Band-Aid and did it. Yes, doing so required an extra measure of discipline and sacrifice, but such is the life of a priest, and I’m glad I took the time to learn the TLM.

    On a practical note, as one who has used both I recommend the SSPX instructional video in addition to the FSSP one – the FSSP video is fine, but I found the somewhat more discursive yet matter-of-fact explanations by the priest in the SSPX video to be an invaluable help when I was learning the TLM. The SSPX instructional video is (at this writing, at least) available here on YouTube:

  6. Tony Phillips says:

    A couple thoughts/questions:
    1. I have no idea what parish priests do all day. Not being snarky, it’s just the truth. In know they’re supposed to pray the breviary, and many of them probably do. And there’s daily Mass…but beyond that, I’m honestly not clear.
    2. Is it OK for the priest to rely on (ie, read from) the missal or an equivalent cheat-sheet throughout–eg, for the prayers at the foot of the altar, final blessing, and all those parts where experienced EF priests do from memory?
    3. What’s different about the vestments? I guess the maniple has fallen out of use in the OF, but for a low mass (no deacons etc) or sine populo is there anything else? I guess you’d need black vestments for a requiem and a lot of parishes may no longer have them….even though, after being told for years that in the new Mass white was the colour for funerals, I now see (thanks to the internet!) that the GIRM permits black or violet too.

  7. george says:

    I have offered to pay for a full-week training session, including room and board, for two different priests in Chicago with the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius. One turned me down out of hand because “there’s already a Latin Mass(sic) in this diocese.” The other I never got a response from.

    I hope this is because they are too busy, but I suspect the reason is that they don’t find it important enough to take the week to learn.

  8. gracie says:


    “What I don’t understand is why seminaries stopped teaching Latin . . .”

    One factor that contributed to the knowledge of Latin in seminaries was that most students had had Latin in high school. This includes public as well as private schools – two years at least was a requirement. Many students took three or four years. Colleges required a basic knowledge of Latin. Seminaries would have taught the Latin necessary for the rituals but the students probably would have known the language already.

    My freshman year of high school, 1964, was the first year that Catholic high schools allowed students to study a language in the “vernacular” – French, Spanish, German – in place of Latin. This was as a result of a national agenda to get American students to be proficient in a modern day language other than their own. Europe was held up as a model to us – people knowing the language of two or three of their neighbors as well as their own language – and Latin was being called a dead language that was no longer of any use. I think public schools dropped Latin as a requirement a year or two earlier, for the same reasons. In fact, there used to be a jingle about it:

    “Latin is a dead language
    It’s plain enough to see
    It killed off all the Romans
    And now it’s killing me.”

  9. APX says:

    a EF Low Mass should never take less than 20, or more than 30, minutes.

    I think that’s a private Mass with no communion distribution to the faithful. I have attended the low Masses of priests who say it pretty fast, and the shortest I’ve been to is 34 minutes. Our current priest takes 45-48 minutes (even with no fervourino and a second priest helping with communion), which, when you’ve already have been awake for 18+ hours really begins to drag on.

    Does that book say anything about how loud public low Masses should be said?

  10. Mike says:

    If memory serves, one of the speakers at the Summorum conference in Rome last week suggested that the profound focal difference of the Traditional Mass and the Novus Ordo could be a matter of difficulty for many priests.

    One wonders if some priests—and laity for that matter—resist the TLM, not out of hostility toward the rite, but out of fear that its theocentric focus will ruin the anthopocentric Novus Ordo for them.

  11. Giuseppe says:

    I’ve been to several NO masses said in Latin.
    I would imagine that would be a great way for a priest to get used to the language.
    Say a Latin NO mass one or two weekday mornings a week (small audience, good opportunity to try it out), and after a few months, you will feel much more comfortable with the language. Then you can decide if you want to learn the EF. Print out a few dozen of these for the congregation.

    Or even do a vernacular NO, but say the Liturgy of the Eucharist in Latin. Even Pope Francis does that!

  12. Lepidus says:

    Is it possible / permissible for a priest to learn the Mass by himself and introduce it slowly, building elements as time permits? What I’m thinking is that a priest might be able to find time at the end of the day to learn how to to say the Mass, but it might get to be too much of a schedule and implementation issue if he needs to recruit and train (for example) altar boys and musicians before he can start transitioning.

  13. I have to say, when I was learning the Extraordinary Form, it did not come easily. It wasn’t Latin; I studied Latin (lazily) in high school, and have been exposed to it ever since, including — mirabile dictu — in the seminary! No, what I found challenging was the Mass itself. Why?

    Perhaps because my whole understanding of the Mass, at that time, was wrapped around the Ordinary Form, and now all that was unraveled in a way. Or maybe because the two forms are both too much alike, and yet not alike enough, if that makes sense? If they were more different, it would perhaps be easier to keep them compartmentalized. If they were more the same, it would be easier to make the shifts from what I was accustomed to with the O.F. to the E.F.

    As it is, I find it easier if I do certain things the same way in either form; there is the risk, otherwise, of zigging when I ought to zag. This is especially true when I offer the O.F. ad orientem. Maybe that’s just me.

  14. Geoffrey says:

    I would think that the Latin is not the most difficult aspect, but rather the rubrics, which are much more complex than in the Ordinary Form. There is also the issue of memorization. Is this required by either the celebrant or acolyte, or can hand missals be utilized?

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  16. Giuseppe says:

    Thank you for sharing that information about your You Tube Latin series.
    I watched the first episode and loved it.
    Looking forward to working my way through the series,

  17. iPadre says:

    Nothing good comes without sacrifice. When we wanted to become priests, we would go to the end of the world. What has happened to sacrifice. So, it takes a little work. We need to stir up our priestly zeal for the good of the Church, our vocations, and our own salvation.

  18. jeffc says:

    Are Roman vestments required for the TLM? [No.] I’ve been to a low mass offered by a Monsignor on a Sunday and he wore an “normal” chasuble. He’s old enough that I’m certain that he was ordained pre-Vatican II, but he just doesn’t wear the Roman vestments for the TLM. Is that a problem? [No.]

  19. tho says:

    Vatican city is the only country in the world where Latin is the official language, but because of indifference or laziness most Bishops and Priests do not know it, and what is worse, they don’t care. To not require a seminarian to be somewhat conversant in Latin is, in my opinion, a sin of omission.
    Could you imagine joining the German navy and not knowing how to speak German, and furthermore not caring to learn? Maybe that’s a poor example, but you see my point.
    To the many priests trying to learn Latin, and making an effort to bring people into their heritage, my admiration for you knows no bounds.

  20. Fr Richard Duncan CO says:

    No. Nothing is said in the manuals about volume.

    I think you’re right about the fact that distribution of communion lengthens the time of the liturgy. I take between 25 and 45 minutes, depending on whether the mass is private or public, etc. High Masses take between 60 and 80 mins, depending on the music.

  21. Richard McNally says:

    Learning the TLM takes time, attention, commitment…I did it while pastor of a fairly busy parish. I had a good mentor and good DVD (the SSPX is excellent as is the FSSP, which is on Youtube). Keep at it. I went way over the number of practice sessions that my priest mento had planned. Review the books and DVD and then review some more. For the first year I never celebrated the Mass without doing a quick go through of the DVD or a part of the FSSP course on Youtube. Take the texts of the Mass and pray with them especially at Eucharistic adoration.
    The support of the laity is also important. The community for whom I celebrated was extremely patient with all my mistakes. They were always ready to help, offer a word of encouragement, provide the needed resources. Having priests to celebrate Mass and the sacraments and pastor them is important to them. They’ll help.
    The blessings of celebrating the traditional liturgy are immeasurable. I agree with what Fr Z. said about not really knowing the Roman Rite until you know the traditional form. Celebrating the traditional liturgy has greatly enriched my love for the Eucharist and the Priesthood.

  22. Vincent says:

    Father, I have another example – if the Priest in question is nervous about making mistakes, find an experienced MC who can help him through it (or if you are one yourself, offer). Yeah, it’s live and things go wrong, but I’ve done it for a couple of priests (and even an Archbishop) where I’ve just stood next to them (like one would at Solemn High or Sung Masses) and kept an eye on proceedings.

    That’s why I’m there, after all, to help the priest get through the Mass as well as possible!

  23. Fr_Sotelo says:

    The good, orthodox priests I know tell me that 1) they hated studying languages in the seminary. They only keep up with Spanish (or insert some other pastoral language here) because they HAVE to in order to confer sacraments. 2) They wouldn’t mind learning the numerous rubrics of the usus antiquior if they had grown up watching the Mass. However, they hate following a video instruction.

    Also, they do not find the videos as helpful–or effecting for learning–as having watched the Mass growing up and having a priest instructor guide them through learning. In my 20 plus years of being familiar with the EF Mass, I have only convinced two priests in my diocese to learn the Mass.

    In all honesty, I sympathize with the language issue. I took Latin in the seminary, and I cannot imagine ever having learned the EF Mass without my Latin knowledge. If my Latin was very rusty or non-existent, I probably would not have bothered to learn the EF Mass. And that is coming from a priest who in my younger years, was a fast learner of the rites of the Church.

    And the rubrics of the Tridentine Mass are far more intricate and mentally taxing than the Ordinary Form. [Wellll… once you get the hang of it, it isn’t taxing at all.] Without a strong pastoral desire to serve the EF Mass community, and personal initiative to immerse oneself in the tradition of the Church, I can see where most priests would say, “Non placeat.”

  24. Fr. Reader says:

    ” One wonders if some priests—and laity for that matter—resist the TLM, not out of hostility toward the rite, but out of fear that its theocentric focus will ruin the anthopocentric Novus Ordo for them.”
    I don’t think this is true. It is not necessarily the ordinary form. It is the way it is celebrated. I think the best way to begin to learn the extraordinary form is to begin to celebrate the ordinary form with the spirit of the EF (that requires of course learning a bit of EF).
    So, first we should stop taking for granted that the OF should be irreverent.

  25. I imagine that learning the TLM according to the books would be more difficult than learning the Latin language. It takes about 600 hours of instruction, practice, and meaningful communication to learn Latin as a second language. Compare: 800 for English, 1300 for Russian, and 2200 for Chinese.

    I have said before and I will repeat, any priest or semenarian who wants to learn Latin,I will teach you for free. Just contact me.

  26. KateD says:


    It wouldn’t hurt if TLM attendees were a little less critical [FULL STOP!]of imperfectly pronounciamated Latin.

    If it’s close, you’ll get the gist. [Although we are always unsatisfied with “the gist” and seek ever to improve.]

  27. jflare says:

    “One wonders if some priests—and laity for that matter—resist the TLM, not out of hostility toward the rite, but out of fear that its theocentric focus will ruin the anthopocentric Novus Ordo for them.”

    That might be. On the other hand, one might recognize that many laity have struggled with the Novus Ordo because of it’s anthropocentric nature, even if they don’t know it as such. After all, though Mass is our highest form of prayer, many may leave Mass thinking they did not pray at all. Whomever created the OF rubrics worried more about being “relevant to modern man” than about praying to God. Once one becomes acquainted with the EF, one may more readily recognize serious prayer. It’s not that learning the EF may ruin the OF for them, rather that the OF arguably had already been ruined, so they needed the EF to provide what they originally sought. …Even if they didn’t know it.

  28. KateD says:

    Of course.

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