NRO: The Latin Mass Endures.

From the National Review Online:

Despite Misunderstanding, the Latin Mass Endures

The same riches that profited Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Francis de Sales are available to Catholics today.

Not a small group of people will read the title of this piece and, jadedly rolling their eyes, exhale, “Another one?”

By this they mean, another pathetic ode to the traditional Latin Mass, that unfailing attractor of curmudgeons and weirdos. It may feel as though accounts of the excellence of that Mass are issued weekly and persuade no one, instead merely reminding normal people of the limits of atavism.  [Which is why normal, good-natured lay people need to get organized and get to work.  Which is why normal, well-adjusted priests must at long last put on their big boy pants and start making some changes!  Don’t allow the unfiltered “Id of Traddydom” to be the face and voice of Tradition!]

Defenses of the old liturgy, while not nearly that frequent, [NB] nonetheless do usually fail to reach even conservative Catholics. It seems that the precondition for liking the Latin Mass is found in a recessive allele, [sort of like a “recessive gene”] and that as many people who could like the Latin Mass already attend it. For everyone else, it is too strange, too old, too disconcerting[A good word.  It gets to the heart of the matter: Mass should be disconcerting!]

Yet one recalls, incredulous, that a few decades ago the entire Catholic world was subject to that Tridentine peculiarity. Ditch diggers and policemen loved it well into the 1960s, not to mention the unlettered peasants, many of them saints, who built and attended the great European churches for centuries.

The last 50 years have caused the faithful such an estrangement from their heritage that when the average Catholic sees the ancient Mass today, he recoils as violently as the tautest Genevan. [Geneva… center of virulent anti-Catholic Protestantism.  And note the theme that I am constantly harping on: the violent weakening of our Catholic identity.] John Adams, serving in the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia, visited a “Romish Chappell” and relayed his experience to Abigail in his letter of October 9, 1774:

The poor Wretches, fingering their Beads, chanting Latin, not a Word of which they understood, their Pater Nosters and Ave Maria’s. Their holy Water — their Crossing themselves perpetually — their Bowing to the Name of Jesus, wherever they hear it—their Bowings, and Kneelings, and Genuflections before the Altar. . . . Here is every Thing which can lay hold of the Eye, Ear, and Imagination. Every Thing which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant.

Pitying the poor common folk who could be taken in by so overwrought a display, he was grateful that he had been raised in the clear, simple religion befitting a free man. Somehow modernity has gotten the opposite idea, that the overwrought display appeals only to pretentious nostalgiacs who wear bow ties and sing Gregorian chant in the shower. The first response is to be expected from a New England Unitarian, but the second is more unsettling. The Catholic patrimony of 1,900 years is treated as a discarded prototype, flawed and foreign, dialectically superseded by the Novus Ordo[*]

When one considers, however, the faithful’s uneasiness during the transition from the old form, and the wrenching and massaging that were required to acclimate them to their new liturgical environs, one realizes that the average Catholic suffers not from genetic defect or Hegelian synthesis but from a simple lack of exposure. [The writer left out an important one: ecclesial PTSD.  The faithful and priests were traumatized and, often, liturgically abused.]

Tradition is a muscle that requires frequent exercise to avoid atrophy, [YES!  It is work.] and as regards the Latin Mass, Catholics have spent the past half-century emaciating like astronauts in zero gravity. [atrophy… another good word. I often use “enervate”.] No one is born used to altars and sacrifice and Latin and polyphony and weighty silence.  [And yet children, especially boys, take to it like ducklings.  Children seem to have a strong sense of the liturgical.] One must learn over time, acquiring gradually a taste for what one at first cannot understand. [It is hard work.  And it should be!  There is nothing easy about what happens at Mass.] Practices that seem inscrutable or even absurd reveal at length their ancient antecedents. Bemusement dissolves into confidence, boredom yields to rapture, chuckling becomes awe.

The hurdles preventing enjoyment of the Latin Mass are numerous, but they can be overcome. The most intimidating is usually the language, which, it is pointed out, people do not speak. That is true, but Cicero himself would not apprehend everything said by the priest because half of it is inaudible in the first place. Latin is the Church’s language, Roman and catholic as the Church is Roman and Catholic. Something is to be gained from the story of the woman who approached a priest after Mass with the complaint “Father, I didn’t understand a single word you said up there today.” “That’s all right, madam,” he responded; “I wasn’t talking to you.”  [Okay.. that was me.  I relate the anecdote HERE.  Of course it is a great line that any number of priests could have come up with.]

Aside from snark, which is always satisfying, a lesson reveals itself. The priest offers the sacrifice to God on behalf of the faithful; he is our representative to God as were the Levites of the Old Testament, as is Christ even now. Indeed, at Mass the priest acts, per Saint Paul’s phrase, in the person of Christ — that is, as Christ Himself.

That is the reason half the words are inaudible. It is not that the Mass is merely happening to a passive congregation. [Not passive!  Actively receptive!] It is that the priest, our ordained ambassador (or, as the English say, minister), links us to Calvary, and earth to heaven. The traditional form makes this point visually by positioning the priest not “with his back to the people” — as those prone to ecclesiastical glass-half-emptiness like to say [because they are willfully obtuse] — but with his face toward God, as a captain might stand ahead of his men.

What, then, becomes of lay participation, which many Catholics feel is necessary to their benefit from Mass? The answer is that internal participation excels (and is the goal of) external[YES!  The core of the message and the work of many years and many tens of thousands of words!] The faithful unite their intentions to those of the priest; they follow along in the missal or spend time in mental prayer; they weld their souls to the sacrifice. After all, the most active participation there ever was in any Mass was that of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, who neither did nor said anything the Evangelists thought worthy of reporting. In fact the famous hymn says only “Stabat mater dolorosa” — the mournful mother stayed.

Well-catechized Catholics know the foregoing doctrines, which are true of all the different liturgical rites of the Church, yet they shy away from the form that most visibly embodies them. [I think I know why.  It has to do with what I have said about dealing with our “daily winter”, as Augustine called it, our “heims cotidiana”, that is reflection on and preparation for our death.  Mass must help us to get ready to die.  The hard elements of Mass are kenotic aids, in a kind of apophatic way of peering through the cleft in the rock as MYSTERY passes for a transforming glimpse.] That is, I daresay, a spiritual loss. The Latin Mass is certainly intimidating in its solemnity and otherworldliness, but how else should the Holy Sacrifice be than solemn and otherworldly? [YES! As I often point out in sermons, and here, it is wrong-headed to make Mass simpler, immediately understandable.  There is nothing easy about Mass.  During Mass the divine and the human are mysteriously brought together.  How is that easy?] The same riches that profited Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint Francis de Sales can be available to every Catholic today, and it would be sad indeed to forfeit one’s inheritance because of a little discomfort. St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei — which uses the Novus Ordo and is wildly popular among conservative Catholics — said the Latin Mass daily until his death in 1975, well after the institution of the new liturgy.

“If it is so,” said Sir Arnold Lunn in the Sixties, “that the Latin Mass is only for the educated few, surely Mother Church in all her charity can find a little place even for the educated few?” Though I applaud the wit I cannot concede the premise: The Latin Mass is, and always has been, for everyone.

Everyone.  Yes.

We need the older form everywhere and often.  We need it for our very identity.


Fr. Z kudos to the writer.  I suspect he may read this blog.

*“I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it. It’s impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that. A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden, and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent. Can it be trusted any more about anything else? Won’t it proscribe tomorrow what it prescribes today?” (Salt of the Earth, 1997)

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Fr. Z KUDOS, Hard-Identity Catholicism, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, SUMMORUM PONTIFICUM, The future and our choices, The Id of Traddydom and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. James in Perth says:


    But Father!! Father!!! Is there a middle ground between the TLM and the NO? In other words, can the NO be reformed in a more traditional manner with some Latin but including the reverence and mystery of the TLM?

    I am indeed curious to hear your response.

  2. PTK_70 says:

    The author of this eloquent and wordy ode to traditional worship fails, like too many others, to employ precise terminology regarding the very thing he hopes to advance. Mass celebrated according to the Missal of Bl Paul VI, is a Latin Mass. Even if the vernacular is used. Even if the priest faces toward the people. Mass celebrated according to the Dominican Rite is a Latin Mass. They are Latin Masses just as Mass celebrated according to the 1962 Missal is a Latin Mass.

    A common vocabulary of tightly defined terms is a sine qua non for coordinated military operations. Why should it be any different in the spiritual realm?

    The beloved Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah – two heavyweight champions of right worship – have set a good example in this regard, not referring to the traditional Roman Rite Mass as the “Latin Mass”.

    It’s not that hard to get our terms right; it’s just matter of discipline. But without that discipline even the grandest eloquence will fail of its intended purpose.

  3. tho says:

    Father Z, you would make an excellent bishop. [No. I don’t think I would, and I hope that people don’t even think about such a thing.] And if by some miracle you are, I will move to your diocese. Better yet you could be appointed to my diocese, sadly my diocese is Metuchen, founded by Mr. McCarrick. [It’ll never happen.]

  4. terentiaj63 says:

    These kinds of articles make me thirsty for the Mass as I worshipped as a child. Praise God, the Latin Mass Association in my diocese is at last making progress. Lord willing, we in Saginaw will finally have access to the Mass of the Ages

  5. To share with PTK 70 and terentiaj63:

    An excerpt from ‘Is attending Mass an ordeal for you? Perhaps it should be.’ (on my site]

    As I approach more closely the end of my life, I am becoming less tolerant of mediocre Masses, less willing to subject myself to the goings on within them and depriving myself of the “Heaven on Earth” experience of an excellently celebrated Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
    The older form of the Roman Rite is widely referred to as the Tridentine Mass, but more recently has been labeled as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (EF). Too often it is referred to as the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). Although the older form of the Mass is always recited in Latin, I prefer it simply be called the Traditional Mass (TM). I say this because the NO was initially intended to be recited predominantly in Latin (and still should be). Therefore the TM should not be described as being a Latin (language) Mass simply because the NO may be recited in Latin or in the local area’s vernacular language. Both forms are Roman Rite Masses of the Latin Church (the Church of Rome).
    [more onsite]

  6. bartlep says:

    The few parishes that do have the EF Mass might attract more people if the Masses were offered during the 8 am – 12 noon times that the majority attends Mass instead of 7 am or 3:30 pm.

  7. jflare29 says:

    “No one is born used to altars and sacrifice and Latin and polyphony and weighty silence.”

    Huh? I’m surprised to hear that nobody knows about polyphony. I know, the average parish rarely offers harmony alongside melody anymore. They rarely use pipe organs either. Yet surely pop culture offers some polyphonic traits. …Doesn’t it? Or maybe I’m showing my age. Lawrence Welk and Pipe Dreams still run on PBS and NPR; one may still attend an opera or symphony. Most of the country and pop that I liked most certainly wasn’t all monotone. Have we truly sunk so desperately in this so-called “modern” world that people don’t understand harmony?

    …and someone thinks we would want this????

  8. BrionyB says:

    In this context, “polyphony” usually refers to a particular Renaissance style where two or more voices/melodies move independently of each other (as opposed to simply harmonizing with each other). It’s what gives the music of Palestrina et al. that “endless” flowing sound. It’s quite distinctive and you don’t tend to hear it in music from the classical or modern eras.

    So yes it probably would sound unfamiliar and a bit strange to many people’s ears, though I think most would find it quite beautiful.

  9. jflare29 says:

    BrionyB, I’m afraid I rather disagree.
    I’ve never heard any requirement for polyphony to refer to Renaissance styles in particular. After that, I should think a person with even a minor interest in Fine Arts would have experienced polyphonic music, especially if that means more than two parts which move quasi-independently of each other. By my mid-20’s, I had heard plenty by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Prokofief, Pfautch, Vivaldi, and many others. All in secular context, nothing sacred. By my late 20s, I recall becoming quite frustrated with the Church: Why would anyone want to attend Catholic Mass to give praise, honor, or glory to God? When the secular, Protestant, and Orthodox worlds have so MUCH beauty in music, the Catholic world won’t attract anyone with…typical parish fare. I still like “Peace Is Flowing Like a River” and “Kumbaya” for what they are, yet they only poorly fare when one has sung pieces by Palestrina, Victoria, Franck, and–surprise, surprise!–Vivaldi!

    Thus I find the comment about people being unfamiliar with polyphony quite startling. If anything, from where I sit, the Catholic world has lots of catching up to do if She wishes to stare down secular music.

Comments are closed.