I am a relative newcomer to the Traditional Latin Mass, the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. My family and I first attended this form of Mass only a short time ago. I think it was the Feast of Christ the King in 2014 at the St. Francis de Sales Oratory in St. Louis, MO, which is staffed by priests of the Institute of Christ the King. We had always considered ourselves more traditional and were curious about the old Latin Mass. I had read a lot about it on Facebook, especially how its adherents believed that it was THE antidote to informal and irreverent Ordinary Form Masses that seem to be so prevalent. Please let me share with you that first experience, and what I have observed as I have more frequently been able to attend Traditional Latin Masses.
Past Experience with Liturgy
First, let me share a little background. My wife and I were born in the late 1960s and we had seen all sorts of Masses in our lifetimes. Both of us were close to the liturgical music community in our dioceses growing up. I had played organ at Mass from a young age, and had participated in the choir at my Jesuit high school in the Midwest. I was raised on songs from the St. Louis Jesuits that were found in the “Glory and Praise” song books that were so prevalent in the 1980s, as well as some other traditional music that could be found in the missalette. Regrettably, I participated in organizing a “rock and roll” Mass my senior year in high school. It seemed a grand idea and I couldn’t understand why even among the Jesuits and my fellow students it created a controversy at the time.
In any case, more recently my family and I had attended Ordinary Form Masses which were mostly unremarkable, except for a few notable and shocking homilies which pushed borderline heterodoxy, and for some odd liturgical choices, including the use of saxophone solos, tambourines, and liturgical dancers. The truth of the matter is that following my reversion in 2011, as I woke up and began to pay attention spiritually, I was having an interior struggle with the novelty and irreverence I had been seeing.
The first experience of the Extraordinary Form was amazing. As I recall it was a major feast, probably the Solemnity of Christ the King. The priest and the two other vested clerics with him (now I know there was a deacon and a sub-deacon) were dressed in red. I remember that the vestments were unusually ornate. All of the priests were wearing birettas, the black hat with the little pom-pom on top. The biggest shocker was that there were literally 16 altar boys marching in rank and file in front of the priests. People were genuflecting as the crucifix was processed by them down the center aisle. There was incense, if I recall correctly, and there was no opening “hymn.” There was a polyphonic choir singing something in Latin, which I understand now to be an introit, a psalm sung as the priest approaches the altar. All of this was amazing. Our mouths were literally hanging open. We were shocked, and this was the point where I became very emotional at what we were seeing and hearing. What progressed from there seemed vaguely familiar, although we could not understand what was being said except, “Dominus vobiscum,” something that had popped up on occasion in Ordinary Form Masses we had attended. I remember two distinct epiphanies I had that day: 1) I wasn’t as educated a Catholic as I thought I was; and 2) I felt somewhat cheated because nobody had ever told me that Mass could be that beautiful. I also remember the sense of awe and mystery, especially in the Mass of the Faithful (Liturgy of the Eucharist). I also remember that the priest extolled Our Lady and the power of the Rosary, something which I couldn’t recall hearing before from the pulpit.
The Great Liturgical Debates
Since that first time, we have attended many more Extraordinary Form Masses, mostly at St. Mary of Victories Church where they are offered privately, and in a sung form, a Missa Cantata, once a month for some special feast. Instead of polyphony we have a Gregorian chant schola which always does a beautiful job. Though I have purchased a 1962 Roman Missal, downloaded a phone app, and learned a lot more of the Latin, I am still always impressed by the mystery and the awe of this form of the Mass, even when celebrated in “low Mass” format (no singing, etc.). I think it’s the silence that sets this form of the Mass apart from the Ordinary Form. The personality of the priest literally disappears as he faces the altar to offer this most sacred worship to God with us and for us, and the whispered words hold the mind’s attention and convey a different sort of spirituality that is hard to put one’s finger on. Our family regularly attends the Ordinary Form of the Mass, but we look at the opportunity to assist at the Extraordinary Form as a special treasure, an opportunity to experience the richness and heritage of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.
I have witnessed many heated discussions online about which Mass is “better,” and have seen the views expressed that the Ordinary Form of the Mass is somehow illicit or less of a sacrifice than the Extraordinary Form. In obedience to the Church, one has to disagree with that position. I have also heard the view expressed that anything before 1969 should be scrapped; the same person telling me this also recounted with glee how he and others celebrated a “bikini Mass” following Vatican II. This position is even more untenable and even more out of alignment with the Magisterium. While lately I personally prefer the Extraordinary Form, and really want to learn more about it, I respect that the Ordinary Form is what the Church has given us as the discipline for this age. My family attends an Ordinary Form Mass in English on Sundays, and at our parish we have the opportunity to attend a Latin Ordinary Form Mass which is celebrated ad orientem. As our priest, Fr. Brian Harrison, puts it, seeing the Ordinary Form of the Mass celebrated in this way, with Latin and more traditional options (the way Vatican II probably intended the reform to go), one can begin to see the continuity between the old and modern forms, the “hermeneutic of continuity” described by Pope Benedict XVI.
Reverence is one key element that must be taken into account. I have been to Masses which do not follow the Roman Missal or the rubrics, Masses which have a carnival-like atmosphere with secular-style music and instruments more suited for a nightclub. To avoid scandal, suffice it to say that I have witnessed some very regrettable behaviors and liturgical decisions that fall outside what is called for in the Roman Missal, GIRM, and Vatican documents governing liturgical music. It’s all very off-putting, and sends a message to the youth about how seriously we are about our belief about the Mass and the Real Presence. The excuse that Jesus wouldn’t mind people having fun and being friendly isn’t good enough, just like it wouldn’t have been good enough in the Jewish temple. On the other hand, I have been to very reverent Ordinary Form Masses, like the one celebrated at our parish at 11am each Sunday. I have had deep spiritual encounters with Christ at these Masses. Reverence, humility, and adherence to liturgical norms, given to us by Holy Mother Church, make all the difference, in my experience.
Admittedly, one of the things I like about the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is that it eliminates room for innovation and irreverence, at least on the altar. I think this is probably the reason why many, especially a new generation of young Catholics, seek out this form of the Mass. In some ways, it’s an “easy button” of sorts, a refuge from innovation and modernism. This is not to say that Latin immediately eliminates any chance of sacrilege or innovation, but it certainly makes it harder to do, and shields it from those less familiar with ancient forms. In fact, one thing I appreciate is that this “easy button” isn’t easy: it requires some knowledge and study for full participation. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it appeals to me.
The Deep Beauty of the Extraordinary Form
Without going into a lot of detail and doing a full critique, there are many elements of the Extraordinary Form that go well beyond this simple analysis. The emphasis on repentance and purification as the priest approaches the foot of the altar is something that is now somewhat glossed over in the Ordinary Form. The fact is that we aren’t worthy to approach the altar, let alone receive Our Lord in the Eucharist. While the gift is freely given, humility and a spirit of repentance are appropriate before God Almighty. From the prayers of the priest and server at the foot of the altar, translated into English:
P. Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.
S. For Thou, O God, art my strength: why hast Thou cast me off? and why do I go sorrowful whilst the enemy afflicteth me?
P. Send forth Thy light and Thy truth: they have led me and brought me unto Thy holy hill, and into Thy tabernacles.
S. And I will go in unto the Altar of God: unto God, Who giveth joy to my youth.
Many elements of the Extraordinary Form remind us of our smallness and dependence on God. One thing that impresses me is the number of times the Sign of the Cross is made. Some view this as redundant and unnecessary, but it makes a statement to even the most casual observer.
There are many other elements that have impressed me, but let me end by mentioning the prayer of the priest near the end of Mass, which seems to encapsulate the entire sacrificial tone of the extraordinary form:
May the tribute of my homage be pleasing to Thee, O most holy Trinity. Grant that the Sacrifice which I, unworthy as I am, have offered in the presence of Thy Majesty, may be acceptable to Thee. Through Thy mercy may it bring forgiveness to me and to all for whom I have offered it. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Ultimately the spirit of irreverence, and the related poor catechesis offered to our youth by the Church that seems to be the root of so many leaving the faith, will be addressed. My hope is that the elements that speak to this in the old liturgical forms, in which so many have found refuge, are revisited by the Church and reinvested to enrich our experience of the Ordinary Form. In the mean time, we are blessed to have the fullness of Catholic tradition in both forms of the Latin Rite as we navigate the waters of this life. In any case, my experience of the old form has made my experience and appreciation of the new form much more efficacious.