Can the Latin Mass make a comeback?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
May 4 2007 11:24 AM

Rite Turn

Can the Latin Mass make a comeback?

When word began to spread last year that Pope Benedict XVI might release a document that would allow some changes in the ways Catholic worship on Sunday mornings, the reaction in some quarters approached giddy enthusiasm. "It's coming … it's coming!" wrote one blogger of the imminent release of the papal decree. (As it turned out, its release was not so imminent. Catholics who were waiting are still waiting, though reports now suggest the announcement could come in a few weeks.)

Most Vatican documents, it's probably safe to say, are not designed to provoke such fits of anticipatory glee. So, how to explain the excitement?

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The long-rumored document—said to take the form of a motu proprio, a personal initiative of the pope—would allow for broader use of the Tridentine, or, as it's commonly known, Latin Mass, by permitting any priest to celebrate it without first receiving permission from his bishop. The rite was the Catholic standard for nearly 400 years, from its codification in 1570 until the reforms of the 1960s that followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council ushered in Masses in the local vernacular. The Latin Mass may no longer hold a place at the center of Catholic life, but some Catholics never stopped longing for its return.

Any hopes tradition-minded Catholics might have for a full comeback by the Latin Mass have to be tempered, though—and not just because so many of the reports of Vatican announcements on the subject have proved to be premature. Even if the pope announces his support for more readily available Tridentine Masses, it remains to be seen whether many Catholics would attend the old-school service. The Latin Mass has become so marginalized in recent decades that a service that was once the quintessence of Catholicism must now seem exotic and foreign to many Catholics.

I attended Catholic schools in the '70s, among one of the first waves of Catholics who had never taken part in a Mass in Latin. At the time, our parish, like so many others, seemed gripped by a spirit of progressive reform. We had a youth group, we had relaxed and folksy guitar Masses, we had a hip young priest with long hair and sideburns. All of it—well, maybe not the sideburns—seemed to send the message that the Ancient and Eternal church was now New and Improved. Only occasionally would we hear reports of how things were back in the day. And nothing seemed more mysterious and otherworldly to us than the Latin Mass.

The shift away from services in Latin was just the most visible of the many changes that swept the church in the 1960s. As my liturgically clueless classmates and I were told, before the Second Vatican Council, Masses were celebrated in Latin by a priest who faced the altar, his back to the congregation. After Vatican II, Masses were in the vernacular, and priests faced their flocks. Many of the post-council reforms were meant to encourage the congregation to feel more involved with the ceremony.

After the reforms took hold, the Latin Mass virtually disappeared until 1984, when Pope John Paul II allowed some churches to again offer the Tridentine Mass, as long as the local bishop approved. By the time my generation came of age, the Latin Mass seemed a relic of the old pre-Vatican II church, even if it could still be found in a handful of parishes in many cities. (Catholics in the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., for example, can attend a Tridentine Mass in one of three local parishes each Sunday.) For those of us who grew up with Masses in English, hand-holding congregations, and such jaunty church music as "Lord of the Dance," the Latin Mass was a ritual from another time and place.

But it is precisely that sense of timeless ritual, coupled with the mystery and awe that it can evoke, that helps to account for traditionalists' affection for the old Mass.

Writing in Commonweal in 2000, Bill Shuter called the Tridentine Mass "a solemn rite of extraordinary power" that "may be re-enacted daily, but is no everyday action." Traditionalists prefer the power of Latin to what they see as the banality of the liturgy in English. And many Catholics associate the Latin Mass with the church's glorious heritage of ancient music and solemnity in worship—a heritage some say has been lost in the liturgical changes that have been enacted over the last few decades.

One of the most visible critics of the liturgical changes of the 1960s and afterward was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI. In his 2000 book, Raztinger wrote of reformed liturgies: "Less and less is God in the picture. … [T]he turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself." Such criticisms led most observers to assume that, as pontiff, he would make encouraging liturgical traditionalism a priority.

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