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?
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.
But for some progressive Catholics, even a limited comeback for the Latin Mass would spell a disturbing retreat to the inflexible hierarchies and what they see as the anachronistic services of the old pre-Vatican II church.
Though some of the thorniest issues the church has to contend with—the role of women in the church and priestly sexuality, to name just a couple—are not directly related to the liturgy, debates about the ways Catholics worship on Sunday mornings often produce the most heat and the greatest divisions. And coming to terms with changes in the Mass that followed the Second Vatican Council has, for some Catholics, taken decades.
In his book A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, Peter Steinfels, who writes the weekly Beliefs column in the New York Times, called the post-council changes in liturgy "a kind of Copernican revolution in Catholic worship. The basic truths—the sun, the stars, Earth and other planets of the faith, were still there, by they were strikingly reconfigured."
Catholics who have attended a Tridentine high Mass, or "sung" Mass, complete with choirs, plainchant, and the attendant "smells and bells" ritual, know it can be a transcendent occasion. But, as Steinfels and others have pointed out, it's all too easy to romanticize the old Latin Mass. Many Catholic churches celebrated the so-called low Mass, with the priest quietly speaking his part at the altar in Latin and the congregation standing by silently—and too often, lifelessly. According to the Catholic News Service, even then-Cardinal Ratzinger acknowledged in public statements that some aspects of the old low Mass left much to be desired.
Certainly, readier access to the Latin Mass would thrill the core of liturgical old-schoolers who have longed for its return. But how many mainstream American Catholics would be interested in attending a Latin Mass? Some of the largest and most passionate Catholic congregations I've seen have been in churches whose services have veered far from the pre-council standard and toward something more resembling an evangelical megachurch service: video screens, pop-influenced worship bands, a breezy informality in the pews.
But ideological debates aside, perhaps the most practical—and unanswered—question is this: For four decades, Latin was largely neglected in the church (and in Catholic schools). How many Catholic priests—many of them, like me, having come of age after the reforms of the 1960s—could muster enough Latin to offer a convincing Tridentine service?