Pope Benedict XVI brings back the old Latin Mass—but will Catholics embrace it?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
July 9 2007 5:27 PM

Bene, Vidi, Vici

Pope Benedict XVI brings back the old Latin Mass—but will Catholics embrace it?

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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, Ratzinger 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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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?

Andrew Santella's essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review and GQ.