Oremus: Why I like (and probably prefer) the Latin Mass

It’s a pretty standard narrative among Protestants that the reason Catholics used Latin in the Mass and in the Bible (specifically the Vulgate) was to keep the laity from understanding Christianity. That would be more plausible if Catholicism did not uphold principles outside of the written word, principles such as religious images, statuary, symbol, smell, and ritual. But it did and does. The Catholic faith upholds the entire human experience, and not merely the repetition of biblical language. Catholicism incorporates the living Words of Scripture into the living Body of Christ, which is the Church. Much as the living Word of the Father became flesh, in fact.

The role of Latin in the Catholic Church is a question worth addressing through the lens of serious historical research and study, of course; but today I just want to talk about the use of the Latin language in the Christian liturgy of the Mass. There is a growing number of young Catholics — myself included — who are tired of the casual approach to Catholicism that coincided incidentally (but not necessarily) with the attitudes surrounding the Second Vatican Council. There is a sense that the Novus Ordo (Ordinary) Mass, now celebrated in vernacular languages, has turned into a celebration of the congregants, rather than of their Lord and God.

The Mass is a rhythm, a liturgy, and ultimately a prayer. It constitutes a movement of the soul to God through His one mediator, Jesus Christ. I do not understand Latin, but when I attend a Latin Mass, I feel a sense of awe and worship that I have less frequently at vernacular liturgies. I have the sense that what is taking place is about God, and precisely because it is about God it is most intimately for me.

A priest celebrates the liturgy of the Eucharist

St Gregory of Nyssa, an Eastern Father, makes an noteworthy observation about God turning His back (rather than His face) towards the prophet Moses. Nyssa argued that if a creature saw the face of God, it would mean he was not following God. (A follower sees the back of a person.) It would be a sign of dereliction to see the face of God, according to Nyssa.

This has implications for the celebration of Mass. The Bishop or priest is the celebrant of the Mass, representing in his priestly ministry the priesthood of Christ (“in persona Christie”). In the old Latin liturgy, the celebrant faces away from the congregation. But since the Second Vatican Council, priests have faced the congregation. In Nyssen terms, in the post-Vatican II Mass the congregation is not following the priest, who is “in persona Christie”. It contradicts the biblical significance of Jesus’s sincere invitation to each of us: “Follow me”. Perhaps the symbolic gesture of facing the people in the Mass carries more than surface level significance.

And, of course, the highest pinnacle of every Mass is the celebration of communion. It is here where the Latin Mass truly shines. God did not see fit that His Son should remain merely Word; and so “the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us”. In a moment too precious for any words beyond “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood”, the words of Christ spoken by His priest causes a change in the offerings of Bread and Wine. As God spoke and there was light, so when our God Christ speaks, there is His Body and Blood. The contrast between a language unrecognized and a Presence intimately known is too powerful for language.

The Latin Mass offers a chance to lose oneself in the dance of immortal love (to use a Plotinian expression). That is arguably all the more true by virtue of being prayed in a language that is dead to the world.

2 thoughts on “Oremus: Why I like (and probably prefer) the Latin Mass

  1. I’m guessing you know all the arguments used to support worshiping with a liturgy spoken in the language of the people. It’s intriguing to me that you do not feel you need to understand what is being said, and prayed, in order to experience something transcendent in the worship. I am imagining that is partly, at least, because you already know what the liturgy is, in your own language, and can follow along mindfully and knowingly, from start to finish.
    What would it be like to go ito a liturgy which you had never experienced before, I wonder? DO you think it would be the same experience? Maybe. There is something mysterious, even other worldly, listening to an ancient language, otherwise not used, spoken and sung just as it was a thousand years and more ago. Add to that ancient chants and rites that tie us with generations of saints, centuries of celebrants, and I can begin to imagine, perhaps, what you are saying.
    But, I still think there is something to knowing what is being said and sung.
    And yes, to see God’s back is to know you are following Him. To be face to face is to be fully in His gaze, and He in yours, the most intimate of all positions, where time stands still, and there are only these two, God and yourself.

    1. It’s true that I had familiarity with the ‘Ordinary Rite’ before attending a Tridentine Latin Mass. I’ve attended liturgies in Middle-Eastern languages, as well. As far as a Christian liturgy goes, there are two broad categories for the celebration, namely, the Liturgy of the Word (the Bible) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (Holy Communion). I’m of the opinion that a participant does not need to understand the language of the liturgy in order to understand what is happening, because what is happening really isn’t very complicated. It could be easily argued that, statistically speaking, more Catholics had a reverence for and belief in the Eucharist before the Second Vatican Council and the popularization of vernacular liturgies than after it.
      My citation of Nyssa was not intended to undermine the biblical significance of the face of God, but merely to call into question the modern sentiment that the priest should face the people. Why not prefer the old manner, in which the priest faces the altar and his back faces the people? Nyssa seems to offer an interesting reason why we might prefer the old way, at least on this side of the vale of death.

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