Mass Appeal: How the Traditional Mass Engages All Five Senses

Back in the nineteenth century Father Frederick Faber famously wrote that the Mass was the “most beautiful thing this side of heaven.” As every Mass is a re-presentation of Calvary, and the altar itself the place where heaven and earth meet, one can understand why Saint Peter Julian Eymard called the Holy Sacrifice the “holiest act of religion.” Understanding all of this to be true, is it any wonder that more of the faithful are seeking a liturgy which seeks to restore a sense of the sacred?

For many, the Traditional Latin Mass is fulfilling just such a need. Rediscovering the manner in which the Church has worshipped for centuries has helped a growing number of Catholics to encounter the Lord more deeply. What many are realizing is just how effectively, and beautifully, the traditional Masses engages our senses. Indeed, it is a Mass for all senses.

Sight

The Latin Mass presents a visual which immediately speaks to the true focus of our adoration and worship. As the priest offers the Mass ad orientem (facing the altar or the liturgical east) we immediately recognize that the liturgy is not about us. This is something that simply must be experienced by the faithful to fully appreciate. In the past I have called this a true “game changer”, and it is. There is a significant liturgical catechesis in the simple fact that the priest is facing with the congregation, instead of facing the congregation. Far too many Catholics have experienced anthropocentric masses over the years, liturgies in which priest and faithful seem to focus their gaze upon each other. Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the former Secretary for the Congregation for Divine Worship, said that often in the modern liturgy the priest has become a “showman”. As the priest spends much of the Traditional Mass facing the same direction as the faithful, speaking Latin the entire time, there is little confusion as to who he is speaking to.

Hearing

The use of a liturgical language is another manner in which the traditional Mass effectively engages our senses. Maintaining an aura of mystery and antiquity, the liturgical use of Latin immediately transports the faithful from the secular into the sacred. The familiarity and comfort of the vernacular is left behind as we enter into the Holy Mass.

PM4FiYmHowever, it is also the absence of sound that catches our attention. This becomes most obvious during that most venerable of prayers, the Canon of the Mass. Dating back at least to the sixth century and Pope St. Gregory the Great, the Roman Canon (called Eucharistic Prayer 1 in the New Mass) is spoken nearly inaudibly by the priest. The great nineteenth century Benedictine liturgist Dom Prosper Guéranger describes this silence by stating that the priest “then enters within the cloud” with his voice not being heard again until the “Great Prayer is concluded”. This silence is only interrupted at the moment of consecration by the ringing of sanctus bells, signifying Our Lord’s presence on the Altar.

Many newcomers to the Latin Mass are struck by this absence of sound. Our culture puts a premium on noise. Silence, intentional silence, can be quite jarring at first. However, over time, the faithful learn once again how to use this silence to pray the Mass, instead of simply going to Mass.

Finally, if one is so blessed as to hear a High Mass, they will be treated to some of the most beautiful music ever created. A few years back Archbishop Alexander Sample noted that not all religious music is sacred music, but rather that which possesses three qualities: sanctity, beauty and universality. While seventies Haugen and Haas music, or nineties Praise and Worship songs, might be about God, we can objectively say that they are not sacred music. Liturgical music, true sacred music, is Gregorian chant and polyphony. The liturgical movement of the twentieth century sought to recover this musical heritage of the Church. From canonized popes (St. Pius X) to ecumenical councils (Vatican II), Holy Mother Church has consistently reaffirmed that this music is most appropriate for the Mass.

Smell

uScqNplThe use of incense within the Mass communicates to our olfactory receptors that we have entered into the sacred as this is not a scent identified with the hum drum of daily life. We find incense referenced all the way back in sacred scripture by St. John in the Apocalypse as he describes his vision of the heavenly worship, where an Angel holds a golden censer near the altar, upon which stands the lamb. The Church incorporates the use of incense during the Mass to symbolize the smoke of purification and sanctification. Incense is also understood to represent the prayers of the faithful rising to heaven.

Touch

Our sense of touch is most fully realized through the frequent posture of kneeling within the ancient rite. Simply put, we kneel more at the old Mass. During a Low Mass the faithful kneel from the prayers at the foot of the altar in the beginning all the way until the reading of the Gospel. During the Creed we also kneel when professing that Christ was incarnated and born of the Virgin Mary. Most notably, the faithful kneel to receive Holy Communion.

Taste

The final of the five senses is taste. The reception of Holy Communion, kneeling and on the tongue, fosters a true sense of awareness in the faithful. We are more clearly able to perceive what it is (or more accurately Who it is) we cannot touch. In the Traditional Mass only the consecrated hands of the priest touches Holy Communion. This was the universal practice of the Church for over a thousand years and, now more than ever, speaks to the sacredness of the moment. The children of Holy Mother Church are spiritually nourished by the Bread of Life.

Concluding Thought

This most sublime moment of Holy Communion concludes our walk through the Mass of all senses. Understanding and appreciating that we are indeed both body and spirit, the Traditional Mass engages each of our five senses, thereby drawing us even deeper into the Eucharistic mystery. In the field of education many readily accept that people learn through a variety of senses: some are more visual, some auditory, others more tactile. Stepping outside of the more contentious liturgical skirmishes of recent decades, let us extend that same understanding of communication to the Sacred Liturgy. It is my hope that more faithful Catholics would seek out and avail themselves to the traditional Mass. May the Mass of the Saints lift our spirits toward heaven through the engagement of our senses.

Editors Note: It is possible for the Novus Ordo be offered in a reverent and sensory-immersive way. That said, it very easily can be offered in a way that is irreverent and banal (and unfortunately frequently is). While abuses can occur at any Mass, we would argue that the ancient Mass offers a more consistently transcendent and solemn experience. 

Brian Williams is a convert who entered the Catholic Church in 2006. He is a graduate of Long Beach State University with a BA in History. Brian blogs on life, liturgy and the pursuit of holiness at liturgyguy.com. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and five children.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at The Catholic Gentleman.

By

Sam Guzman is an author and editor of The Catholic Gentleman whose work has appeared in several publications. He resides in Wisconsin with his wife and two small boys where he is also the Communications Director for Pro-Life Wisconsin.

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  • JMC

    I experienced this for myself when I was privileged to be able to attend a Music Colloquium for sacred music in Pittsburgh, a week-long “total immersion” into some of the most incredibly beautiful music I’ve ever heard in my life. During this week, each day began with sung Lauds and ended with a sung Mass, sometimes Novus Ordo and sometimes Tridentine, wherein we sang the pieces we had learned during that day’s classes. One of the things that struck me was how even the Novus Ordo Missae, properly celebrated, could also put forth that same “sense of the sacred.” After the first one, I commented to one priest that I had no idea that a Novus Ordo Mass could be so beautiful. His reasponse was, “Wait ’til you hear it in Latin.” The next day, I did. I was floored – especially since the priest faced ad orientem. People were shocked by that one; I was shocked to find I was the only person of nearly three hundred who actually remembered that, for the first few months it was in use back in 1967, the Novus Ordo Mass actually was said ad orientem.
    .
    And then came the Tridentine Mass. My best friend, a recent convert, was confused by it; since it had been over forty years since I’d seen one, I was a little disoriented at first, too. This began to be used on Wednesday and continued to be used exclusively for the rest of the week…and always a High Mass so that we could present the Gregorian Chant pieces we had studied in our Chant classes that morning. Even in the Tridentine years, I had never seen a High Mass. I quite literally was in tears by the time that first one was over.
    .
    One of the people in charge of the Colloquium interviewed some of us at the end of the week, for a report posted online about the event. The last thing I was asked was what my overall “takeaway” from the event was. My answer? Hope for the future of the Church. I don’t see it much now (return to my local parish with its “meeting hall” atmosphere whenever Mass wasn’t being said, and the pop music used during Mass, was rather jarring after that week), but from the three hundred people at that single Colloquium, together with other hundreds who attended similar events, and the thousands who simply can’t spare the time or money to attend, that’s got to “trickle down,” to use a Reagan phrase, to every single individual in the pews.
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    We have a new parish priest now. He’s young, and has brought many innovations to the Mass. Being a staunch traditionalist, I don’t agree with many of them, but there is one thing I simply cannot argue with: Despite what can be horrible distractions, I haven’t seen such a devoutly celebrated Mass since that week in Pittsburgh. Hope for the future, indeed.

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