The Old Is New Again
There, we can see friends and neighbors, sing along to bouncy liturgical music, feast on donuts afterward (the Latin Mass in Atlanta offers only hard cookies), and be home in no time. My son was relieved — but also disappointed — to learn that this wasn't the Sunday of the “quiet Mass,” when we make our monthly trek to be part of what every Catholic in the world experienced 30 years ago.
Yes, the new Mass (Novus Ordo Missae is its Latin name) is “fun.” It's accessible and community-minded. Our local parish isn't one of those where abuses thrive, such as making up our own liturgy or letting lay people preach their own theologies in sermons. Our priests love the faith and adhere strictly to the rubrics that the Church has set forth for the Mass's celebration. Their homilies are not overly politicized. And they do their best to invest the English liturgical text (a victim of a tone-deaf translation committee) with profundity.
Nonetheless, the overall effect of our parish Mass is not so much scandalous as spiritually and aesthetically prosaic. Despite the new liturgy's attempt to reach us where we are, its effect is oddly abstract and distant compared with that of the old. It's great to be with the community and hear a nice homily, but the whole point of the Mass is something very different: that in the sacrifice on the altar, the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Our Lord. In the multitude of readings, greetings, and songs in our parish church, that point tends to fade into the distance.
Even my toddler son and my older daughter, age 6 (my youngest is a baby), understand that something is missing at the “fun Mass.” I make a point of never disparaging the new rite in my children's presence. That's because I recall a conversation I once had with a fallen-away Catholic. She said, “Oh yes, my father loved the Latin Mass. After Vatican II, he refused to go to church at all.” I wondered at the time if her father's stubbornness position inadvertently played a role in his daughter's loss of faith. I didn't want that to happen to my children, so I swore that I would always keep my complaining to myself. I want my children to grow up as faithful Catholics, regardless of which rite they attend.
A Middle Voice
But can the new rite ensure this as well as the old? The old rite provides theological depth, transcendental complexity, the right mix of exterior and interior textures, and a historical link to the whole of Catholic liturgical tradition. Can a rite designed in 1969 do the same? I'm not taking any chances by denying them exposure to the old rite as well as the new.
I've tried to put myself in their place and deduce why they are attracted to this old-fashioned ritual, which is not inherently child-friendly. Maybe it's the smell of incense and the strange sights and sounds: the clanking chain of the thurible, in which the incense burns; the complicated altar choreography; the high-pitched Sanctus bells. Maybe it's the Gregorian chant, a form of music so intrinsic to the Faith, it seems to evangelize all by itself. Or the silence in the church before and after Mass. Even the very unfamiliarity of the Latin language that challenges their ears.
Most likely, my children treat the old Latin Mass with respect and deference for the same reason my wife and I do: the entire liturgy takes us far away from everyday life, envelops us in a sense of mystery and spiritual solemnity, transports us out of time and place, and feeds our souls. It is not one thing in particular but the whole package, so integrated and thick with meaning, so radically unfamiliar and yet deeply penetrating, that causes us to hope that the Church will no longer treat this Mass as a bone thrown to quirky people willing to drive long distances to attend it, but as a mainstream part of everyday Catholic life, as it once was.
Catholic writers such as Michael Davies have gone to great lengths to demonstrate the theological superiority of the old Mass and its continuity with the practices of the early Church. Philosophers such as Catherine Pickstock of Cambridge University have contended that the old Roman Rite is so significant as a distinct language form that it solves the very riddle of linguistic meaning that the French deconstructionists have raised. She argues that the old liturgy, developed over 10 centuries, emerged as neither pure “text” nor pure revelation from God, but a “middle voice” between time and eternity, one that takes us to truth.
But in the end, such arguments are not as important as the simple fact that the Latin Mass calls me personally and intimately to communion with God, and that everything that happens during that hour is directed toward that goal.
A Case to “Reinstate'
The Tridentine parish in Atlanta that we attend, St. Francis de Sales, opened only last year and is one of the few in the country where all the sacraments are offered in pre-Vatican II form. The pastor, the Rev. Mark Fischer of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a Vatican-approved order dedicated to the Tridentine rite, raised money to purchase a former Baptist church on the outskirts of town — and with its plain red brick exterior, hanging interior ball lights, acoustic ceiling (think public school, circa 1955), and pile carpet, let's just say this is no Chartres.
And yet the people come. There are two Masses on Sunday, and both are three-quarters full and growing.
Children of all ages can be seen at these Masses. In fact, most of the people there seem to be under 40 and over 65, with the generation that came of age during Vatican II conspicuously underrepresented. Many, like us, travel long distances to attend. The congregation includes a broad cross-section of races, ethnic groups, and social classes. What unites us all is a love of the old liturgy and our faith.
Why, if the case for the old Latin Mass is so apparent to so many of all ages, do we have to drive so far to find it? Part of the answer may lie in Church politics (many liturgists have invested heavily in the notion of “reform” that the new rite seems to entail) and part in sheer inertia. The new Mass is now the “tradition” in most parishes, like my own in Auburn.
Still, I'm inclined to think that eventually the majority of Catholics will come to recognize — and reinstate — the beauty and profundity of the “quiet Mass” of the Tridentine rite, which my 3-year-old son can see so clearly.
(This article reprinted with permission of Beliefnet.com.)