Dona mihi illam religionem antiquam*
I have just read yet another encomium by a conservative Catholic about the Latin Mass. Now, I'm a Methodist, so some Catholics might dismiss my comments out of hand, but some Catholics might not; certainly, my non-Catholic friends might find my observations of interest. Anyway, I'm someone who knows a thing or two about liturgy. I also have a working knowledge of Latin. And I'm a historically-minded conservative. I have tried to empathize with the yearning of my traditional Catholic friends regarding the Latin Mass, but I have to say: I just don't get it.
The particular writer that touched this off made a number of points about the conduct of the extraordinary form
of the Mass versus the ordinary form
-- those are the official designations of the Tridentine (traditional Latin) Mass versus the Novus Ordo
imposed after Vatican II. I can see how some people might really be attracted to the order of the older form, to the priestly actions as they are performed, and to the general solemnity of the Rite. There's some good stuff here. But I ask myself: if you did the Tridentine Mass in English
would that fix what's wrong for you? (Some priests do, in fact, use the Tridentine Mass in English -- who knew?) But apparently not.
It's not just the performance of the mass, it's the language.
Traditional Catholics are in love with Latin. Things said in Latin sound, well, holier. I've wondered why that is so, for them, and my personal theory is that Latin is for them a reliquary -- a spoken one, rather than a physical one. But when they hear and use Latin, they feel that they are touching something tremendously close to God. This is the actual language of the ancient Church! Well, er, to be more correct: it is the ancient language of the Western
Church. In the ancient East, they used Greek. In fact, if you really want to use language to establish a direct link with the apostles, why not use Koiné Greek for your liturgical language? The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, for instance, or St. Basil, is available to you. And when you read the Bible in Koiné, you are reading the actual
words of the apostles, not just the translation of St. Jerome from three centuries later; or, as regards the Old Testament, when you read the Septuagint, you are reading from the Scriptures as the apostles routinely used them.
Yet, the rad trads diss Greek. Check out Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
Pilate and Jesus speak Latin to each other in the trial scene, which I'm sure gave his fellow traditional Catholics a thrill. Except it's almost a dead certainty that Pilate and Jesus spoke Greek together. Gibson's portrayal of the Charge nailed to the cross over Jesus's head is also interesting. We see "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" written there in Hebrew (Aramaic) and Latin. Yet in the Gospel of John (19:20), we see that Pilate had it posted in all three languages in common use: Hebrew (Aramaic), Latin, and Greek. So, no, Greek won't do.
Why Latin, then? Well, because it is the language of our
tradition, the western tradition. Roman Catholics of all sorts tend to edit out the other ancient patriarchates and ascribe to Rome not only the leadership of the whole Church, but also the beginnings of Christianity. This is a quirk of theirs they are not to be argued out of, and it's no skin off my nose, but . . . if it's Latin Christianity you want, why not celebrate the Sarum Mass? That's older than the Tridentine Mass. It was in use for hundreds of years, and it's as Catholic as you could want. I realize it's not official any more, but so long as we're using our ring of three wishes to get from the Pope the desires of our hearts, why not ask for the Sarum use and other ancient Latin liturgies to be available to the faithful? What is it about the Tridentine Mass that so stirs you? I conclude that it is basically nostalgia.
Nostalgia isn't a bad thing. We're allowed to love the things bequeathed to us from the past. And when we deem the present spirituality on offer a kind of junk food or fast food nourishment for the soul, it is an indication of something proper to long for better things. But what better things are we longing for? Are we merely longing for the Church of our grandparents? Or is there, perhaps, a hint of something a bit more?
The Tridentine Mass was first published in 1570. It was part of the monumental work of the Council of Trent, that defined the Roman Catholic Church as over against the various Protestant sects that had broken away from Rome. No doubt it was, in itself, a thing of beauty which edified the believer; but it was also, as so much was, a response to the wrenching experience of the Reformation. Medieval Catholicism had lurched from one thing to another for a long time and failed to find a way to reconcile the various forces tugging at it. The Protestant Reformation rent the unity of the western Church, but it also empowered the papacy to seize control of the entirety of what was left. Non-Protestant Reformers that had tried for several centuries to corral the arbitrary power of the Pope now found themselves faced with a single choice: Them (the Protestants) or Me (the Pope). They chose the Pope. The Catholicism that emerged from the Counter-Reformation was unified in a way that the prior medieval form of Catholicism was not; and with unity-in-the-Pope came direction-by-the-Pope. A coherent, confident, militant, and frankly triumphalist Catholicism laid hold of the new liturgy. That kind of Catholicism ran strong for over four hundred years, but modernism chipped away at it at the end, and finally Vatican II imposed a kind of truce with modernism over the whole of the RCC. I think that's what the traditionalists hate about the Novus Ordo.
They want their coherence and confidence back; they want a militant church -- and they want to win,
to bend the culture to their will, as once they did.
That's not a bad thing, and I don't mean to sneer or snark. I'm just saying, it's not only how
the mass is done that they object to, and it's not just the desire for Latin that moves them (though that thrills them). It's the return to the days when they saw themselves as the leaders of society (even when some of them were in fact living in countries dominated by Protestants). Better yet, it's all three: actions and
belonging to a Church on the move. That's the only way I can understand this immense Sehnsucht
for the Latin Mass among my traditional Catholic friends and acquaintances.*Give me that old-time religion