Sunday, July 29, 2007


The Mass I attended this morning was said partly in English and partly in Spanish. For this Catholic it was inevitable that the language I didn't understand had me thinking about Latin Mass from my childhood. I didn't understand Latin back then either, yet my missal kept me informed. I had no Spanish missal today.

What occupies the mind during the times when the Mass language is incomprehensible. One thing that captivates attention is the decoration in the church. If that decoration tells the Catholic story, Mass continues to be fruitful. Another is prayer. The spontaneous kind that is more conversation than ritual. If God is in our hearts, church is the best place to talk with Him, provided what's going on around us will permit it. An unfamiliar language facilitates that. When we talk with Him silently in our own words, we get a sense of His presence. Not a bad thing.

How ironic that I should open my email and find a link to an editorial in The New York Times, written by Editorial Observer Lawrence Downes, that describes his first experience of the Tridentine at Chicago's St. John Cantius.

Downes had a couple of problems. Not knowing what to expect and what to do and not being able to keep up with the priest in his paper missal made him uncomfortable and embarrassed, and his discomfort brought out his anger. But angry or not he makes some points that are valid:

Catholics are told that the church is the people of God, but from my silent pew, the people seemed irrelevant. This Mass belonged to Father and his altar boys, and it seemed that I could submit to that arrangement or leave.

Yes, that struck me forcefully when I attended a Tridentine low Mass several weeks ago. I, too, felt irrelevant.

For the first time, I understood viscerally how some Catholics felt in the ’60s, when the Mass they loved went away.

He felt it because he was irrationally angry that what he had been taught was the acceptable way to attend Mass--full and active participation--was suddenly ripped away. That is precisely the feeling Catholics in the 1960s who loved the pre-Vatican II Mass felt--and sometimes the anger was rational as well because what they were seeing before them didn't make any sense. And the Mass has slowly deteriorated in many places from there.

I called Eugene Kennedy, professor, author and former priest, an old Chicagoan and eloquent critic of church matters...he spoke fondly of the old Mass, of the majesty to be unearthed by learning and praying it, like reading Proust in French. It contains a profound sense of mystery, he said, which is what religion is all about.

Yes it does. The prayers are much more poetic--much more Old Testament in the sense of a God of majesty and our awe in His presence. The God of the Tridentine is not "my buddy Jesus." He is not "Abba", but much closer to "Grandfather." Much more formal.

...he said he wouldn’t want it back. Priests aren’t ready; it takes years to learn. And forget about the laity, he said, which is accustomed to a half-century of liturgical participation and rudimentary parish democracy. He seemed certain that most Catholics would never go for it.

Yes, we are used to liturgical participation. The Tridentine will not give us that. Only the servers are participants. But back then we were moving toward more participation. We were learning to pray in Latin. We could still do that.

What it will give us is time to actually pray, if prayer is a conversation with God in His house. It may take a few Latin Masses before the laity who are new to it catch on, though.

Reasserting the unchallenged authority of ordained men may fit the papal scheme for a purer church. But to hand its highest form of public worship entirely back to Father makes Latin illiterates like me irate.

Ah yes, been there. Done that. The "irate" part, that is. I can sympathize. If those who know nothing but the Novus Ordo are suddenly left with no choice but a Tridentine, they will be irate indeed. It's not likely to happen though. Much more likely is that the Mass they find most convenient might be that Tridentine that makes them irate. And somehow if that is what they face, I can only react by saying "Tough! Get over it."

Having come from a parish where the "downstairs Mass" was too progressive for any but a small number of parishioners, while the rest attended the "upstairs Mass" at the same time, only to become annoyed when they got out to the parking lot and discovered that one of the "downstairs people" had blocked in their car so they couldn't leave, I tend to take his closing comments to heart:

It’s easy enough to see where this is going: same God, same church, but separate camps, each with an affinity for vernacular or Latin, John XXIII or Benedict XVI. Smart, devout, ambitious Catholics — ecclesial young Republicans, home-schoolers, seminarians and other shock troops of the faith — will have their Mass. The rest of us — a lumpy assortment of cafeteria Catholics, guilty parents, peace-’n’-justice lefties, stubborn Vatican II die-hards — will have ours. We’ll have to prod our snoozing pewmates when to sit and stand; they’ll have to rein in their zealots.

And we probably won’t see one another on Sunday mornings, if ever.

Sadly, he may be prophetic. A divided parish is a sad thing to behold, and an even sadder thing to belong to. The war in the pews becomes the war in the school. The kids are not delicate in their choice of words to their fellow schoolmates. Two parishes in one church is the result. And that forces each parishioner to reflect on excatly what kind of Catholic he is. Out the window goes "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic." Sort of like the Catholics on the web. We know which blogs we belong in and which ones we must avoid.

There is not much unity in diversity after all.

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!

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