Tridentine Latin Mass, Second Sunday in Lent, 24 February 2013, 1.00pm
Celebrant: Fr John McLaughlin (I think, judging from a fuzzy photo on the website)
I always enjoyed Latin at school, and I’d never heard a Latin mass so I thought it would be interesting to attend the Tridentine Latin Mass still celebrated by the Society of St Pius X in defiance of the liturgical revisions sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council.
Unfortunately, despite listening attentively throughout today’s service, I still haven’t heard a Latin mass, because it was practically inaudible. I’m not blaming the fidgeting children; they were a minor distraction. But the priest rattled his way through the service in a kind of mumbled whisper and with his back to the congregation, so that even though booklets with parallel Latin and English translations were provided it was impossible to find the place because I was straining to hear even a single word I recognised.
When he turned round to face us and deliver his sermon in English, he actually had a nice, clear speaking voice that was perfectly easy to hear, but why he couldn’t have raised the volume even a little during the Latin bits I don’t know.
His homily was based on a gospel passage, Matthew 17:19, in which James, John and Peter witness a vision of Jesus talking to Moses and Elias. Saints who see visions – like Peter and like the children at Fatima, St Bernadette, St Philip Neri et al – are so enraptured by these divine apparitions that they lose all sense of time, of hunger, of pain, of earthly things in general. God’s infinite wisdom, justice and perfection are more than the brains of created beings such as ourselves can understand, so any vision granted to us is but a tiny piece of what we’re aiming for – the fullness of God for all eternity.
And then he turned back to the altar to tinker with various objects (chalice, purificator, paten, pall, veil, burse, corporal, ciborium, all helpfully explained in the booklet), while the server knelt behind him and acted as bridesmaid, holding up the hem of his chasuble every time he genuflected, which was often. Of course, none of this could be seen very clearly and next to nothing could be heard as he muttered his way through his lines at breakneck speed.
And then he stopped muttering. The most solemn moment of the mass had arrived. This was, according to the booklet, not just a re-enactment of the divine sacrifice but Christ actually offering himself again in our presence, described thus:
“The angels gather round in awe and reverence; the priest prays the canon in silence, and all should be quiet and still, for the great moment is fast approaching when our Lord Jesus Christ will come down upon the Altar.”
Communion was offered to the congregants, there were closing prayers including Hail Mary, which was the only part of the service during which anyone else besides the priest and the server spoke, and then there was a nasty little anti-Semitic hymn, O come and mourn with me awhile, led by one confident female voice joined by a few feeble followers, but the sound hardly did justice to the lungpower of 40-50 people.
I joined in with some hesitation, wondering as at previous churches about the unplayed or unplayable organ whose pipes have become no more than decoration, and when I looked up at the end of the hymn, the priest had disappeared and the whole thing was over. It had taken less than 50 minutes.
Why conduct worship in a language the worshippers don’t understand? Three possible reasons spring immediately to mind: a) because the language itself is considered holy and God wishes us to use it when we speak to him; b) because that’s what our ancestors did and we want to maintain continuity with that tradition; and c) because the poetry of the language aids meditation and opens our minds and hearts to experience the divine. There may be others too, of course.
But what on earth is the point of turning up to watch the back of an ornately dressed man muttering at an altar without even being able to hear the cadences of his speech, let alone the words? This is a liturgy that’s stood the test of time, and if SSPX members love it so much that they’d risk excommunication for their adherence to it then I hope they can conclude that it’s worth it, but what sits oddly with their stance is the impression given – to this outsider, at least – that the actual content of the liturgy isn't really all that important. Perhaps it is enough for the laity simply to be in the presence of the priest as he performs the sacred ritual, and to be invited to participate in the tail end of it, but if this is what all Catholic churches were like before Vatican II then I can see why change was deemed necessary.
It’s a mystery all right, and probably one that my human brain will never comprehend. I had expected ceremony and solemnity, and there was some of that. I had expected Latin, and there was some of that too, though listening to it was the auditory equivalent of watching a shadow play in a dark room while wearing sunglasses.
Did Christ descend upon the Altar? Not that I noticed, but since the whole business was a private transaction between the priest and an unseen other, or others, it could well be that the gathering of angels and the re-sacrificed saviour were indeed present, imperceptible to worldly sinners but visible to the saints and mystics we’re enjoined to hold in reverence.