(I've been remiss in telling you about the sacred places I've visited on my vacation; I will, I hope, tell you about my visit to the shrine of St. John Newmann in Philadelphia before long; but here follows my experience of Sunday Mass in Northern Virginia.)
On the Lord's Day, I had the joy of concelebrating the Mass with Father Alexander Drummond, pastor of St. Catherine Parish in Great Falls, Virginia. I had heard good things, and also a friend of mine, who is not Catholic, asked about attending Mass with me, and then we'd visit afterward; I wanted him to have a good experience of the Holy Sacrifice.
Everything was praiseworthy, and I told Father Drummond I was envious of many of the things he had accomplished. His servers were very well trained and performed beautifully. He had so many for the first Sunday in August--he said, "they flock to this Mass." He had one very young fellow, Thomas, who was learning the ropes; apparently, Father has new fellows just show up, put on a cassock and surplice, and be guided by the older, more experienced servers--although he also has classes.
This suburban parish of 4,000 families has four Masses a weekend; I took part in the 10 am Mass, which was all in Latin, except for the readings, prayers of the faithful, and of course the homily. Everything else was in Latin, from the opening Sign of the Cross to the final "Ite, Missa Est." We did pray the prayer to St. Michael in English, but the closing hymn was the Salve Regina.
Father sang a few of the prayers of the Mass, but he was using the same, Missa in Cantu book I have, that provides all the prayers of the Mass, in Latin, set to chant; I use it at the 8 am Mass every first Wednesday of the Month at St. Mary, and his copy was well-thumbed; so I'm assuming he often chants the prayers. Those he chanted, he did so impeccably.
This Mass featured the assigned music for the opening, offertory and communion: it is very little known or understood that when we use hymns at this point--as the vast majority of Catholic parishes do--we are consistently avoiding what the Second Vatican Council, and the norms for the Mass, actually call for, which is Scripture-based texts set to chant. They can be sung in the original Latin, to Gregorian tones; or they can be chanted in English; at Masses with no music, you will hear the antiphon recited from time to time--this is the bare minimum.
At this Mass, they were sung by a cantor in Latin, in Gregorian chant--and that was done beautifully. No doubt, some would react negatively: they couldn't themselves sing along (and in fact almost everyone listened); and they wouldn't immediately recognize the words. But a program was handed out that provided both the Latin text and an English translation. Of course, listening is participation; and it would be a terrible mistake to reduce music merely to its words; music, rather, marries a meaningful text to a well-chosen set of notes, something I lack the talent to do, but others possess: and the combination is the true, good and beautiful all in one. So the fact that folks did not sing it does not mean they weren't participating; sometimes something is so beautiful, you simply listen.
Because, in fact, people did sing the other prayers of the Mass, in Latin, rather well: the Gloria and the Credo in particular. There is something deeply meaningful to me about praying the Creed in it's original words: the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, from which we derive this Creed, published this infallible statement of faith in Latin and Greek, and we recite it in the very same words (with the addition of the filioque of course, but let us not tarry on that point).
Another feature of the Mass was the use of ad orientem--that is, while at the altar for the liturgy of the Eucharist and the communion rite, the celebrant faced the same way as the people, and thus all faced the Lord together; some will refer to this as the priest "with his back to the people." Of course, I have no idea what the folks of the parish thought about it, and no doubt those who dislike it attend the other Masses where this is not done. But those present seemed cheerful and spiritually nourished as they left Mass. There were a lot of children, including young children, at the Mass; while there was a hermetically sealed "cry room," there were plenty of young ones outside of it, and I did not notice any significant increase in vocal meltdowns at this allegedly less-engaging Mass.
At this point, you may be confused--you may say, "oh, you mean you concelebrated the older form of the Mass, from before the Council." No, this is the Mass as reformed after the Council, according to all the proper norms and rubrics, as provided for the very same sacramentary, or book of Mass prayers, used at every Roman-Rite Catholic parish in the world.
"But wait, Father, how can that be? You said it was in Latin, and the priest was facing the same way as the people--wasn't all that done away with by the Council?"
While that is what a lot of people believe, and were told, the answer is no; on the contrary, many are shocked to discover that, far from abolishing these things, the Council presupposed both that Latin would continue to be used, to some degree, and the Council said not a single word about the priest moving to the other side of the altar--i.e., the Council never called for that latter change. And even the post-Counciliar implementation of the new Mass did not mandate the priest stand behind the altar and face the people. Like the use of the vernacular, it was allowed as an option, an option almost universally implemented, to the point some now insist it is mandatory. But not so.
My friend, over breakfast, said he found it beautiful and spiritually refreshing: "it was what I needed today." But he asked what many ask: "why is Latin important?"
I gave him the following reasons:
1) It connects us, in an experiential way, to our formative roots. The liturgy is not a re-creation of the Last Supper; but an experience, in mystery (i.e., via sacramental reality), of all the actions of Christ that save us: his life, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. The Mass is all this rolled into one, and more. That's why we don't do it in Aramaic or Greek, but we do it in Latin, because the Roman form of the sacred liturgy was formed in Latin--that is the Mass's original language, and remains so this this very minute.
2) Keeping Latin just a little alive in our experience and consciousness opens us up to a vast treasury of our patrimony which orginated in Latin. Of course, the written word can be translated, but poetry and music, not so well. When was the last time someone at a wedding or funeral asked for the Ave Maria to be sung--but in English? Why do they always want it sung in Latin? Because it's beautiful; and translating it undoes the beauty of the singular expression. This is why so much of our music hasn't been translated from the Latin; it has simply been left behind.
3) There is a value to praying a kind of sacred language, based on something observable in the human mind. Alongside all the advantages of having the Mass and other sacramental rituals in our own language, there is a downside--of approaching the liturgy, and the mystery it makes present, primarily with our intellectual function. When we hear words we understand, our intellect is engaged, and we "digest" the words and the ideas they convey. This is good of course; but the danger is in thinking the mysteries made present in the Mass should be approached principally in this fashion. In fact, we do well to approach these mysteries on various levels, the level of intellectual understanding being only one level.
In short, the danger is to flatten and make mundane the mystery. Someone says, "I don't like praying words I don't understand." But who can say s/he understands what it means to call God "holy"? We are kidding ourselves if we understand the meaning of calling him "holy" better than we understand calling him "sanctus."
My point being that using Latin--even with a translation handy--provides a kind of circuit-breaker that enables us to separate the experience of mystery from the apprehension of the mystery with our intellects; so that we don't just make the distinction in an abstract way, but we experience it. Learning, after all, isn't just a matter of being told something, or getting it abstractly, but by doing: you don't learn to drive merely by having the concepts and methods explained to you; you have to get behind the wheel.
It truly saddens me that there is not more openness to this. I wish more people could experience the liturgy as I did on Sunday, as I have many times before elsewhere. The very fact that a more familiar path is closed--the path of hearing and responding in ones own language--is closed, opens up new avenues unconsidered; just as you find if, while awake, you silence yourself and your surroundings, and close your eyes, you will, after a few minutes, find you are hearing things you seemingly didn't hear a few minutes before; or when you look up into the night sky, with all the artificial light turned off: you see things you never knew were there. I am convinced that many people would have similarly surprising discoveries in the liturgy where it is celebrated to a significant degree in Latin, and with more silence and dignity, less constant pressure for everyone to be saying something and moving about; but the resistance is constant, and the steps are small.