Friday, June 07, 2013

For priests: steps to learning the Extraordinary Form Mass

(Updated...I wrote this post in haste, and after returning from celebrating the holy Mass (this time in the Extraordinary Form), I added some thoughts below where they belong.)

Recently I was with some brother priests for prayer and dinner--a group that meets monthly. While talking over the dinner table, we got into a discussion of the Extraordinary Form of the holy Mass--i.e., the traditional Latin Mass. Some of us had already learned how; I was describing my efforts on that front; and several were expressing interest, but also reservations.

For simplicity's sake, here are some of the points brought up:

> Steps to getting there.

We talked about Latin as a hindrance. Some of our priests, like most of our faithful, find Latin very difficult.

Some thoughts:

* You don't have to be a Latin expert to offer Mass in Latin. Most of the prayers you pray at any given Mass are unchanging, and you already know their meaning in English, from celebrating the Mass in English. So you're not starting from zero.

Also, Latin pronunciation is really not hard at all. Many foreign languages have some complex vowel combinations or unusual consonant sounds. You find almost none of that in Latin. And unlike English, most Latin letters have one and only one way to sound them.

So how does someone get there?

* Start listening to Latin. There is plenty of beautiful music in Latin and plenty of texts and prayers, in Latin, available online.

* Start reading Latin aloud. I have a prayer book from the North American College that has many familiar prayers in English and Latin side-by-side. There are hand Missals set up this way as well. And again, plenty of resources online.

Today I prayed the Litany of the Sacred Heart, in Latin. "Cor Iesu, templum Dei sanctum, miserere nobis." Reading the petitions, side-by-side with the English, isn't that hard. And it's a perfectly good way to get accustomed to reading Latin aloud.

* Start offering the current form of the Mass in Latin. Or, if that's too big a step, offer parts in Latin, parts in English.

Chances are, you won't be able to do this in a scheduled parish Mass. But do you ever celebrate Mass privately? Do it then.

When I did this, I started by using some of the ordinary prayers in Latin, but would switch back as needed to the more familiar English. If you'll recall, the old sacramentary had both. So even though the new missal doesn't, do you still have some of those old sacramentaries around? If you have one you don't need to keep as an archive, take a razor blade and slice out those pages with the Mass in Latin. Create a booklet; now you have all you need to lay beside (or inside) your current missal.

The great thing about offering Mass privately is that you can take all the time you want. Even if you aren't learning to do it in another language, it's a good time to refresh and deepen your prayerfulness of offering Mass--because, as you know, when offering daily, and especially Sunday Mass, it's so easy to be concerned about time, about the servers, about the announcements, or be distracted by things that happen during Mass (even if you never, ever, ever want to show that, or say anything about it!).

Offering Mass privately is also a great time to fine-tune your ars celebrandi. When we offer the Mass for the people, the extent to which we are self-possessed, calm, reverent, and have a certain consistency to how we do it, we help the people to enter more into prayer, as well as ourselves.

OK, I know someone has already raised an objection: who cares about Latin? Why waste your time?

Well, I would push back against the notion that a priest being at least familiar with Latin is a "waste of time." Note: I'm not saying you have to become an expert--just more familiar.

In the old "Star Trek" series, there were a couple of episodes that revolved around the explorers arriving on a planet where things seemed kind of backward, or otherwise, the people lacked some knowledge or technology that would really help. Later in the episode, Kirk and Spock end up discovering the society actually has the knowledge--but it's "locked up" in some way, and they aren't able to benefit from it.

I'd argue that when Latin is "terra incognita" for us, that "locks up" a great treasury of our Faith for us.

And, like it or not, we'll never escape Latin; and it's far from clear why we should try to. From time to time, you or your faithful will come upon something composed in Latin--in a prayer book, in sacramental records, on a work of art, in a picture of a church, in music, or in your own parish church--and they will want to know what it means.

Plus, there is a beauty to music composed in Latin, and poetry written in Latin that is hard to convey in English. How else do you explain the fact that lots of people ask for "Ave Maria" at a wedding or funeral, but seldom do they ask it to be sung in English.

> Why even mess with the older Mass?

First, for the benefit of your own priesthood and understanding.

Learning the older form of the Mass, in a powerful way, "fills in" our understanding and experience of the Mass in the ordinary form. The Mass as reformed circa 1970 didn't drop out of heaven--it was a reform of what was in place for untold centuries. (FYI, there is debate about how far back one can say the older form existed as-is; many would argue for it reaching largely it's present form around the 6th century; others for even further back. This is one reason why I don't like calling it the "Tridentine Mass"--as if it originated at the Council of Trent, which is certainly not true.)

Not only is the older form of the Mass the matrix from which the "new Mass" came into existence; it's also the Mass of the vast majority of Catholic life and history; the Mass that so many saints experienced and, for priests, offered.

Even for those priests who don't care to celebrate it, I'd still urge learning the older Mass for the sake of better understanding of who we are and where we came from.

Another point: many of us observed that some values expressed in the current form of the Mass, in a very compact way, are expressed more fully in the older form. For example, the nature of the Mass as a sacrifice. Note, please: I'm not saying the newer Mass doesn't express this; but only that it's not as full an expression. Learning the older Mass helps understand better what the new Mass is about.

And I'll say this about the question of reforming the Mass: I am not--not!--taking the view that there was no need to reform the liturgy, and no value in doing so. I realize that many who are attached to the older form of the Mass take this view; but it is not my view.

On the contrary: only in delving into the older form of the Mass did I fully appreciate some of the reforms that came after Vatican II. So, for example, I appreciate more the value of having the readings, at the very least, proclaimed toward the people, in the vernacular; and the value of more of the prayers being proclaimed aloud, or sung; and the people being encouraged to sing or say the responses. Some of the simplification makes perfect sense to me.

This is for my brother priests who may not see eye-to-eye with me on this: I think it is very possible both to appreciate the older form of the Mass--whether or not you celebrate it--and also appreciate Vatican II choosing to call for reform of the liturgy. If you will forgive me, it is maddening that these propositions are treated as mutually exclusive. For proof, I offer the example of Pope Blessed John XXIII, the caller of the council, who nevertheless deeply loved the traditional liturgy.

> Do it for the sake of your ministry to God's People.

Another reason to be familiar with the older form is for the benefit of God's People. One of the things we often say about serving God's People is: "meet them where they are." Sound familiar? We say this, rightly, about how we present Church teaching; about how we might bend on some rules; on how we approach some requests around weddings and funerals; about choices in liturgy; and in how we reach out to those who are from different cultures and who speak different languages.

So why doesn't this apply to those who--right or wrong--do not find the newer, ordinary form of the Mass edifying?

One of the things I've discovered is that there are those who like the older Mass, not because they are partisans in the ecclesial culture wars ("conservative v. progressive"), but simply because they crave the silence. Let's be very candid: however much you favor reform of the Mass, one thing that changed drastically was a shift from predominant silence--in the low Mass--to a lot of talking or singing. So much so that the current Missal stresses to the celebrant, several times, to provide silence.

Well, some people need more. Does that make them bad? Are they wrong? Does their need merit no consideration?

There's actually a reasonable question here about how the reformed Mass might continue to evolve. Isn't it possible that, at some point in the future, we can arrive at a "happy medium" in which the Mass is celebrated according to the reformed norms--yet has a lot of silence? Recall Pope Benedict--prior to his election--addressed this subject; specifically, he wondered if the Canon of the Mass could be prayed silently, or at least with more silence.

In any case, what we have now in our toolbox includes a form of the Mass that is worthy, sacred, edifying, and for certain folks, is very attractive and nourishing.

If we can see the rationale of offering Mass in Spanish for those who need it, in a charismatic way for those who seek that, and so forth--why not the Extraordinary Form?

> OK, you've convinced me. Where do I go to learn?

The priests at Saint John Cantius Parish in Chicago have a program every summer; I don't recall the date but it's soon. Also, the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter has programs, I think over the summer as well. And there is a class every spring at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary.

Also, you can start with online tutorials. Check out for very helpful information.

If I can help, let me know.

1 comment:

son said...

Father, what you have said is very true. Hopefully this coming advent I start to celebrate EF. Since last year, I slowly use latin starting with Agnus Dei, then next Pater Noster, etc ... and recently Canon Romano. I took me almost a year.
Indeed, it is still OF, while learning from video the EF.
I long to say Mass in EF, though without the faithful.
God Bless.