Reflections on the Traditional Latin Mass

March 24, 2009

On the weekend I had the privilege to sing in a Gregorian schola for a special Traditional Latin, or “extraordinary form”, or “Tridentine”, Mass at the University of Toronto.  The event seems to have been a good success.  The music turned out fairly well, apart from one highly dissonant interval accidentally produced by yours truly.  The church was full, and many of those who attended had never been to an extraordinary form Mass before.  Afterward, there was a Q&A session at which people were given an opportunity to ask questions and make comments.

A few observations, based on my own experience and the comments I heard from others:

— First, the Mass was organized and served by young people, and a good proportion of the congregation was young.  This is perhaps not too surprising, given that it is a university parish, but nonetheless it was encouraging to me to see that many young Catholics taking an interest in this very traditional form of worship.

— This was not my first extraordinary form Mass — it was perhaps my tenth or so — but those for whom it was their first found it confusing.  Everyone was supplied with a missal containing the order of service, but I gather that without the overt cues from the priest or cantor, a fair number of people lost track of what was happening.  This is an issue that more familiarity and a little education would remedy.

— Some people remarked that their confusion was, in a sort of perverse way, edifying, because it emphasized the objectivity of the Mass: the consecration was happening whether they understood it or not.  An interesting point, but definitely a silver lining.

— One person complained at the post-Mass Q&A that the liturgy did not encourage enough “active participation” of the congregation.  A few people expressed privately to me that they felt more like observers than participants.  I think this is a common feeling for those who are used to the ordinary form of the rite: without the cues to do something, one can have a sense of vacancy, waiting for something to happen.  But I am inclined to attribute this to wrong expectations: in the older rite the priest is not the focus of attention to the same degree as in the newer one; watching him is bound to get dull.  The older rite grants the congregation long periods of prayerful silence. If you’re not praying in that way, you’ll be left with a vacant feeling.  Again, I think that greater familiarity with the older rite would help to ameliorate this problem.

— On a similar note, a few people said that there were not enough chances for the congregation to sing or respond.  Some felt left out when the schola sang the chant, and I understand that reaction — that’s why I joined the schola.  But it is not the case that in the newer form the congregation does sing those texts; they are almost always simply dropped from the liturgy, so they don’t count as a lost opportunity.  I believe that the Our Father and the psalm are the two texts which the congregation says or sings in the new form but not in the old.  On the other hand, the congregation gets more “Et cum spiritu tuo“s in the older form.

— The priest decided to sing the readings in Latin.  This was standard before Vatican II, but when Pope Benedict revived the extraordinary form a few years ago he permitted the substitution of readings in the vernacular.  It seems to be simple good sense to take advantage of that permission.  (Although it was lovely to hear the Scripture sung to those old tones.)

— A few people remarked at the Q&A session that they liked kneeling to receive the Eucharist, and they liked receiving directly on the tongue, rather than in the hand.  (At this church, which doesn’t even have kneelers in the pews (!), it is standard practice to receive in the hand while standing.)

— One elderly woman spoke up, with emotion in her voice, and said that hearing the Gregorian chant again, after so many years, had touched her deeply.  I was humbled by that, of course, but not to the extent of demurring.  The chant is wonderful, and we ought to restore it to “pride of place” in the liturgy, in accordance with the wishes (and instructions) of Vatican II.

Salt and Light Television was on hand with their one-eyed monsters, but I don’t know anything about their broadcast plans.  If anyone who attended the Mass is reading this and wishes to leave a comment, you are most welcome to do so.

2 Responses to “Reflections on the Traditional Latin Mass”

  1. Giovanni Says:


    some comments on your observations

    About people getting confused:
    Especially at a sung Mass, this is inevitable. Priest and choir are not “co-ordinated” so to speak. You need some sort of instruction beforehand to know what is happening. The first experiences of a Traditional Mass should be a Low mass, if possible, to gain familiarity.

    About participation: the people can join the choir in the proper responses (“et cum spiritu tuum”, etc.) and in the ordinary parts of the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei; but *not* the Pater Noster, and not the Gradual. This is what happens at my Traditional parish.

    The idea of “observer” vs “participant” is an old debate that comes up when debating the Novus Ordo vs the Traditional Mass. The idea here is to understand the *transcendence* of the Mass. The Mass should transcend language, even the spoken word (cf silent Roman Canon) becasue it is where “heaven and earth meet”. The Traditional Mass implicitly manifests this idea, the Novus Ordo not as much. This is another reason people used to the Novus Ordo are left feeling “vacant” when they attend the Traditional Mass. I totally agree with your point on the prayerful silence. One goes to Mass to pray, pray, pray. I personally find the obsession with participating in the Novus Ordo distracts me from praying at Mass.

    Your strange comment about the “people’s confusion was edifying in a perverse way” points at the idea of transcendence. It is *not* edifying in a perverse way: this is *exactly* the point. The transcendence of the Mass, the Mass itself, the Sacrifice, the Eucharist, those are the spiritually edifying experiences no matter if you participate or not, are confused or not, etc.

    I have had extensive experience attending the beautiful Byzantine Liturgy. Once, I did not have my transaltion booklet, and had no problems…the Mass (Divine Liturgy as it is called in the East) was as edifying as ever.

    My opinion about the Gospel and Epistle. If they are chanted, then they should only be chanted in Latin, because those tones ABSOLUTELY DO NOT WORK in English. They were designed for Latin. The chant sounds AWFUL in English. They may work for Spanish or Italian, but even then it sounds funny. If one were to use the vernacular, then the Epistle and Gospel should be read, not sung.

    About Communion: did you know Blessed Mother Theresa of Kolkata said when asked what the saddest thing in the world was during modern times was how people were receiving Communion in the hand. So true. So true.

    I will stop here for now


  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Giovanni. By saying that the edification was “perverse”, I only meant that it resulted from the person being confused. In other words, the advantage was gained because the person was uncatechized.

    I agree with you that if we’re going to sing the Scripture, different tones are suitable for different languages. The Anglicans have some good tones for singing English.

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