Some notes on a Latin mass

Some notes on a Latin mass February 21, 2020

So in the Archdiocese of Chicago, this is Annual Catholic Appeal time.  Not a fan, especially for that one week when, rather than a homily, we listen to a recording of the cardinal and are then instructed to fill out pledge cards in the pew, down to a literal script in which the priest says, “In Box 1, put your name.  In Box 2, write your street address.  Don’t forget your apartment number if you have one,” etc.  So, since we were spending the day in Kenosha, I went to the Latin mass offered at one of the churches there.

Here’s my honest reaction:

I expected to be given a booklet with the mass in English and Latin, to follow along with, and I was.

I expected to hear the readings in English and have a homily delivered in English, and so it was.

I expected to see a diversity of ages, and that was true as well — with a preponderance of younger adults, and, interestingly enough, a fair number of small children but not really any grade school or older children, that I could tell, even though grade-school religious ed classes are held in-between the English and Latin mass on Sunday mornings, so there shouldn’t be any schedule conflicts.  It was not a packed-to-the-gills church, however, though I didn’t really have an expectation for how many people there “should” have been.

What I did not expect was the silence of the mass.

Sure, maybe I should have, had I done a bit more looking beforehand.

After all, I knew that this sort of mass — the priest going about his business with the server saying the responses — was the norm in pre-Vatican II days.  But I had assumed that this had been abandoned by those who prefer to worship with the Latin Mass just as much as with the modern, vernacular mass.  Who wouldn’t prefer, given the option, to hear the priest and server?  For that matter, in Dad’s old missal, there’s the instruction of how to know which responses are said by the worshippers in “the dialog mass,” and I had understood it to be the case that, before the mass was translated into English, before Vatican II, it had already evolved to the point of having this greater degree of participation.

Now, here’s the description of “The differences between Low Masses and Sung Masses” at a website for a parish which is exclusively Latin-mass:

Low Mass is celebrated by a priest assisted by one or more altar boys. The prayers are spoken (in Latin), and much of the Mass of the Faithful (after the offertory) is almost inaudible, in imitation of the ancient Jewish liturgies given by God to Moses, and emphasizing the fact that we are faced with a profound mystery.

During Low Mass, only the altar servers respond to the priest. The priest alone says the Pater Noster prayer (Our Father), and only he assumes the Orans prayer position (hands extended and held shoulder-width apart). . . .

Sung Mass includes the Asperges before Mass, in which the priest sprinkles the congregation with Holy Water as part of the opening liturgical ceremony. Sung Mass is so called because many of the prayers of the Mass are sung by the priest, choir, or schola. Sung Mass also usually employs the use of incense.

At Sung Mass, the faithful chant the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei with the Schola (choir). The congregation also responds to the Priest in chant during multiple points during the Mass.

So what I saw was something in-between: there was a choir singing the mass parts listed, but I didn’t hear so many of the congregants singing as for it to be clear to me that we were “supposed to” (though, let’s face it, with the small numbers, I couldn’t say for certain what the expectation was vs. what people chose to do).  And there was incense but no sprinkling rite.  And the “inaudible” portion seemed to include not just the post-offertory liturgy but the opening rites and pretty much everything except the readings, which were audible both in Latin and English.

Was this truly “in imitation of the ancient Jewish liturgies given by God to Moses”?  Dunno.  The Eastern Churches are similar — in fact, have an altar screen behind which the consecration and associated prayers take place.  On the other hand, a Q & A at another Latin mass parish describes this as evolving from the High Medieval development of an increasing number of masses being said in monasteries and cathedrals, with the low voice resulting from speaking softly so as to not disturb the priest simultaneously saying mass in an adjacent side chapel.

And the dialog mass was an innovation of the early 20th century, along with the promotion of the printing of missals so that every worshipper could follow along with the mass.  But, it turns out, the dialog mass has its opponents, those for whom the difference between the Latin mass and the modern vernacular mass is not merely a matter of the language in which it’s spoken seeming more sacred, or the prayers being more prayerful (because, after all, the novus ordo mass is more — or less — than a translation of the Latin Tridentine mass, and, in fact, for a several year stretch, the Tridentine mass was simply translated into English without the text being altered, prior to the prayers and the overall structure being simplified and shortened).  Here’s some text from “The Dialogue Mass, a Tool
to Democratize Liturgy,” an article (part of a long series) which I happened upon in trying to find out what the dialog mass was all about:

It is important not to underestimate the seriousness of the proposal to make the Dialogue Mass the outcome of participation for all the faithful. A centuries-old custom of silent prayer that flowed from the faith and practice of generations of Catholics was about to be abolished, sacrificed on the altar of a destructive egalitarianism in which everyone’s “active participation” – whether clerical or lay – is treated as of equal status.

It was also a totalitarian measure in which the individual is sacrificed to the collective. The faithful, exhorted to join in the collective vocal responses, would no longer be free to choose whichever method of silent participation works best for them. Experience shows that, for those wishing to join their minds and hearts to the Holy Sacrifice being re-enacted on the altar, interior recollection can be distracted by the intrusive voices of others in the pews.

Henceforth, wherever the Dialogue Mass took root, the atmosphere of Catholic worship in the Roman rite would be forever changed as spoken responses drowned silent participation. What is more, silent participation has become a sort of lightning rod for the hatred of liturgical reformers. Indeed, it is now held to be an affront to democratic values in the “age of the laity” inaugurated by Vatican II.

Now, were all my fellow worshippers engaged in private devotions?  No idea.  Were they experienced enough with the Latin low mass that they knew where the were in the missal rather than trying to figure it out by watching the priest’s actions (left side, right side, center, back again to the left) as I was?  Was the appeal of this form of worship, in the end, the silence, or was that of secondary importance?

All of which leaves me curious about this form of worship, even though practicalities dictate that I can’t dig into the issue further. And, after all, it was this form of worship that led Elizabeth Ann Seton to convert from Episcopalianism, writing in her journal:

Mrs. F. took me with her to mass as she calls it, and we say to church — I don’t know how to say the awful effect at being where they told me God was present in the blessed sacrament, and the tall pale meek heavenly looking man who did I don’t know what for I was the side of the alter, so that I could not look up without seeing his countenance on which many lights from the altar reflected, and gave such strange impressions to my soul that I could but cover my face with my ands and let the tears run — oh my the very little while we were there will never be forgotten though I saw nothing and no one, but this more than human person as he seemed to me.

And there I leave it for today, before I continue with the other items on my to-do list.


Image:; CC BY 4.0,

"I think much of the criticism of Reno is unfair and a result of deliberate ..."

Sorry, “Let’s Let Granny Die” Is ..."
"So the long and short of it is that I really hesitate to write things ..."

Sorry, “Let’s Let Granny Die” Is ..."
"Since you don't link to any examples, either here or the OP, I guess we'll ..."

Sorry, “Let’s Let Granny Die” Is ..."
"Actually, I don't think my characterization was a straw man; other Patheos writers were dramatically ..."

Sorry, “Let’s Let Granny Die” Is ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment