Groundswell of support may revive use of Latin Mass
Faithful have been flocking to traditional rite of Catholic Church.
By Daniel Patrick Sheehan Of The Morning Call
Four decades of change in the Roman Catholic Church have made the Latin Mass, the beloved rite of centuries, a stranger in its own house. So when an under-50 Catholic beholds the venerable ceremony for the first time, it's with the surprised and wondering eyes of a tourist.
''Introibo ad altare Dei,'' says the priest, his back facing the congregation, uttering Latin more familiar nowadays from fiction — the opening of James Joyce's ''Ulysses,'' where Buck Mulligan flippantly uses the phrase on his way to shave — than from exposure on Sunday. It means ''I will go in unto the altar of God,'' and it opens an hour of reverent, murmured worship defined as much by its silences as its words.
The Mass, formally called the Tridentine Mass because it was codified under Pope Pius V at the 16th century Council of Trent, was supplanted by the Mass of Pope Paul VI — the largely vernacular Novus Ordo, or new order — in the 1970s.
That was a decade of jarringly rapid change in the church as the reforms of the Second Vatican Council — which called for the church to open itself to the modern world — were implemented. The loss of the Tridentine rite, which could only be celebrated afterward by special permission, devastated many Catholics, some of whom departed for the unchanged liturgies of Orthodox churches or retreated into resistance or outright schism as they strove to sustain the old ways of worship.
But in these early years of the church's third millennium, the Latin Mass isn't dead. It is making a bona fide comeback, with attendance at diocese-approved celebrations growing — in part because of interest among young people — and Pope Benedict XVI reportedly preparing to further loosen strictures on the rite so that priests can offer it without having to seek permission from the local bishop. The Coalition for Ecclesia Dei, a Tridentine Mass advocacy group, estimates the number of Masses offered weekly across the country has grown from fewer than 40 in 1988 to nearly 240 today.
''There's a catholicity to it that was somewhat submarined after Vatican II,'' says the Rev. William Seifert, who has begun offering the old rite at St. Stephen of Hungary in Allentown — the sole forum in the Catholic Diocese of Allentown — and welcomed more than 100 worshippers to the first Mass three weeks ago.
Most were carry-over worshippers from St. Roch's in West Bangor, where Monsignor Charles Moss offered the Mass until his death earlier this year. They came from as far as Jim Thorpe, many clutching leatherbound copies of the pre-Vatican II 1962 Missal to guide them through the liturgy.
The women and girls wore lace chapel veils. The men and boys wore suits. They arrived early and lingered late. That alone made the gathering distinct from some new Masses, where families dressed for the day's soccer game race for the exits at the first opportunity.
Many of the bowed heads were gray, but other worshippers were of generations born since Vatican II, who have little or no memory of the days when the old rite was the only rite. For them, sentiment plays no role in how they worship. They simply find a fuller, more satisfying expression of faith in the old ways.
That appears to be the case wherever Tridentine celebrations are offered. Dozens of stories in secular and Catholic media in recent years have noted the large numbers of younger people attached to the rite.
''I guess I'm drawn to the quiet, the reverence, the fullness of the prayers,'' says Susie Lloyd of Whitehall, 40, a flesh-and-blood portrait of old-line Catholicism as she knelt with her husband and six daughters — a seventh child is on the way — in a pew at St. Stephen's. ''There's a sense of stability, an emphasis on God and the sacrifice.''
Matt Cavoto of Bethlehem, a 25-year-old Moravian College graduate who attends with his wife and infant son, says he was first drawn to the Tridentine rite when he lived in Norristown. Cavoto, a musician and composer who is forming a small choir for the St. Stephen's Mass, was enraptured by the haunting medieval chant of the liturgy.
''I wouldn't call my interest in the old Mass a preference, per se,'' he says. ''You have different rites in the church and each emphasizes different aspects of spirituality. It's the same faith either way. When someone becomes attached to a particular rite, it's not a matter of preference, it's simply the manner in which one lives one's faith.''
Old versus new
The debate over new Mass versus old — raging hot as ever these days in theological journals and on countless Web logs — extends far beyond language and atmosphere into the very nature of Catholicism. Is worship primarily an individual meeting between God and believer, or more of a communal gathering? Are the Eucharistic bread and wine — which Catholics believe to be the body and blood of Christ — to be received on the knees, with a sense of awe and trembling, or shared like the elements of a meal?
These aren't either-or propositions, Lloyd says. The Mass is a sacrifice and a meal, a private rendezvous and a public gathering.
But the new and old rites emphasize different elements, and the distinctions are evident even to a casual observer. At a Tridentine service, the priest faces the altar, not the people, and seems to be engaged in private discourse much of the time. His orientation and gestures make the sacrificial aspect of the liturgy far more explicit than in the Novus Ordo, which emphasizes the social elements of worship by using lay people for Scripture readings and including more responsorial prayers.
The Rev. John T. Zuhlsdorf, a priest and author who lives in Rome and maintains a Catholic apologetics Web site, says the old rite constitutes ''vertical'' worship, raising the congregation's attention to God on high, whereas the new Mass is ''horizontal,'' emphasizing God's presence in the community of believers.
While most of the old rite is in Latin, calling it the Latin Mass is misleading, because the new Mass is sometimes said in that language. It is also misleading to call the Tridentine the ''Mass of all time,'' as some traditionalists do, because other liturgical forms flourished before its development.
Indeed, the Mass of Paul VI was ostensibly an attempt to reclaim elements of the earliest Christian liturgies — the sign of peace, for example, a handshake or other greeting among congregants which was a prominent part of early worship. It is used in the elaborate Tridentine High Mass, but not in the simpler Low Mass.
Communion in the hand, another recent change that traditionalists view as innovation, was also part of early worship.
''There is no doubt in my mind that the people who carried out the liturgical reforms in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, continuing through today, have seen their work as an act of retrieval from those [early] centuries,'' says Mike Aquilina, a Catholic author whose work has focused on the teachings and practices of the church fathers. ''Whether they've succeeded in an actual retrieval is an open question.''
That's because the record of early worship is spotty, at best. In those years, Christians were fiercely persecuted, so gatherings were held in secret. And witnessing the heart of the Mass, the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, was a privilege reserved for the faithful. Catechumens — those receiving instruction in the faith — were dismissed before the Eucharistic prayers began.
What hasn't changed about the Mass is its core purpose. ''The essentials remain the same,'' says Aquilina, vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio. ''That is, the offering of the elements, the bread and the wine and the belief about what happens there. But the ceremonials have changed from time to time.''
Returning to tradition
Lloyd, an author and columnist for Catholic periodicals, argues that Catholics risk losing the true sense of what happens at Mass, with belief in the Real Presence — the literal transformation of bread and wine into Christ's body and blood — already in sharp decline.
In short, Catholics have been pushed toward a Protestant view of the Eucharist as a mere symbolic re-creation of the Last Supper, even though Catholic teaching on the essence of the Mass has not changed.
''This is the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary,'' Lloyd says. ''We kneel down and the priest feeds us the Eucharist. … All of this imagery is lost [in the way new Masses are offered] and the result is that people don't believe.''
According to media reports in Italy and America, Benedict is preparing a document that would ease the strictures on celebrating the Tridentine Mass by allowing any priest to offer it without first seeking permission.
That would be a step further than Benedict's predecessor. Recognizing widespread longing for the old ways, John Paul II urged bishops to be more generous in allowing old rite celebrations — not just the Mass, but all the sacraments — in 1988.
''Respect must everywhere by shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition by a wide and generous application,'' John Paul wrote. The directive, called an indult, was widely ignored, leading John Paul to reiterate his wishes in 1998.
If Benedict plans to grant even greater leeway, he may be hoping to mend the schism with traditionalist groups — especially the Society of St. Pius X, whose founder, Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre, was excommunicated before his death for ordaining bishops against the Vatican's wishes.
Zuhlsdorf says the pontiff's primary aim would be to allow the new rites and old to exist side by side and influence each other to the benefit of both. To a degree, that is already happening, he says. Younger priests who celebrate the old rite are more conscious of the congregation's desire to participate, thanks to the influence of the Novus Ordo. Likewise, the old rite serves as an example of the sense of reverence and awe that should pervade any liturgy.
Through this liturgical cross-pollination, ''the pope hopes to reaffirm the newer form of Mass,'' Zuhlsdorf says. ''It's not a criticism of the newer form. It may be a criticism and correction of the way it's being celebrated, but not of the form itself.''
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