Towards the beginning of this past summer, I fulfilled a longtime goal of attending the Traditional Latin Mass. More specifically, I spent a week with the Fraternity of St. Joseph the Guardian, attending a Solemn High Mass every day and learning about various topics related to liturgical studies. It was a beautiful experience (and not just because it was located in the picturesque Provence region of France); even more so than that, it was enlightening. What follows is a reflection on what I learned from my first experience with the Latin Mass.
It’s extraordinarily different than I expected.
As I entered the church for my first Solemn High Mass, I expected some differences from the Novus Ordo which I find so familiar. I knew that the priest would be facing with the people; I knew there would be more incense than usual; I obviously knew that the Mass would be in Latin. I found, however, that I had wholly underestimated the differences.
Throughout the Mass, the priest made deliberate shifts in which part of the altar the Roman Missal sat and where he stood. When the reading of the Gospel came, the deacon chanted it to a wall (I later learned that the Gospel is read to “liturgical east” as a symbol of preaching to the Gentiles). The Priest prayed the Eucharistic prayer silently (more on this later). Basically, for the first couple Masses I was as lost as a sheep. But in repetition of the liturgy, I came to recognize what was happening, when it was happening, and what all these little differences mean.
In recognizing this, I grew in empathy for those who were so strongly opposed to the creation of the Novus Ordo. The new Mass was not merely a translation; it involved significant changes to the liturgy, which meant changes in some of the Mass’ symbolism. To desire the restoration of these symbols is a more understandable position than merely defending a change of language.
My lack of Latin was a smaller issue than I expected.
I am terrible at Latin. I took a semester of it freshman year and was absolutely miserable. Naturally, I was slightly terrified that my lack of understanding the language would impede my understanding of the celebration.
It would be false of me to say that it didn’t. Particularly with the readings being in Latin, especially since the read-along translation offered to us was in French, which I also do not know. However, over the course of the week the Latin became a smaller and smaller issue, and when I could not understand the language, I still understood the meaning. This was assisted by those anachronisms that fill the Traditional Latin Mass — the incense, the genuflections, the movement around the altar. Each act of reverence demonstrated that something worth revering was happening, and so I was constantly queued into the happenings of the liturgy.
Participation need not mean pronunciation.
For much of my life, I was raised to treat participation in the liturgy as a vocal or physical activity. As a child, I was an altar server. As a teenager, I was a lector. As a college student, an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. Each ministry participates in the Mass in a very direct way, and so I had come to associate direct participation qua participation. The Traditional Latin Mass taught me differently.
In the Traditional Latin Mass, the congregation does not say most of the responses as we do in the Novus Ordo. That task is reserved for the deacon, subdeacon, and servers. The role of the congregation is to pray, some in chant but much in silent prayer, contemplating the Mass and offering our intentions and those of the whole world. It is an indirect participation, but it is a powerful form of participation nonetheless.
There are, of course, spiritual benefits of direct participation. However, by always relating participating in the Mass with direct participation, we miss out on one of the jewels of the Traditional Latin Mass — the long periods of directed but silent prayer.
I am uncomfortable with silence.
I promised you that I would get back to silence. At times, it was palpable. Throughout the Mass there were a myriad of movements and periods where no celebrant said a word and no member of the choir sang a note. The congregation sat in total and complete silence.
It was dreadful. Anyone who knows me knows that I talk a lot; the converse of that truth is that I am particularly uncomfortable in silence. Listening to the Solemn High Mass forced me to confront this fact, and the ample time to contemplate what it meant that I could not keep silence. It is a flaw of mine, and I am not proud enough to believe myself the only creature with this flaw. We live in a world of constant noise and few periods of silence. Experiencing directed and intentional silence via the Traditional Latin Mass is, in my opinion, a spiritual benefit well worth experiencing. For those interested, the Alumni Hall chapel hosts a Traditional Latin Mass every Sunday at 9am.
Evan Holguin is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies, a gentleman of the Romish Religion, and a proud Knight of Columbus. You can contact him at email@example.com.