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October 11, 2006
The Latin Mass Returns

Catholics celebrated Mass for centuries in the primarily Latin rite of the Tridentine Mass. In order to understand the Mass, Catholics had to learn Latin, as vernacular was used for nothing except the homily. Forty years ago, the Catholic Church decided to use vernacular for all portions of the Mass in order to make Catholicism more personal and approachable for modern Catholics, many of whom never learned Latin and found the Tridentine Mass too frustrating and incomprehensible. Predictably, the reform urge took on a very autocratic nature, and Rome demanded an end to all Tridentine Mass celebrations except those specifically authorized by the Church.

That may be changing. The Times of London reports that Pope Benedict XVI will authorize all priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, only forbidding it when bishops explicitly forbid it in writing:

THE Pope is taking steps to revive the ancient tradition of the Latin Tridentine Mass in Catholic churches worldwide, according to sources in Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI is understood to have signed a universal indult — or permission — for priests to celebrate again the Mass used throughout the Church for nearly 1,500 years. The indult could be published in the next few weeks, sources told The Times.

Use of the Tridentine Mass, parts of which date from the time of St Gregory in the 6th century and which takes its name from the 16th-century Council of Trent, was restricted by most bishops after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

This led to the introduction of the new Mass in the vernacular to make it more accessible to contemporary audiences. By bringing back Mass in Latin, Pope Benedict is signalling that his sympathies lie with conservatives in the Catholic Church.

Many Catholics will rejoice at the return of the old celebration. Two generations of Catholics have grown up without it, but many of these wonder why the Church forbid it outright rather than just encourage both forms to be celebrated. The Times notes that several high-profile conflicts over the rite resulted in excommunications and various minor schisms, in retrospect a silly episode in Church history.

I recall when I started attending church again in the mid-80s that a nearby parish had a very conservative pastor. He had the smalled parish in the diocese, reportedly because the bishop suspected that he would turn the altar around and start celebrating Mass in Latin. In fact, one of the employees of the parish told me that the diocese would stop by just to make sure that he hadn't violated the restriction. This was not an isolated impulse, as the controversy proves.

In many parishes, priests celebrate at least one Mass in Spanish, and of course many parishes in immigrant communities use their own languages. It seems odd that the only language that priests could not use without express permission was the official language of the Church itself. The intense reaction to Vatican II shows what can happen when reformers take themselves too seriously, and how damaging that can be to an organization or a community.

I would much prefer to celebrate Mass in English. I never studied Latin, so I would understand little of the ceremony except for the correlation to the vernacular Mass I know well. It's doubtful I could say the Pater Noster or the Gloria, and that limitation would make me feel like an outsider in a Mass that should be about inclusion. However, I see no reason why a parish that celebrates five Masses in a weekend could not perform one in the Tridentine tradition; I would simply attend another and be perfectly happy to do so.

I think Benedict has the right idea, and now I can at least have the opportunity to experience something I have not since I was a toddler, far out of my memory. In a Church that celebrates its catholic as well as Catholic reach, a little Latin will hurt no one.

UPDATE: Mary Pat notes in the comments that the Novus Ordo Mass is celebrated in Latin and had been an acceptable form of celebration, so language isn't the primary issue. The Tridentine Mass had other elements which the Vatican deemed objectionable after the Second Vatican Council, including moving the altar around so that the priest faces away from the congregation. None of the elements really supported the near-absolute ban on the centuries-old Mass, in my opinion.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 11, 2006 5:47 AM

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