In junior year of high school, I enjoyed the peculiar but heartening experience of attending Mass with two friends early in the morning before our Advanced Placement calculus exam. One was Catholic, the other a Protestant of Calvinist temperament. We had a particularly incompetent math teacher that year and by then recognized that prayer would provide far more efficacious aid than study.
The Mass was simple. It was only a bit past dawn and the only lights on in the church were in the sanctuary. The priest came out of the sacristy in procession with a single server and turned toward the altar, his back toward the congregation and began the Mass in a relatively low voice.
Both my friends seemed genuinely moved by the Mass. My Protestant friend was unusually quiet and reverential afterward: he commented that the priest’s richly embroidered red vestments, the altar, and the veil in front of the tabernacle invoked images of worship at the Temple at Jerusalem. He had been to a Catholic Mass before, but I could tell that he now appreciated its symbolism, ritual, and meaning much more deeply. When one of our Protestant friends chastised him for kneeling, he shrugged off his complaints as though there was something fundamental our friend failed to understand.
My Catholic friend was even affected by it. He had been to Mass nearly every Sunday of his life, but had never attended one quite like that. “Was that a Mass?” he asked, not in contempt but in mere surprise. Despite its strangeness he appreciated it. Its silences, bows, elevations, and frequent genuflections had almost mathematical beauty, as he described it.
No doubt, my friend was so perplexed because the Mass we attended was celebrated in a form of the Roman Rite—the main liturgical rite of the Catholic Church—that had become rare in the last 38 years. This form, most commonly known as the Tridentine Mass or Traditional Latin Mass, had been the standard in the Church for nearly 400 years before the new, radically revised version, sometimes called the Novus Ordo, replaced it as the norm in 1969.
While many—some eagerly, others sadly—anticipated that the Tridentine Mass would become a historical artifact, a new papal document has given reason to hope for renewed interest in this traditional form. On July 7, Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum, an apostolic letter motu proprio—by the Pope’s own initiative—that reaffirmed the importance of the Tridentine Mass as a form of the Roman rite and removed restrictions on its celebration. While the Novus Ordo is now the ordinary form of the rite, he explains, the older form was never abrogated and remains available as an “Extraordinary Form.” Any priest may offer Mass in the Extraordinary Form privately as he pleases and pastors are obliged to permit its public celebration if a sufficient number of parishioners request it and it is feasible to do so.
Before the decree, public celebration of the Tridentine Mass required the permission of the local bishop. While a few bishops permitted its celebration rather freely, others were exceedingly reluctant. Many of the latter either disliked the old rite or feared that
those who favored it questioned the legitimacy of the new one. Considering both the interests of the large minority of Catholics attached to Tridentine Mass and the need to temper the unintended excesses of modern liturgical reform, the Holy Father determined that the Extraordinary Form is not a cause of dissension but a means of enriching the life of the Church.
Non-Catholic, and even many Catholics, may not understand the degree of interest in the Extraordinary Form. Why, some may wonder, would anyone want to go a church service in which the minister turns his back on the congregants and chants or whispers in a language they do not understand? While such concerns highlight the most obvious differences between the new rite and the old, it fails to comprehend the source of the Extraordinary Form’s attraction.
The Extraordinary Form, through the wisdom of centuries of tradition, has a symbolic subtlety that has largely been lost in the rapid liturgical reform that took place after the Second Vatican Council. Every action, indeed nearly every gesture and word, has been imbued with deep meaning. The ceremonies of the older form maintain a precious heritage from the early church but also from generations of amplification grounded in reverence and prayerful reflection. In contrast, the Novus Ordo rubrics grant the priest and parish so much liberty that the average worshipper’s experience is often as much the result of caprice as design.
For example, while the Novus Ordo was consciously designed to increase emphasis on the Mass as a meal, the Tridentine Mass more conspicuously displays the Mass’s sacrificial nature, as my Protestant friend realized. In the Novus Ordo, the priest typically stands at a freestanding altar, which distressingly often looks rather like a common table, facing the congregation, often with his back to the tabernacle, where the Eucharist is reserved. In the Tridentine Mass, however, the priest faces the tabernacle together with the congregation, signifying that he is offering a sacrifice on behalf of the congregation in the presence of God, just as the Jewish priests offered the sacrifices before the presence of God in the Temple that prefigured the final and perfect sacrifice that Jesus offered on the cross. The Sacrifice of the Mass is bloodless participation in that sacrifice, so it fittingly recalls the outward appearance of the sacrifices by which God prepared men to understand this ultimate sacrifice. Hence this position is sometimes called versus Deum, toward God, as opposed to versus populum, toward the people. It is also called ad orientem, toward the east, since it is normally literally East, which represents both the Resurrection and the Second Coming. The Mass takes part in our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, while anticipating His glorious return in judgment at the end of time.
Equally conspicuous are the use of Latin and the frequent silences. Latin reflects the timelessness of the Mass. Once the common tongue of much of the Western Christendom, and still the Church’s official language, Latin represents the Church’s universal mission and antiquity. The language also elevates the minds of the faithful above everyday affairs conducted in the vernacular. The periods of near silence, particularly during the Eucharistic Prayer, or Canon, allow the worshipper to participate in the Mass in the most meaningful sense, through fervent prayer of adoration, thanksgiving, and petition. The work of silence is often aided by other-worldly Gregorian chant, which elevates the soul to the sublime as it stretches every syllable of praise as though to end of ages. While many today understand active participation in the Mass in the most vulgar and meaningless sense—mere chattering—the traditional form of the Roman rite allows from participation in the deepest sense for the laity.
Although the language the priest speaks may be unfamiliar to many, his prayers abound with a dignity and poetic grace absent from those produced by the committees that drafted the new liturgical books. One need only compare the offertory prayers to see the marked difference. The Novus Ordo rather confusingly offers “bread” and “wine,” which will become “the bread of life” and “spiritual drink,” in prayers awkwardly adopted from ancient Jewish table blessings. The former two phrases fail to clarify that the offering made in the sacrifice of the Mass is not of bread and wine but of Jesus’ body and blood. The latter two, while entirely appropriate biblical terms for the Eucharist, fail to have the inspiring grandeur of “spotless host [sacrificial victim]” and “chalice of salvation” which ascends with “a savor of sweetness.” Similarly while in the old rite the priest recited Psalm 25 (numbered 26 in some Bibles), which wonderfully connects the hope under the Old Law for redemption to its fulfillment in the New, the new rite merely has the priest pray “Lord wash away my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin.” Gone also from the Ordinary Form is the offertory Prayer to the Holy Trinity, which neatly summarizes the intention of the sacrifice, and thereby reminds both the priest and congregation of their proper focus.
But there is a final element to the Extraordinary Form’s attraction that is not immediately perceptible. It unites us to generations of Catholics, to a great multitude of saints, who were spiritually nourished by the ancient rite. It reminds us of the generation that, during the Council of Trent, saw the Roman Rite given its classic codification to protect it from any taint of the errors then abounding. It links us to the generations of missionaries thereafter who brought Christ’s word and His sacrifice not only to heathen nations but back to parts of Europe that rejected its fullness in favor of novel doctrines. The hundreds of priests and religious martyred in Spain by godless radicals during the Civil War centered their lives on the venerable rite. During all the upheavals of modernity the Tridentine Mass was a surety and solace for the faithful. The Church’s unwavering insistence not to compromise with the errors of this, or any, age, was made plain to Catholic and non-Catholic alike by its careful preservation of its ancient rites. In an age that strives for continual revolution and novelty and one that indiscriminately spurns the past, this reaffirmation of the Tridentine Mass is an important step for preservation of a Christian culture in an increasingly secularized world.