Why the Latin Mass?

from: http://reginamag.com
by Father Richard G. Cipolla


‘I went into St. Peter’s and stood under the dome and read those words: Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram. And I looked to the confessio where lie the bones of St. Peter, and I looked again at the words in the dome, and I understood, and from that understanding I have never turned back.’

Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam.  Those words resonate with me in so many ways, so many times, places.

One of my students came into my office last week, having just seen an impressive film in his European history class about Martin Luther. He is intelligent, moral, and takes Latin (the latter nearly equal to being moral!). He proceeded, on the basis of the film, which had its biases, to rip apart the Catholic Church, corruption, bad popes who had children, priests living in sin, failure to preach the Gospel, and much more. We have all heard this view of history, which despite the biases, has some basis in reality.

 In response, I tried to explain the significance of the Tu es Petrus saying in the Gospel of Matthew; but he would have none of it, because to him it was obvious—that is, someone had told him—that Jesus was not referring to Peter but to the rock which is the Church in some idealistic sense. So all I could do was to tell him how and when I understood this passage. I was in Rome for the first time in my life in the summer after my first year at the Yale Divinity School. I shall not tell you, for it has nothing to do with a Christian sermon, about my discovery on that occasion of my Italian heritage. Nor shall I tell you about the beginning of my love affair with the baroque in the church of St. Andrea al Quirinale. But I shall tell you what I told this young man, for it has to do with my discovery of the Catholic faith. I went into St. Peter’s and stood under the dome and read those words: Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram. And I looked to the confessio where lie the bones of St. Peter, and I looked again at the words in the dome, and I understood, and from that understanding I have never turned back.

And neither did Gregory the Great. If I were to be elected Pope, I have no doubt as to what name I would choose: Gregory. For two of my greatest heroes of the Church both bear the name Gregory: Gregory the Great and

‘A true reformer…recalls forma, recalls beauty, recalls the forma Ecclesiae– back to who she is — the bride of Christ, the locus of salvation, the meeting of heaven and earth.’    

Gregory the VII. And they are my heroes because they both understood what the words Tu es Petrus mean in the most existential yet in the most objective way.

Let us not quibble about understandings about jurisdiction, decretals, or Gregorian chant. Both of these men knew who they were and what they must do. They both knew the terribly earthen vessels they were, and yet pressed on with their reforms, for they were both reformers in the truest sense, not puritans or reactionaries but true reformers. What is a true reformer? And its attendant question: what is a true reformation? We all think we know what reformer and reformation mean, but if we look deep into the roots of these words we see something that surprises us. What is a true reformer: he is the one who recalls forma, he is the one who recalls beauty, he is the one who recalls the forma Ecclesiae, who recalls the Ecclesia Formosa—whose beauty is a reflection of the beauty of God in Jesus Christ—back to who she is, the bride of Christ, the locus of salvation, the meeting of heaven and earth. For the Christian, beauty finds its source in the beauty of God, whose love is the source of beauty. It is the Christian who looks upon the crucifix and sees sheer and utter beauty. And it is in this sense that Dostoyevsky’s Idiot is absolutely right: beauty will save the world.

‘It is the Mass that is the recollection of beauty — of the beauty of God.’

And it is the Mass that is the recollection of beauty, of the beauty of God. Recollection is a strange English word. To gather together again, to bring together in the mind, to remember. And yet much more than this. But to not remember, to refuse to remember: this is sin in the deepest sense. Forgive my classical allusions today, but I know many of you share my love of the classics. I teach both Catullus and Cicero. Catullus and Cicero were certainly, although contemporaries, quite different men. Yet both took friendship ultimately seriously. Both agreed on one thing: to be immemor, to be forgetful of one’s obligations to one’s friends, was a terrible sin. To forget on purpose the bond that joins two friends who have agreed to enter into this relationship: that is the unforgivable sin. The sin of being immemor is taken to tragic and lofty heights by Vergil in the Aeneid. When Aeneas forgets on purpose who he is, that is to say, what he must do, what his destiny is, he is recalled in a terrifying way to do what he must do. And thus, for the Western hero, for the pre-Christian hero, to forget in a deliberate way who one is by forgetting what one must do—this is sin. Adam and Eve forgot deliberately who they were and what that meant. And they sinned. When Israel forgot who she was, the chosen people of God, she sinned. And then comes that moment in which the sin of being immemor is made forgivable by a gesture, by a word: “Do this in memory of me.” Memory and its pollution by sin is purified by the breaking of bread and the drinking of a cup of wine by God in the flesh: anamnesis makes memory the vehicle of God, the calling forth of God: the bell rings, the host is held on high, the people sigh, and God is with his people. Past becomes present: the unreality of the future is guaranteed and made real by this presence, the presence of God.


‘The bell rings,  the Host is held on high, the people sigh, and God is with His people.’


One of my favorite pieces of literature is the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. In the third book, Prince Caspian, the prince is fighting a battle against the evil forces led by his wicked uncle, and the prince’s troops are losing. In desperation the prince blows on a magical horn that is able to summon the heroes of the past to come to the rescue of those in the present. The Prince sounds the horn and the kings and queens of the past come back and with great courage and fortitude lead the charge and win the battle. But here and really. Not nostalgia, not memory. But anamnesis. The horn sounds not to summon imaginary heroes from the past to fight battles of the present. The horn sounds, the bell sounds, the silence sounds, to summon the power and person of God himself to be present in and defend and make fruitful the Church, his Body, et portae inferi contra eam non praevalebunt.

Twenty years is a long time and a very short time. The Saint Gregory Society exists not to wallow in nostalgia. Not to exult in some sort of gorgeous Wagnerian glorification of the past and therefore the present. Not to preserve Gregorian chant and Lassus as a wonderful and beautiful art form, which both are. Not to wall its members off from the crass and vulgar and chillingly secular and anti-religious aspects of contemporary society. But rather, with the explicit support of Pope Benedict XVI, to refuse to be immemor, to refuse to pretend that the post-Vatican II liturgy, despite its validity and source of grace, is continuous with the traditional Roman rite, to refuse to reduce anamnesis to the memory of the present community: but more importantly to take on the task which is the task of the Cross: to bear the burden of Christ whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light; to continue to offer the Holy Sacrifice with dignity, reverence and faith, and to witness to the Church and to the world, by the beauty of the Mass and the holiness of its members, the reality of the truth, goodness, and beauty of God.


‘This rite is not convenient, for it demands that you allow yourself to be swept up into the re-presentation of Calvary; that you use silence, holy silence, to go where words cannot go.’

You who come here for the first time and experience the depth of Catholic worship
which unites us beyond time and space with the dead and with the saints in
heaven; you who come here occasionally when your schedule permits. Go home and
consider whether what we do here and in my own parish of St. Mary in Stamford
in the offering of the traditional Mass is important for the Church and
important for you as Catholics. If what we do is important then it deserves the
active support of those who understand what is at stake—not merely time and
financial support but bodily support, being present here to worship God in this
timeless rite. It is certainly easier to pop into one’s parish church and sit
through the Novus Ordo Mass and, knowing that that frail garment is a source of grace, to receive Holy Communion and go home and suppress the feeling that there is something missing, something wrong.

We are a people whose lives are based on convenience. And not only is this Mass not convenient to come to: the odd hour, the sketchy neighborhood, the peeling paint of the church: this rite itself is not convenient, for it demands that you give yourself, you lose yourself, you allow yourself to be swept up into the re-presentation of Calvary; it demands that you use silence, holy silence, to go where words cannot go; it demands that you participate deeply in the act, participatio actuosa, rather than persisting with the kind of “active participation” which belongs at a school assembly. To come here requires sacrifice, but that’s what it is all about anyway.


‘To witness to the Church and to the world, by the beauty of the Mass and the holiness of its members, the reality of the truth, goodness, and beauty of God.’

Today we ask for the intercession of Saint Gregory the Great, that he may give us the courage, strength, hope and joy to recall the Church to liturgical reform—not to bring something back from the past, but to recall the Church to its essence in the beauty of Christ as seen and experienced in the traditional Roman rite.

Sancte Gregori, ora pro nobis.

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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16 Responses to Why the Latin Mass?

  1. Giovanni A. Cattaneo says:

    Every generation thinks they are the “only” generation.


  2. Toad says:

    “Every generation thinks they are the “only” generation.”

    No they don’t.
    I know my children are of a different generation, and my father was himself of a different generation.


  3. Factmonger says:

    Fr. Cipolla’s piece is beautifully written but borders on obscurantism and heresy in its exaltation of the Tridentine rite of Mass (1570-1970) ) as a theologically superior form of worship to the so-called Novus Ordo of Vatican II (1970- ). Everything that is said by the author about the older rite could in fact be said as well about the new, improved rite, which when properly celebrated with sacred reverence, either in Latin or in the vernacular, is far superior to the Tridentine rite of Mass.

    I am especially irritated by the recent Catholic traditionalist propaganda which calls the Tridentine rite the “Mass of All Ages” and treats the “Novus Ordo” as a modernist innovation. Far from being the Mass of All Ages, the Tridentine Mass was a Counter-Reformation impoverishment of the historically diverse, ancient Roman rite of the Mass. By the late Middle Ages this had flowered into many local variants, such as in England (Sarum use), France (Gallican rite) and Spain (Mozarabic rite). These variants were almost all deliberately suppressed by the minimalizing reforms of the Council of Trent for the sake of international conformity of Roman Catholic worship in the face of Protestantism.

    Paradoxically, the Tridentine reform of the liturgy of the Mass, with its exclusive emphasis on the priestly role in offering the Holy Sacrifice, actually discouraged the people’s informed spiritual participation in their worship (“liturgy”, from the Greek “leitos + ergos” = the work of the people). For example, the hasty post-Tridentine liturgical reform, in the interests of brevity, chopped prayerful psalmody and litanies in the Mass down to snippets, and almost eliminated the topical Prayer of the Faithful, or Bidding Prayers, except on Good Friday. Out of pure stubbornness the fathers of Trent also refused to restore to use the vernacular (which Latin once had been) and communion in both kinds, as rightly demanded by the 15th and 16th century reformers.

    The Novus Ordo, in restoring such ancient elements of Catholic worship, and adding more variety, did not impoverish but enriched the Tridentine ritual. It returned to the rich roots of the Latin Mass in the classical, 5th-century Gelasian Sacramentary, while paying attention to the still more ancient liturgical lessons of the Orthodox Eastern rites. The Novus Ordo even allows room for the local recovery and extension in different languages of some of the Roman rite’s ancient regional variations.

    I fear that the traditionalists touting the Tridentine rite as the Mass of All Ages are blinkered, anachronistic elitists who know little and care less about the true history of Christian worship in the West or the true spiritual good of modern congregations. They would do better to promote the proper and prayerful celebration (in Latin for those who want it) of the much superior Novus Ordo.


  4. Toad says:

    What an excellent and thought-provoking comment, Factmonger (or may we call you ‘Fact,’ for short?).

    Toad is an ignoramus regarding these arcane contentions, mainly ascribing the “hatred” (only kidding!) in some quarters for the Novus Order as snobbish revulsion at the prospect of possibly being obliged to shake hands with either the boot boy or a tattooed doxy, lightly clad in shorts, a halter-top, and lime-green and pink-striped Nikes, in the pew behind.
    And he expects a fair bit of fluttering in the dovecotes on this incendiary topic.
    We shall see.

    …And yes, it was nicely-written, But…
    “When Israel forgot who she was, the chosen people of God, she sinned.”
    Is that standard, acceptable, contemporary, Catholic teaching?
    Can a nation collectively sin? Where does that leave individual free will?


  5. The Raven says:

    You’ve made some interesting points there, Factmonger, but there are some issues with what you have written.

    Liturgical Diversity
    You say that Trent suppressed liturgical diversity by banning local variants of the Roman Rite.

    This is only partly true: Trent suppressed variants that were less than 200 years old as at the date of the Council; the Uses that you’ve cited – Sarum, Mozarabic & Gallican – were all older than that and remained licit forms of the Mass, along with the Dominican, Carthusian, Carmelite, Ambrosian and Braga Rites, to name a few off the top of my head.

    Sarum was killed off by the English Reformation – when the Hierarchy was reestablished here in the nineteenth century, the decision was taken to adopt the Roman Rite for a largely immigrant Church, rather than to go back to Sarum (to Pugin’s intense annoyance).

    The Gallican Rites were another victim of the French Revolution.

    Liturgical diversity for the vast majority of Latin Catholics came to an end with Paul VI, not Pius V.

    The part of the laity
    Your argument makes a heavy demand that Trent was innovative in its approach to the role of the laity.

    The Missal promulgated by Pius V did not make any great innovations, rather it codified the Roman Rite as it had been celebrated over the preceding five or six centuries; Trent did innovate in bringing the action of the altar closer to the people – removing altar screens (which had served a similar role to the Iconostasis in Byzantine Rite churches) and pushing the sanctuary forward into the space occupied by the people; greater popular participation was to be achieved through the teaching efforts of the clergy, now armed with the Roman Catechism.

    The psalmodies and liturgies that you’re extolling were often conducted outside the actual liturgy of the Mass in most places. If you want a good portrait of pre-Reformation participatio actuosa then I strongly recommend “Stripping of the Altars” by Eamon Duffy; if you want to see pre-reformation participation, then I suggest you attend a Greek Orthodox Agia Leitourgia.

    As a side-note, the Greek derivation of “liturgy” comes from an Athenian practice of the wealthy paying for public works to be done: the true meaning of λειτουργία would be rendered “public works offered for the people”.

    The “Prayer of the Faithful” had already, by the fourth century, become a fixed set of nine specific prayers used in the Roman Rite: these were not the “topical” prayers currently in vogue at the New Mass (and certainly not the sort of extemporary intercession shouted out by congregation that one sometimes hears at Mass).

    As with the Greek and Slavic languages used in Orthodox liturgies, the Latin of the Mass has always been a hieratic form of the language, not the versions that would have been spoken commonly in the street; the language of the Mass has always been set apart from the vernacular language of people in the street. I think that the Council Fathers at Trent made essentially the same choice that we see set out in Sacrisanctum Concillium: that Latin is our binding and unifying language as Latin Rite Catholics, but that the people should understand their faith; the error following Vatican II was to interpret SC as being a blank cheque for vernacularisation. We have lost something important by getting rid of the common tongue of Catholic humanity.

    You don’t make an argument to support your view that demands that communion under both kinds were “rightly” made.

    The study of liturgy has to be one of the only areas within the humanities where the historical “discoveries” of the period from 1945 to 1970 have not been reassessed.

    You’ve mentioned the Galesian Sacramentary, we know that this book was wrongly attributed to Pope Gelasius and dates some 200 years after the end of the fifth century (although the combination of Gallican and Roman elements present in the book should have been a dead giveaway in any case); the “Epiclesis of Hypolitus” (the inspiration for EPII) is now known to have been mis attributed and modern scholars strongly doubt that it was ever used liturgically.

    In short, many of the assumptions that underlie the work of the Concillium in preparing the Novus Ordo were based on interpretations of ancient works that have now been discredited; it was unfortunate that the Concillium based so much of its work on “newly rediscovered” manuscripts before the content and context of those manuscripts had been properly subjected to rigorous scrutiny.

    The Concillium’s reconstruction of early Christian worship looks very much like “Barbarella”: a good representation of the thought and mores of the 1960s, rather than an accurate recreation of the distant past or the distant future.

    I would go so far as to say that the experience of the Novus Ordo has been to demonstrate why those parts of the Mass “resurrected” by the Concillium fell into dis-use in the first place.

    Being very familiar with Eastern Orthodox rites, I fail to see any elements of those rites that is present in the New Mass that were not already in the Old Mass; perhaps you could draw out what you consider those elements to be?

    The experience of attending Mass in the Old Rite, is one of spending time before Christ. The experience of the New Mass, with its proliferation of readings, is closer to that of attending a lecture at many points.

    The vision of the Faith embodied in the New Mass is one of engaging in an intellectual process, not an experiential process; this intellectualism has distanced people from their faith, rather than engaging them (see Joseph Shaw’s article here) and is one of the reasons that many of the people that one meets at celebrations of the Old Mass are working class – the Old Mass is more accessible to those with a simple faith.

    The New Mass is an elite artefact, which meets the needs of a particular elite.

    In my own opinion (as someone who attends the New Mass every week and hears the Old Mass once in a blue moon), the reform envisaged by SC was complete with the 1965 interim Missal, a position that most people were happy with, 1970 was a needless exercise in antiquarianism, which has really not pleased anyone.

    The three-year lectionary is an example of the failure of the reformers’ agenda: it has disconnected the readings of the Mass from the propers without genuinely widening Catholics’ familiarity with the scriptures (its ostensive aim, attempted with a decontextualised paragraph from the OT, and a mangled fillet of psalm); the reformers saw the liturgy of the Mass as a tool to do everything with (a little like a liturgical Swiss-army knife), but the end result was a liturgy that performed a number of functions in a mediocre way, at the cost of its paramount function, the entry of the faithful into the presence of God (the same criticism applies to Swiss-army knives).


  6. Roger says:

    Father Malachy Martin in the late 90’s said that most Novus Order Masses were invalid an extrodinary thing to say.
    Lets look at what happened at the Passion. A darkness came over the land for 3 hours. The holy of Holies was separated off as consecrated ground and only priests could enter. The veil was ripped and the slave lamp went out. Holy ground as with Moses and the burning bush.
    Now taking these to signs holy ground and the lamp of the tabernacle. Is the altar still sacred consecrated ground? Have the tabernacles for the reserved hosts been moved. Is there a tabernacle lamp?
    Like it or not there has always been a separation between the priest and those consecrated to God and the laity. The Church isn’t a Democracy rather it has levels and hiearchy’s. Its not about the numbers its what Heaven wants.
    Knock 1879 and those white appartion images outside of the Church just like the whitened statues that came with Novus Order.


  7. kathleen says:

    Raven has given an astoundingly scholarly and well-articulated rebut to Factmonger‘s indignant response to this article above, where he/she calls those of us who love the Tridentine Mass, “blinkered, anachronistic elitists“!

    Like Raven, who admits he is “someone who attends the New Mass every week and hears the Old Mass once in a blue moon”, I am in the same boat. Yet that does not mean I do not value the “Mass of All Ages” more than the “New” Mass that came out of Vatican II. Never could I have written such an erudite reply to Factmonger’s points lauding the Novus Ordo Mass as Raven has done, but I only know that the Tridentine Mass is truly holy, truly the re-enactment of Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary, and truly draws one closer to God.

    The NO Mass on the other hand, is focused on the community, not on God, whatever its advocates might reiterate. Trying to concentrate and pray during most NO Masses takes real self-discipline and constant effort. The noise in the church (before, during and after) the NO Mass is a clear indication that people are more focused on each other than on God.
    People prance all over the altar, the place that should be reserved for the priest and acolyte.
    Extraordinary ministers abound, all handling the Sacred Body of Christ, in unprecedented numbers.
    People line up like in a queue for tickets to receive Holy Communion, instead of kneeling before their God to receive Him (only on the tongue) in a reverent and dignified attitude.
    The hand-shaking ritual is a stupid further distraction.
    And so it goes on and on..

    However, as Holy Mother Church has allowed the Novus Ordo Mass, and if it is celebrated “properly” according to the Roman Canon, I do, of course, believe it to be a valid Mass.
    My opinion is that, in the future, both the Tridentine Mass and the Novus Ordo Mass will continue to be celebrated. Neither one will disappear, but the Tridentine Mass will continue to draw increasing numbers of Catholics, especially among the young (if the Chartres pilgrimage is any indication to go by!)


  8. Toad says:

    “The NO Mass on the other hand, is focused on the community, not on God, whatever its advocates might reiterate.”

    Toad is a mere bystander on the lunatic fringe of this undoubtedly highly stimulating dogfight, Kathleen – but that particular assertion of yours strikes him as being nothing short of totally preposterous.

    A “Mass not focused on God?”
    Think again. This is getting plain silly.

    (Pompous old twit, Toad.)


  9. Toad says:

    …In short, Kathleen – if the N.O. (as I’ve learned to call it) is not focused on God – why do you, personally, bother going?

    Particularly, as you regard shaking hands with other human beings as “…a ridiculous distraction”?
    (Now come on Toad, that’s not fair.)

    “…but I only know that the Tridentine Mass is truly holy, truly the re-enactment of Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary, and truly draws one closer to God.”

    Truly draws one closer than what?
    And how do you know that?
    (Now come on Toad, that’s not fair, either,)


  10. Toad, I am in the same boat as Raven and Kathleen – I can only get to a Tridentine mass (on a Sunday) every now and again. However, were it not for these little ‘boosts’, where I witness a mass which is truly reverent and splendid, I don’t know what state I would be in spiritually.

    I presume that Kathleen’s answer to your question (“why do you, personally, bother going?”) would be the same as my own: because there is nothing else. I would rather suffer through an NO mass with Our Lord (who is so abused therein through Communion on the hand, lay ‘Eucharistic Ministers’ and other practices…) than commit a mortal sin by intentionally missing mass, which Holy Mother Church forbids. No Catholic, who is trying to live a faithful life, would ever intentionally commit a mortal sin. As Kathleen said, the Church has allowed the NO (though not the many many abuses which take place…), therefore it is valid. That does not mean it is the *best* mass for our souls.

    For many of us, the sad reality is that the NO is our only choice. Sometimes, when I cannot bear to attend another NO mass, I will travel 2 hours or more to get to a Tridentine mass, but this is not practical given that I have no car and limited funds.

    As the late Fr Thwaites so rightly said,

    “There is no heresy in the new rite. Rome cannot authorise heresy. But the new rite, it would seem, does not give us enough Catholic doctrine to prevent Catholics from unwittingly becoming Protestant in their thinking. As Fulton Sheen put it, “If you don’t behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave.” ”

    (Quote taken from http://www.vancouvervtms.com/w/TradLatinMasses/Commentary/Thoughts%20on%20the%20New%20Rite%20of%20Mass.htm )


  11. Toad says:

    A very good answer, Ragazzagallese.
    I had not thought of it in that way.
    …Though how it could be a mortal sin to miss an event that is not focused on God – is mysterious to me. Maybe ‘properly focused’ is what we are searching for.

    There is, I take it from Fr. Thwaites quote in your reply – “less doctrine” in the New Rite.
    In what way?


  12. kathleen says:

    Thanks Ragazzagallese, you have expressed my own situation and feelings very well, and I couldn’t have said it better myself! Anyway, that should keep Toad quiet for a while. 😉

    OK Toad, I should have said that the Novus Ordo Mass “seems to be more focused on the community than on God”.
    (But that you, who profess to being an agnostic, should be so rattled by my views of the Novus Ordo vs Tridentine Mass is very puzzling to me!)


  13. Toad says:

    Not the slightest “rattled,’ Kathleen.
    Interested, yes – and a bit bemused. That’s all.
    As one “blinkered, anachronistic elitist” to another.
    (Nice phrase. Has a ring to it.)


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