Friday, May 28, 2021

One Year of the Latin Mass

Exactly a year ago I wrote a blog about how that afternoon, on the 15th anniversary of my ordination, I would for the first time offer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, i.e. the traditional Latin Mass as it was said before 1963, and I announced we would have a Solemn High Mass on Trinity Sunday. (And a year later I kept up the trend by writing a third "annual" post.)

"The Traddening." 

"Where was he tradicalized?" 

"So, what was your tradjectory?" (credit: Jacob Bauer)

"Do you think of yourself as more 'trad-adjacent' or 'trad-curious'?"

Whether mocking it or rejoicing in it, people definitely have noticed —and have found fun phrases to describe— Catholics, both priests and laity, who in recent years have sampled or even switched entirely to worshipping in the mode that existed for centuries previous to the Second Vatican Council. To some people it is a return that cannot happen quickly enough; to others it is a massive step backwards, an undoing of the long-awaited housecleaning of the Roman liturgy. It is not my goal here to try to answer that debate, but rather to share my impressions from some key moments in the last year. As one trained in philosophy and theology, I feel like a relativist offering up merely my personal experiences and (God forbid) maybe even emotions. But in the end, they are the only two small coins I can offer for the collection. 

My first Extraordinary Form (E.F.) Mass, which was a Low Mass or "recited Mass", was brutal. I told my sister and my friends who attended it that it was more exhausting than my "First Mass of Thanksgiving" fifteen years earlier. Which makes sense: I had spent eight years daily attending, learning, living the Mass that was promulgated in 1970 (the modern Roman Rite, the Novus Ordo, the Ordinary Form, or O.F.) In Covid lockdown I had spent at most five weeks learning the E.F. Mass. When my relatives, Fr. Antonine Scheetz OFM and Monsignor Tom Zimmer were both ordained in 1952, they had been serving the Latin Mass for almost 20 years. They probably said their First Masses as confidently as I lead a Rosary: quite smoothly, but a little fast through the Creed so I don't mess it up. Heck, my dad, who is 74 now and who graduated high school the year the Council ended, can probably still say the old Confiteor without a server's card more easily than I can after a year.

And therein lies the first big impression: that this was truly the Mass of my forefathers. We have a close-knit family, with an almost-irresistible tug toward history and to our stories, and a deep affection and even awe for our previous generations. But you need to understand: my grandpa was baptized Cletus Clement —straight from the Roman Canon. His brother was named Linus. Each of my four grandparents was a daily Mass-goer at different times in their adult lives. And the Mass of their first 50-60 years on earth was exactly the one that I first said in May 2020. In 1943 those two young couples could reasonable assume that their grandchildren would see and hear the things they did every Sunday. They knew chapel veils and altars rails, the Leonine prayers and the Last Gospel. And all at once, this congregation around me did too. This is going to sound melodramatic, but at the Commemoration of the Dead I felt like I connected differently with my grandparents— that I was now praying for them as they had prayed for their parents and grandparents, and those generations had prayed for even older ones. 

Ten days later we had a sung Mass (a "High Mass", or in this case a "Solemn High" because we also had two men assisting as deacon and subdeacon.) Again, by the end I felt like the opening of the Good Samaritan —beaten, robbed, and left for dead— but the memorable part was talking to parishioners afterward, folks who had never attended this form of Mass before. Here again, I am relaying but mere impressions, and these from other people even, but when they finally could find words to begin to describe the experience, they dubbed it: beautiful, transcendent, other-worldly, more reverent, more worshipful, and (though I could tell they wanted another word instead) "holier". The reticence with that word makes sense: no one wants to say that one form of Mass "feels holier" than another, especially when the second is the one that you and 99% of the world have attended for decades. One woman I think captured it best when she said, "It wasn't 'more reverent' in a sense that our usual Mass isn't —and Father, our altar boys here are so reverent— but it's more like the reverence in this Mass is just... more unmistakable. It like the reverence is baked-in; it's unavoidable. When you see the boys moving so precisely, the genuflections, the bowing all the way to the floor at the Confiteor before Communion, the extra cautious way everything is handled, the priest's fingers... Uhh! It just compels you."

The next Sunday was Corpus Christi and the striking thing there was what I will call "freedom from the tyranny of options". I am being overdramatic, yes, but it is a truth almost universally acknowledged that "Less" is the default position on options in a diocesan parish. If it can be skipped, if it can be shortened, if it can be done in English, if it can be rearranged to a tune we already know— it will be. The Covid lockdown was a blessing in Holy Week because I could say to the singers, "This may be the only year it's possible to chant the Victimae Paschali on Easter without those in the pews feeling left out; to feel comfortable using the older tune for Pange Lingua and rotate verses English and Latin; to do some absolutely haunting chants on Good Friday or a polyphonic Sicut Cervus for meditation on Easter, both of which we would not risk usually." But those were still choices the O.F. can make, choices made because nobody was in the pews to feel angsty, and laudable choices because if you are forced to try a new "delicacy" you might be surprised that you really love it. I think we have all had the experience of "What was that?? I didn't catch a word of it but it was gorgeous." 

The feast of Corpus Christi features the 24-verse sequence Lauda Sion. In most parishes (if it is not dropped entirely) it is cut down to just the last four verses, translated into English, and then recited. But there is something freeing about the older Roman Missal just telling you: 

We're doing it.


And in Latin.

And sung (at a High Mass).  

Likewise, I spent months complaining about all the chanting the priest has to learn for the High Mass. Music is not my gift. But the E.F. holds that if a Mass is sung, everything is sung by someone (if it is not whispered). And if the Mass is not sung, if it's a Low Mass, then no texts of the Mass are sung. This was so hard to accept. "Why can't I just sing the three orations, the Preface, and the Pater Noster at a High? And why can't we chant the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei at a Low Mass on days the choir is short-handed?" But honestly, if I were not forced to do so by the 1300 year old conventions of the High Mass, I would never have learned half of those chants. It was a steep learning curve, but a year later I love them all and would not trade them back. And no amount of parish pressure to hurry things along can impel the priest or choir in the E.F. to just pick and choose. 

The fourth impression is also about music. I was spaced out during the gorgeous singing of the choir during those earliest, overwhelming Sundays. Even now, I still miss a lot, since the priest is almost always doing something during the choir's chants. But once my brain could do two things at once again, I began to appreciate what the people were saying after Mass about the chanting. One couple was telling some choir members, "When the Sanctus starts, I swear it's like we're not even in a building anymore. Yeah, it's like we are being lifted up above the earth, or that the roof is gone and angels are pouring in above and around," and so I added, "Seriously, when the drones join in on that Sanctus XI, I legitimately want to just freeze and listen, but then I remember that I have to keep going because otherwise we'll never get to the Consecration." Yes, it can be weird and even frustrating to not hear the Canon of the Mass if you are coming from the O.F., but even two or three good voices can create a transformed, transcendent space in which to feel more comfortable with the idea that "maybe some words are too sacred for mortals to hear".

My final impressions come with some suggestions and encouragement for making it easier for people to sample the traditional Latin Mass. First, I have met way more "glad trads" in the last year than "mad trads" or "sad trads". That is huge draw for folks who are trad-curious, so please keep on being joyful, faith-filled Catholics. Next, the High Mass is much more of a natural bridge for Ordinary Form attendees to start to cross than the Low Mass is. Sure, the High is still all in Latin and the priest may sit down mid-chant, but there's music, a universal language, and the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei which folks should recognize, and the High doesn't have many long stretches of silence.

Frankly, good music is the "gateway drug" to lure people farther along. This means investing time (and money?) today to get choirs and cantors ready. It may be easier to recruit teenagers who are looking for a challenge and let the music itself "convert" them than it is to convince existing choirs to now shift radically. You can train an O.F. priest to say the E.F. in 2-3 months, but you may need much longer for musicians depending on their backgrounds. Start building now. Additionally, encourage visitors to: first, plan to come for 4-5 Sundays to give it a chance to grow roots, and second, maybe do not even try to follow along by missal or printout the first couple times; treat it like you stumbled on a Byzantine liturgy on vacation and just soak it in.

As stated above, the Low Mass is a much greater leap for newbies. I have had curious folks say, "Oh, I should sample one of the weekdays Masses first." Actually no, don't do that, if you can possibly try a sung Mass first. One person said that "to the uninitiated person, the Low Mass feels like half-a-holy-hour with Communion at the end." Accurate. But if a parish can't pull off a High Mass, or if a E.F. Mass is the only time that works for you on a weekday, there are tools to soften the learning curve on the Low Mass and navigate the silences. First-timers aren't going to invest in hand missals, and kids under 10 are going to struggle to read any daily selections from off the web, or even the classic "TLM Red Books" which also lack all propers. The solution is to buy a stack of the gorgeous Treasure and Tradition books by Lisa Bergman and have your regulars loan them to potential visitors even before they come, and also put out some in the back of church for drop-ins (adults and kids). If you buy a case, it takes off almost $10 per book. Or buy a case of their $9 softcover version of it (only a different cover) like I did, and when you put those out for everybody, you don't mind if the toddlers chew on them or tear a page.

These are my biggest takeaways after twelve months. I did not endeavor here to lay out the objections to the TLM that I carried with me for 23 years, and which fell away one by one. I did not try to weigh the relative strengths or weaknesses of the two forms. I did not investigate the confusing, twisting path between what the bishops prescribed in 1963 and what the Church was delivered in 1969. Someday I may reflect on those things. But today I am content to simply say: This was my own experience and these were my personal impressions.