Volume > Issue > The Latin Mass After a Year's Attendance

The Latin Mass After a Year’s Attendance


By Richard Upsher Smith Jr. | December 2016
Richard Upsher Smith Jr. teaches classics and honors at Franciscan University of Steubenville. After serving for nineteen years in the Anglican ministry, he converted to Catholicism in 2001. He recently published Ecclesiastical, Medieval, and Neo-Latin Sentences: Designed to Accompany Wheelock's Latin (Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2013). A Teacher's Guide to this book is in press.

After my conversion to Catholicism from Anglicanism in 2001, I regularly attended the Novus Ordo Missae, the Mass of Paul VI, known these days as the “ordinary form of the Mass.” When the new English translation (formally, the Third Typical Edition of the Roman Missal) came into use in 2011, I was deeply thankful. A little over a year ago, however, I began to attend the Traditional Latin Mass (the “extraordinary form”) because I wanted to understand it. My own liturgical sensibilities were formed by the 1928 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church and the 1962 Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church of Canada, though I had some experience with the 1979 Prayer Book in America and the Book of Alternative Services (with its variegated drafts) in Canada, as well as with the Anglican Missal and the English Missal.

The first thing I learned about the extraordinary form is that the use of Latin should not be a stumbling block for the worshiper. To be sure, someone might object, “You know Latin, so obviously you would not find it a problem.” While this is so, Latin missals with facing-page English translations are readily available, so one need not pray without understanding; most of those who attend the Latin Mass at my parish use such translations. At any rate, the Epistle and Gospel are read aloud from the ambo in English after their recitation in Latin.

In fact, one of the joys of attending the extraordinary form has been experiencing the beauty of the language. The Latinity is exquisite. Let me give just one example out of many. The Commemoration of the Dead in the prayers after the Consecration is: Ipsis, Dómine, et ómnibus in Christo quiescéntibus, locum refrigérii, lucis et pacis, ut indúlgeas, deprecámur (“To these very ones, Lord, and to all who are resting/at peace in Christ, a place of cooling/refreshment, light and peace, that you give indulgently, we entreat/supplicate” — my somewhat literal but ugly translation).

A few points:

(1) The phrase that indicates the indirect objects (ipsis…quiescéntibus) is simple but thoroughly classical in syntax and rhetorical structure, and thus pleasing to the ear.

(2) Ordinary word order is followed in the placement of the indirect objects (ipsis…quiescéntibus) and the direct object with its genitive modifiers (locum refrigérii, lucis et pacis); but then the auditor is drawn up short by the unusual placement of the jussive noun clause (ut indúlgeas). Such a clause infrequently precedes the verb upon which it depends (deprecámur). The effect is to suspend the natural sequence of the sentence and to stress the point of the supplication.

(3) Note that the choice of the word indúlgeas puts God in the role of the benign and indulgent Father, making the supplication even more poignant.

(4) The phrase locum refrigérii, lucis et pacis recalls the various loca amoena (“pleasant places”) in classical poetry, especially Virgil’s Elysium, where pious heroes find refreshment after the purgation of their souls in the burning cosmic winds.

(5) The prayer ends with a metrical cursus planus: [indulge]ás deprecámur, which belongs to the sophisticated rhetoric of Late Antiquity, and which solemnizes the pronunciation of the verb that makes our request.

I am not sure how this prayer could have been made more beautifully expressive.


The second thing I discovered about the Latin Mass was that the sotto voce delivery of the Canon displeased me at first, as did the eastward-facing position of the celebrant as he read the Propers without vocal amplification. Of course, this was the English Missal style as practiced at many Anglo-Catholic flagship parishes in years past, and perhaps still today; but when I was an Anglican priest, I always followed a little handbook, Readiness and Decency: A Simple Method of Celebrating the Holy Eucharist and Other Services (1945) by Roland F. Palmer and John W. Hawkes, two Canadian members of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, which was faithful to the Prayer Book rubrics. This book encourages the celebrant to face the congregation when reading the Epistle and Gospel, and it makes no provision for silent recitation of the Canon. I thought this practice preferable.

However, the silent rendering of the Canon in the extraordinary form began to touch my sensibilities one Sunday, when, unusually I admit, because several large families with young children attend the Latin Mass at my parish, the entire con­gregation fell silent throughout the recitation of the Canon. It struck me that the silent recitation has, to some extent, the effect of the iconostasis in the Eastern Church: Each is a contrivance to set the consecration of Christ’s Body and Blood apart from normal activity; each tries to help the worshiper enter into the Holy of Holies, which is, for Christians, both Calvary and Heaven (cf. Heb. 9:24; 10:12; 12:2). In the Western Church, however, the whole congregation is brought within the Holy of Holies by means of silence. As Romano Guardini says, “Out of stillness grows the real sanctuary” (Meditations Before Mass, first English trans. 1956).

Guardini teaches that both the congregation at Mass and the “vital church” in which the Mass takes place are brought into being by silence. The profoundest speaking of words and hearing of words come from stillness and silence, just as the most virtuous “bearing” and “action” emerge from the deepest composure, since stillness and composure are the activities in which we return to and find refreshment in and for ourselves. Guardini says, in reference to the silent recitation of the Canon, “When the Sanctus has been spoken and the Canon of the Mass begins, we should remind ourselves: ‘Now I shall witness, indeed partake in, what the ancient Church called action ? the essential act.’ We must give it our full attention. As soon as silence reigns again we should say to ourselves: The Lord’s last will and testament is being executed. He said: ‘As often as you shall do these things, in memory of me shall you do them.'” What happened in the room of the Last Supper is taking place here in the Mass.


The third thing I’ve realized is that the arc of the extraordinary form has come to impress me more and more. In the Mass, we start at Bethlehem, walk with Christ and His Apostles in His ministry, go up to Jerusalem with Him and experience His Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension, and finally stand hallowed, conformed to Him by His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, ready to fulfill His ministry when we leave the building after Mass.

Although the Gloria in excelsis is not said at every Mass (either in the ordinary or extraordinary form), this hymn is based on the acclamation of the angels to the shepherds at Bethlehem, and it bids us receive “the good tidings of great joy” that the angels published. “This angelic hymn,” says William Durand, “offers proof of the nativity of Christ” (Rationale IV: On the Mass and Each Action Pertaining to It, 2013). In reciting the Gloria, we take our place in the whole company of Heaven as together we praise God for the Incarnation, by which He became man that we might become as gods.

When I converted, I was perplexed by the position of the Penitential Rite at the beginning of the Mass, even when I was attending the Novus Ordo. In the old Anglican Prayer Book tradition, it was placed right before the Sursum corda, which had a strong logic to it. However, when I began to perceive the arc of the Mass between Bethlehem and Mount Zion, I understood that the Penitential Rite belongs at the beginning of that arc. When we start the Mass, we come before God shrouded in the agedness of sin, in the same condition as man stood before God at the moment of the Incarnation: weary slaves of fate. Only the Incarnation was able to introduce freedom, youth, vigor, and purpose again into the world, which we attend Mass for God to restore.

In the Traditional Mass, the Epistle and Gospel of the day are chosen not by a scheme of continuous and more or less complete reading of Holy Scripture, as they are in the Mass of Paul VI, but according to a doctrinal and spiritual logic. The scheme of the Novus Ordo was devised by scholars in the enthusiasm following the Second Vatican Council for opening Holy Scripture to the laity. Before the council, meditative reading of the whole Scriptures was usually done by religious and some secular clergy in their Lectio Divina, which (I assume) only the rare layman did. Thus, the Proper readings of the Mass of Paul VI became a kind of extended Bible study for the laity, with most of Scripture being read over a three-year cycle. This made it impossible to make the Propers part of oneself by frequent repetition; it made it impossible to form one’s memory and personality by pericopes repeated constantly from childhood to old age. This has made spiritual formation that much more difficult.

The old set of eucharistic readings, on the other hand, given to the Church in her earlier days by the meditations of the Fathers, and used also by Anglicans and Lutherans until recent decades with only minor changes, was intended not as a kind of Lectio Divina but rather as a compendium of Jesus’ teaching in word and deed, and of the reflections of the Apostles on their experience of Jesus. Thus, for example, the great eighteenth-century Anglican commentator Charles Wheatley was able to aver:

From Christmas to Epiphany, the Church’s design in all her proper services, is to set forth the humanity of our Saviour, and to manifest Him in the flesh; but from the Epiphany to Septuagesima-Sunday, especially in the four following Sundays, she endeavours to manifest His divinity, by recounting to us in the Gospels some of His first miracles and manifestations of his Deity. The design of the Epistles is to excite us to imitate Christ, as far as we can, and to manifest ourselves His disciples by a constant practice of all Christian virtues. (A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer: And Administration of the Sacraments, and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the Church of England, 1710)

Thus, one sees that the logic of the older eucharistic readings was to bring constantly before the mind and heart the basic systematic and moral teachings of the Church.

The effect of those readings is that at each Mass the worshipers crowd around Jesus and His disciples in His itinerant ministry in Palestine two thousand years ago. The worshipers hear Jesus’ words, see His miracles, participate in His dialogues, and ponder His being and ministry, in company with the Apostles. This is not Bible study, but doing ministry with Jesus. “Up to a certain point,” writes Guardini, “I can understand the nature of Holy Mass by studying the Bible and missal or by reading books on the history of the liturgy. But its essence, the act in all the earnestness of salvation, the doing in his memory, is mine only when I also ‘do.'” Similarly, the ancient eucharistic readings were designed not to expose the laity to all the forests, mountains, meadows, and plains of Holy Scripture, but to help them accompany Jesus in the most significant moments of His ministry.


The fourth thing I’ve learned about the Latin Mass is its emphasis on sacrifice. The Offertory, Canon, and Holy Communion are the actions of the Mass by which the celebrant and congregation participate in the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus. Central to these actions is the sacramental re-presentation upon the altar of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “The Mass makes present the sacrifice of the Cross; it does not add to that sacrifice nor does it multiply it. What is repeated is its memorial celebration, its ‘commemorative representation’ (memorialis demonstration), which makes Christ’s one definitive redemptive sacrifice always present in time. The sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic mystery cannot therefore be understood as something separate, independent of the Cross or only indirectly referring to the sacrifice of Calvary” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 2003).

All the other effects of the Mass flow from this reality. By this re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, we stand at the Cross with the Blessed Mother and St. John and St. Longinus. By this, the nothingness of bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord. By this, on the altar, under the appearances of these unremarkable aliments, we see Jesus on His Cross, suffering, commending His mother to His beloved disciple, and dying. More than that, by this we taste Jesus, we are incorporated into Him, and we are made more profoundly His Body.

To be sure, these things are made real at any valid Mass, but the extraordinary form makes the idea of sacrifice particularly real, especially in the Offertory. Here’s why:

(1) The prayer Suscipe, sancte Pater, with which the Offertory begins, begs God to receive “this immaculate victim,” which the priest now offers for his own sins, the sins of the congregation present with him, and the sins of all of Christ’s faithful, whether living or dead, in order that the sacrifice may help them all to life eternal. This prayer was removed from the Novus Ordo.

(2) The second prayer, Deus, qui humánae substántiae, mentions not the sacrifice but the effect of the sacrifice of Christ’s Blood, that “through the mystery of this water and wine [we] may be partakers of his divinity who condescended to become a participant in our humanity.” These words alone of this prayer were retained (with a slight alteration) in the New Mass.

(3) The next prayer, Offerimus tibi, also removed from the ordinary form, emphasizes the sacrificial offering of the chalice.

(4) The fourth prayer, In spíritu humilitátis, was retained in its entirety in the Novus Ordo. It contains a plea that the sacrifice now about to be offered may please God.

(5) The Veni, sanctificátor, which asks God to bless the present sacrifice, has been removed from the ordinary form, as has the recitation of Psalm 25(26):6-12, the verses of which are preparatory for making sacrifice at the altar. The Novus Ordo replaces this recitation with two lines bowdlerized from Psalm 50(51).

(6) The Suscipe, sancta Trínitas, also omitted from the Mass of Paul VI, urges God to receive “this offering” as a “memorial of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension” of the Lord Jesus. Thus, the sacrifice of the Mass is said explicitly to make present the whole action of our redemption: Christ’s corporeal suffering and Death upon the Cross, His Resurrection in the body from the tomb, and His bodily Ascension into Heaven. Moreover, the prayer unites this sacrifice with the activity of the Blessed Mother and all the saints on our behalf. To be sure, the new English translation of the Novus Ordo does contain the phrase “mindful…of the same Christ, your Son, our Lord, his so blessed passion, and also his resurrection from the dead, but also his glorious ascension into Heaven” in the prayer Unde et mémores, as does the Latin missal. So, the idea is not lost, but it is certainly downplayed, as it is no longer tied tightly to the idea of sacrifice.

It is clear, then, that not only are words associated with sacrifice sacrificium, hostia, oblatio, offerre, suscipere used less frequently in the New Mass, but the mental world of the Offertory has been made shallower, and in some ways even trite. Where the Latin Mass weaves together the sins of all men in the Church Militant and Expectant, the entire redemptive work of Christ, the condescension of God, and the work of the Church Triumphant on our behalf, what does the Mass of Paul VI offer? “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation”! The notion of sacrifice is still present, but the profound richness of the concept has been lost.

Another example of the weakening of the sacrificial mental world is the new Mysterium fidei. As I grew more accustomed to the extraordinary form, I noticed that it makes clear that the Mysterium fidei is the “chalice of my blood, of the new and eternal covenant.” But in the ordinary form, the Mysterium fidei has become, in two cases, a declaration of the congregation’s faith, and in the third case, a plea for salvation. It is no longer a statement of what has now occurred on the altar: the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary.


The fifth discovery I’ve made about the Latin Mass is that many Catholics hold that, after Holy Communion, until the accidents of the bread and wine are consumed in our stomachs, for approximately fifteen minutes, our persons contain the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ in a way analogous to the way the paten recently held the precious Body and the chalice contained the precious Blood. Be that as it may, many saints have emphasized the glory that is in us when we have received Holy Communion; St. Bernard reportedly said that angels surround us adoring the Lord. It has occurred to me that the Last Gospel, which was eliminated from the ordinary form, speaks not to, but out of this fleeting hallowed state of the communicants, out of the Holy of Holies which they have entered. Still tabernacles of the Lord in this miraculous way for a few moments, still as gods, but on the verge of going out onto the streets and roads and boulevards and lanes on which they live, the communicants speak, hear, and understand St. John’s words with utter clarity and the firmest grip on their truth. In the early Church, the prologue of the Fourth Gospel was used as a form of blessing and was introduced into the liturgy as such. Perhaps it should be seen as a declaration of the blessing that resides in the communicant, and which he is about to bear into the world outside the doors of the church.


Such are my impressions of the Traditional Latin Mass after attending it for a year or so. It is certainly not superior to the New Mass as a sacrifice, or in the confection of the Body and Blood of Christ, or as a life-giving repast, or in unifying the Body of Christ, or in the renewal of the world. Moreover, I do not suppose that the extraordinary form appeals to all Catholics, any more than the ordinary form is attractive to every Catholic.

However, the extraordinary form is capable of shaping the memory, and thus the person, in ways that the ordinary form is not designed to do. It has a depth of imagery that the post-Vatican II revisers of the Mass simply eschewed, especially as regards the eucharistic sacrifice. Of course, one might argue that the four Eucharistic Prayers of the New Mass, taken together, provide a greater wealth of imagery. However, the same objection can be applied as was applied above to the three-year eucharistic lectionary: it makes memorization, and thus interiorization, much more difficult. Moreover, in my experience, most priests regularly use only the Second Eucharistic Prayer, which is not particularly rich in imagery and is rather dull.

In conclusion, the Traditional Latin Mass is as beautiful as Gregorian chant, or as vestments embroidered with the opus anglicanum, or as sacred vessels ornamented with champlevé from Romanesque Limoges, and thus it is a worthy gift to be offered to our God. I realize that the reader might feel that I have given myself away as a reactionary against modernity with this last sentence. However, I could have easily picked baroque or rococo examples, which would have been modern. But my main concern about the literature and art of late modernity ? to which the text of the Novus Ordo, its music, vestments, and art belong ? is that they have not humanized the new world that has come into being since the middle decades of the nineteenth century. So, it seems to me, the Latin Mass is not only a worthy gift to God but also a humanizing influence on those who worship according to this form of the Roman rite.


©2016 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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