Professing Faith: Mass in Latin is a trip back in time

Gregory Elder is a professor emeritus of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. (Courtesy Photo)

I am sitting in a pew, wearing enough clerical robes to live in medieval times, listening to a Mass being said by a priest whom I know. This I have done innumerable times in my capacity as an Anglican and later a Catholic priest. But this one is different, because it is being done in the Latin language and according to the older ceremonial of the church. It is very literally a trip back in time.

The Mass begins with what is called the introit, or a series of prayers said by the priest at the foot of the altar and responses made by no small number of male altar servers. This is followed by Scriptural readings, which the priest thoughtfully translated for us. Not long after this the altar was prepared, which took some time with the various ritual prayers, followed by the actual canon of the Mass. While much of this was going on, a trained set of musicians chanted the appointed canticles.

When the time for the reception of Holy Communion came around, the faithful came forward, knelt and the host was placed on their tongues. This is the part where I actually got involved because in the old rite, only ordained clergy can distribute the Eucharist. The one line I got to recite was “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.” Or “May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ keep your soul unto life everlasting. Amen.” This was followed by more prayers, chanting, and a final reading from the opening lines of John’s Gospel. I acknowledge that what I have described here is a highly simplified summary.

The texts used in this Mass were revised by Pope Gregory the Great, who ruled as pope from 590 to 604 A.D. St. Gregory the Great is better known for sending missionaries to England to convert the savage English. He is also known for his dealings with the violent and brawling Lombard and Visigoths, who had stormed the frontiers of the Roman Empire a generation earlier. The son of a Roman senator, Gregory lived in a world where civilization seemed to be falling apart at the seams. He was also something of a man of letters, writing the lives of the saints, composing sermons, and even producing a handbook for the clergy, whose education in this period was minimal.

Gregory is also well known for the famous Gregorian chants being named after him. Gregory did not personally write them and the singing of the Psalms had been known since biblical times. But he did find the schools where the liturgy and its music was taught to young monks, and so like King David getting credit for the Psalms, Gregory’s name got linked to the chant.

But his influence was all the more vast by his revision of the Catholic ritual. Gregory shortened the Mass in length, and revised the canon of the Mass from older manuscripts. The result was what is called the Roman canon. The term “canon” in this context means the Eucharistic prayer which is said by the priest alone. Since the 1960s there have been other canons added to the ritual, but Pope Gregory’s text for the prayers of consecration have been used ever since he was pope, although now translated into the vernacular. His Mass, in Latin, was the one that Christopher Columbus’ clergy used on the American shores, in hiding England in Elizabethan times, and on frozen battlefields in the world wars. It was carried to distant China, Africa, Latin America, India, Japan, and Maryland.

Pope Francis is not a friend of the old Mass and he has recently restricted its use. At this moment it can be said only in places where it has already been used regularly, but no new Latin language churches are allowed. In my own diocese comprising San Bernardino and Riverside counties, there are only two Catholic Churches where it may be licitly used, in Guasti and in Palm Desert. The congregation at the Mass described here was large with a number of young families, teens and youth. There are a few gray heads but it is fair to say that the significant majority of the worshippers present are too young to remember before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 when Pope Gregory’s older Latin Mass was the only one used.

Your author personally does not currently use the old Latin Mass, although he has authorization to do so. Although the service is in a dead language, the congregation has bilingual books to follow along in. My own experience of Latin was in the study of the imperial world of the Caesars, and where we got to read stories of violent military conquests, philosophy, and the occasional perverted poet. But the sound of the Gregorian chants are deeply beautiful and do lead one into prayer.

The most common question people ask about the Latin Mass is some version of, “How can they pray in a language they do not understand?” The answer is, “very easily it would appear.”

Historically, comprehension is not required for all prayers. Not all devout Muslims can understand Arabic, not all Jews can read Hebrew, and relatively few Hindus understand Sanskrit. Is it necessary to understand German to enjoy Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? I regularly say Mass in Spanish, which is rather incomprehensible to me. As a priest, it is my job to introduce people to God and then to get out of the way. What language they wish to address the Almighty with is not my problem, and I have it on good authority that God can understand them quite well.