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Antiquity confers solemnity in shape of Latin mass

Attending a traditional Latin mass in Glasgow yesterday was a chilling experience.

 

There was no heating in the Sacred Heart RC church in Bridgeton, a vast 100-year-old building in the bosom of a parish first established in 1873.

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Perhaps that was because there were only 31 of us in the congregation, but being freezing cold certainly helped focus the mind. After all, they do say austerity is good for the soul.

I was curious to remind myself what mass used to be like, following a debate about how the liturgy is celebrated. This was revealed in the Herald on Saturday, and has been sparked by Pope Benedict XVI’s imminent visit to Scotland.

It was the first time I’d been at Latin mass since I was a child in the 1960s, pre-Vatican Council II, and boy did I have to concentrate. Hard.

Although I attended a convent school, have a Latin O-Grade and studied French at University, the rhythmic delivery of our affable celebrant was difficult to follow. Yet the church was in total silence: this being low mass, there was no singing or any participation in the liturgy, apart from responding to Mgr Hugh Boyle’s familiar repetitions of “Dominus Vobiscum”.

Traditional Latin Mass is said with the priest facing the altar rather than the congregation. This is to help us focus on the altar, the symbol of Christ’s perfect sacrifice to his Father’s will. Thus is the mass depersonalised. As Father genuflects and kisses the altar more frequently than usual, the sense of reverence is palpable.

By the term “Latin mass”, I mean traditional mass said in the Extraordinary Form -- that is, the old rite, according to the Roman Missal of l962, before Vatican Council II. It is better known as Tridentine Mass. The version that most modern Catholics are familiar with is the Ordinary Form, or new mass, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

In Scotland there has been a resurgence of interest in, and the practice of, the Latin mass, yet traditional Latin mass was effectively re-instated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. In his apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum the Holy Father said that there were two forms of expression of the Roman Rite of the Mass, effectively decreeing that all priests were now free to choose whether to offer the Tridentine Mass or the new mass.

However, the majority of parishes in Scotland don’t offer Latin mass, and some Scottish bishops are not in favour of it. This, say traditionalists, contradicts not only Benedict but even the late Pope John Paul II, who in 1988 asked bishops to actively support those who felt “attached to the Latin liturgical tradition”.

The anticipated visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Scotland in September therefore highlights a problem. If as expected the Holy Father will want to celebrate mass, could it be in the Extraordinary Form?

The majority of his concelebrants, and therefore their congregations, do not know the liturgy in Latin. Unlike 73-year-old Mgr Boyle, who has celebrated Latin mass throughout his ministry, if not always in public, younger priests will not have learned liturgical Latin.

Father Stephen Dunn, the 48-year-old parish priest at Sacred Heart in Bridgeton, started saying mass in Latin only last May, having made what he calls a “concerted effort” to learn it since 2007. Ordained in 1994, he says he feels “bullied and suppressed” by the Glasgow Archdiocese’s “reluctance to accept” the Pope’s 2007 decree, as shown in Archbishop Conti’s response to it in a letter to Glasgow’s priests on August 10, 2007, in which he questioned the need for it.

Yet as I was about to rediscover yesterday, it’s not just the fact that it’s said in Latin that makes the Extraordinary Form so different. The entire structure of the Mass is almost recognisable from what it is today.

The first thing I noticed on entering Sacred Heart were the altar railings. These are a rarity in Catholic churches, because most were removed post-Vatican II to facilitate the taking of the Host from the priest at Holy Communion and self-administering it. The traditional mass, by contrast, encourages us to kneel and be given Communion as we did in the old days because it helps engender a greater sense of reverence for the sacrament, and humility to God.

We’re reminded that only baptised Catholics, and those in the state of grace, are invited to receive Holy Communion. This is to remind us that we are sinners and to encourage us to attend Confession.

Nobody recites the Creed except the priest, and he says most of the Offertory quietly to himself. The Canon -- the very heart of the mass, as it leads to the Consecration -- is also silent. There is only one form of the Canon, though there are four options in the new mass.

There are no tambourines or guitars, and no lay church members stepping on to the altar.

Everything is in the priest’s gift, which leaves us free to take from mass what we’re meant to.

It does at first feel stern and authoritarian, but in the end I was humbled by Latin mass, and felt awed by its solemn simplicity. It forced me turn in on myself and to examine my conscience in a way that, for better or for worse, reminded me what being a Catholic is really all about. As soon as I returned home, I felt compelled to look out my childhood Catechism and to re-learn the fundamentals of my faith.

Yes, I could warm to it. If they turned up the heating a bit.

 

Forms of mass

Tridentine Mass was used in the Catholic Church until 1970 when its public use was restricted by most bishops after the introduction of the “new” Mass of Pope Paul VI following the Second Vatican Council.

 

Pope Pius V said in 1570 that priests could use the Tridentine rite forever “without scruple of conscience or fear of penalty”.

 

Pope John Paul II in 1988 encouraged bishops to support those who wanted Latin Mass.

 

In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI allowed priests to celebrate it if they wished.

 

In a Tridentine Mass, everything is in Latin, the priest conducts the liturgy facing the altar and the congregation follows in private prayer and doesn’t play an active part.

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