Latin: Having and Desiring


Go here for an illustrative discussion on Latin, liturgy, and the last two (or three) Roman Missals.

It’s long been my contention that the single biggest human factor in making great liturgy (by almost any definition you choose) is the intent, care, craft, artistry, and attention the leadership (meaning clergy, musicians, architects, artists, and other leaders) put into it. When and where the leadership fails to treat liturgy as the most serious earthly work they can do, the Mass fails to realize its potential.

My contention is that the language of the Mass, the date of the Missal, and many other contentious factors are irrelevant. The liturgical life of the Catholic Church was in disarray fifty years ago because too many clergy took liberties with the Latin-language Missal and failed to communicate past their own pragmatism. Apathy was the norm, and beauty was the rare exception.

My friends at the NLM keep trying. One moment they trumpet the supreme value of Latin, and manage to alienate all the venerable traditional rites of the East. Hint: those guys never had Latin and trads like them anyway.

Naturally, the notion is surfaced that the 1970 Roman Missal is fatally flawed. Usually because of some nonsense about the Vatican II bishops not reading the fine print of the documents, or some other lapse of ignorance.

I’ll shock my readers by saying that if the Catholic Church could come up with a few million priests and church musicians to do a dynamite job on the Latin liturgy, I think most Catholics would go for it. But despite the near-advent of the universal “Latin” (they mean Tridentine) Missal, here are the reasons it will never fly:

1. Most clergy are more concerned with non-liturgical matters. They can’t pray in Latin. They don’t want to. And they have more pressing concerns, some ministerial (like the parishioners in pastoral need or if the books will balance) or personal (like the latest fine wine, cigar, scotch, or vacation adventure). They are not going to learn Latin for you.

2. The Tridentine enthusiasts have the best of all worlds right now. They worship with a nearly 100% devoted assembly, led by caring and meticulous priests and assisted by musicians who, for an hour a week, have their dream job. If the 1962 or 1570 Missal was more frequent, average quality of worship would suffer. One single single-minded community in a region is a point of strength. At some point dilution sets in.

3. What you might see is younger priests playing dilettante with the Latin Mass. Much like the previous generation was willing to “give it a go” with a polka Mass, clown ministry, or the latest temperament indicator, you’ll have guys who think they can just read out of a Latin Missal and make it work. Right.

I suspect that vernacular worship has put more demands on clergy. There’s an expectation of good preaching. Pew people expect a ready perception of what’s going on at Mass. Some priests haven’t stepped up to the plate on that one, but that’s a fault of training, not the Missal itself.

As far as Latin’s concerned, if the particular language is at issue, trads don’t haven’t taken either tradition or Eastern reunion to heart. And if it’s any old old language, who’s to say that Sanskrit, Hebrew, Egyptian, or some Hindi or Mandarin root language isn’t as functional for producing raised levels of liturgical tryptophan in the brain? The Buddhists worship as reverently as any Tridentine trad, wouldn’t you say?

The 1962 Missal remains a largely political statement. Schismatics use it. Traditional Catholics aspire to something for which they cannot turn the clock back. Today is the era to revitalize plainsong and the treasures of tradition. The trads may well get their “Latin Mass” back, but I suspect they will find that to have and to desire are two entirely different entities.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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