So… I went to my first Latin Mass, and felt something completely unexpected.



I’ve been wanting to go to a proper Latin Mass for a long time now. When I say proper, I mean the priest has his back to the congregation 90% of the time.

This is of course how all Masses were before Vatican II. I’ve never really thought about that properly – ALL Masses were said this way up until the mid 1960’s. This is the only style of Mass my favourite Saints would have known.  For myself, being born 35 years ago today (yes, today, Dec 3rd IS my birthday!) the Novus Ordo Mass (Priest facing the congregation) has been the only Mass style I have ever known, and up until very recently I was under the impression that it was the only Mass that has ever existed.

When I heard about the thing called the Tridentine Mass I was fascinated. Why would the priest face away from the congregation? How bizarre! So I found a church near me that has a Latin Mass and I went along.

I got there early and found this particular church has Adoration and sings Gregorian chant for 30 mins preceding Mass. And i’m telling you – that chant was beautiful. I have only experienced silent Adoration – which I LOVE, so this was a completely new experience for me. But it totally worked. I really felt like these people were praising Jesus in the Eucharist in front of them. There was an atmosphere of joy and beauty and reverence. The air was so thick with incense you could barely see or breathe, and almost all the women were wearing mantilla’s. The age range was from new born to 90-ish. There was one lady with 4 small children who played happily in the pew.

When Mass began i was slightly nervous. I don’t know Latin. But i soon realised how much i did understand, and the bits i didn’t – well, i know the Mass so well anyway i had no problem understanding what was going on.

As far as the priest having his back to me goes… At first i found it a bit frustrating. I couldn’t see what he was doing for goodness sake! And then it began to dawn on me that I had become very accustomed to going to Mass to be ‘entertained’. Then it struck me that I automatically judge a priest on his ability to entertain me. How awful! I honestly believed the Mass to be a dialogue between the priest and the congregation (me no nutting!). Where does this put God?!

I am certainly not the only person to have thought like this. These two paragraphs explain it perfectly:

“The priest at the Latin mass looking at no one visible is praising, thanking, blessing. He is not a performer, the newcomers realize, gazing at a crowd above the footlights. He is not a professor, a lecturer, a nightclub host gesturing from a stage. He is someone facing the same direction as the people in the pews. He is humbly talking to the unseen God. A figure as powerless before the Almighty as anyone else.”

 “Some go to a Latin mass for the first time and watch as the priest at the altar stands with his back to them. With that simple turn they realize that the celebrant at this point in the liturgy is not addressing them. For the first time in their lives perhaps, they realize he is actually talking to God. He is praying.”

As the priest elevated the consecrated host (with his back to me) I realised that the Mass is addressing God. In fact it would be more accurate to say that the liturgy is our response to God’s call. The Tridentine Mass made it suddenly clear to me where the Holy Trinity is during Mass. I do think it is extremely important for the congregation to see what is happening on the altar and to hear the Eucharistic prayers as is done in the Norvus Ordo style Mass, but with that simple turn I learned more about the Mass in 1 second than I have in 35 years. I wish the priest would come around the front of the altar with his back to us when he elevates the host in the Norvus Ordo Mass. Just that brief moment says so much.

"No, don't panic, it's just incense..."

“No, don’t panic, it’s just incense…”

Another thing I realised is that the primary and most important aspect of a beautiful Mass does not rest on the style of Mass being said, but on the personal holiness of the priest saying it. I cant emphasise this enough. It makes all the difference. Holiness in a priest during Mass is something that is almost impossible to describe in words, but at the same time is almost tangible. A priests personal holiness (in my humble opinion) is the biggest evangelising tool he possesses. Homilies are great, pastoral kindness is great, but if people can look at him and see/sense God, THAT is the thing that will touch their souls most deeply.

The last and most surprising thing I felt was rebellion. I thought to myself “If this was me, 70 or 80 years ago, how would I feel? What would I be doing?” And the honest truth is that I would be writing little newsletters translating the Latin into English so that I could educate people as to what was being said at Mass! I guess that says more about my personality than anything else! But for the first time ever, I did feel a tiny pang of understanding towards older people who today, will look at me with such disdain as I wear my mantilla. Perhaps the good old days were not quite a rosy as I imagine them to be, although I do feel that at some point, the baby got thrown out with the bath water.

Hmmm. Lots to think about.


21 thoughts on “So… I went to my first Latin Mass, and felt something completely unexpected.

  1. Mass is beautiful because it is Mass- I don’t think it depends on a priest’s personal holiness…

    Holiness is important though- in our parish we have a number of young people that travel across many parishes to worship and practice in ours because of the priest. He also has growing number of young adults in the parish going to him for spiritual direction- holiness is attractive, it is clear he knows The Lord and is a disciple… Young people recognise this and want to be discipled by him. We are very blessed!

  2. Deo Gratias! I think the most important Apostolate in the Church right now is to promote the Mass of the Ages, Eucharistic Adoration, the Rosary and the General Confession. Please let us do everything possible in this regard. We have been given a narrow opening to do so and there are many who would like to slam it shut. We can do these things in joy and without the least bit of criticism for whatever else may have gone on in the Church for the past 50 years. Thank you for your article. (As far as your rebellion with the pamphlets, you know the Missals had and have the Latin on the left and the English on the right…)

  3. “I don’t know Latin. But i soon realised how much i did understand, and the bits i didn’t – well, i know the Mass so well anyway i had no problem understanding what was going on.”

    Thanks for your article. Two thoughts:

    1) For those reading this who perhaps haven’t been to the traditional Mass before, it’s also important to make the point that it’s not just about the priest facing ‘east’ and the language – I mean, you can go to the Novus Ordo Mass in Latin but that’s still quite different – it’s also about the form and substance of the Mass which was quite radically changed in the 1960s. So (as someone who has been through this transition myself), I echo Bruvver Eccles in recommending that you get yourself a good missal and you will soon see exactly what changed and what was, sadly, thrown out with the bath water. I’d suggest spending as much time getting to know the missal when you’re not at Mass and spending as much time as possible (gradually) not needing to look at the missal when you are at Mass. I’m still a long way from the latter! Warning: as you look closer and deeper at the form and texts, you are quite likely to feel increasingly mystified as to why the changes took place at all. There are some excellent new English/Latin missals for the traditional Mass (e.g. Baronius Press, Angelus Press, St Edmund Campion Missal) but also you may find, like I did, that several relatives still had their old pre-1960s missals tucked away in the backs of drawers and were happy (and somewhat intrigued!) to see them get used again!

    2) I understand what you mean about the priest’s personal holiness but I think the key point is that the traditional Mass doesn’t put the priest in a position where he has to try to be anything to anyone at all. That’s the beauty of it. Aside from the homily, it could be any priest at all – it doesn’t matter. He simply serves – a (consecrated and ordained) earthen vessel. As you say, we are so used to personalities ruling the roost!

    Thanks again and God Bless.

  4. The trouble is that articles/ discussions like this tend to go round in circles. I celebrated mass ad oriented many times as an Anglican as that was the unlaterable structure of the I,d churches. It was dignified and emphasised turning towards the Lord. No problem. The priest does not have his back to the people, but turns towards the Lord. Yet, a facing the people celebration can also be holy and dignified, as the prayers and praises of the gathering are lifted to the Lord, and the real presence in the elements is adored. Don’t caricature the celebration of one style versus another. Both can be s
    I ritual and rich. The mass is the mass is the mass..

    • This is true that both can be celebrated in a holy and dignified way but the Vetus Ordo demands holy and dignified by it’s strict rubrics. Even the prayers are more dignified and spiritually deep. The focus stays on the prayer and holy sacrifice. The laity remain united in silent prayer with the priest completing the 3-fold sacrifice as clearly mentioned in the 1962 missal.

      The only reason these articles/discussions go round in circles is because of those who debate the testimony of Catholics who discover the deep spiritual well that is the traditional Latin Mass. A Mass that seems in no need of reform, seems to have everything the Novus Ordo doesn’t, including vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.

      Where is the outrage over the mass apostasy of the faithful in the last 50 years? Those lost Catholics don’t seem to share your sentiments Father, with all due respect.

      • Hi Fr O’Donnell, I think you could say “Transubstantiation is Transubstantiation is Transubstantiation” and that would always be true.

        However, if the statement “The Mass is the Mass is the Mass” has always been true, then why did Pope Paul VI and the committee of liturgical experts (including six protestant ministers) see a dire need to write up a whole new rite of Mass in the 1960’s, and also to try to forbid and suppress the Traditional Rite of Mass?

        Why is the Novus Ordo Missae necessary, if Mass is just Mass? Why was it thought necessary to make a radical break with Tradition, since changing the Rite risks changing the Faith?

        Obviously, the Rite of Mass goes well beyond Transubstantiation and mere validity, as it is the expression of the Faith of the Catholic Church, and the highest prayer offered to the Most Holy Trinity.

        The Traditional Mass perfectly expresses the Faith of the Church, and has done so for fifteen to eighteen centuries, absolutely free from error or obfuscation.

        The New Rite plays down certain essential truths of the Faith, such as the Mass being a propitiatory sacrifice. Is this for God’s benefit, or ours?

        The experiment of fabricating a new a Liturgy to “suit the needs of Modern Man” (whoever that is, never met him myself) has been a spectacular failure, and must be abolished as soon as possible. The Traditional Mass was good enough for countless Saints for countless centuries, and we are no different.

  5. My dh is Jewish so I guess I kind of see things through his eyes. We’ve been to a couple of Tridentine masses together. The first time he went, he leaned over and asked who is getting Bar Mitvahed! Yes, the Tridentine really has that feel to it. The Novus Ordo though is more like the Passover meal, with everyone gathered around the table. Both hearken back to our Jewish roots, but in different ways. I also have a bit of trouble with the statement that the holiness of the priest makes the difference. I don’t think so. That’s why he asks forgiveness and washes his hands before consecrating the host and wine. He is merely the conduit. I find it is the state of my heart that makes the most difference, no matter what style the Mass.

  6. Pingback: So... I went to my first Latin Mass, and felt something completely unexpected. | Christians Anonymous

  7. Something that may be worth noting is that it’s perfectly proper to celebrate the Novus Ordo ad orientem as well. It’s been sort of out of fashion since the Council, but it’s still the official norm and was strongly recommended by Benedict XVI.

    I recently went to an ad orientem Mass with my (cradle Catholic) girlfriend, who hadn’t been to one before, and she immediately said “The prayers make so much more sense this way!”.

    • Yes, but why try to make the New Rite look like the Traditional Rite?

      We already ave one of those, and it has expressed the Faith perfectly well for at least fifteen to eighteen Centuries.

      Let the New Rite continue as it is normally celebrated in an average parish, and it will eventually die out slowly, but the “received and approved” mass of the Roman Rite will never go away.

  8. Hi, just wanted to say that this is a great post. I would add with regard to the last bit of the post that the Latin Mass isn’t just about the older generation these days. Every year at the Chartres Pilgrimage 20,000 teenage Catholics walk the three day French Pilgrimage by foot, and attend the Tridentine Mass every day. In fact one of the evening Masses is all about offering up serious prayer requests and the atmosphere is electric as there is some serious hard core prayer. Also if you check out the LMS Walsingham Pilgrimage videos you will see that over half the attendees have been between the age of 18 and 35. The Juventutem Movement is getting stronger as well with monthly Latin Masses for young Catholic adults every month in the larger cities. Evangelium is also geared towards young Catholic adults.

    Pleased that it went well 🙂

  9. I highly recommend getting a $7 “little red missal” from Ecclesia Dei ~ it helped me so much when we first started going to the EF Mass. You can read along the margins where it explains what the priest is doing at each moment & why, then as you learn, you can start to follow along with the prayers in English, then later in Latin. But be forewarned…some of the prayers are so beautiful, it may make you cry!

  10. Thank you for sharing your personal experiences. The others who commented about getting a 1962 missal or the little red missal booklet are 100% correct on the need. Usually parishes that offer the TLM have a box or table in the back where the little red books can be found for use during Holy Mass. Using the missal will provide you with the english and the rubrics which do a great job explaining what is going on. Even with the priest facing the altar it is fairly easy to see what he is doing if you sit on the left or right side of the pews near the front too.

    The more times you pray the holy sacrifice of Mass in the extraordinary form, the more you will come to appreciate the efficacious effects of the prayers that you can read from the missal along with the priest.

    Pray Holy Mass with the Missal or red book for a few months, then try going back to the Novus Ordo… then you will truly see the differences are more than the direction the priest faces and the Latin.

  11. The original Mass was in Aramaic and was in totally different format. If you want a Mass before Vatican 1, how about that? The Mass is the Mass and no format is more important or more holier. One has external form of worship that works for some, and for others, not. The Latin rite was not what the Church always used, and even then, changed format before Vatican 1. I look at any legitimate Mass as being Mass; focused on the Eucharist and the readings. Externals are great for “the feel of the physical senses”, but more people should be focused on the Internals, “the feel of the spiritual senses”. If the external feel works, then that is right for that person; as long as it is an approved Mass form anywhere in the 21 rites of the Church. Personally speaking for me, the Latin mass is boring and doesn’t allow the person to be involved in the consecration process as witnesses; that is why the bells at consecration time originated, to tell people what was happening because they were not witnesses at what was happening, as it unfold before us. The Mass in the vernacular is a great gift from our Lord; the sacrifice of the Mass is a greater gift. [Just my thoughts at present]

  12. I had to chuckle at you feeling the need to ‘translate’ into English. Just buy a Missal, easily bought. Latin one side of page, own language on other. Always been like that too. You will grow to love that Missal very much, it will be filled with all the tools to get you and your loved ones to Heaven. God has given you great Grace to be where you are now. Home!