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…”
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.