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The Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Rites in Today's World | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. | March 28, 2007 | Part 2 | Part 1

Latin, Vernacular, and the Expectations of the Council

According to the Council documents and the expectations of the Fathers who ratified them, the old and new rites of the Mass were to be more similar than they typically are today. The New Rite of the Roman Mass was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Holy Thursday, 1969, according to the directives of the Council. The Fathers ordered that, "particular law remaining in force, the use of Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin Rites" (SC 36, 1). It was assumed that the ordinary (fixed or unchanging) parts of the Mass were to remain in Latin, while the variable parts were to be allowed in the vernacular. The Council states that: "But since the use of the mother tongue . . . frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants" (SC 36, 2). In general, wherever the New Rite of the Mass allows for options, the Council Fathers directed the priest to choose the option in continuity with the pre-conciliar Mass, asserting that: "Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing" (SC 23). However, anyone who attends the Tridentine and New Rite in the vernacular cannot help but notice the lack of organic continuity between the two liturgies.

One of the watchwords of those who disparage the use of Latin is the Council's call for "active participation." It is argued that one cannot actively participate in a liturgy that is in a "dead language." The problem is that the Council did not mean by "active participation" that one must actively respond verbally to the utterances of the priest. As Fr. Joseph Fessio, a doctoral student under then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, has asserted:

The Council actually spells out its intent, in paragraph 14 of Sacrosanctum Concilium: 'Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations, which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.' The key words here are "full, conscious, and active participation." The Latin for 'active participation' is actuosa participatio. [8]

Fessio notes that the first papal use of the term actuosa participatio appears in the writings of Pope St. Pius X. In his Motu Proprio, Tra le Solicitudini, Pius X states, "In order that the faithful may more actively participate the sacred liturgy, let them be once again made to sing Gregorian Chant as a congregation." The Pope's intention was not to eliminate Latin so that the faithful could respond in the vernacular, but rather that they more actively involve themselves in Latin chant.

Before Pius X was Pope, a Jesuit, Angelo dei Sancti, used the term in a document that likewise used it to refer to active participation in the singing of Latin chant. Popes Pius XI and XII both used the term to refer only to the congregational use of Gregorian Chant; this, in fact, is what the Council had in mind when it used the term. We can see this desire in several passages throughout the Council documents. For example, we find it stated that, "The Church acknowledges Gregorian Chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services (SC, 116). While Latin chant is today rarely sung in Roman Rite churches, Eastern Rite parishes still retain the music and language of their particular traditions; Greek Rite Catholics still intone Greek tunes and Ukrainian Rite Catholics still intone Slavonic tunes, even when these rites are offered in foreign countries, such as the United States. Fr. Fessio concludes that despite the recent disuse of Latin in the New Mass, "the Council did not abolish Latin in the liturgy. The Council permitted the vernacular in certain limited ways, but clearly understood that the fixed parts of the Mass would remain in Latin."

The Future of the Latin Mass: Old Rites and New Directions

While Roman Catholic parishes are beginning to turn back to Latin, they are also turning back toward the altar. While this is still required of all Tridentine Latin Masses, the priest who offers the New Mass presently has the option to face the altar (liturgical east) or the people, unless the bishop orders specific guidelines. The Council, however, envisioned a liturgy more similar to the Tridentine Mass. In the foreword to U. M. Lang's, Turning Toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes:

To the ordinary churchgoer, the two most obvious effects of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council seem to be the disappearance of Latin and the turning of the altars towards the people. Those who read the relevant texts will be astonished to learn that neither is in fact found in the decrees of the Council. The use of the vernacular is certainly permitted, especially for the Liturgy of the Word, but the preceding general rule of the Council text says, 'Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites' (SC 36, 1). [9]

Cardinal Ratzinger notes: "There is nothing in the Council text about turning altars towards the people; that point is raised only in postconciliar instructions." In his book, The Feast of Faith, Ratzinger observes, "The original meaning of what nowadays is called 'the priest turning his back on the people' is, in fact--as J. A. Jungmann has consistently shown--the priest and the people together facing the same way in a common act of Trinitarian worship. . . ." [10] The theology behind this notion is Scriptural, as seen in Ezekiel's prophecy: "And, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came by way of the east (per viam orientalem): and his voice was like the voice of many waters and the earth shone with his majesty" (Ez 43:2). Churches such as Mother Angelica's Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, St. John Cantius in Chicago, Old St. Mary's in Cincinnati, and St. Josaphat Church in Detroit are among the growing number of parishes who offer the New Mass in Latin with the priest facing liturgical east (the altar).

The value of the Latin Mass is being re-appreciated throughout the world. At the 2001 Liturgical Conference in Fontgombault, France, Cardinal Ratzinger argued that it is essential "to recognize that both Missals (Tridentine and Paul VI) are Missals of the Church, and belong to the Church which remains the same as ever." And in his preface to Franz Bried's Die heilige Liturgie, Ratzinger wrote, "The Church stands and falls with the Liturgy." The way Mass is offered is clearly important to our Holy Father. In his homily at the Abbey of Fontgombault, given while offering the Tridentine Latin Mass, he stated: "Let us pray to the Lord to help us--to help the Church--to celebrate the Liturgy well, to be truly at the feet of the Lord, to receive the gift of true life, the essential and necessary reality, for the salvation of all, the salvation of the world. Amen."

This is an appropriate prayer for anyone attending Holy Mass, Latin or vernacular. As Latin returns to the liturgy, we should rejoice in the liturgical heritage of the Church and prevent old debates from perpetuating divisions. Whether the Mass is offered in Latin or vernacular, the Old Rite or new, it is the same Sacrifice of Christ, a peace offering for our sins, the Sacrifice he made on Good Friday when he reconciled all men to himself, "making peace through the Blood of His Cross. . . ." (Col. 1:20). In Pope John Paul II's homily at the Basilica of St. John Lateran on June 10, 2004, the late Holy Father exclaimed:

"Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem!... - Sion, praise the Saviour / your guide, your pastor / with hymns and canticles." With untold emotion, we hear this invitation to praise and joy echoing in our hearts. At the end of Holy Mass we will carry the Divine Sacrament in procession to the Basilica of St Mary Major. Looking at Mary, we will understand better the transforming power that the Eucharist possesses. Listening to her, we will find in the Eucharistic mystery the courage and energy to follow Christ, the Good Shepherd, and to serve him in the brethren.

Truly the Mass gives us the "courage and energy to follow Christ, the Good Shepherd"; the splendor of the Church's Latin liturgical patrimony uplifts the soul. The English Oratorian, Fr. Frederick Faber, called the Latin Mass "the most beautiful thing this side of heaven," and certainly it is.


[1] New York Times, May 13, 1996.

[2] This article was originally written in late 2006. However, as of this posting (March 28, 2007) there are rumors that Pope Benedict XVI may issue a Motu Proprio regarding saying the Mass in Latin within the a matter of weeks or even days.

[3] Cardinal Gracias Speaks, 1977, 207.

[4] Hovda, Strong, Loving and Wise, 1976, 64.

[5] Hovda, 64, 65.

[6] Bernadin, Pastoral Letter on the Liturgy, 7.

[7] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, preface to Dom Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, 2005, 13.

[8] "The Mass of Vatican II", IgnatiusInsight.com.

[9] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, foreword to U.M. Lang, Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, 2004, 9.

[10] Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith, 1986, 140.

Comments? Thoughts? Questions? Share them on the Insight Scoop blog!

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:

Worshipping at the Feet of the Lord: Pope Benedict XVI and the Liturgy | Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D.
For "Many" or For "All"? | Excerpt from God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Music and Liturgy | Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer | Excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
How Should We Worship? | Preface to The Organic Development of the Liturgy by Alcuin Reid, O.S.B. | by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Mass of Vatican II | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
Walking To Heaven Backward | Interview with Father Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory
Does Christianity Need A Liturgy? | Martin Mosebach | From The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy
Rite and Liturgy | Denis Crouan, STD
The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, OP
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly) | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.
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Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. is assistant professor of Asian history at the University of Alabama.

He did his doctoral studies at the University of Oregon, where he studied Chinese history, philosophy, and religion. His more recent research has centered on East/West religious dialogue. He has also been researching the history of Catholic martyrs in China. He has previously written articles for IgnatiusInsight.com about Pope Benedict XVI, Buddhism, and the Church in China.

Dr. Clark has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and has also been a guest on "EWTN Live."

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