A couple of years ago I received two requests. The first: to preside at a Latin novus ordo Mass, the post–Vatican II rite in Latin. The second: to say a funeral Mass from the Missale Romanum of 1570. In the first case, the Latin language and the melodies were familiar enough, but the text in song, apart from the Pater Noster (in which the congregation did not participate), was not part of my experience. In the second case, it was 1949 when I had last presided in black vestments and proclaimed that doleful text, Dies Irae and all, at a funeral Mass. The novus ordo celebration required sight reading modern musical notation, not the square Gregorian notes on a four-line staff that I had been familiar with. But that was not a problem. What proved problematic was the syllabication of the sung preface canon (one prayer; interruption by the Sanctus only came later), and seeing to it that the words, familiar in English but not in Latin, fell on the proper notes without the neumes provided in plainchant. My chief impression that Sunday morning was that the congregation regularly in attendance did not engage in the full, active participation I was used to. They attended Holy Mass and gave my leadership in prayer their strict attention.

The second experience requires a brief explanation. A deacon friend in hospice ministry told me that a man he had assisted as death approached had expressed the wish to have his funeral Mass be the long familiar Requiem Mass of his youth. His wife was not enthusiastic, but she faithfully passed her husband’s request on to the pastor. The latter was of an age to be familiar with the rite and the Latin language but declined the honor, asking the deacon to find another priest presider. He found me. On the morning of the funeral, I put in my coat pocket ad cautelam (“just in case”) the Missale Romanum I had bought in 1938, just before beginning a six-year seminary course. Sure enough, the pastor, who was known to be a traditionalist, received me warmly and told me that a Latin altar missal was somewhere in the sacristy closets. But, after searching, he said he could not find it. My handsomely produced six-by-four-inch Missale (nineteenth edition, Regensburg, 1936) filled the breach adequately. As my eyes are the same age as my arterial system, I had to peer down at the text whose type grew smaller at arm’s length. Holding it in my left hand throughout would have destroyed any sense of ritual.

Still, there was a much larger problem. Reading that long prayer of sacramental sacrifice and trying to communicate its content to the congregation, I could see that all I was conveying was that this was, indeed, the text of the Mass. As I continued to proclaim that once-familiar canon facing them (in disregard of the rubric), I had the feeling I was somehow imposing on the hearers a display of my learning. This was a recital of a text that most of the worshipers had not previously been exposed to. Why now, some must have wondered, on the occasion of committing the body of a well-loved friend to the earth? Was there some new law about funeral liturgies they had not heard about? Most had been to many funeral Masses before. Why was this one in Latin and in a ritual celebration led by a priest no one in the parish knew?

I am guessing at the impression made on the people. I am sure of the one made on me. I was enunciating, in the people’s hearing, words that kept them from comprehending the mystery of faith as human language attempts to express it. The church’s Eucharistic prayer gives praise and thanks to God for reconciling a sinful world to the All Holy through the Son—become a human like us—in the power of the Holy Spirit. It asks, but is already assured, that the deceased will be raised up bodily with Christ on the last day. “If I do not know the speaker’s language,” St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth on learning how much “speaking in a tongue” was being practiced, “his words will be gibberish to me and mine to him” (1 Cor 14:11). Paul did not suggest terminating public prayer in a nonlanguage, saying that it might be good for the speaker but that it profited no one else. He granted that speaking in tongues could engage the spirit, but it left the mind barren. In contrast, the one who prayed in comprehensible speech did a service to the whole community.

My chief impression that day was that all sense of mystery was lost for the mourners. I speak of the mystery of faith. That mystery is not simply the change of foodstuffs into the sacramental body and blood of Christ but the preparation for the Communion rite that is the canon. “Take and eat,” Jesus bids us, his disciples, speaking to us and not to the bread and wine. “This is my blood.... All of you drink from it.” The mystery is the consuming of the body and blood of another in a personal union so intimate that there is nothing like it in the entire world. Worshipers of God need to hear this spelled out in their hearing, time and again, so that the awesomeness of the mystery may come home to them.

It is not clear what motivated Pope Benedict to say that celebration of the Holy Eucharist in the West in the Missale Romanum text of 1570 is permissible. It may be an enticement to Lefebvrists and other traditionalists in Europe to return to Catholic unity. More likely, it is part of his expressed desire to have a language in which large groups of people from all over the world, gathered as pilgrims in Rome or at a World Youth Day, may pray the Mass together. The Midnight Mass of Christmas, broadcast widely on television, is of course the Roman rite in the Latin of its origins. More basically, the pope is on record as wishing to keep that tongue alive to ensure retention of the theological heritage of the West. Easy communication among the world’s bishops is perhaps a lesser, unspoken, hope. All admirable goals. May they be realized. But as to the ancient liturgical language of the West for a global church, as old Virgil said in another context, Non tali auxilio.


Related: The Old Rite Returns: Four responses

Rev. Gerard S. Sloyan is a priest of the Diocese of Trenton and professor emeritus of Temple University. His recent publications include Preaching from the Lectionary: An Exegetical Commentary (Fortress) and Jesus: Word Made Flesh (Liturgical Press).
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Published in the 2008-04-11 issue: View Contents
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