Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Latin Mass: Ab Ovo

In my third year as a Catholic I attended the Latin Mass for the first time. The experience left me cold. 

Celebrated in my home parish church by my pastor, the Mass itself was complete in every way. But personally it was an experience I could not separate from the many other associations I had formed of my church and pastor and the Ordinary Form of the Mass over the preceding three years. It was as if I thought, What is this doing here?

This morning, one year further on, I attended the Latin or Tridentine Mass for my second time, at Christ the King Catholic Church in Sarasota, Florida, an apostolate of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. It was an entirely new experience, in a church I had never seen, celebrated by a priest I had never met—and it was satisfying in every way.

From rummaging around the internet, I gather that the new Post–Vatican II Mass in the Ordinary Form was celebrated in the United States for the first time in December 1969. At the time, I was a freshman in college and a collapsed Episcopalian who no longer attended church in any form. If I was aware at all of changes then taking place in the Catholic Church, the changes must have sounded like distant thunder echoing beyond the mountains.

Any changes in the Catholic Church that I became aware of as time passed were social changes: priests marrying nuns and that sort of thing. I had no idea that Catholics had changed their Mass, and probably wouldn’t have cared if I had known.

Today I care.

I had an odd thought during this morning’s Mass, one that may irritate some who read this. But it was my thought, so I will share it. I thought of Native American purists who today try to reassemble the spiritual scraps of their tribal past in order to return to better times, to the beginning (ab ovo, the Latinist might say). I thought of young men in sweat lodges. The difference between Native Americans and Catholics was particularly striking to me. Native Americans, I thought, were cut off from their traditions by violent white settlers. Catholics did it to themselves.

This was a painful thought, contrasted with the quiet and peace that came over me during the Latin Mass this morning. The Extraordinary Form of the Mass remains a mystery to me in many ways, although I have always loved Latin. Now, however, I know that I will return to Christ the King when I can.

While in Florida, I have had the pleasure of getting to know a retired Catholic priest, whom I will call Father Phil. Yesterday, I told him that I planned to attend Christ the King this morning. He did a double take, looking at me quizzically. I interpreted the look:

“You thought you had me figured out, huh, Father?”

He said, “But that’s going back to 1962!”

I said, “I want to understand everything I can about this wonderful Church of ours.”

He squeezed my arm as man to man and wished me a good day.

As I often do, I thought of a better answer after I had left him. What I might have said was, “1962? Why not go back to 33?”

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