The Majesty of Liturgy

For the past several years, the pros and cons of celebrating the Catholic Mass in the Latin language have been very much in evidence on the web.  It was therefore an unusual opportunity to participate in such a Service first hand, when the Knights of Columbus were invited to provide a Guard of Honor at a Pontifical High Latin Mass celebrated by Cardinal Raymond Burke in conjunction with a conference on the Sacred Liturgy held recently in nearby Medford.

The Pontifical High Mass of the Post-Reformation era is a visual and auditory feast. For many Catholics it provides a deeply spiritual experience.

The reaction of those taking part was mixed: a fellow knight who attended with me as part of a Knights of Columbus Guard of Honor, who was raised as a cradle Catholic and recalls the Latin Mass in the 1950s, remarked that the service was “a strange experience…I had no idea what was going on.” A friend, who had converted to Catholicism as an adult, described it as a “deeply devotional experience, the most beautiful Mass I have ever experienced.”

The Liturgy celebrated  in Medford was very different from the parish Mass of my childhood where the prayers of the priest and altar boys were barely audible and churchgoers often prayed the rosary.  There were no Old Testament readings and on weekdays there was no homily. The entire service with the exception of prayers for the conversion of Russia, at the end of the service was prayed in Latin by the priest facing the crucifix. Elements we take for granted today such as communal singing, the honoring of the book of Scripture, Offertory prayer only appeared in the late 1960s following the Second Vatican Council. But differences were deeper than mere appearances.

The Pontifical High Mass represented the most formal expression of the older Latin Liturgy, and was based on the Mass celebrated at the Papal Court in Rome during the early Baroque era following the Council or Trent (1545-1563). The more solemn forms of the “Tridentine” Mass that resulted came from a world of princes, kings, and prelates in which high earthly authority pointed to the person of Christ, the King of Kings.  In this context, the sanctuary of a church became the antechamber to the heavenly throne room and the Mass the sacred drama of Calvary.  Reflecting the courtly manuals of the time, liturgical guidelines required minute details of ecclesial etiquette, down to the type of shoes the celebrant should wear, the layered vestments, and complex bows, genuflections, and hand gestures.  So intricate was the Pontifical High Mass that very few modern bishops and priests today, even those with knowledge of Latin, have the skills to properly render it.

The Sacred Liturgy Conference in Medford represented leading figures in the movement to promote the traditional liturgy, and the Mass with Cardinal Burke – himself an outspoken champion of the older form of worship – was a high point of a series of Latin Mass celebrations. Assisting him were priests of the Fraternity of St. Peter, a traditionalist Catholic society of apostolic life for priests and seminarians that is in communion with Rome and specializes in preserving the older form of worship.

The altar that evening was awash in gold candelabra and implements of worship, ceremonial vestments, veils, and copes, and one could easily imagine this service taking place with orchestra and choir performing the great liturgical compositions of Hayden, Mozart, or Beethoven.  In Medford, the music was rendered in Gregorian chant of the 13th century, performed with great devotion by the perfectly blended voices of a Portland women’s choir.

A bishop celebrating a Tridentine Pontifical High Mass typically wears gloves, slippers, and leggings. These elements were done away with in the post-Vatican II era.

More significant than its outward elements, however, is the theology and spirituality undergirding such services. The Mass evokes the 16th century world of the Counter-Reformation in which the Church stabilized the liturgy in response to Protestant attacks against the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the validity of the priesthood.

The Medford Mass was celebrated in strict observance of this classical format. In a setting of unbroken verticality a single celebrant enacts the role of Christ. An assistant priest accompanied him at every turn, along with four deacons, and a sea of altar servers, masters of ceremonies, and torchbearers. Amidst bells, and incensing, the drama culminated in the elevation of the sacred bread and wine in which heaven and earth, time and eternity were sacramentally conjoined.

There is a devotional aspect to the Pontifical Tridentine Mass that cannot be easily dismissed. The nuanced observances in the form of multiple genuflections, bows, and signings of the cross, strip from the celebrant every vestige of individuality. In the process of faithfully performing the prescribed ritual, the celebrant and ministers make themselves completely subservient to the requirements of the Liturgy. Such attitudes have a long history in the Western Church. I would give up my life a thousand times,” St. Theresa of Avila, once wrote, “not only for each of the truths of Sacred Scripture, but even more for the least of the ceremonies of the Church.” In its day, the Tridentine Mass played a key role in defining the Catholic faith and worship.

The Baroque-era Mass, however, also brought with it a certain narrowness. The role of Scripture, which played such a powerful role in the celebration of the Mass prior to the 11th century, was notably absent.  Apart from the Gospel, the Tridentine form offered only a single reading from an Epistle chanted in Latin by the deacon facing the altar. In emphasizing the sacrifice on the cross, the life and resurrection of Christ were downplayed. The practice of con-celebration in which priests and bishops collegially celebrated the Eucharist, and that has always been practiced by Eastern Rite Catholic Churches in union with Rome, was excluded. Finally, there was almost no role for the congregation in this form of worship: singing became a province of professional choirs, the laity were not invited to take part in the exchange of peace; only the celebrants chanted the Lord’s Prayer. At the Medford Mass, all of this was strictly observed, and the separation between pew and altar, was only briefly lifted when the congregants filed forward to the edge of the sanctuary to kneel to receive the sacred bread on the tongue.

The instructions for celebrating the Tridentine Mass saw minor alterations between the 16th and 20th century.

For four hundred years the Tridentine Mass remained a monument of a church fixed in its certainties: Mass was perceived as an action of the priest; the faithful were prayerful observers. Not until the 1930s were the prayers of the liturgy made available to American Catholics in the farm of Sunday missals in which the Latin and English texts appeared side by side.  In the 1950s the assembly was allowed to take part in the Latin responses during the Mass. But the world had greatly changed since the reformation and it was therefore not surprising when offered the opportunity to substantially reform the Tridentine Mass at Vatican Council II, the bishops of the world agreed to do so by a vote of 2,147 to 4.

Since that time the Pontifical High Mass was virtually unseen until Pope Benedict XVI re-established its use in 2007. As part of a general permission, the pontiff allowed the old form of the Latin Mass to be celebrated as an “extra-ordinary” style of worship, ranging from the “Low Mass” used in daily and Sunday services, to the elaborate “Pontifical High Masses” celebrated at special occasions. He encouraged bishops “to make broad and generous use” of this format “on behalf of all the faithful who sought it.”

Today the Baroque-era Pontifical High Mass has an honored place in Catholic life, but as a piece in the great and diverse mosaic of Catholic worship. As Pope Francis explains, authentic liturgy is always more than a “doctrine” or a “rite to be executed,” but “fundamentally a source of life and light for our faith.” In the end, the liturgy draws it strength not from the majesty of its ceremonials but from the  person of Christ who in a simple meal, asked his followers in the language of his people to share the sacred bread and wine as perpetual memorial of his life, death, and resurrection.

Larry Mullaly  7/27/2017