Friday, May 04, 2007

Latin Mass Redux? Not Exactly

The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen titled his April 20th “All Things Catholic” online column, “Hold your breath for the next media frenzy: the Latin Mass document is coming.” The column is at

The column said a statement long-expected from the Vatican was imminent, expanding the times and places where priests can celebrate the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. The Latin version was replaced in the mid-1960s by four “eucharistic prayers” in local languages. The new normative language reflected several decades of liturgical scholarship blessed by the majority of the bishops at the Second Vatican Council. Individual bishops and priests were still allowed to use the old Latin version, but only under very stringent conditions.

Although Allen felt a broader availability of the old Latin Mass would be seen as a victory by the most conservative Catholics—and be so reported by the media—he said the real-world impact of the new policy would be minimal. Pastors and liturgical experts estimated that no more than two percent of Catholics worldwide would attend the pre-Vatican II rite. Besides, the number of priests who know enough Latin to preside at the old Mass has dwindled.

He also noted that pre-Vatican II liturgical language sometimes reflects theology that was officially reversed at Vatican II, including statements about Jews that Rome has taken great pains to avoid and correct over the last 40 years. Apparently the Vatican has decided that those who prefer the old Latin Mass can hear such deficiencies without damage to the overall theology and policy of the church.

Allen’s column produced a lively response on the NCR website. By NCR’s latest count, readers have added 90 comments—more than for any column since February, when he covered the significance for religious freedom of laws various countries have adopted criminalizing hate speech and discriminatory actions against gay people.

One thing Allen’s column and the comments make clear is that there has been a variety of normative liturgies in the history of Christianity and of the Roman Catholic Church. This context is important for understanding any liturgical change, including the pending broader availability of the pre-Vatican II liturgy.

For the most traditionalist Catholics, the old Latin Mass—developed over roughly a thousand years and adopted officially by the Council of Trent—was “THE Mass.” It was absolute and unsurpassable. They deny the authority of the world’s bishops at Second Vatican Council to replace it, and they resent the bishops for doing so. They will try to spin the Vatican statement as vindication of their long-suffering dissent.

But it will not be. Instead, by making the old Latin Mass more available as an alternative to the vernacular eucharistic prayers, the Vatican will reinforce the fact that the church has always had, and will always have, multiple normative liturgies—and that all of them are subject to being revised, supplemented or replaced as the Christian community discovers better ways of doing liturgy (e.g., ways that improve worshippers’ ability to love God and neighbor, and that better articulate and promote the best that theologians have achieved).

I made this point in a previous post July 17, 2006, “A Better Way to Change Catholic Liturgical Language.” At that time the issue was the U.S. bishops preparing to make some changes to the liturgical English that Catholics in the U.S. have recited for over three decades. Like the adherents of the old Latin Mass, some weekly church goers will not like the bishops’ changes.

Just as the church could have been less draconian about restricting the old Latin Mass, so too with the newer revisions, it could continue to make the 30-year old English version available as an alternative to those who prefer it. I also had two larger points in mind.

First, it is not essential to the identity and survival of the church that its liturgical practice be identical around the globe. It is important that there be normative language and that it be repeated more than any alternatives. But making versions of the liturgy available which used to be normative and since have been surpassed does not detract from the current normative liturgy. On the contrary, while upholding the normative liturgy as the one which the church currently prefers, it emphasizes that there can be many authentic ways of commemorating the works and life of the Risen Lord and his presence with us today—and that no one version of eucharistic celebration can ever be treated as final or absolute.

Second, because liturgy can always be improved, the church can and should allow times and places where those who want to propose new liturgical language and practice can try them with willing congregations, in the hope that such experiences will lead to better normative language and practice down the road.

This was allowed for a period of time after Vatican II, when liturgical experts published experimental eucharistic prayers that followed the structure of the approved ones but offered language and rituals that many small congregations found more beautiful and more inspirational than the official language.

Unfortunately, Rome pretty much suppressed such experimentation, and the more conservative church goers made sure that violators were reported to the hierarchy. As a result the church is left to rely largely on non-Catholic Christians to test the effectiveness of liturgical innovations and improvements.

So a greater availability of the Latin Mass cannot be used to absolutize it or any version of the eucharistic liturgy. But it can be the occasion to remember again that alternatives to the normative language can be a healthy expression of religious humility and devotion—and that the alternatives should include not only older liturgies that have been replaced but also authorized experiments that can lead eventually to surpassing the liturgies that are normative today.

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