Traditional Latin Mass: Where Modern Man Finds the Catholic Identity

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“But no-one who has not experienced Gregorian liturgy should describe the High Mass….Someone has spoken this language before in my heartAnd there is more to it ‒ it is the mother tongue of the soul, it is the ever valid language of all humanity, the only one which fully expresses the real situation of the human being in the world, in history, and before God.”  Sven Stolpe, (1905-1996), a Swedish writer who converted to Catholicism, in Sound of a Distant Horn,

 To Know the Traditional Liturgy is to see, as in a mirror, your Catholic Identity

Catholic identity, defined as the mentality and behavior of the Catholic, is the flooding of man’s thinking, deciding, and sensitivity by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The condition for this to occur is clarity of knowledge about the truths of the Catholic Faith, in all their integrity.

These truths  (i.e. the Catholic Tradition) are to be found by ordinary men and women in the place where they practically connect with them – the liturgy ( the Mass, sacraments, sacramentals, and the Divinum Officium).

The traditional liturgy teaches you who you are; it reveals to you your identity because it is the praxis where the Church is in action. All her other actions such as political, social, educational and charitable programs, are utterly secondary and have their purpose in the liturgy. It is in the liturgy where the Church is acting out who she is, why she exists, her origin, her nature, her purpose, her life. The liturgy is the action in which the divinely revealed truths accomplish the purpose for which they were revealed by God: the rescue of man from the power of Satan, his transformation into a divinized son of God by participation in the life of Jesus Christ the Lord in order to empower him to enter into the Eternal Presence of the Beatific Vision.

Consequently, although one can know the truths of the Catholic Faith by reading The Catechism of the Catholic Church or a similar compendium, one can only know the truths of the Catholic Faith in a way that resounds throughout one’s psyche, influencing and shaping one’s thoughts, affections, and decisions through the liturgy. This is because the Catholic Faith is not merely a rationally coherent body of knowledge but a divinely revealed body of knowledge for which a supernatural enlightenment is necessary, both for the initial assent to the truth of Catholicism and for the subsequent penetration to the depths of its significance. The initial supernatural enlightenment necessary for the assent can occur prior to conscious participation in the liturgy but penetration to the depths of the meaning of the Catholic Faith can only be achieved through the liturgy.

The Components of Catholic Identity to be Found in the Traditional Latin Mass

The overarching truth that the traditional Latin Mass and liturgy teaches that functions as the gateway to knowledge of your identity is that GOD IS!

In other words, that God, the Eternal, Omnipotent, Omniscient and Utterly Holy One is the cause and the purpose of all that is, of the universe, of history, of society, and of every man and woman.

It opens your eyes to the sense of the sacred and to the sacral identity that you as an individual and that society must have in order to be genuinely according to the divine plan.

It achieves this primarily by transparently showing that the Mass is essentially the mystical enactment of the Sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary for the sake of our salvation.

It shouts that consequently this Sacrifice is the gateway to Eternal Life; that sacrifice must seal all our actions; and that love of God and of others for His sake must shape our conduct. No more powerfully and radically counter-cultural assault on the selfie culture of the Dictatorship of Relativism!

The following are key dimensions of this sacral identity to be found in the ancient Mass, taken from the insightful position papers of the Foederatio Internationalis Una Voce (https://lms.org.uk/product/fiuv-position-papers-1962-missal-3rd-ed ). Footnotes of the original have been omitted.

First, the ancient liturgy is characterised by an unflinching presentation of the Truths of Faith: it avoids the danger of (in the words of Pope Benedict XVI) ‘the repetition of phrases that might seem more accessible and more pleasant for the people’, ‘making the mystery a banality’. For example, the reality of human sin and our need for grace, which are perhaps the truths most energetically evaded, but most urgently needed, by modern Western culture, are presented insistently by the Extraordinary Form, not only in its texts  (such as the  Collects  of Lent),  but also  ceremonies,  such as  the priest’s Confiteor before the servers’. It is a natural bulwark against the danger noted by Pope Benedict:

“A weakened sense of the meaning and importance of Christian worship can only lead  to a weakened  sense of the specific and  essential vocation of the laity  to imbue the  temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel.”

Secondly, as just noted the Extraordinary Form uses a wide range of means to communicate the Faith. The texts, ceremonies, vestments, and musical accompaniment of the liturgy, the lay-out of the sanctuary and the movement of ministers and servers, the complexity of some, and not other, ceremonies, the contrast between spoken, sung, and silent prayer,  and  the engagement of the  Faithful,  all communicate the Faith  in subtle ways, even to those who, in Pope Paul VI’s phrase describing ‘modern man’, are ‘sated with talk’.

This has particular value in seeking to counteract subconscious habits of mind, and can serve as a gentle re-education of the imagination and emotions: for, in Pope Benedict XVI’s phrase, liturgy is a ‘school of prayer’.

The sense of ‘sacrality’, noted as a characteristic of the Extraordinary Form by Pope Benedict XVI, is precisely a response to the call, made insistently by Bl. Pope John Paul II in the context of the new evangelization, for a renewed sense of mystery in the liturgy.16 Bl. Pope John Paul II applied this explicitly to the Extraordinary Form:

“The People of God need to see priests and deacons behave in a way that is full of reverence and dignity, in order to help them to penetrate invisible things without unnecessary words or explanations. In the Roman Missal of Saint Pius V, as in several Eastern  liturgies,  there  are  very beautiful prayers  through which the priest expresses the most profound sense of humility and reverence before the Sacred Mysteries: they reveal the very substance of the Liturgy.”

Thirdly, even while some aspects of the liturgy may provoke a negative reaction among those formed by Western culture, the beauty, particularly of the Church’s musical patrimony, but also of vestments, altar furnishings and architecture, all used in their intended liturgical context, can often penetrate and soften the heart hardened against the Faith. The role of art as an ‘invitation to seek out the face of God’ was emphasised by Bl.  Pope John Paul II. This beauty can gain a  hearing for the content of the  Faith.

Fourthly, the Extraordinary Form is today the focal point of a milieu informed also by traditional spiritual writers and supported by the religious orders committed to it, which constitutes a form of Catholic culture consciously counter-cultural vis-a-vis the dominant secular culture: in the phrase of Pope Paul VI, ‘they make up a community which is evangelizing’. The call to be witnesses to the Faith even in the most hostile environment, made by Pope Benedict XVI and his immediate predecessors, is one which has been enthusiastically answered by Traditional Catholics, who find themselves in possession of resources from the Catholic Tradition which have been neglected by many others in the Church.

Finally, the Extraordinary Form has value in embodying classical cultural forms. It is impossible to study the history of art or music without seeing the contribution of the Church and the Faith, and this contribution is a living part of the ancient liturgy. Again, in the liturgy proper, the Extraordinary Form represents an ideal against which many Protestant and secular forms have reacted. A secular Westerner experiencing it may have a similar experience when seeing, for the first time, a nun wearing a traditional habit, which he had previously seen only in comic films or mocking cartoons. He will see at last what the fuss was about, and may well have to reassess judgements made on the basis of the parody.

This experience, of seeing clearly at last what lies at the root of Western culture, despite all the attempts to abuse and belittle it, is of profound importance. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre describes the experience of a person who encounters the culture and set of beliefs which, he suddenly realises, is what he has been groping towards himself, as ‘the shock of recognition’. Something like this shock is expressed by St Augustine in his Confessions:

 “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me,  and  I burned for your peace.” (St. Augustine, Confessions) (Foederatio Internationalis Una Voce at https://lms.org.uk/product/fiuv-position-papers-1962-missal-3rd-ed )