Through the sublime beauty of the traditional Latin Mass
The ability of the “Mass of the Ages” to woo non-Catholics to the Faith is evident not only in biographies but also in sociological and historical analyses such as that of Frédéric Gugelot, La Conversion des intellectuels au catholicisme en France (1885-1935). The historian examines, using primary sources, the circumstances and motives in bringing about 150 leading intellectuals ‒ atheists, agnostics, Jews, Moslems, Protestants, but also non-practising Catholics ‒ to active membership of the Church and frequently to zealous proselytism. Such literati included Paul Claudel, Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Henri Ghéon, Jacques Copeau, Jacques and Isabelle Rivière, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy. Ernest Psichari, Henri Ghéon, Julien Greene, and Jacques Copeau.
One of the 20th century’s greatest dramatists, Paul Claudel (1868-1955), who had distanced himself from the Church in his early teens, at eighteen years of age had a sudden conversion during the liturgy: “ This was the wretched child who, on Christmas Day, 1886, betook himself to Notre-Dame in Paris for the Christmas liturgy….And it was there that the thing happened that has dominated my entire life. In an instant, my heart was touched, and I believed”.
“I declare, to me nothing is so consoling, so piercing, so thrilling, so overcoming, as the Mass, said as it is among us. I could attend Masses forever and not be tired. It is not a mere form of words, it is a great action – the greatest action that can be on earth. It is not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal.” ‒ John Henry Newman, Loss and Gain:The Story of a Convert.
Not in spite of Latin but because of it
“The power of liturgy to lift us out of our narrow practical and material pursuits is not dependent on our understanding of every actual word we are saying, any more than our emotional submission to classical music’s soaring magic is dependent on our ability to read the score that produced it. . . . An ancestral, globally employed language like Hebrew or Latin provides a context for predictable and organic communion amongst those present at the service. Through regular engagement, even though rote, with a universally recognized language, worshippers are subliminally imbued with a common motivational narrative from the past, common moral goals in the present, and intimations of a common destiny in the future. But the ancient language and music of the liturgy, which unite the individual with his fellows in the sanctuary’s space, also unite the individual with the eternal idea of peoplehood ‒ those who came before and who will come after ‒ in time. Under the mesmeric sway of ancestral language, the finite moment is transcended through expressions of aspirational yearning (future), emotional attentiveness (present) and nostalgia (past) to fuse in what the philosopher Henri Bergson called “intentional time” when the worshipper achieves the spiritual peace that is conferred by timelessness”.
As the historian Thomas Woods wrote:
“The great English novelist Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited and a great many other books, had an answer for those who insisted on more “participation” in the Mass: “‘Participation’ in the Mass does not mean hearing our own voice. It means God hearing our voices. Only He knows who is ‘participating’ at Mass. I believe, to compare small things with great, that I ‘participate’ in a work of art when I study it and love it silently. No need to shout.” 1
That the faithful did not understand the traditional Mass is simply not plausible. “In the old Mass,” wrote Waugh, “a glance at the altar was enough to inform me of the precise stage of the liturgy. The priest’s voice was often inaudible and unintelligible. I do not write with the pride of a classical scholar. Indeed I know less Latin now than I did 45 years ago. But it did not require any high state of prayer to unite oneself to the action of the priest.” The emphasis on external “participation” did nothing to heighten this very real union with the actions taking place at the altar. “Repeatedly standing up and saying ‘And with you’ detracts from this relatively intimate association and ‘participation.'”
Recall that Waugh, who died before the promulgation of the Novus Ordo, was speaking only about the changes that had been introduced in the years leading up to 1970, like vernacularization and Mass facing the people. And yet he could write: “Apart from the distress at finding our spiritual habits disordered (and I know this is a minor concern compared with the graver dangers to faith and morals openly propounded at the Council) my friends and I are totally at a loss to understand the new form of the Mass.”
Look again at our letter writer’s words: “especially in today’s world, why have a Mass that people cannot understand and participate in?” Why “especially in today’s world”? Apart from its spiritual and aesthetic impoverishment, I see little that is so special or unique about “today’s world.” The very opposite seems to be the case: it is precisely in today’s world, a world in which man believes himself bound by nothing but his own whims, in which the traditional Mass is so obviously necessary. What generation has needed more than the present one to be told that the world does not revolve around them? In a world that believes that nothing is immune to change, that the family itself is subject to redefinition according to human whim, the piety and reverence of the traditional Latin Mass, in its beauty and stately reserve, and in its reservation of sacred tasks to the priest alone, reminds us that some things really are not to be touched by man. What message does our society need more than this?
The usual apologetic for the new rite of Mass includes the claim that the vernacular was necessary in order to assist people’s understanding. But if that’s all the “reformers” wanted, they would simply have translated the 1962 Missal into English. That would not have satisfied their desire for a radically restructured liturgy that would serve the purposes of ecumenism. This must have been the desired outcome rather than an interesting accident. As Michael Davies puts it, when a committee of liturgical experts manufactures a liturgical text that plenty of Protestants find unobjectionable, what other explanation is possible?2
As for “understanding” and “getting anything out of” the Mass, the vernacular liturgy hasn’t exactly done wonders for the vast majority of faithful. Not only are the vast majority of Catholics aged 18-44 unable to identify their Church’s teaching on the Eucharist from a list of several options, but they are also without the slightest idea of what the Mass is. In four years of teaching Western civilization at the college level, I have yet to encounter a single student who was able to define the Mass as the re-presentation of Christ’s Sacrifice on Calvary. (The one student who came the closest described the Mass as a re-enactment of the Last Supper.) And no wonder: who, watching the spectacle that is the typical parish Mass, would possibly conclude that he was present at the re-presentation of Calvary?
“Noble, Majestic, and Non-Vernacular”
One could cite a great many popes on the use of the Latin language, but I shall confine myself to two. First, Pius XI: “For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time…of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular.” Pope John XXIII quoted this passage in his own Apostolic Letter on Latin, Veterum Sapientia. He himself wrote: “Finally, the Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular.”
Think about that. The Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, and therefore, as befitting this dignity, should possess a language that is the unique possession of no single group of people. Now the Church has never condemned harmless regional variations, which are bound to exist: devotional practices more popular in one place than another, particular saints enjoying greater devotion in some places than in others, and so on. But when we step into our churches, it is good for us to leave outside much of what differentiates us as Americans, Canadians, Frenchmen, or Koreans, so that we might better appreciate what we share in common as Catholics. Shame on us if we turn our backs on this beautiful expression of the universality of the Church in order that we might enjoy the familiarity of our own language.
By preserving Latin as the liturgical language of the Roman Rite, not only do we erect a barrier against improvisation and heresy (in the form of questionable translations) but we also give expression to our identity as Catholics. We may not speak any Latin ourselves – though it is highly desirable for Catholics to learn that sacred language – and rely entirely on our missals to navigate the Mass. But a liturgical language common to us all reminds us that we belong to an institution greater than any nation, and one through which we are bound to faithful all over the world. The world is our mission territory, and it is entirely fitting that we missionaries, bound together as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, should worship in a common language.
The unity that Latin both symbolizes and fosters has proven irresistibly attractive to a great many converts. Consider the example of Douglas Hyde (1911-1981), the British Communist who worked for the Communist Party for two decades and edited its British newspaper, the Daily Worker. He had sought in secular ideologies a cure for the divisions that afflicted the postwar world. “The generation which came to manhood between the wars – my generation – pagan though it was, grew up in the belief that some sort of universal harmony and lasting peace was possible, that men need not remain divided.” Hyde and his colleagues had looked in vain to secular organizations to supply this unity. “We looked to the new organizations to achieve this for us – some to the League of Nations, some to world Communism,” he wrote. None lived up to expectations: “[T]he League of Nations has been dead, murdered, for eight years. No one has the same hopes of the United Nations or, if they ever had, bitter reality has long since brought disillusionment. The Communist International, far from uniting the human race, is splitting it both horizontally [into East versus West] and vertically [into property owners versus proletariat]….”
For a variety of reasons, including his interest in the medieval world, Hyde had begun to inquire into Catholicism. Then something impressed itself upon him:
At 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve I was twiddling the knob of my radio. Unable to get out to Midnight Mass I wanted at least to bring it to my fireside. And as I switched from one European station to the next I tuned in to one Midnight Mass after the other. Belgium, France, Germany, Eire, yes, even behind the Iron Curtain, Prague. It seemed as though the whole of what was once Christendom was celebrating what is potentially the most unifying event in man’s history. And the important thing was that it was the same Mass. I am a newcomer to the Mass but I was able to recognize its continuity as I went from station to station for it was in one common language. This aspect of Catholicism is but a single one, and maybe not the most important. But I have a strong feeling that it is precisely the Catholicism of the Catholic Church which may prove the greatest attraction, and will meet the greatest need, for my disillusioned generation.3
Hyde, who converted to Catholicism in 1948, traveled extensively throughout Asia during the 1950s. In his ensuing book One Front Across the World (1956) he wrote about those travels, where time and again he witnessed the simplest of folk actively praying the traditional Latin Mass. He told a story from Korea in which a Msgr. Thomas Quinlan had wanted to start a choir for his cathedral. The monsignor recruited a pagan professor of music and seventy of his students, none of whom were Catholic (this was genuine mission territory) and taught them how to pronounce ecclesiastical Latin. Soon they were practicing the music for High Mass.
When the time came for Bishop Patrick J. Byrne to be consecrated in Seoul, Hyde relates, the professor went to the consecration “and was enormously impressed by the Church’s liturgy. It was, he said, the nearest thing to heaven he had ever experienced, and the Cistercian Salve Regina was the most perfect piece of music he had ever heard. He came into the Church a convert and before long the students in the choir, one after another, came in too.”
And they didn’t even speak Latin – or any language derived from it.” (From “Revisiting Some Old Questions” by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. at http://www.seattlecatholic.com/article_20030725.html
 Quoted in Nicholas Gihr, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1908), p. 337.
 Frédéric Gugelot, La Conversion des intellectuels au catholicisme en France (1885-1935) (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2007).
 Paul Claudel, Oeuvre en prose (Paris: Pleiade, 1965), translation as quoted in Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics ( Washington DC: CUA Press, 1995), p. 118.
 Barbara Kay, “Latin’s Second Coming”, in the Canadian newspaper, National Post, October 18, 2006.