Traditional Latin Mass’s Key Role in Catholic Culture

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“Christianity, on the other hand, offers no immediate panacea for the complex malady of the modern world. It has eternity before it, and it can afford to take its time. But for that very reason a Christian culture is potentially wider and more catholic than a secular one. It is God-centered, not man-centered, and it consequently changes the whole pattern of human life by setting it in a new perspective.” (Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education)

Culture’s Foundation In “Cultus” (Religion)

The origin of culture is to be found in the nature of the connections between society, culture, and cult (organized public religious worship).

Any group of individuals becomes unified in a social organism, a society, through assenting to a particular worldvision with its ideals and principles.

The worldvision constitutes the supreme unifying and integrating factor of the society’s ethos with its attitude to human existence, its personal and community ideals, and its “common sense” of dominant assumptions and moral principles.

These function as the standards that individuals live by and embody in laws and institutions that set the pattern for the society’s lifestyle in marriage, family, education, work, politics and general daily living, in other words in “an organized way of life which is based on a common tradition and conditioned by a common environment”. (Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture)

As historians of culture such as Dawson in Progress and Religion: An Historical Inquiry have demonstrated, religion has been at the origins of every civilization except the contemporary post-Western secularized one.

The post-Western civilization of Europe and the Americas is however, without a will to survive as shown by the demographic decline in many of its countries (see the 2013 statistics of the World Bank at )

However, “religion” meant something essentially different to people in ancient cultures from what it means to most of today’s Westerners.

To the latter it is merely a highly personal, private, emotionally-charged, subjective opinion that may or may not be shared with other like-minded individuals and which has no right to a voice in the shaping of society.

In sharp contrast to this, during recorded  history’s 5,000 years, the majority of men have recognized in their religion a set of cosmic doctrines and moral principles that are held to be the ultimate explanation for reality and as such must govern the individual’s relation to the divinity and his fellow men.

The doctrines and principles are embodied in social ceremonies whose chief purpose is to express the participants’ dependence on the divinity and their vital need to adore him: these are the acts of cult (worship or liturgy).

Constituted by a word-form, symbols, gestures, and chants that forms a ritual ceremony, the cult embodies a worldvision with its ideals and values that provides a meaning to existence and a pattern for moral behavior.

This then configures all dimensions of society ‒ education, agriculture, architecture, music, the arts, defense, warfare, and others. Therefore, traditionally, cult has been the root and soul of culture: without cult or, more precisely, without a flourishing form of cult, a culture has become moribund – it has increasingly declined into stagnation and been replaced by another. (see T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harvest, 1976).

Hence, to speak of a secularized culture is to speak of a shallow culture, devoid of metaphysical foundations.

A society whose principles of thought and action are not governed by recognition of the existence and adoration of God as the purpose of man with a consequent moral dimension to all of his actions – a secularized society – is a society, strictly speaking, without culture.

With its dominant mentality of individualistic egotism, socially legislated, it has no bonding between its individual components  and must ultimately dissolve.

The Traditional Latin Mass as Fountain of Culture of First Catholic Civilization 

In the case of Catholicism’s formative role in Western culture, from a merely historical and sociological perspective, Catholicism’s key doctrines of the Incarnation and the Redemption became crucially decisive   chiefly   because   they   were   embodied   in   the  word-form, symbolism and ceremonial of cult and the chief act of cult was the Mass according to the Church’s most ancient rite.

The Ancient Rite’s impact is due not only to the fact that it is the Mass with all of the supernatural power intrinsic to this divine institution, but to the fact that it is the Ancient Rite, a clearly defined complex ceremonial embodying “everything that the Christian world possessed of doctrine and poetry, music and art [which] was poured into the liturgy, moulded into an organic whole which centered round the Divine Mysteries” (Christopher Dawson)

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, a vacuum of learning and scholarship, literature, music, drama and the arts in general existed in Western Europe. No longer under any dominant cultural influence whether Roman, Greek or barbarian and suffering from widespread illiteracy and scarcity of books, the oral and symbolic nature of the Ancient Rite’s ceremonial and texts acquired heightened influence. Enacted throughout the urban centers of Europe, it communicated the Christian world vision and values in a way that deeply resonated in minds and hearts. Thus, during the formative epoch of Western civilization the “Mass of the Ages” functioned as the chief educational tool of the truths of the Catholic religion for the peoples of Europe.

Consequently, while there were many other factors that contributed to the creation of the sociopolitical and cultural reality of Christendom, the primary – not the only, but the primary – determining factor was religious motivation and at the heart of this religious motivation was the experience of the religion of Catholicism through its central act of cult, the Mass.

As the ritual occurring week after week and not infrequently, from the 11th century onwards, on a daily basis for priests, nobles and knights, contact with its texts and symbol-rich ceremonial enabled the truths it asserted to gradually change mens’ mentality and customs.

For the Ancient Rite made it clear to Catholics that their religion was no mere set of religious opinions to be held inside the four walls of  churches but the overarching truths that had to be the alpha and omega that must configure both private and public life. Catholicism from the beginning was self-consciously a civilization-builder.

The influential role of the Ancient Rite in the formation of Western civilization, is, at first glance, somewhat perplexing.

This ancient set of ceremonies, at face value, appears to be a medium disproportionately inadequate to both the message and the effect ‒ so disproportionate that one might even suspect that something more than the merely natural was at work.

Yet, history, after her scrutiny, will have it no other way: Christendom was born at the foot of the altar of the Sacrifice of the  Mass enacted according to the Ancient Rite. The “Mass of the Ages” was the chief medium through which the message of Catholicism was continuously communicated to its adherents; it functioned as the principal instrument ‒ not the only, but the principal ‒ through which  the Catholic Church’s priesthood, by the intrinsic relationship of cult to culture, imbued the peoples of Europe with the truth and implications of the Incarnation and with the vital energy that brought to birth a new culture and a new social order that were distinctively Western. 

Conclusion: To Live the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is Foundational to the Building of a Christian Civilization

Thus, within the sacred liturgy of Catholicism, culture aids man to fulfill his ultimate purpose:

 “The highest activity of the human person is to turn his mind and heart to God, His first beginning and last end, and to worship Him: “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory,” as we sing in the ancient hymn of the Gloria.

We worship God not only because we are needy beings who seek good things from Him or the removal of evils, but above all for His sake, because He is the sovereign Truth, He is all-good, He is beautiful and supremely lovable.

To worship God in spirit and in truth, as He deserves and as we were made to do, we must call upon all of our spiritual and bodily resources, bringing all of ourselves and all of creation to His heavenly throne.

Religious worship is a solemn, public turning to God, which originates in our intellectual nature and expresses itself in the language of culture, the vocabulary of the arts in all their immediacy and grandeur.

Liturgical worship is this very same thing when its principal actor is Jesus Christ, who offers and is offered, together with His Mystical Body, the Church: “Through Him, with Him, and in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever, Amen.”

If man the rational animal and the builder of culture follows his natural and supernatural bent, he will always find his way to the threshold of the temple and enter its gates with rejoicing, laying his sacrifice upon the altar with and for his Lord.” (Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, )