Dwight Longenecker attends his first Tridentine Mass
I' VE ALWAYS WANTED TO top Scott Hahn's bad pun, Rome Sweet Home . and title my conversion story, Done Roman. For the former Protestant nothing is more Roman than the Latin Mass, so it was with
considerable curiosity that I decided to attend the old Latin Mass for the first time since becoming a Catholic five years ago.
I was looking forward to it. I like old churches and our
Latin Mass Society had
arranged this Mass to be said at St Mary's Cricklade — a beautiful little medieval church we lease from the Anglicans. I was never a paid up, official 39-button Anglo-Catholic, but as a
priest, I appreciated decent
liturgy, good music and a certain amount of smells and bells. So it was with a mixture of both anticipation and reserve that I set off for the service with a Latin Mass aficionado from our parish.
I was armed with a missal that had an English translation facing the Latin text. At the church door we were given a sheet with the translations of the propers. I took my seat. looked around, said my prayers and prepared for Mass. Before long the hells tinkled and the little choir began a Latin introit as a young priest processed in with suitably solemn servers. As a former clergyman it wasn't hard to follow the service, but I wondered how someone less knowledgeable would have known which bits to skip and where to find the readings that weren't in the book. Compared to the simple openness of the Novus Ordo it seemed rather arcane.
I was prepared for the priest to stand at the altar with his back to us. I was also prepared for some of the Mass to be inaudible; but I was genuinely astounded when he chanted the Scripture readings in Latin in an almost inaudible voice as well. 1 realise we were meant to follow our missals, but would not our following have been easier if we could actually hear what was being said? Perhaps a liturgical expert will one day explain how singing the Scriptures softly in a foreign language aids communication of the Word of God to the people of God.
The Anglo Catholics are sometimes blamed for being more Catholic than the Catholics. The young priest who stepped up into the pulpit to deliver the homily was wearing a wonderfully embroidered maniple and fiddle-backed chasuble. With his prim manners, tiny spectacles, and biretta, this Catholic looked more Anglo-Catholic than the
He then spoke in a
stained-glass voice that was
so stentorian that it would make the most pompous archdeacon arch with envy. He began by disagreeing with the new Archbishop of Westminster, saying that these days were not a time for joy and hope, but it was indeed a time for doom and gloom for the Church. The rest of the homily was an unpleasant invective against sin and decadence in which sinners were people who "live their lives like base animals of the field".
I'm afraid it was downhill from there on. I followed along with the Mass, and tried to be open minded, but I couldn't understand the
point of it all. If the Latin is so majestic, timeless and wonderful, why is half the Mass intentionally inaudible? if the sacred gestures of the priest are so significant and beautiful why are they perfonned up in the chancel with his back turned so we can't see them? Perhaps I'm not only missing the point but revealing my appalling ignorance by asking obvious questions; but I couldn't help coming away feeling that if Vatican 11 had never happened, I, for one, would never have come close to entering the Catholic Church.
The supporters of the Latin Mass are fond of telling us how Mass
numbers have fallen since the introduction of the Novus Ordo; but two things happening at the same time • do not necessarily imply a causal relationship. You might as well say that Mass numbers have dropped ever
since Elvis died. Certainly
it's true that Mass attendance has dropped off since the Sixties, but it may well have dropped even more if the Latin Mass had been retained.
The Sunday before, I led an away day for a parish home group. The group was made up of about 10 young couples and their families. Many of the young people were converts to the Catholic faith. A number had been greatly helped by the Alpha course. Our closing Mass was at the other end of the liturgical extreme to the Latin Mass. We sang choruses, the older children did a little drama to help illuminate the readings. The little ones took a full part in the offertory procession. There was a fair bit of hugging and hand raising. It was not my preferred type of worship, I like the Novus Ordo celebrated with simple solemnity and good hymns; but if the only alternative is doom, gloom and Latin, give me guitars and hugs any day.
Traditionalists would probably say, "You can take the boy out of Protestantism, but you can't take Protestantism out of the boy." But the fact of the matter is that Vatican II has happened, Protestants are coming into a Catholic Church that has been transformed. I would never want to prohibit the Latin Mass. I respect its beauty and the venerable legacy it represents, but I am looking for a renewed Church — a Church that offers the treasures of the past in a positive way to our modem world. That's why I'm delighted that this year the Pope is not only beatifying the arch enemy of modernism, Pius IX, but also the master of openness, John XXIII.