Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Joan Chittister on the Restoration of the Tridentine Latin Rite

In her latest National Catholic Reporter column, Joan Chittister, OSB reflects on Pope Benedict XVI’s recent Motu Proprio allowing for the wider use of the Tridentine Mass (also known as the Latin Mass) within the Catholic Church.

As could be expected, Chittister’s commentary is informed and insightful. It also gets to the heart of the matter: “In their fundamental messages,” she writes, “[the Tridentine and the Vatican II liturgies] present us with more than two different styles of music or two different languages or two different sets of liturgical norms. They present us with two different churches.”

Following are excerpts from Joan Chittister’s commentary, “Coming Soon to a Church Near You.”


Why the concerns? If some people prefer a Latin mass to an English mass, why not have it?

The answer depends on what you think the Mass has to do with articulating the essence of the Christian faith.

The Latin Mass, for instance, in which the priest celebrates the Eucharist with his back to the people, in a foreign language – much of it said silently or at best whispered – makes the congregation, the laity, observers of the rite rather than participants in it.

The celebrant becomes the focal point of the process, the special human being, the one for whom God is a kind of private preserve.

The symbology of a lone celebrant, removed from and independent of the congregation, is clear: ordinary people have no access to God. They are entirely dependent on a special caste of males to contact God for them. They are “not worthy,” to receive the host, or as the liturgy says now, even to have Jesus “come under my roof.”

The Eucharist in such a setting is certainly not a celebration of the entire community. It is instead a priestly act, a private devotion of both priest and people, which requires for its integrity three “principal parts” alone – the offertory, the consecration and the communion. The Liturgy of the Word – the instruction in what it means to live a Gospel life – is, in the Tridentine Rite, at best, a minor element.

In the Latin mass, the sense of mystery – of mystique – the incantation of “heavenly” rather than “vulgar” language in both prayer and music, underscores a theology of transcendence. It lifts a person out of the humdrum, the dusty, the noisy, the crowded chaos of normal life to some other world. It reminds us of the world to come – beautiful, mystifying, hierarchical, perfumed – and makes this one distant. It takes us beyond the present, enables us, if only for a while, to “slip the surly bonds of earth” for a world more mystical than mundane.

It privatizes the spiritual life. The Tridentine Mass is a God-and-I liturgy.

The Vatican II liturgy, on the other hand, steeps a person in community, in social concern, in the hard, cold, clear reality of the present. The people and priest pray the Mass together, in common language, with a common theme. They interact with one another. They sing “a new church into being,” non-sexist, inclusive, centered together in the Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee curing the sick, raising the dead, talking to women and inviting the Christian community to do the same.

The Vatican II liturgy grapples with life from the point of view of the distance between life as we know it and life as the gospel defines it for us. It plunges itself into the sanctifying challenges of dailiness.

The Vatican II liturgy carries within it a theology of transformation. It does not seek to create on earth a bit of heaven; it does set out to remind us all of the heaven we seek. It does not attempt to transcend the present. It does seek to transform it. It creates community out of isolates in an isolating society.

There is a power and a beauty in both liturgical traditions, of course. No doubt they both need a bit of the other. Eucharist after all is meant to be both transcendent and transformative. But make no mistake: In their fundamental messages, they present us with more than two different styles of music or two different languages or two different sets of liturgical norms. They present us with two different churches.

The choice between these two different liturgies bring the church to a new crossroads, one more open, more ecumenical, more communal, more earthbound than the other. The question is which one of them is more likely to create the world Jesus models and of which we dream.

To read Joan Chittister’s “Coming Soon to a Church Near You” in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The New Motu Proprio: “Nothing But Headaches for Bishops, Priests, and Laity”?
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Chittister
Reflections on Consociate/Associate Programs by Joan Chittister
“Receive What You Are, the Body of Christ”: Reflections on the Eucharist
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation


crystal said...

I like the pictures you chose ... a good way to illustrate the differences in the Masses.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks, Crystal.

I have to say I really appreciated and was moved by your recent post, Jesus Meme.

Indeed, your entire blog is insightful and, well, just very real. I always look forward to visiting it.



crystal said...

Thank you - I find your blog interesting too :-)

Anonymous said...

Michael -

I agree with Sr. Joan entirely.

I don't have a problem with the mass being said in Latin - if it's still a Vatican II liturgy - prayers in Latin for those who choose it.

But, the point about the priest being the special one, the only one with a real relationship to God in the room - the only one worthy - well - that is abhorrent to me.

Christ sent his followers out to be, above all else, SERVANTS to God and others. They should be among the least of men. Maybe what I mean is the least common denominator among HUMAN beings - the first, the last, the every human.

Priests aren't a conduit to God for themselves alone, and I believe that is what the Tridentine style mass imparts.

B16 is working hard to return to the non-existent Mayberry (my obnoxious phrase for the desire to return to a perfect time, some where in the past, that never existed).

Anonymous said...

So Michael - how many weird shouting emails did you receive simply for citing Sr. Joan's article?

I got two. With big caps and all.

I have started a dialouge with one of the shouters though, with much less shouting involved in the subsequent exchange.

It's something, I suppose.

Kelly Thatcher said...


But, the point about the priest being the special one, the only one with a real relationship to God in the room - the only one worthy - well - that is abhorrent to me.

Then I would expect you to applaud the notion, at least, of the celebrant facing ad orientem...that is, facing the same way the faithful do.

(Which, as you no doubt know, is perfectly allowable in the Novus Ordo Mass.)

With the priest facing the people, it is all too easy for celebrant to be the center of attention. As is, as I'm sure you've experienced, so often the case. (Of course, some people, for reasons of their own, seem to prefer giving homage to the celebrant rather to God. Maybe because it's easier?)

Regarding the priest's "back to the people?" By this logic, unless you sit in the very, very last pew, you yourself are placing yourself with your back to your fellow worshipper.

No, indeed, the priest, when facing the same way you do, is adoring God the same way you difficult is that to comprehend?

I, too, appreciate the pictures in this post. I especially enjoy the image of the altar server adoring Jesus...rather than adoring the priest.

By the way, regarding the "foreign language" reference, two comments:

1.) Latin is the language of the Roman Catholic Church and is therefore not foreign at all.

2.) It's surprising to me that a site that labels itself as "progressive" would look askance at a Mass celebrated in a "foreign" language. Are we not all members of the same Body?

I hope this is helpful.

Anonymous said...

Kelly - I obviously disagree with you. I see the priest as the teacher - the sharer - the one who leads by example. I like to see the face of my teacher.

With his back to me, I don't feel shared with - I feel ignored.

During mass - I'm not necessarily looking to be taught by my fellow parishoners - although such teaching is possible within other contexts. I am looking to learn and worship, and the priest is the learned teacher -the rabbai - the conduit between me and the Divine Reality. The other parishoners are fellow travelers, fellow learners - those who are looking to the teacher. Some physical presence has to be the "leader" but, the leader, should really be "first among equals". The priest's role is to serve God and man - as the conduit between the two. That's his calling.

I don't know about you, but it's rough for me to learn about relationships, by looking at the back of someone's head. And the priest is teaching about relationship - worship of the Divine.

As for this idea of the Roman aspect of the The Roman Catholic Church, it's laughable to me. In honesty, it is no more "Roman" than you or I. There is NO Roman Empire anymore. There hasn't been for quite sometime. It's just a city in Italy. The Catholic Church is a world wide entity - and listening to the mass in vernacular is meaningful to many people, from many different cultures. To assume that latin will be meaningful to all is arrogant.

My mother, who grew up with the Latin Mass, much prefers hearing it in the vernacular. She doesn't appreciate Latin, and found it very distancing and distracting. Ditto to the priest facing her.

However - I am fine with the Latin Mass being an option - as long as this isn't a backdoor way for the Pope to try to turn back the clock. If there are people who feel close to the Divine by uttering Latin, so be it. Diversity of experience is the norm - homogeneity is not.

Anonymous said...

Chittister sorta gives away the game in this piece. For her, Vatican II created a new church.

At least the Reformers mostly had the good grace to realize that they were breaking with the old church and making a new one. So many Vatican II liberals have made the same break but pretended not to.

Daniel said...

The Novus Ordo has not created community - It has disintegrated a Church. There is nothing to draw young people to Mass when the liturgy fails to step above the profane into the transcendent.

The local parishes are dying because they are filled with old VII priests disenchanted from a failed project. There is only one thing to do - Renew the Church. However, this renewal will only come if it sheds the emperor's garments of 1960s "inclusivity", and takes up the mantel of tried and tested Tridentine tradition.

I speak as a convert, who like Newman, and Waugh came to the Church from another fold to embrace the heritage of Christianity. What I found when I crossed the Tiber was a Church less stopped in tradition than I could have imagined. But for the Grace of God who blessed my city with an Oratory I would not go to Mass.

What we will see is more people going to SSPX, Oratories, and other Latin institutes, while the parishes become ghost towns. Then finally the church might wake up.