Latin Mass would restore mystery
By Steve Gushee
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006
The Mass in the vernacular was a noble experiment that didn’t quite work. The Latin Mass might soon be back, and that could be a good thing for the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict XVI plans to make it much easier for churches to use the 16th-century Latin Mass. That could help deepen faith and unite an American church whose members speak a veritable babel of languages.
The Catholic faith is, at its heart, a mystery. The Christian religion is best known in community. The Latin Mass enhanced mystery and created community for more than a thousand years and might again. The Mass in English has done neither.
The Roman Catholic Church only began to use English in worship in the mid-1960s following the Second Vatican Council.
English might have helped the English-speaking faithful understand what worship was about, but explaining a mystery in any language is an oxymoron. The use of English in the church’s central act of worship turned a profoundly moving and, yes, mysterious experience into a dull, pedestrian meeting with little power to stir the spirit or motivate the faithful.
St. Paul argued that the people should be taught in a language they understood. Sermons, instructions and teaching should be in such a language, but worship is another matter.
The faithful offer worship to God who is not bound by any language. The soaring majesty of the Latin Mass served the church well long after few if any of the faithful understood the words. They knew the liturgy, the rhythm and the power of the service.
Latin words accompanied the action of worship but were essentially unnecessary. Everyone knew what was happening. With English, however, the words demand attention. The faithful attend the language rather than the mystery of redemption unfolding before them. Latin creates and preserves mystery. English dilutes it.
Latin also creates and preserves community. Any unfamiliar language will tend to bind together those who use is as a kind of tribal glue.
One of the most important tools Charlemagne used to unite his dispirited empire in the early ninth century was the Latin Mass. Alcuin, the emperor’s liturgical genius, enforced the same worship everywhere in Charlemagne’s vast realm, imposing a religious conformity that served to hold the empire together.
Catholics in America today speak countless different languages, including English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Polish, Portuguese and many more. The Mass in Latin might once again serve to create community even as it hallows mystery.