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A Certain Splendor

I celebrated the Mass in the Tridentine rite in first years of my priesthood after my ordination in 1960, and even now I am happy to celebrate Mass occasionally in the Tridentine rite in my private chapel as well as occasionally for people in the diocese. The use of the Latin language is perfectly legitimate. Latin, the Second Vatican Council said, is to be maintained as the major liturgical language of the Latin rite.

The problem with Latin, of course, is that many people don’t understand it. But Latin has a venerable tradition. Pope John XXIII, when he convoked the Second Vatican Council, required that all the discussions, documents, and activities be carried on in Latin and refused any kind of simultaneous translation system. Pope John XXIII himself often spoke Latin and used Latin in the liturgy, just as our present Holy Father frequently celebrates Mass using the Latin language.

The Tridentine rite, which was set in place in most of the Latin—or Western—rite of the Catholic Church after the Council of Trent by Pope St. Pius V, had a set of rituals that were modified after Vatican II, although the essence of the Mass remained the same. However, our Holy Father has allowed, as did Pope Paul VI before him, the possibility of offering Mass in that ancient rite as well as the current rite in the ancient Latin language. In Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ecclesia dei he encourages bishops to permit the celebration of the Mass in the Latin language and in the Tridentine rite, particularly to accommodate those who find a measure of discomfort in the current order of the Mass.

There has been danger in incorrect vernacularization—doctrinal difficulty can creep in very readily through the use of translations. Consequently, the accuracy and the correctness of what the Latin language said could be diluted.

Catholics are obligated to say the Novus Ordo—”new order,” that is, the current rite of the Mass—is valid and legitimate. I don’t think they’re obligated to say, “It follows my taste.” They can certainly think that there are many beauties and more tasteful aspects of the old liturgy.

Vernacularization has not been an easy task. There have been, and there continue to be, errors, mistakes, and perhaps bad taste in some of the translations. But none of that makes invalid what is done using them. This is not to say that there can’t be invalid consecrations. But the promise of Christ that his Church would not fall into error would certainly abide with Peter and his successors and not with Mrs. Jones or Sam Brown or whomever it might be who assumes he or she is authorized to decide the correct form and matter for sacrifice of the Mass.

I find that the Tridentine rite has a certain measure of reverence that I don’t always experience in the Novus Ordo. The repeated genuflections and the gestures are always quite beautiful and add to the recollection when one offers or attends such a Mass. There are many reasons why people would attend the Tridentine Mass. There’s Gregorian chant, the polyphonic music that is the marvelous musical heritage of the Church. There’s a certain splendor to the stately and clearly defined ceremonies as they unfold that gives to many people a more contemplative approach to the sacrifice of Jesus. I think that has value, at least for some people.

There are practical and pastoral reasons why the Council acted as it did in allowing greater use of the vernacular in the liturgy. I feel personally that some of the pastoral application of the Council’s teaching have been deleterious and have resulted in bad fruit, but the bad fruit hasn’t arisen from the use of the Novus Ordo. The Council bishops looked particularly at the phrase “active participation.” When Pope St. Pius X first used that phrase he meant it in the sense of mental participation—understanding what was going on in the Mass and taking part more vividly in the Mass by body postures and so on. I think the Council Fathers thought that active participation would be enhanced by use of the vernacular.

With the increased number of scriptural readings in the new order of Mass there has been an opening to a larger Catholic public to some of the riches of Scripture that ordinary people might not have been familiar with. There has also been a sense in which the reality of the Mass—at least in some ways—has been able to be more vividly presented than the old way, which for some people seemed inaccessible.

I’d be the first one to say there hasn’t been an unqualified success in what we see as the fruits of the liturgical changes of the last 30 years. However, I would attribute that to the pastoral implementation has taken place rather than to the Council itself, which I firmly believed was touched by and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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