I have twice in my life now assisted at a Missa Cantata, a Latin High Mass, and both times had the most remarkable sense of being struck speechless.
The first time was in Sioux Falls, at St. Joseph’s Cathedral. This was several years ago, before Pope Benedict XVI released his motu proprio (accompanying letter) liberalizing access to what is commonly known as the Tridentine Mass. It was allowed by permission of the local bishop. I went by myself and sat in prayer in the congregation, admittedly pretty bewildered and stunned. It was beautiful, more than two hours long, with many servers and an experienced schola doing all the chants, led by a priest I knew to be liturgically minded with a great tenor voice.
I was primed to like the Traditional Latin Mass. I expected to really, really gush about it. That wasn’t quite my reaction, though. When I got back to my family, they were curious what it was like and (knowing me) if I loved it. I didn’t know what to say. I finally said, honestly, that I had to try to assimilate what had just happened before I could really talk about it.
The second time was just a couple of weeks ago, in my own parish. I did much more than simply sit bewildered in the congregation this time. I was the cantor and choirmaster for the schola, had done run-throughs with our wonderful priest as we both tried to master the rubrics, had spent months teaching the guys the texts, the translations and the melodies of the chants so we would have the best chance possible to not only sing them but pray them.
We worked hard. All through Lent and even before we had sung that “Alleluia” so out of place dozens of times every practice, in preparation for the Second Sunday of Easter. We were up to the job. We had done several sung Masses in the “ordinary form” (the current missal) – including diocesan ones, and including one the day before. By happy circumstance, the propers for Quasimodo Sunday are identical in both forms, so we did a “run through” for the parish’s normal vigil Mass in the ordinary form.
But the next day I was suddenly in the middle of the Agnus Dei from Missa I (Easter setting), silently aching that it was almost over, that I would not sing these heavenly words and melodies again in Mass for at least a year, and more likely much longer, perhaps never again unless the interest grows.
And when it was over? Did I “like” it? Do I “prefer” it to the “new” Mass? I’m still at a bit of a loss for how to answer that question, but now I know why: because it’s not that kind of thing. It’s not like reviewing a restaurant or a movie. Mass is something that is, or at least should, beyond my opinions about it. It is not something I get to judge, it’s something that gets to judge me. We are talking about the Incarnate God made sacramentally present in time and space, not some human achievement.
The strange thing, the thing that might seem offensive, is that generally speaking, the extraordinary form of the liturgy feels that way more than the ordinary form. The traditional Mass nearly always inspires a kind of stupefying “holy awe” in me, that sense that I am standing on holy ground about which I dare not speak flippantly.
Note well that I’m speaking of feelings – objectively, the one who is Beauty itself is always present. Even subjectively, that experience of beauty is certainly not absent from the ordinary form. I am fortunate to experience it often. It’s just not “built in.” It’s something you have to do. You can have that or something else, something less.
What increasingly escapes my comprehension is why anyone could possibly want something less. I’m not arguing for, much less demanding, a return to the 1962 missal. In fact, experiencing the 1962 missal has deepened my understanding of Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Vatican II document on the liturgy) enormously.
But is it so much to ask that we accept the heritage, and with it the effortless, timeless beauty and truth Sacrosanctum Concilium heralded, which the Church hands down? Is it so much to ask that we live at peace with our past and our present? Is it, finally, so much to ask that we would do, as a norm, that which the Church has asked of us?
I hope not. I hope and pray that the good, the true and the beautiful will attract, and more of us will be struck speechless more often.