I’ve got it! I finally get it! I mean… From the very beginning, I fell in love with the traditional Latin liturgy. There’s just something so incredible, awesome, and beautiful about it, but I couldn’t explain it aside from a handful of somewhat cosmetic things that I like about it. I think I finally fully understand it now, and I’d like to share.
First: The pomp and circumstance inherent to the Latin Mass is something to behold. Like the medieval churches that were built with vaulted ceilings, magnificent stained glass, and awesome spectacles of artistic wonder in sculpture above the altar were intended to inspire the soul and draw our thoughts up to God and heaven, the ceremony of the Latin liturgy was designed to do the same. There are many elements in this symphony of spirit such as the priest leading us in prayer facing God with us and humbling himself in prayer and worship on our behalf to the meticulous and continuous acts of reverence, but the ultimate effect is to remind us that God is God, and while we are certainly not, we’ve been invited into His glory, and Holy Mass is a bit of heaven here on earth.
Second: The language–I will be the first to admit that learning enough Latin, not having been raised Catholic or taken any in school, was a serious learning curve for me in participating in the Latin Mass. 110% worth it! No, that’s not a typo–I mean 110%. Latin is our Church’s heritage and many of her greatest traditional treasures are found in it. No, it’s not the only traditional language used for Mass–eastern rites celebrate in others such as Greek. But there’s something about learning an older traditional language for the worship of God. It makes that worship something special, a concerted effort of mind and will and spirit that we don’t find in our common daily language. Yes, I know–Latin wasn’t always the official language of the Church, nor was it always a formal tradition from history. It was once the vernacular for a great many people. In fact, the Latin Vulgate translation of the scriptures is so named because at the time, the scholarly language was Greek and Latin was considered common or vulgar. But it became the official language of the church precisely because it was no longer in use in common speech anymore, and would therefore no longer be subject to the steady march of adaptation across time. That’s, quite frankly, pretty cool! It means the same thing now as it meant 1000 years ago! Meanwhile, in English, that idiomatic expression you used five minutes ago may not mean the same thing or make any sense whatsoever by the time your grandchildren become high school grads.
Third: the active participation–in the documents of Vatican II, a reform of the liturgy was suggested with an eye to the allowing of the vernacular in some instances to increase active participation. See, fewer of us were learning Latin in school anymore and it was feared not enough of us knew what was going on. This is a valid concern, of course. When the reform came, active participation was the first and foremost thought. But what is active participation in the Mass? For centuries, the Magisterium, priests, theologians, religious brothers and sisters, and our Saints talked about this. They said things like “offer yourself up as sacrifice with The Lord at the Holy Mass.” Now this, as you might expect, is not so much something you physically do. No–it is an act of interior will done quietly and prayerfully at your pew. Active participation then was an act of the interior life of a Christian in a manner similar to reaching for contemplative prayer. The deeper we allow our minds to plunge into the great mysteries of the faith, and in particular, the mystery of the Eucharist and Christ’s salvific act on Calvary, as the Mass unfolds, the more successfully we have actively participated. Yes, it’s challenging, and your success at this spiritual exercise may well vary widely across time. But in the reformed liturgy? Active participation suddenly became singing along with the hymns, engaging in a banter of verses and responses, and mimicking the priest’s gestures (whether such was liturgically instructed or not). This is not to say we aren’t still supposed to participate interiorly, but fully participating becomes much more an external exercise. You may rightly suspect that the latter makes success at the former somewhat more difficult for some of us. It certainly does for me.
Now, mind you, I don’t want this to be about which is better. Each of us is different and are in different places along our journey. But I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked, “Latin Mass? Why the heck would you want to do that?” Well… I finally can give you a serious answer.