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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Confession of faith: Mass in Latin is a journey into the past

Gregory Elder is Professor Emeritus of History and Humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. (Photo courtesy)

I sit on a pew, dressed in enough clerical vestments to live in the Middle Ages, and I listen to mass read by a priest I know. I have done this countless times as an Anglican and later as a Catholic priest. But this one is different, because it is done in Latin and in accordance with the older church ceremonial. It is literally a journey into the past.

Mass begins with what is called the introit, or a series of prayers said by the priest at the foot of the altar, and the answers of a considerable number of male altar servers. What follows are the Bible readings, which the priest thoughtfully translated for us. Shortly thereafter, the altar was prepared, which took some time with various ritual prayers, followed by the actual canon of the mass. While this was happening, a group of trained musicians sang the assigned chants.

When the time came to receive Holy Communion, the faithful stepped forward, knelt down, and placed the host on their tongues. This is the part where I really interfered, because in the old rite only ordained clergy can distribute the Eucharist. The only line I had to quote was “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam.” Amen.” Or: “May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ keep your soul to eternal life. Amen.” This was followed by new prayers, singing and a final reading of the opening lines of the Gospel of John. I acknowledge that what I have described here is a very simplistic summary.

The texts used in this mass were edited by Pope Gregory the Great, who reigned as pope from 590 to 604 AD. Saint Gregory the Great is better known for sending missionaries to England to convert wild Englishmen. He is also known for his dealings with the violent and violent Lombards and Visigoths who stormed the frontiers of the Roman Empire a generation earlier. The son of a Roman senator, Gregory lived in a world where civilization seemed to be bursting at the seams. He was also something of a man of letters, writing the lives of the saints, composing sermons, and even publishing a handbook for the clergy, whose education at that time was minimal.

Gregory is also well known for the famous Gregorian chants named after him. Gregory did not personally write them, and psalmody has been known since biblical times. But he found schools where young monks were taught the liturgy and its music, and just as King David was credited for the Psalter, Gregory’s name was associated with singing.

But his influence was even more significant due to the revision of the Catholic ritual. Gregory shortened the length of the mass and revised the canon of the mass from old manuscripts. The result was what is called the Roman canon. The term “canon” in this context means the Eucharistic prayer recited by one priest. Since the 1960s, other canons have been added to the ritual, but Pope Gregory’s text for prayers of consecration has been in use since he was pope, although it is now translated into the local language. His Mass in Latin was the one used by the clergy of Christopher Columbus on American shores, in England’s hideout in Elizabethan times, and on frozen battlefields during the World Wars. He was brought to distant China, Africa, Latin America, India, Japan, Maryland.

Pope Francis is not a friend of the old Mass and has recently restricted its use. At the moment it can only be said in places where it is already regularly used, but new churches in Latin are not allowed. In my diocese, which includes San Bernardino and Riverside counties, there are only two Catholic churches where it can be used legally, in Guasti and Palm Desert. The gathering at the mass here described was large, with many young families, teenagers and youth. There are a few gray heads, but it’s fair to say that the great majority of the parishioners present are too young to remember the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, when only Pope Gregory’s old Latin Mass was used.

Your author personally does not currently use the Old Latin Mass, although he has permission to do so. Although the service is conducted in a dead language, there are bilingual books in the congregation from which to read. My own experience of learning Latin was in the imperial world of the Caesars, where we read tales of violent military conquest, philosophy, and the occasional twisted poet. But the sounds of Gregorian chants are very beautiful and lead to prayer.

World Nation News Desk
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