CHICAGO – In a move intended to spark reconciliation within the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI released a document Saturday allowing wider use of the old Tridentine mass, which is chanted in Latin by a priest who faces the altar, with his back to the congregation.
While Catholic traditionalists cherished the Latin Mass for its lyrical beauty and reverence, the use of the Roman missal became rare after the sweeping reforms of Vatican II in 1962-65.
In 1970, those changes resulted in a new version of the Mass, translated into English, Spanish and hundreds of other languages. By turning the priest to face worshipers, who said the prayers in their native languages, the new rite was designed to more fully engage Catholics.
In an effort to prod reluctant parishes to make the change during the tumultuous post-Vatican II period, use of the Latin Mass was strictly limited. Currently, several dozen churches in the U.S., including three in the Chicago archdiocese, still celebrate the Tridentine Latin mass, but only with special permission from their bishop.
For months now, speculation has swirled in Catholic circles about Pope Benedict’s much anticipated new instructions on the mass, with a relaxation of the rules widely anticipated. One report, citing a leaked copy of the document, said a bishop’s permission would no longer be required to celebrate the Latin mass.
But questions remain about how many churches will adopt the older liturgy and what impact it might have on the U.S. Catholic Church, which remains riven by fault lines on many issues, from the language of liturgy to abortion and homosexuality. Some conservatives remain frustrated with the reforms of Vatican II, while some liberals view the revival of the Latin mass as a step backward.
Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, views the papal order as a way to reach out to conservative Catholics.
“For the Pope, this has been a process, going on for a while, of trying to appeal to some of the more traditional groups that have been somewhat disaffected from the church, and this is a gesture of reconciliation toward them. He’s very much a man of history and precedent,” Senior said. “So, this is simply allowing (the Latin mass) to re-emerge, without the anticipation that it’s going to be a frequent occurrence or have a major impact on the way Catholics worship on a given Sunday.
“I think the vast majority of Catholics have accepted the reforms and appreciate that it’s in their own language and the priest is facing the people. Then, there are other people (who) yearn for a more transcendent experience of the liturgy,” he said. “To them, sometimes the way the newer ritual has been implemented has been more of a casual fashion.”
At St. John Cantius in Chicago last week, hundreds of Catholic families celebrated the Tridentine Latin mass, filling the church with operatic echoes of faith. Phyllis Virgil, 49, who travels from Elmhurst, said she started attending after her mother gave her an old missal blessed by Pope Pius XII.
She acknowledges that she thought it was old-fashioned and difficult to understand at first. But, after a few times, Virgil said, she felt the mass brought her closer to God.
“My heart just soars when I hear it,” Virgil said. “The prayers are so beautiful, and everyone is so reverent during the service, even the children. At several points, there is so much silence. The pace is slower, so you’re praying at a pace that helps you better contemplate God.”
Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, predicted the document would have greater impact in European countries where local bishops have rejected calls to offer the Latin mass.
In the United States, Reese said, more widespread celebration of the Latin mass is likely to appeal to senior citizens who recall the mass from their childhood, as well as a new generation of conservative young people, who Reese believes have become enamored by Latin for the wrong reasons.
“The mystery of the Eucharist is not that it’s in Latin,” Reese said. “The mystery is the death and resurrection of Jesus that’s being celebrated here. To have the mysteriousness of Latin blocking you from seeing the true mystery is one of the reasons we went to English.”
Todd Williamson, director of the Chicago archdiocese office for divine worship, said that since word of the new papal guidelines began spreading, no priests have expressed interest in adding a Tridentine Latin mass at their church.
Still, he suspects the archdiocese may need to implement training in the old liturgy. Williamson said those specifics will be worked out after Cardinal Francis George returns from vacation.
However, some eager priests already have begun preparing for the change. Last month, 36 priests completed a new training program at a seminary in Nebraska on how to celebrate the Tridentine Latin mass. The training program, sponsored by the independent Catholic group Una Voce, received such an overwhelming response, the organizers are planning another program for September.
“It’s important to note that the 1962 missal was never abolished. This is going to raise the interest, visibility and access to the Latin mass. More people will be drawn to it because of its deep spirituality,” said Jason King, director of the Una Voce priest training program.
Still, the revival of the Latin mass comes with an unintended byproduct that could harm relations between Jews and Catholics. The old 1962 missal contains prayers that some Jews find offensive, such as this Good Friday petition: “For the conversion of the Jews. Let us pray also for the Jews that the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they also may acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“The pre-Vatican II mass reflects some of the general animus toward the Jews that is very disturbing,” said Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. “It’s not going to impair relations in Chicago. Elsewhere, where a dialogue is not mature and relations aren’t well-established, it might.”
Church experts, such as Senior, said it is still unknown whether there will be an attempt to change those prayers – which were altered in the 1970 missal – in the Latin mass. For now, the focus is on easing restrictions to see how many more people use the Latin mass. The average Catholic likely will not even notice, he said.
“This is not a recommendation, that this is the way to go or this is the direction the church wants. I think it’s clear that it’s not that. I think it’s a permission to make this more available for those who desire to worship in this way,” he said.
“People are attached to their parish,” he said. “They are familiar with the prayers and the hymns and like to hear the Scripture and prayers in their own language, so they can follow along with it. And that’s at the heart of the liturgical renewal. I think that will stand for sure.”
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