So why have Mass in Latin?!
There’s more to a Latin Mass than just the latin language. What we are celebrating is the more ancient form of Mass, nowadays often known as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, or Tridentine Mass.
This form of Mass was the ordinary way Mass was celebrated for centuries up until the 1960s (that picture above shows a Solemn Mass in St Patrick’s Church, Portrush from the 1930s). The basic structure of the Mass has always been the same, but there are a number of differences in the ceremony that might seem unfamiliar to us nowadays:
The use of Latin
Latin is the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. Until 1965 Mass was always celebrated in Latin. Even now the Church encourages us to maintain some use of Latin in our celebrations as a sign of our unity with Christians across the whole world (although that’s usually more observed in the breach!)
Here in Ireland we are very familiar with the need to maintain our heritage. We might use English 99% of the time, but we know that it’s important that Irish is still used on occasion. Our language connects us to our past and our traditions. For Catholics that applies even more so to Latin. It was the Latin Mass that St Patrick brought to our island, and these are many of the same prayers and chants that would have been familiar to St Brigid, St Malachy, St Oliver Plunkett and our forefathers and mothers at Mass rocks. It’s important to keep that tradition alive!
When you’re used to Mass in your own language it can seem very difficult to follow Mass in Latin. But don’t worry! The point of Mass in Latin is different. We don’t need to follow every word in the same way. Instead we experience the Mass as a whole. It’s a bit like listening to an unfamiliar piece of classical music or viewing a work of art we’ve never seen before. It might seem inaccessible at first, but if we give it a chance it reveals its splendour to us, slowly but surely. With Mass in Latin you don’t need to get hung up on linguistic details, you can just take in the beauty of the whole thing.
You’ll notice that there is a fair amount of silence in the old form of Mass. It’s most obvious at the Eucharistic Prayer (known as the ‘canon’ of the Mass). The priest prays the whole of this prayer quietly and a deep silence falls over the church. This silence is an ancient tradition that expresses the mystery of what happens at Mass – a mystery which words cannot fully describe. It’s a bit like the silence that many of us will be familiar with from Eucharistic Adoration. The silence isn’t empty – rather it’s full of prayer and devotion.
The direction of prayer
When the celebrant stands at the altar he stands facing the cross. This is sometimes mistaken for him having his back to the people as if he were being rude. In fact, the idea is that the Priest and People are facing the same direction to pray to God as one. When the Priest specifically addresses the congregation he turns round to do so.
In this form of the Mass, Holy Communion is always received kneeling at the altar step (you can, of course, stand if you are unable to kneel) and directly on the tongue. Receiving Communion on the hand is not permitted.
Why do we promote the Latin Mass?
Although this form of Mass is no longer the ordinary form used in our parishes, it continues to have a special place in the life of the Church. It has been promoted by St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in recent years. By celebrating it we are able to reconnect with our Catholic heritage. It also gives us a new perspective on the ordinary celebration of Mass that we are more used to.
Here’s a link to Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict’s 2007 instruction on the place of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in the Church today: http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/letters/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_let_20070707_lettera-vescovi.html