Monday, January 17, 2005

Yearning for the Latin Mass

This was written in 1978 in the San Francisco Examiner. Interesting that it is the year of the three Popes and before I knew anything really about the mass.

Yearning for the Latin Mass
by Kevin Starr

Courtesy of the San Francisco "Examiner"

A goodly number of pseudo-reformist movements these days consists of powerful elites telling the majority of people what to do. Elites grab control of an agency, an institution, a political body, then proceed to legislate without regard to majority opinion. Take the matter of the Latin Mass. A recent Gallup poll shows 64 percent of American Catholics prefer the return of the Latin Mass.

Sixty-four percent! That's a solid majority, for sure! Among Catholics with a college education, the figure jumps to 73 per-cent-nearly a two-thirds majority. Roughly 10 percent of the Catholics polled had no opinion. Only 26 percent were opposed. Splitting the difference of the no-opinion group, we come up with the fact that roughly 80 percent of American Catholics prefer the return of the oldstyle, Tridentine Latin Mass. After 15 years, in other words, of guitar music, pseudo-folksongs, banal translations, hand-clapping, the kissing of perfect strangers during the offertory in an orgy of dishonest sentiment, most Catholics yearn for the dignity and mystery of the Latin Mass. We've had circus masses with clowns on the altar, where they played "Send in the Clown" during the offertory. You were supposed to leave Church, I suppose, feeling glowy all over. We've had radical masses where the consecration was ushered in with a folksy protest song by Pete Seeger. We've witnessed with-it priests in psychedelic vestments (most of them on the verge of resigning the priesthood) consecrate loaves of sourdough French bread and Gallo Hearty Burgundy. Also used: Ry-Krisp, Wonder Bread (for that homey feeling), Syrian bread (for that archaeologically exact feeling), and Kasanoff's Jewish Rye (for that feeling of ethnic brotherhood). Of late an English-language liturgy of heroic banality has been forced on us, rivaling the Unitarian worship service for sheer avoidance of Catholicity of sentiment, reference or symbolism.

What is the result of all this tasteless disregard for the necessity of aesthetic transcendence in liturgy? What is the result of telling two-thirds of the Roman Catholics in America that they cannot, must not, worship in the manner of their youth: that the way the Church prayed for more than a thousand years was now forbidden? On Holy Thursday I stood in St. Ignatius Church with a sparse and pitiable crowd and tried as much as possible to attend to a liturgy stripped of its transcendence and grandeur. We were, say, a congregation of no more than 300-mainly older women. Twenty years ago the Church would have been filled to its 1,500 seat capacity. Now on Sunday mornings in the Catholic parishes of San Francisco, you could set up an indoor volleyball game in the center of the Church without bothering the sparse gathering of aged parishioners.

All knowledge of God, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, is by analogy-with the exception of infused contemplation and certain rare forms of mystical prayer. What St. Thomas means is that God is unknowable in Himself. He is eternal and transcendent. We are finite. We try to bridge the gap between God's awful majesty and our own insecure finitude in a variety of ways-prayer, contemplation, good works, and above all else, through sacramental worship. According to Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and responsible Protestant Episcopalian belief, the celebration of the Eucharist is our most powerful link with the Godhead. It recreates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ and Christ's death on Calvary in a way that is at once profoundly symbolic and profoundly true. In reference, then, to St. Thomas' statement about knowing God through analogy, the Eucharist-called the Mass by Roman Catholics-constitutes our most daring flight towards the Godhead, and Almighty God's most generous intersection with us-through the imminent presence of His Son Jesus Christ in the eucharistic sacrifice. According to Catholic belief, the Mass recreates the grand drama of Calvary. It is not a hootenany. It is not a touchy-feely Esalen session designed to make you feel tingly and sincere all over your body.

It took the Latin Church 500 years to evolve a worship service equal to this awesome, compelling leap to the Godhead through die risen, eucharistic Christ. For a thousand years Catholics prayed this way at Mass. In the 16th century Council of Trent, this 1,000 year-old Mass was standardized, codified, made the norm of the Universal Church. Another 400 more years went by-400 years of dignified, compelling worship. In great cathedrals of Europe, the Latin Mass was celebrated by archbishops and cardinals in splendid robes, accompanied by orchestras and trained choirs; in jungle outposts, it was celebrated by sweat-stained missionaries, accompanied by prayers in a thousand different tongues. But wherever it was celebrated-in cathedrals in ancient abbeys, in frontier parishes, in jungle out-posts, it was the same Latin Mass. Every Catholic over 35 in America grew up to its rich cadences. We followed its intricacies in our missals. We bowed our heads in awful silence as the priest bent over the host and the chalice, intoning the ancient words of consecration.

The day the Latin Mass was outlawed by the elitists, the day 80 percent of the Catholics of America were told they could no longer worship in the manner their ancestors worshipped since time immemorial, I was having dinner in New York with another Catholic-novelist Anthony Burgess. "In 10 years time Catholic churches will be empty," Burgess said. "For when you destroy the Mass, you destroy the faith. We English Catholics know this. We literally went to the stake for the Latin Mass."

Anthony Burgess was right. The elite reformers destroyed the Latin Mass. Now the churches are empty. Now no one believes.


Anonymous said...

Of course many people believe. But it is intresting to me that as late as 1978 this idea was still circulating. I remember once we did a mass in Latin but that was done by Msgr. McCarthy who was Eugene McCarthy's brother, an old school priest who let me serve for him when I was a child.

A Curious Catholic said...

Burgess was wrong, the churches are not empty but the number of Catholics who believe what the Church teaches is much much lower.