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The Tridentine Mass - A Newcomer’s Experience

I was late.

Trying to enter the beautiful Church of Saint Peter and Paul as solemnly yet quickly as possible, I gave the congregation a cursory glance. Which one of the veiled ladies sitting in the pews was my friend? It was hard to tell. As I was still pondering this dilemma, I heard a click of the tongue behind me, as if someone was trying to get my attention. I turned to see another friend of mine sitting in the pews with his family. Cool! I didn’t know he attended the Tridentine Mass. Or even (despite a strong suspicion) that he was Catholic. I smiled and waved. Maybe I could catch up with him later. Now, my friend said she was wearing pink… ah, there! I made my way over to where she was sitting and settled in just as the organ sounded and Mass began.

I’d attended the Traditional Latin Mass before, but at that time had been left a little baffled due to coming unprepared for the experience and the relative inaccessibility of material to follow along. However, after attending a seminar on spiritual recreation, my friend and I were moved when the priest conducting the seminar mentioned how certain terms were intentionally made more difficult in the Liturgy (e.g. ‘consubstantialwith the Father’) in order to encourage us to spend a bit of time to try to understand the Mass better. Accordingly, we decided to attend the Latin Mass to try to understand the Liturgy a bit better. Over the past few weeks, I’ve attended both the Traditional Latin Mass and the more conventional Novus Ordo Mass, and found that each helped inform my understanding of each other. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a few reflections on this topic, and perhaps encourage you, gentle reader, to try the experience for yourself.

The Use of Latin

Though I’ve taken a basic course in Latin, it was insufficient to equip me to follow along competently with the Latin phrases being intoned at the Tridentine Mass. This, however, was not an issue as the missal was helpfully equipped with side by side Latin and English translations, with marginal notes on the English side explaining the processes of the Mass. Furthermore, a useful handout was given out at the start of every Mass with the specific prayers for that particular Mass, again, both in English and Latin.

The first thing I noticed was that, well, I’d been to Mass in English, so I knew roughly what was going on even if I couldn’t follow the Latin beat for beat. Secondly, having to pay more attention to the specific parts of the Liturgy and reading the marginal notes enhanced my understanding of the Liturgy as a whole, which I’ve also brought with me back to the Novus Ordo Masses I attend.

Besides, even if the Mass is in a language we understand, it doesn’t stop us from zoning out from time to time. Don’t deny it. I’m guilty of that myself ;)

The Meaning of ‘Liturgy’

Although I humorously poked fun at us drifting off in Mass in the previous paragraph, I think that does underscore an important point about our understanding of the Mass and how we may sometimes forget an important point. What does the word ‘Liturgy’ mean anyway? The common answer is that it means the ‘work of the people’. We understand it to mean that we actively participate in the Mass as our tribute towards God.

However, the more accurate translation of Liturgy is ‘public work’ - work done for the people rather than bythem. Remember, public works like providing water and electricity are carried out for the good of the people by the government, and in this case it is the Governor of the Kingdom of Heaven who comes to do work -through the actions of the priest- for the good of his people. And indeed, this is Biblical - we read in the Gospels of Zechariah offering up sacrifices to God alone in the sanctuary on behalf of the people, and St Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews talks of Christ taking on the role of the new High Priest to offer a more worthy sacrifice.

In the Latin Mass, this is reflected in the fact that during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, a large part of it consists of the priest, facing not versus populi(towards the people) like we’re used to in the Novus Ordo, but rather ad orientum (towards the east), praying to God on his own as he prepares to offer up the bread and wine as sacrifice. You know how we pray as a congregation that the Lord will accept the sacrifice at the priest’s hands? In the Tridentine Mass, this is replaced by a much longer (and honestly, extremely moving) set of prayers the priests says silently to God, to cleanse him of his sins as he begins to act in persona Christi. I read in the Latin Missal, with great fascination, both the texts of the prayers, and the note that the congregation is invited simply to behold and contemplate the mystery unfolding before them.

That is not to say I think that the more participative nature of the Novus Ordo is a bad thing! However, I think that it is important to bear in mind that just as how when we pray the Rosary, the repetitions of the Our Fathers and Hail Marys are meant to be a vehicle to draw us into deeper reflection and contemplation of the Mysteries, the words of the Liturgy are also not ends in themselves, but draw us deeper into contemplation of the greatest mystery of all - Salvation.

© 2019 Christ Centered Convo/Garrett Christopher Ng

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