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Thomas International Center
January 2008


Ralph McInerny


Aere Perennius



The noon Mass at St. Martha's in Sarasota is said in Latin, according to the rite once so familiar to me - qui laetificat iuventutem meam - but which is now strange to many. And attractive. Few of those at the Mass could come out of nostalgia; they are not old enough to know how things were before the doubtless unintended banalization of the liturgy. A few could be drawn by the novelty of it, but if that were all you would not see them there day after day. The great distinctive note of the Latin Mass is reverence.

One hears very little Latin at a Latin Mass and this is true even for those who, unlike me, can hear well. The prayers at the foot of the altar, that rapid exchange between priest and server, hardly rise above a murmur. The epistle, the gospel - soon to be repeated in English before the brief sermon - are not declaimed. And the canon, ah that wonderful Roman canon, is inaudible because the priest does not speak it aloud. Out of the silence comes, nobis quoque peccatoribus, the only audible words of the canon.

But it is the consecrations which make one most aware of the difference between the Latin Mass and what we have had during these past decades. The awesome moment has arrived. The priest bends over the altar, we do not hear him say the sacred formula, he genuflects, raises the host to the ringing of a bell. The adoration of the sacred species.

No need to describe the contrast to all this with which we have become, alas, all too familiar. On the keys off Sarasota, the Mass is something else. The pews are full of chattering people. When the priest appears, he is accompanied by a retinue of men and women, readers and other supernumeraries, all of them grinning as they come up the aisle. I attended a Christmas vigil Mass in which the celebrant sang the canon, right through the consecration, and then for seemingly no reason stopped singing.  He was performing, not well, I might add, but it was a huge distraction. It seemed arbitrary, something he chose to do and then got tired of and stopped. No need to describe the way the host was held out to the congregation while the celebrant's head boxed the compass, and the words of consecration were addressed to the four corners of the church. There was little of the awesome in it, little of reverence.

At communion time, women ushers moved from pew to pew releasing their occupants. There is much hugging and kissing between the usherettes and people during this process, manic smiles, little dance steps as they moved backward down the aisle.

The sermon had Dickens' Tiny Tim as its theme.

Later that night I saw on television Benedict XVI say the midnight Mass at St. Pater's. In Latin, the novus ordo. It wasn't just the Latin that made such a contrast between the two instances of the novus ordo, that in Sarasota, that in St. Peter's. Latin helps to establish that in worshiping we are using language differently than in our daily doings, but it is not necessary. Who has not seen the novus ordo said reverently in the vernacular?

 Before his election, the Pope remarked that the single greatest mistake in the new liturgy was for the priest to face the people. Actually, if the rubrics are consulted, he should have been facing ad orientem all along.  It seems that what has turned so many priests into emcees, stand-up comics, cruise directors, crooners, should not have happened at all. When the celebrant seeks eye contact with the congregation while reciting prayers addressed to God Almighty it is pretty clear that something is awry. 

Will it all come back? Perhaps. Benedict XVI is a forceful leader whose recent motu proprio would have seemed a heavenly impossibility only years ago.

It may not be true that God speaks Latin, but when we pray in that deathless tongue our words fly up and our thoughts do not remain below.


Ralph McInerny