"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Personal Note: My First Latin Mass

Saturday night I went to my very first Latin Mass.  It was billed as the first Latin Mass on Staten Island in 48 years, which if I do my arithmetic correctly was 1965.  I was younger that year than my four year old son is now.  I saw the notice in the Worship section of the local newspaper last week and set my sights on attending.  What an opportunity.  For the past three years I had been scouting Churches in the area that held Latin Mass, but each was off Staten Island, which makes it difficult for Sunday mornings.  So I had put it off.  You can imagine how my heart jumped when I saw the notice.

The Mass was held at Sacred Heart Church, which stunned me with its beauty.  Sacred heart must be one of the most beautiful churches on Staten Island.  It’s a brick Romanesque style with a bell tower, a rose window over the Narthex, a lovely domed Apse with Christ showing his sacred heart in the back and a suspended crucifix high above before the altar.  It has two full domed Transepts with shrines, each shrine with three statues.  In addition there is a shrine with a statue on each side of the altar, Christ with His sacred heart on one and our Blessed Mother on the other.  I had never been in this church before, but it did occur to me as I walked about and praying at the shrines before Mass how humble my regular church was in comparison.

I can’t find any photos of the inside of the church, but here is the front facade. 


I should give one other piece of background before I give my impressions.  I have argued with the Latin Mass-ers (those that insist on returning to pre-Vatican II everything) that we should not go back to Latin only.  I’m not saying we should eliminate the Latin Mass; it should certainly be an option, and I wish it were more readily available.  But there is a directness to listening to the Word of God in your natural language that engages both your soul and intellect.  The Latin Mass-ers counter that Latin provides a sacred link back to the Church origins, a sort a language of the divine. 

That is a good point, but to that I counter that why Latin?  Christ at the last supper spoke in Aramaic; the apostles must have used it in their liturgies.  The New Testament is written in Greek, and surely the Greek liturgy came before Latin as the apostles radiated outward from Jerusalem.  Even if looks at Christianity as a continuity from Judaism, Hebrew was spoken in worship at the Temple.  So one could argue that Latin could be fourth in line if one were to search the primeval Christian tongue.  And I argue further, that when you look at the liturgies in the early centuries, Aramaic was used in the lands around Jerusalem, Coptic Egyptian in eastern Africa, Greek in the Greco half of the Roman empire, and Roman in the western half of the Roman empire.  If you look at those centuries, the liturgies were performed in the vernacular of each region.  So why shouldn’t we be celebrating Mass in the vernacular of today’s world?

So I have quipped to my Latin Mass-er friends, what language would God use to celebrate Mass in heaven?  Aramaic, of course, the language of Jesus, and St. Peter will hand out the Rosetta Stone CDs at the Pearlie Gates to learn the language.   Would you believe that there are still Churches that perform Mass in Aramaic?  My blogger friend, Joyce, who had such a fine Catholic Blog and was such a strong proponent of the Latin Mass, pointed out to me that the MaroniteCatholics still celebrate in Aramaic and as it turns out they have a church not far from me over in Brooklyn.    That’s my next excursion, to attend a Mass in Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

So what did I think of the Latin Mass?  I knew going in that the Extraordinary Form (Latin Mass) was structured differently than the Ordinary Form (vernacular).  They are not the same liturgy with only a language substitution.  For a good summary of the differences between the two forms read here.  My first mistake was sitting in the front row.  I wanted the full experience and since I got there early I got the best seat.  However, I had no feel for the sitting, standing, and kneeling parts, and with no one in front of me as a guide I was off.  I also knew beforehand the priest performs the liturgy facing the altar, and therefore facing God and not the congregation, but it felt a little nerve racking never seeing the priest’s face.  The other different part was that during the consecration of the holy sacrament the priest in certain sections speaks under his breath while the whole church goes silent.  I’m not saying any of that was negative, just different.

I wish the missal we were reading from was more use- friendly.  It’s hard enough the Mass spoken in a language I’m not fluent (they did have English translation on the facing page) but because certain sections applied to different types of Masses (High Holiday, for the dead, etc.) you had to jump around in the missal.  I gave up in mid way.  One surprise for me was that at receiving communion the priest doesn’t say in Latin what is said in English, “Body of Christ.”  There is a long sentence in Latin that the priest says to each recipient, and being in the front I could see the priest was getting tongue tied after a while.  The congregation must have had a couple of hundred attending.  And the priest was getting tired.  There were two altar rails, one on each side, and he had to go back and forth.  Oh yes, we had to kneel at the altar rail and receive on the tongue only.  I hadn’t received on the tongue since a teenager. 

One thing I did love was the Latin hymns.  They are more beautiful than those in English.  Two sung that I remember were Panis Angelicus and Salve Regina. 

Overall it was a pleasant experience.  My complaints I listed are minor.  I’m so glad I got to go and will go again if the opportunity arises.  It hasn’t changed my opinion though.  The Latin Mass should be available for those that want it, but I wouldn’t mandate it.  The average parishioner will get so much more from one in his vernacular. 

I’ll leave you off with this beautiful rendition.




  1. I haven't been to a Latin Mass either. I like to sit in the middle to back regardless because I like to see as much of the church and congregation that I can.

    1. That's a good idea Kathy. I should have thought of that.

  2. Oh yes I agree about not sitting in the front. It WILL get easier with time. I wish I could go every week, but commitments at my own parish and family things often preclude -- ours is at noon on Sunday in a beautiful part of downtown Philly.
    That is a good question about the universality of Latin in the Church. My hunch is that Latin is the root of many languages, and maybe even the strong link with Italian, and the epicenter of the Church being in Rome. But that's all just a guess.
    I have had trouble with the skipping around also. Now what I do is only loosely follow the book and look up more, watch, and immerse myself in the prayer. the rest is slowly coming along. I can almost stay with the Credo, lol. That, to me, is the most complicated, with standing, sitting, kneeling, genuflecting; all while following the singing while trying to read the chant form of the music.
    I do love to connect to the ancient Church. I love the reverence. It puts God in His rightful place, or closer to it anyway. Some of the Novus Ordo masses are unbelievably irreverent. Not all. But I come away feeling I have encountered the Divine. And oh the music! I hope you had a schola. The one at ours is breathtaking. And the organist is incredible as well. That aspect alone is an enormous blessing.
    Anyway, I am glad you got to go. If you get to the one where they speak Aramaic, I do hope you'll share your experience.

    1. I will on the Aramaic Mass. It would make a great post. ;) I can't say I found the Latin Mass any more spirtual than the OF. I do prefer the vernacular.

  3. Manny, I can't recall my first Latin mass but I do remember my mom telling me that she wanted me to be an altar boy and longer story short, I made her proud by eventually being the captain of my own twin altar boy team.

    What really struck me back then was the faith that I saw in the people and most if not all while kneeling to receive the host seem like angels because they appeared so passionate while our good priest was serving them.

    The high mass was great but what really struck me as you took me down memory lane was that in the late fifties and early sixties while following the priest around to make sure these human angels were kneeling to receive on their tongue, if "The Body of Christ" was dropped, it was as if they had lost a very important Host who was coming for a visit.

    Don't get me wrong! I don't know what the Pros and Cons are nowadays about The Latin Mass, all I know is that if souls, spirits and Guardian Angels were around back then and longer story short, looking at it all now, I guess that everything started to go spiritually down hill for me back then and I'm not just saying that because I stole a few dollars from the church. Our good priest Father Francis simply looked me in the eyes and said in French. Victor, there are a LOT of hypocrites in this world and....


    Go Figure brothers and sisters in Christ? :)

    God Bless Peace

    1. LOL, on the hypocrites in this world. I would think it's just as irreverant if at today's mass someone dropped the host. I'm as careful as can be. I do prefer it in the hand.