What's the big deal about Latin?

MassOver the summer, Pope Benedict XVI allowed priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass without receiving permission from their local bishop. Reporters naturally have written follow-up stories about the revival of the ancient service. So far two storylines seem to have emerged: Why the interest in the Tridentine Mass? and Are Catholics (especially young Catholics) actually flocking to the service? The two questions are the right ones to ask. But I don't think they are the best ones, sociologically, religiously or politically.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post agree as to why Catholics attend the Tridentine Mass. The service is viewed as more mysterious and solemn than the one celebrated in the vernacular. As Jacqueline Salmon of the Post quotes one Catholic,

"It's the opposite of the cacophony that comes with the [modern] Mass," said Ken Wolfe, 34, a federal government worker who goes to up to four Latin Masses a week in the Washington area. "There's no guitars and handshaking and breaks in the Mass where people talk to each other. It's a very serious liturgy."

Both papers are right to focus on the mystical nature of the Tridentine Mass. For what it's worth, every Catholic I have known who prefers the Latin service to the vernacular does so for this reason.

The two papers disagree about whether the Latin Mass has gained popularity. According to Neela Bannerjee of the Times, the service has not:

But the groundswell that many backers had predicted has not surfaced and seems unlikely, Catholic liturgists and church officials say. The traditional Latin, or Tridentine, Mass has emerged in just one or two parishes in most of the 25 largest dioceses in the country, according to a phone survey of the dioceses.

In some dioceses, there is so far almost no interest, diocesan officials said.

By contrast, Salmon of the Post reached the opposite conclusion:

"I knew there would be some interest, but I didn't know how quickly it would spread and how really deep the interest was," said the Rev. Scott Haynes, a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago who started a Web site in August offering instructions in celebrating the Mass.

So far, the Web site, http://www.sanctamissa.org, has received 1 million hits, Haynes said, adding that he receives several hundred e-mails a day from fans of the service. "I was surprised by how many people have latched on to this," he said.

ColleenCover 01Fair enough; the reporters viewed the data differently. The Times focused on dioceses in which the Latin service is being celebrated, while the Post examined local dioceses and Internet data.

What does the interest, whether real or marginal, in the Tridentine service mean? On this question the Times and Post agree: those interested in the Latin Mass seek to revive the Catholic world that prevailed before Vatican II (1962-65). As Banerjee quotes one parishioner,

"The Mass was like this for 1,500 years, and it was changed by committee in the 1960s," Joseph Dagostino, 35, said after a Wednesday night service at St. Andrew's. Joseph Strada, 62, said, "When you can change the liturgy, you can change anything." Mr. Dagostino interjected, "Like the church's teachings on abortion or the sanctity of life."

It's tempting to view the revival of the Latin Mass in terms of the culture wars, as Mr. Dagostino does. Maybe, but the reporters failed to make their case. For one thing, other than Mr. Strada's quote, all the people linking the two are professors. For another thing, it's not as if the Pope banned the vernacular service and replaced it with the Tridentine. The Pope acted in the spirit of pluralism, allowing individual priests to celebrate the Mass.

A more revealing question by my lights is this one: Why do those seek to revive the Latin Mass consider it such a vital cause? Shouldn't these people worry more about the fact that few Catholics today are going to confession? After all, confessing your sins to a priest and reconciling with God is one of the Seven Sacraments; hearing, seeing, and praying at a really great Mass is not.

Perhaps as Colleen Carroll Campbell has reported, those who seek to revive the Latin Mass do partake in the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently and see no need to encourage their coreligionists to do the same. But maybe these "new faithful" simply wish, Gatsby-like, to return to the past.

Either way, posing the question would better illumine their true motives.

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