Latin Mass became a vehicle for dissent
Western People 3.8.2021
Around 1957, I graduated as a fully qualified altar-boy in Ballycastle, no mean feat in those long-gone days. Sr Perpetua Hynes, a gentle and benign presence, who taught in the Girls’ N.S., had the doubtful privilege of guiding me and my colleagues through the unfamiliar pronunciations and intonations of the Latin language.
To tell the truth, it was impenetrable and unintelligible but in no time at all we could rhyme off the responses – in slow-time to the PP, Canon Maloney; more moderately to Fr Michael Keane, CC; and in quick-time to Fr Sean Durkan, chaplain to the Mercy Convent.
I can still, if I get a bit of a run at it, deliver the responses with some ease: Dominus vobiscum/Et cum spiritu tuo and so forth – though the De Profundis would still defeat me.
I served my time on the altar and discovered when I went to the college in Ballina that a ‘Dialogue Mass’ – where the congregation was encouraged to join in the responses – was the coming thing. It was the thin end of the wedge.
Before I left the college, the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) had come and gone (1962-5) and Mass in the vernacular (in the language of the people) had arrived. Latin was soon relegated to the equivalent of the Vauxhall League or the Murphy Cup. Its sell-by date had expired.
While a few voices were raised about the loss of Latin, we didn’t really miss it.
Indeed in a short time there was almost a consensus that ‘the new Mass’, as we called it, made great sense. We embraced it – ducks to water, as we say.
The Church, Pope John XXIII had told us, wasn’t ‘a museum to be guarded but a garden to be tended’. Variety was going to be the spice of life. Change was not just a reality of life but something to be welcomed in the Church.
Not everyone was happy, of course. Some missed the familiarity of the Latin Mass. Others felt it created a more serene, contemplative and sacred ambiance for worship, but some too saw campaigning for its retention as a way of objecting to the changes introduced by Vatican II.
In 2007, Pope Benedict decided that the Latin Mass was to be given an increased status and could be celebrated by any priest at any time.
However, this hardly caused a flicker of interest in Ireland and the revamped Latin Mass never gained any real traction in the Irish Catholic Church. Despite efforts by a handful of priests and some small congregations of very traditional Catholics, to date just nine groups attend weekly Masses in Latin in Ireland.
In recent years, it became clear that the Latin Mass movement had become a source of division rather than unity in the Catholic Church and that it had effectively been taken over by groups who used it to further their own agendas; those who opposed and tried to undo the reforms of Vatican II; and a plethora of traditionalist groups especially those who campaigned against ecumenism, inter-faith dialogue, care of the earth, discerning the signs of the times and those who opposed almost any change in the Church.
To assess the situation, Pope Francis undertook a worldwide survey of Catholic bishops and the results confirmed that Benedict’s hope that the New Mass and the Latin Mass would facilitate mutual reconciliation and enrichment had not materialised. The opposite was in fact the case. It had led to conflict and, in places like the United States, a politicisation of the Eucharist – as with President Biden.
It’s no secret that the campaign to undo Vatican II and to oppose Francis’ present reforms have been led by the same traditionalist lobby who encourage Catholics to see the Latin Mass as ‘the real Mass’ – despite the implied criticism of the worship of the other 1.3 billion Catholics in the world.
The names are now familiar: the late Archbishop Lefebvre, Cardinal Leo Burke; Archbishop Carlo Vigano – as well as a number of other American Catholic bishops and lay groups who encourage Communion in the hand, want women banned from the sanctuary and are unhappy with the priest facing the people at Mass.
The difficult and obvious truth is that the Latin Mass was being used to create a Church within a Church. Tradition, Francis keeps reminding us, is ‘the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living’.
So, two weeks ago, on July 16, Francis announced a series of robust measures to give precedence to the Vatican II Mass by limiting the celebration of Latin Masses. From now on, he announced that Latin Masses
- will not be celebrated in parishes;
- will not take place at the whim of any priest;
- the local bishop will decide when and why and by whom a Latin Mass will be celebrated;
- priests who challenge the reforms of Vatican II will not be allowed to say a Latin Mass;
- any priest ordained after July 16, 2021 who wants to say Mass in Latin has to get permission not just from his bishop but from Rome.
What Francis is effectively underlining in very stringent regulations is that the liturgy of the Catholic Church is that of the Second Vatican Council and there can’t be and won’t be any deviation from that basic truth. In a word, he is protecting the integrity of the Council. If anyone is looking for the ‘living Catholic tradition’, he’s saving, they’ll find it in Vatican II. Catholic liturgy, Rita Ferrone writes in the prestigious journal Commonweal, ‘is not just a matter of personal taste. It is a matter of faith and obedience.’
That Francis’ intervention was necessary and appropriate is obvious in the reaction to his decision, as those who have responded negatively are effectively agencies working to obstruct the implementation of the Vatican II reforms.
July 16, 2021 will go down in history as a red-letter day in protecting the legacy of the Second Vatican Council.