Some thoughts on the Traditional Latin Mass

The soul … has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Like many Roman Catholics, I was appalled by Pope Francis’s motu proprio, Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of Tradition). It has been fascinating, however, to observe the reactions and logic – if one can even call it logic – of those who are critical of the Traditional Latin Mass. It is also fascinating that this move coincides with a grassroots effort in academia to remove Latin and Greek requirements from classics departments in their quest for cosmic justice. I have a lot to say about both developments.

***

Francis is often misinterpreted and caricatured by the politics-obsessed media, on both the right and the left, in the United States and Europe. These caricatures are then amplified on social media, making honest conversation about what is reported a Sisyphean task.

When he coins terms like “environmental sin,” the chattering class on the left rejoices that he is “modernizing” an ancient institution and helping the church re-achieve “relevance” – as if a religion with over a billion members globally could somehow be irrelevant. When he affirms that LGBTQ couples cannot be married in the church, which considers marriage a sacrament, they are apoplectic. They attribute heretical quotations to him, like he does not believe in Hell, which they seemingly invent out of thin air.

On the right, he is portrayed as an irredeemable socialist. Like most people who agitate for socialism, he personally enjoys a luxurious standard of living, as those who enjoy the fruits of his social engineering are destitute and miserable. The church’s millennia-old priorities of operating international charities and re-homing refugees are part of what is destroying the country.

There are few participants in the chattering class who are Catholic – or religious at all – and it shows, as they try to apply litmus test after litmus test to a complicated and diverse institution. The only Mass they will ever attend in their lives will be an acquaintance’s wedding or funeral. To them, Mass is a bizarre, superstitious practice observed by people who have yet to discover brunch and bottomless mimosas. They have never read the catechism and could not under threat of actual torture tell you what is in it.

The only moral currency the chattering class knows is holding court at the center of the electronic void, and they want to talk to you about relevance. It’s all a farce.

There’s a reason why Francis used his first public appearance after being hospitalized to tell people to put down their phones, reconnect with beauty and the folks you love. It’s outstanding advice, and certainly something I personally need to be reminded of. But one could be forgiven for thinking that, even as he lectures the faithful about the chaos of postmodern life, it’s the opinions of the aggressively online that he cares about the most.

Because that’s what his motu proprio was about. The Traditional Latin Mass became collateral damage in Francis’s absurdist war against a very specific type of Catholic troll. And for that, he punished everyone, including pure-hearted churchgoers who had found a very real connection to God in the Traditional Latin Mass. Reconnect with what is directly good and beautiful, but take care not to do it in Latin.

***

When the Vatican first announced Francis’s selection as pope, I thought it was a wild turn of events. While I listened to folks parse his participation in political revolutions several lifetimes ago, all I could focus on was… they picked a Jesuit as pope.

Now, I do not have anything against the Society of Jesus, per se. Some of my favorite priests have been Jesuits, precisely because they tend to be intellectually playful. But picking a Jesuit as a pope is a lot like electing a college sociology professor to be President of the United States: you know they are going to fuck everything up. They have ivory tower worldviews and are confident they can engineer utopia. They focus on narrow dimensions of human behavior to the peril of everything else. They are comfortable making enemies, and even take pride in doing so. They don’t do much damage in academia, but in the Vatican… that’s another story.

Every aspect of this characterization has been prophetic for the church in the age of Francis. He is the first pope in my lifetime who has been regarded by a not insignificant fraction of the church with outright contempt – and that contempt is frankly a lot easier to understand than the man himself. There are schismatic personalities who have become genuinely popular, as Francis has traded concerns over the safety of children for Davos-eque posturing, provided cover for politicians (and clergy!) that scoff at the church’s ideals, and it has taken the Vatican basically a decade to hold people responsible for using money for Catholic charities to speculate in London real estate.

This is not a political problem. This is a spiritual problem. These are issues that cut right to the core of what it means to be God’s representative on Earth.

***

The thing that gets me – and many other Catholics – about the “outrage” about the Traditional Latin Mass is how fake it is. Catholics are not accustomed to internal warfare that is as superficial and gutter-appropriate as what you find on cable news. Yet here we are, in the gutter.

There was never any crisis within the church about the Traditional Latin Mass. I have seen sites like “Church Militant” – or, as I like to call it, Catholic Q Anon. They are gross, anti-intellectual, and un-Christian, and it’s understandable why these factions of the church get under Francis’s skin. But they are not why the Latin Mass has become so popular.

The Traditional Latin Mass does attract young families, and even more than that, college students. I was surprised to see the primary Mass being observed at my alma mater, Baylor University in Texas, was the Latin Mass. The website of the Catholic Student Center notes that veils are available in a basket at the rear of the church for women who choose to veil. College students wearing veils! During a period in their life where it is easiest to fall away from piety. And we are supposed to be shaming this? Are you kidding me?

Worshipping at the Catholic Student Center was one of my fondest memories from all of college, short of meeting my husband of two decades. Never again have I attended a church where people participated in the Mass so passionately. It was so beautiful, week after week, that it gave me chills and would sometimes even make me cry. I can only imagine what their Latin Mass is like.

The secular mainstream media loves to write about how churches in western developed countries are hemorrhaging members. They love this so much because they think it is data supporting their belief that secular humanism is winning the day and they are “on the right side of history,” as they like to say. But that is not true.

The overwhelming majority of young people I have interacted with are searching for God and meaning. They are. It’s an on-going project for them to find something they can believe in, in a social environment that mostly manufactures disillusionment. But they look at the churches available to them and see nothing but proxies for the two main political parties that occasionally take shots of grape juice. I am not kidding – you go to religious supply places and they sell pre-packaged communion sets they call “snack packs” now. They literally talk about the Body of Christ like it’s Lunchables in the deli section of supermarket.

“But why is religion in America dying?”

Many critics of the Traditional Latin Mass dismiss churchgoers as people who want the “bells and smells,” as if that is a superficial thing. Here’s a crazy argument, folks: Maybe God deserves more from you. Maybe that sterile service that you are watching on Zoom because you mainline the news instead of Scripture is a window into your soul.

What the church needs now is beauty – unapologetic, fall-on-your-knees beauty. It needs chanting, candles, incense, and all of the other things that bring you to a halt and make room in your head for the transcendent. What James Joyce called aesthetic stasis – a spiritual heart attack.

People go to brunch on Sundays because church no longer speaks to them. It has no effect on them. That does not mean they like this state of affairs, it’s just a simple fact. Most people would benefit from having a priest help them through rough patches or coach them on how to make better decisions. They would benefit from having a community that supports them and introduces them to new ideas. But that whole system is nothing without worship and ritual as prerequisites for an open heart and contemplative mind.

The Mass is supposed to be about the presence of God. If people tell you that they are not feeling the presence of God in the churches of the postmodern world, perhaps you should take that at face value.

***

Another interesting criticism of the Latin Mass is a little more down to Earth: Most people do not know Latin.

As a factual matter, this is simply not true for a lot of Catholics. Many Catholics choose to send their kids to classical private schools or homeschool them in the classical style, and they do teach and learn Latin. I can read Latin. Although I was not a classics major, I studied Latin through graduate school and attended our school’s Intensive Latin Institute for fun. Our 9-year-old daughter is on her third year of Latin. Many prayers in English Mass are recited in Latin and there are Latin Christmas carols and hymns. It’s the Roman Catholic Church, after all. Imagine the irony of trying to restrict the Latin Mass through an edict written in… Ecclesiastical Latin. Here we are, folks.

If you are not also outraged when someone breaks out into “Ave Maria,” I’m not sure how this is a hill to die on here. It’s not hard to find translations of the Latin Mass anywhere. It’s sort of like being super angry that synagogues conduct services in Hebrew. Don’t they know there are people who can’t speak Hebrew?

I have the sense that what these critics loathe is not Latin or inaccessibility. What they loathe is the connection to the past. The Mass is an ancient rite that emerged from a persecuted church in the Late Roman Empire. Part of observing the Mass is forging – in the smithy of your soul, as Joyce would say – a connection to that ancient world where the miracle of miracles took place. Maybe that experience feels a little exotic – wouldn’t you expect it to? The whole point is to be removed from this world for a moment, and to have that be so powerful of an experience that it carries you until the next ritual. This is nutrition for the soul.

But that connection to the past is perceived as a threat to folks with postmodern worldviews. They don’t like Latin because they do not like history. They see the whole body of western civilization not as something to celebrate, but as something to overcome. There are people from all races and backgrounds at Mass – as I said, this is a church with a billion followers, it contains multitudes – but when they see Latin, all they see white supremacy. Where you see beauty, they manufacture hate.

When they see classical Latin schools, they see kids with excellent grammar (from studying Latin), good vocabulary (from studying Latin), solid understandings of ancient, medieval, and modern history (from studying Latin), the ability to reason and form logical arguments (from studying Latin)… all things the latest political fad on the far-left labels as tools of oppression. Their hatred of a form of worship that is truly irrelevant to their daily lives and values is a subset of their irrational loathing for memories enduring across generations – what has proven to the be the greatest obstacle for far-left regimes across the 20th and 21st centuries.

I recently watched a docuseries with the British pop classicist Mary Beard. For most of the series, she is pointing at walls, monuments, and so on, and translating for viewers what the artifacts say in Latin. I thought how wonderfully absurd it is that this woman is one of the academics lending their reputations to the idea that learning Greek and Latin should not be required for a classics degree. If she could not read Latin herself, literally no one would consider her authority on the lot of it. She’d be indistinguishable from the tourists milling about around her, where the bathhouse could just as easily be a place for sorcery.

In the context of this political fad, you see where the real damage of Francis’s papacy is done, under the ironic moniker of being the “custodian” of tradition. The postmodern church is a place where the faithful are turned into unwilling tourists, for whom their religious legacies are undecipherable. And that’s tragic.

***

What is there to say about this further? The consolation of all of this miserable nonsense is that it is indeed a fad, which is meaningless vis-à-vis the eternal. The Roman Catholic Church has had popes before who were consumed by political maneuvering and declaring who is in and who is out. Yet it endures.

I, for one, have a difficult time seeing the church selecting another Jesuit pope, looking at the factions this one has created in such a short period of time. Just as Francis reversed his predecessor completely, his successor will likely reverse him. Many bishops have already told Francis to pound sand and are keeping the Mass, much as they will probably rebuke him in the fall on the topic of offering the Eucharist to public figures who show disdain for church law.

The church is not going to be blown apart by these controversies, no matter how lathered up the folks on cable news and political podcasts get. This too shall pass.

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