How Jane Austen Got Me into the Latin Mass

A couple of months ago, I started going to the Traditional Latin Mass. From the get-go, I was intrigued. I found it both incredibly appealing but also deeply unsettling, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I mean, why all the Latin? WHY??

In my usual (slightly bizarre) way, I compared the Latin Mass to a tall, dark, handsome stranger. That description seemed to best capture my conflicted response. Plus, I tend to filter all my life experiences through the prism of a Jane Austen novel. (What can I say? It’s one of my spiritual gifts.)

Still, I went back to the Traditional Mass (or to visit my handsome stranger as some friends took to calling it. (Yeah… awkward, right?)). But I loved it. It was just so beautiful. I quickly found my love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament deepening, and I was amazed as the chanted prayers of the Mass seemed to give expression to the confused longings of my heart.

Robert Campin, Mass of St Gregory, c. 1415 (Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels)

Robert Campin, Mass of St Gregory, c. 1415 (Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels)

But, I was still unsure. So I did what I always do when I don’t understand something: I read about it. And then my questions started changing. Instead of asking, “why the Latin Mass?”, I found myself asking, “WHY IS THIS NOT STILL OUR MASS?” Seriously, why? I could understand if the New Mass (or Novus Ordo) was a straight translation of the Latin Mass into the vernacular, but it’s a lot more than that. Or rather, it’s a whole lot less than that.

I started asking questions like these…

  • Why completely remove the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar and the Last Gospel, not to mention the Asperges?
  • Why remove mentions of Our Lady and the saints from the Confiteor and significantly reduce mentions of them elsewhere?
  • Why reduce the Kyrie from three to two for each member of the Holy Trinity? (Seriously, what possible gain could that be??) Why remove the Prayer to the Holy Trinity? Why remove or change any number of other prayers?
  • Why completely change the Offertory Prayers, transforming them from an anticipatory offering of the spotless host to Almighty God to atone for our “numberless sins, offences, and negligences” to a vague blessing prayer.

And above all, why create three new Eucharistic Prayers to be used instead of the Roman Canon? Seriously, parts of the Roman Canon date from the 4th Century and it was codified by St Gregory the Great in the 7th Century. From then, it has remained essentially unchanged and was the only Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Rite until 1970.

(Oh, I just looked it up and the Novus Ordo also changes the words of consecration – not much, but again, why?? This is as well as adding the memorial acclamation, which has to be one of the worst ideas ever. We have just witnessed the miracle of Transubstantiation and we’re going on about how “when we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again.” Talk about mixed messages…)

Now, in its place, we can use the three Eucharistic Prayers, one of which (EP2) is loosely based on a 2nd to 4th Century canon recorded by St Hippolytus (but we have no evidence of it ever being used). The other two (EP3 & EP4) are both new creations. Call me crazy, but I’d prefer the ancient canon of the Mass, the words prayed by St Gregory the Great, St Pius V, and every priest of the Roman Catholic Church for around 1,500 years, than one written when lava lamps were cool.

Francisco Goya, St Gregory the Great, 1797 (Museo Romantico, Madrid)

Francisco Goya, St Gregory the Great, 1797 (Museo Romantico, Madrid)

I couldn’t understand why you would change that sort of stuff. Honestly, I still don’t. When I read the Ottaviani Intervention, I couldn’t stop the emphatic hand gestures because, dude, EXACTLY.

The people never on any account asked for the liturgy to be changed, or mutilated so as to understand it better. They asked for a better understanding of the changeless liturgy, and one which they would never have wanted changed.

Just to be absolutely clear (and in case anyone thinks I’m going all heretical on them), the New Mass is completely valid, licit, and awesome. (Of course it is, Jesus turns up!!) But that doesn’t mean it’s not an impoverishment of the Old Mass.

If you’re thinking I’m sounding pretty keen on the Latin Mass, you’d be right. But come on, is that really a surprise? I – an Austen addict and hopeless romantic – compared it to a tall, dark, handsome stranger. Clearly, yours truly does not have nearly enough willpower not to succumb to that.

But in true Austen style, it wasn’t the beauty, the reverence, or the richness of the vestments (“He wore a blue coat and rode a black horse!”) that did it. Nor was it the Latin that won me over. I’m still somewhat uneasy about Latin but it’s so much easier to pick up than I thought it would be. (You should hear me Domine, non sum dignus-ing like it’s nobody’s business.)

No, what won me over was content of this stranger’s character. It was the ancient prayers of the Mass, spoken by countless saints and shaping countless more. It was the confidence that I could let myself be shaped by this Mass. As a former Protestant, when I’m at a Novus Ordo mass, I often have to concentrate hard to remind myself of the heavenly reality of the Eucharist in spite of what I’m seeing and hearing.

It’s just the opposite at the Latin Mass. Everything about it — from the venerable Roman Canon to the floating incense — reminds me to direct my prayers, thoughts and heart to the Altar and Heavenward, to my Eternal King and High Priest!

On that note, I’d like to end with my favouritest bit of the Traditional Mass. It’s far better than anything I have to say.

Unde et memores: To Offer the Victim
[Unde et mémores, Dómine, nos servi tui, sed et plebs tua sancta, ejústdem Christi Fílii tui Dómini nostri tam beátæ passiónis necnon et ab ínferis resurrectiónis, sed et in cælos gloriósæ ascensiónis: offérimus præcláræ majestáti tuæ de tuis donis, ac datis…]

Unde et memores: To Offer the Victim
[And now, O Lord, we, Thy servants, and with us all Thy holy people, calling to mind the blessed Passion of this same Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, likewise His Resurrection from the grave, and also His glorious Ascension into heaven, do offer unto Thy most sovereign Majesty out of the gifts Thou hast bestowed upon us…]

He brings his hands together and makes the Sign of the Cross 5 times

[…hóstiam + puram, hóstiam + sanctam, hóstiam + immaculátem, Panem + sanctum vitæ ætérnæ, et Cálicem + salútis perpétuæ.]

[…a Victim + which is pure, a Victim + which is holy, a Victim + which is spotless, the holy Bread + of life eternal, and the Chalice + of everlasting Salvation.]

He extends his hands and continues:

Supra Quæ: To Ask God to Accept our Offering
[Supra quæ propítio ac seréno vultu respícere dignéris: et accépta habére, sícuti accépta habére dignátus es múnera púeri tui justi Abel, et sacrifícium Patriárchæ nostri Abrahæ: et quod tibi óbtulit summus sacérdos tuus Melchísedech, sanctum sacrifícium, immaculátam hóstiam.]

Supra Quæ: To Ask God to Accept our Offering
[Deign to look upon them with a favorable and gracious countenance, and to accept them as Thou didst accept the offerings of Thy just servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and that which Thy high priest Melchisedech offered up to Thee, a holy Sacrifice, an immaculate Victim.]

He bows down over the Altar with hands joined on the Altar:

Súpplices te rogámus: For Blessings
[Súpplices te rogámus, omnípotens Deus: jube hæc perférri per manus sancti Angeli tui in sublíme altáre tuum, in conspéctu divínæ majestátis tuæ: ut quotquot ex hac altáris participatióne sacrosánctum Fíii tui, Cor+pus, et Sán+guinem sumpsérimus, omni benedictióne cælésti et grátia repleámur. Per eúndem Christum Dóminum nostrum. Amen.]

Súpplices te rogámus: For Blessings
[Humbly we beseech Thee, almighty God, to command that these our offerings be carried by the hands of Thy holy Angel to Thine Altar on high, in the sight of Thy divine Majesty, so that those of us who shall receive the most sacred Body + and Blood + of Thy Son by partaking thereof from this Altar may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing: Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.]


8 responses to “How Jane Austen Got Me into the Latin Mass

  1. I, too, have fallen in love with the TLM recently, and if there were one that was easy to get my young brood to on Sundays, we’d be weekly attendees….

    • Thanks! You should definitely attend a TLM, if only for to experience the heritage of the Mass! It takes a little whole to get used to it but I’d say it’s definitely worth it! 🙂

  2. I just joined the church in April. I love Latin but I find it hard to follow. If I went all the time and knew what they were saying it would become a part of me, I’m sure.

    I’ve only heard it in Latin once and that was years ago before I became a Catholic and even though I had no clue what was being said- I thought it was beautiful!
    I share your frustration and questions. I have found that the more answers you get, the more questions arise- even more so in matters of the Faith. lol But that being said- let that frustration drive you to learn more because it will fuel the passions of your Faith! 🙂

  3. I think this is largely a matter of personal preference. I don’t want to reduce it all to “taste”, but people differ in what ritual forms speak most deeply to them, based on experience and temperament and whatever else. Having said that, I’d like to take a stab at some serious answers to some of your rhetorical questions, from one aspiring theologian to another.

    I should preface that by speaking a bit from my own experience. Personally, there is no way I could ever have found my way into the Catholic Church without the Novus Ordo. When I was first falling in love with the Mass, one of the first things I found myself loving was the balance between how each culture gives the Mass its own flavor on the one hand, and its underlying universal structure on the other. In my case this was highlighted by the fact that I was learning the Mass within the context of learning another culture and language. And some of the things that happened liturgically in that language – including some really powerful Eucharistic hymns, among other things – truly converted me to the realization that something was going on that was much bigger than I knew. So, while there is a range of legitimate disagreement on where the right balance is found in combining transcendence and accessibility, the need for such a both/and, which I’ve found the NO to embody, is one good reason to have it, for starters.

    Now to a few of your questions:
    I think I agree with you about the Kyrie, and I don’t know enough about the content of the other parts of the EF to comment on them. But I don’t understand your complaint about the Confiteor, as Mary and the saints are right there with the assembly: “Therefore I ask Blessed Mary ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.” So what’s the issue?

    As for the Roman Canon, it lacks an epiclesis. I do like the lineup of saints in it, but the other EPs are much richer pneumatologically. And there is a lot of richness too in the evolution and diversity of early anaphoral development which I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss out of hand (at the very least, all of that was Eucharistically valid, and that has to count for something).

    I also have to defend the Memorial Acclamation. What is so wrong with proclaiming the death, resurrection and second coming of Christ? That’s a huge part of what the Mass is about – and make no mistake, the Mass is not just one thing; it’s multivalent. In other words, liturgy is all about “mixed messages”. The one you quote is actually my least favorite, though, because it skips over the resurrection. I really miss “Dying, you destroyed our death; rising, you restored our life…”

    One more thing: the lava lamp reference is a red herring, or what C.S. Lewis would call “arguing by the clock”. The truth is, we need the old and the new together, and really the Church has always held them together in one way or another. And I believe the Novus Ordo does a good job of keeping that tradition alive.

    I hope you don’t mind a longer and more contentious comment than usual from me. I just want to ask you to please recognize that some of us need the vernacular OF as much as you need the EF, and that neither exists without reason.

    • Hey Julia, I’m so sorry it has taken me so long to reply! Time has absolutely run away from me. 🙂 I just wanted to say that I will respond but as usual, I’ve gotten distracted and now it’s 1:20am here in Sydney and I really should get to bed. Hopefully, I will get my act together and give you a decent response tomorrow or the next day! Sorry again!

      • No problem, Laura. I appreciate your taking the time you need to carry on a thoughtful conversation.

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