Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

05 May, 2007

Old Meanings Move in the Drift of Time

The Pope and I finally agree. Apparently he wants to bring back the Tridentine Mass. That means it's done in Latin. Now, I usually disagree with Herr Ratzinger and am absolutely repulsed by his role in sheltering pedophile priests, but I have a copy of Cattus Petasatus in my library. (i.e. - The Cat in the Hat) You see I am blessed by having had several years of Latin starting in the 4th grade. Ergo I'm all for the return of the Tridentine Mass.

The long-rumored document—said to take the form of a motu proprio, a personal initiative of the pope—would allow for broader use of the Tridentine, or, as it's commonly known, Latin Mass, by permitting any priest to celebrate it without first receiving permission from his bishop. The rite was the Catholic standard for nearly 400 years, from its codification in 1570 until the reforms of the 1960s that followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council ushered in Masses in the local vernacular. The Latin Mass may no longer hold a place at the center of Catholic life, but some Catholics never stopped longing for its return.

I recall very well my Latin teacher (who was Jewish) from my freshman year of high school ranting and raving about how the venerable language was driven out of the Mass. Although this meant little to me at the time, I encountered an interview with Joseph Campbell many years later in which he talked about this issue. In addition to the use of vernacular, he noted the difference in how the priest worships. As Ratzinger once wrote:

"Less and less is God in the picture. … [T]he turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself."

In the Tridentine Mass, the priest has his back to the congregation, his head tilted upwards, and he worshiped along with his flock as opposed to looking down on them from on high. Not being one of them, I'm certainly content to let Catholics worship as they will. And what traditions to keep and which to abandon is for them to decide. But I'm all for the return of the Lingua Mater.

The author of the piece asks whether any priest could actually pull off one of these masses considering that Latin has been largely absent from Catholic schools and churches for decades. A good question. I'm sure that churches have a more pressing need to, say, have services in Spanish than to revisit its history. However, I think that Campbell's point and probably that of those in the Church seeking the Mass' return is that the reforms of the 1960s served to dislocate the Church from its roots. And, as this article in the Washington Post notes, this led to things such as "Pizza Masses" in which pizza pies replaced the communion wafer.

While I feel that the absurdity of religion generally can be summed up by this notion that pizza is transmogrified into the body of a deity, I am sympathetic to the issue of tradition here. I've always had a keen interest in how things came to be as they are. This is probably why I became enamored of James Burke's TV series Connections at a young age. Moving from the public to the personal, tradition first assumed a role of some importance in my life about 10 years ago but it became even more so after the death of my father three years ago. Perhaps that and the fact that I'm getting older. (But not old!) It is a great temptation to go living in the past but one must certainly avoid that. You have to live in the here and now but that doesn't mean that the past cannot inform your present. Everyone has to contend with the traditions that are handed down to them. When you're young, you have your whole life before you so there's little desire to look back and see where you came from. Getting older means that at some point you find yourself in that future that you formerly couldn't wait to arrive. Once you're there, you wanna know the path that led you to that point. Perhaps it's because death is just that much closer, but I think it's completely natural for people to want to connect with what came before them, to feel as if they're a part of a long chain that extends back through history.

This is illustrated well by my involvement in the Polish Heritage Club here in Madison. The membership is mostly middle-aged or older and at every event I attend, people of retirement age can often be heard giving the refrain of "This is what I did as a child" or "My grandmother taught me this". It is vitally important for many of these people to let us young folk know that we're the latest incarnations of an age-old identity and way of being. I think that it's all part of gnothi seauton - know thyself. We humans are probably the ultimate social creature and so it seems completely natural to me that we would want to not only feel a connection to others through space but also through time.

Of course not every tradition is able to be preserved or is worth preserving. Additionally, I'm not trying to argue that the modern Catholic mass is somehow flawed in the sense that it is an "improper" way to worship or that it is unable to fulfill whatever mental need people have which causes them to worship in the first place. But I think I can understand why the proponents of the Tridentine Mass feel as they do.

EDIT: I just e-mailed the Madison diocese to find out if any of the churches around here would offer a Latin mass if the Pope's wishes come to fruition. If so, my godless ass would be sorely tempted to take one in.
|| Palmer, 8:58 AM


You may not realize this now, but it is the Holy Spirit that attracts you to the Latin Mass.

You right that the "pizza" Eucharist is absurd. The Church teaches that when the Eucharist is profaned in this manner it is ineffective and Christ is not present.

Of course the modern world sees the true Eucharist as equally absurd. Yet many have experienced the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Simone Weil, one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th Century, although not a Catholic, affirmed her belief in the doctrine of the real presence and cited the modern view of its absurdity as one of the reasons she believed in it.

The most dramatic affirmation of the doctrine of the real presence however came from St. Thomas Aquinas, who arguably was the greatest thinker of all time. On his death bed, after he received the sacrament of extreme unction (what was known as "last rites"), he said:

"If in this world there be any knowledge of this sacrament stronger than that of faith, I wish now to use it in affirming that I firmly believe and know as certain that Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, is in this Sacrament . . . I receive Thee, the price of my redemption, for Whose love I have watched, studied, and laboured. Thee have I preached; Thee have I taught. Never have I said anything against Thee: if anything was not well said, that is to be attributed to my ignorance. Neither do I wish to be obstinate in my opinions, but if I have written anything erroneous concerning this sacrament or other matters, I submit all to the judgment and correction of the Holy Roman Church, in whose obedience I now pass from this life."
Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:08 PM  
No, I realize that your holy spirit is but a superstition. And the experiences you describe are wonderful testaments to the human mind and its complexity.

I am wholly unimpressed with your appeals to authority. That anyone, intellectual or otherwise, would believe that a wafer transubstantiates is patently ridiculous. Outside of religion, people who believe such nonsense are rightly labeled crazy.
Blogger Palmer, at 4:11 PM  

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