Before the second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, the Catholic Mass was said in Latin, no matter where you went in the world. The priest faced the altar, not the people, the music was solemn and usually played on an organ, only boys were allowed to serve at the altar, the intrusive “sign of peace” (bane of all introverts) did not exist, and all women wore veils. There are other differences, but it would take a series of blog posts to go through all of them.
My first time going to a Latin Mass was shortly after the new cathedral in Raleigh opened a few years ago. What struck me most about it was the sheer silence. The same phenomenon occurred when I went to another Latin Mass last week. This one was in a different church (one of the larger ones in the area; essentially a mini-cathedral), but the atmosphere of silence was, if anything, even greater.
The priest spoke so softly that it was hard to hear him, even to follow along with the Latin in the missal. The reverence was unmistakable. You could walk in the doors and immediately know something special was happening. A group of boys from the parish sang a beautiful Gregorian chant at certain parts of the Mass. They were so talented, they should have been given a record deal.
As much as I enjoyed the Mass, I could understand why, back in the old days, people prayed the Rosary the entire time. It was difficult to follow because the language is foreign and it is easy to get distracted. This time, I could focus because the baby wasn’t acting up. He was sitting contentedly on my lap, babbling up at the ceiling in an echoing conversation with God, angels, and saints. (But as cute as it was to me, I’m sure it was annoying to everyone else, so my husband had to get up and walk around with him.)
Communion was received at the altar rail. Those who received knelt, and the host was placed on the tongue. Receiving on the hands while standing is another change occurring after Vatican II, and it’s one of the major hangups many have with the post-1965 Mass (AKA Novus Ordo). During Mass, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. The Catholics in favor of the old Mass (“traditional Catholics”) can’t stomach what they believe to be the irreverence of receiving on the hand. The host IS Jesus, and we are unworthy to receive him in the hand, as if the host were just a plain piece of bread. That change, along with others such as increased participation from the people, the priest facing the people, the more contemporary, upbeat music, and yes, that dreaded sign of peace, are what lead many to believe that the Novus Ordo is focused on the people, not on God.
That changed focus opens the door to more irreverent, and even blasphemous or heretical, Masses. But the way I see it is that any time something beautiful comes down to human beings, it gets messed up. Humans destroy everything they touch; it’s just a fact of life. We do create wonderful things and attempt to improve our planet, but the taint of original sin is in all of us and spreads outward like a cancer. My thought is that to believe that the Novus Ordo is intrinsically bad is an extreme view that can lead to scrupulosity. People can become too concerned with whether small details will cost them salvation. Whether it’s Novus Ordo or traditional, the Mass is still the Mass. Jesus is present in the Eucharist no matter what. In any Mass, small pieces of the host may fall on the ground, unnoticed to all of us. I don’t think it is necessary to get down on the ground after every Mass and scour the floor for tiny pieces.
Liturgical abuses can happen in any kind of Mass. Any kind of Mass can be celebrated irreverently or reverently. Ultimately, the Holy Trinity makes the Mass what it is, not the people. There is so much more going on during the Mass that us humans are not aware of. True, the realization that Jesus is present in the Body and Blood should make us more reverent, no matter what Mass we attend, but this realization does end up turning more people to the Latin Mass. Again, more education in these matters would greatly help the Church’s people. It is a shame that many Catholics do not know (or do not accept) one of the basic tenets of the faith: that upon transubstantiation, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood.
I could go on forever, but I’ll stop here. Maybe a second post is in order.