One of the things that happened with me early on in my journey into the historic Church and prior to my conversion to the Catholic Church was that I began to redefine for my own practice what prayer and worship was. Rather, I should say, I allowed the practice and tradition of the Church to redefine for me what prayer and worship should consist of.
In the Protestant tradition from whence I came, tradition was a dirty word. In fact, I can’t remember hearing anyone say that word until I began to explore the historic Church. It’s not that Protestants don’t have tradition; they just have made up their own tradition. Some of that tradition is dramatically opposed to how the Church has prayed and worshipped for her entire existence.
One of the first things I discovered was a really ancient way to pray. If I’m being honest, my prayer life was not so good. That’s not because I was Protestant. There are lots of Catholics and Orthodox and Anglican etc whose prayer life is not good. But, for me, I had always struggled to pray in a way that was meaningful. I certainly didn’t pray in way that had long standing efficacy or was immersed in Holy Scripture.
Enter the Book of Common Prayer. Through it, I was introduced to an older form of prayer. Eventually, as I found my way into the Catholic Church, I found the Monastic Diurnal. This is an ancient way of prayer, compiled by St. Benedict roughly 1500 years ago, incorporating the Psalter into daily prayer. I have come to deeply enjoy this form of prayer. It has helped me tremendously to deepen my own prayers life and immerse my prayer life in the very Word of God as prayed/sung by the Church for a very long time.
As I was studying and going deeper into the faith and life of the Church, I discovered something that I had never known existed. I had never known what language the liturgy of the Church has originally been written in. Much to my surprise, I found that the only languages the liturgy of the Church used for the first four centuries was in Greek, Aramaic/Hebrew and Latin. This was helpfully pointed out to me by Fr. Nicholas Gihr in his book, “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” And why is that? Fr. Gihr explains, “no liturgy can be shown to be composed in any other language other than the three languages from the inscription on the Cross.” St. Robert Bellarmine agrees,
“The most ancient custom of the Church agrees. For in the whole East no ancient liturgy is found except in Greek or Aramaic, while in the whole West there are no ancient liturgies except in Latin.” (from his “On the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass”)
And, in case you didn’t know, all three of those languages are now considered “dead” languages (the Greek being Koine Greek). Fascinating for a history nerd like me. And also kind of the point of prayers and liturgy being in these ancient and dead languages. Because these languages are no longer used in common speech means they don’t change. So, unlike our modern English language, you can’t keep adding words to the dictionary or changing the meaning of the words.
Think about that for a second. Because the language is dead makes it therefore immune to the winds of cultural change and even immune to our preference. It also means that it provides us with a precision of language that we cannot find in modern day English. This is a great gift to the Church! We don’t have to try and figure out what is meant by a particular word. Its meaning is set, entombed, if you will, in its historical and theological use and immune to our fickle feelings.
I don’t know about you but I long for a firm place to stand during this turbulent time we in which we live. Truth is, the world around us has always been turbulent. But there are some things that have stood firm throughout the centuries. God’s Word, the person of Jesus Christ and the tradition of the Church. These things have not changed, and this is greatly comforting. In a world that is lost in relativity, we have these anchors of objective Truth to hold on to.
But what about Vatican II, you may ask? Didn’t Vatican II change all that? Actually, the documents of Vatican II say the precise opposite of that. In fact, Vatican II mandates the continuing use of Latin saying,
“..the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” (36)
“Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (54)
Pope John XXIII, the pope who convened Vatican II had this further to say,
“ a primary place must surely be given to that language which had its origins in Latium, and later proved so admirable a means for the spreading of Christianity throughout the West.”
“In addition, the Latin language can be called truly catholic. It has been consecrated through constant use by the Apostolic See, the mother and teacher of all Churches, and must be esteemed a treasure … of incomparable worth. It is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church’s teaching. It is also a most effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and of the future in wonderful continuity.”
“Furthermore, the Church’s language must be not only universal but also immutable. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single one of them is superior to the others in authority. Thus if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths, varied as they are, would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would, moreover, be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings.
But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. it has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use. Certain Latin words, it is true, acquired new meanings as Christian teaching developed and needed to be explained and defended, but these new meanings have long since become accepted and firmly established.” (Veterum Sapientia)
Now I ask you, does that sound like the Fathers of Vatican II wanted to get rid of Latin? No. Indeed, it sounds to me like the overarching desire was for the Church to continue to worship as she had always worshipped. So, what happened then? Well, there was an exception clause saying that some vernacular (local language) could be used. Again, what happened? I believe some activist bishops took it upon themselves to take that exception clause and run with it while ignoring the rest of the guidance of the Fathers of the Council.
What are we to do with this? I must be honest. It makes me cringe when I hear Christians, especially Catholic Christians, say about traditional worship practices, “I don’t like that.” I think we need to consider if it matters what our preference is when we come to the Mass. If, when we come to the Mass, our focus is on what we want, what “works” for us, then we have taken our eyes and hearts completely off what the point of worship is. In effect, when our preferences take over, we are not worshipping God, we are worshipping ourselves.
God has spoken. He has told us how we are to worship. He has given us this through His Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, who passed this on to the Apostles, who passed it on to their successors and now down to us. Who are we to decide that we don’t want to do what God has said? Who are we to decide for ourselves how we worship the God who gave us life, who gave us the right to be called sons and daughters, who gave us the sacraments, who gave us the Church to nurture and instruct us? As St. Paul reminds us,
“O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it: Why hast thou made me thus? Or hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Romans 9:20-21)
May we turn again to the faith once for all delivered to the saints!
May we turn again to the comfort of the never changing rock of our Mother Church!
May we turn again to give Him the honour and praise He so deserves and let go of our petty selfishness and our preference!
All for the glory of God, the praise of Christ and the good of His holy Church!
Thanks be to God!
The priest moved to the Gospel side of the altar. He began to chant the Gospel. My four-year-old daughter turned to look at me with big eyes.
“Daddy, who is that?”
“Who is who, baby?”
“Is that Jesus?”
“Is who Jesus?”
“The man who’s singing. Is that Jesus?”
I smiled at her. “Yes, it is.”
Yesterday my family and I attended the only Latin Mass offered in our diocese. I had been once before with my eldest daughter, but this was the first time my youngest and wife came also. It was a sweet moment. We’re tempted to say, “Oh how cute and innocent children are.” But before we too quickly dismiss this as kids being cute, I would like for us to consider something.
I want to consider the wonder of the worship of the Church.
When the Church gathers for worship on Sunday, we are participating in the worship of the Church as she has worshiped for ages past, as she is worshiping now around the throne of Heaven and receiving a small foretaste of how she will worship in eternity.
There is a great mystery here. We too quickly move on from it to our great detriment. I fear that, in the modern Catholic Church, we have lost sight of what is really happening when we come to Mass. Some of that truncated and selfish view of worship I blame on the liturgy and some I blame on a lack of proper teaching and catechesis.
We have failed miserably in teaching our faith to those who are currently in the Church. This has been an ongoing problem for some time. We have failed to catechize and the clergy, in many instances, have failed to preach and teach well. It is no wonder that, according to the Pew Research findings, only 31% of Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We haven’t taught our people what the Church actually believes. We’ve just told them to show up and do as they’re told and don’t ask questions.
It’s no wonder there’s no wonder. It’s no wonder Mass feels dry and dull. It’s the Church’s fault.
Which brings me back to my youngest this past Sunday.
She intuitively senses that something mysterious is happening when we come to Mass (the Latin Mass). She is more imaginative than me, less impeded by modernity and cynicism. She feels the symbolic, nay the realism, going on at the altar when the priest stands in persona Christi, praying and speaking on behalf of his people. We’ve lost that in our modern liturgy. We’ve lost something instinctive, something primal, something holy and transcendent in our worship.
My good friend, Ben Harris, writes it this way:
“For many years, we have been told about a "springtime of the Church", an age in which we were finally ready to take on the world with our "new evangelism" after the long winter of old Christendom. This springtime, the warming of the world, and shattering of barriers was heralded to be the end of militant, defensive Catholicism: a day when we could cease guarding ancient coals with tenacious diligence to sow gospel seeds into fertile ground. And, during the tenuous peace of a post-Second World War era, the temptation to see society as entering a new age must have been overwhelming. At the dawn of the Second Vatican Council, the West had moved from decades of industrial warfare, societal collapse, the death of old Christian monarchies, economic devastation, and genocide into an era of relative peace and prosperity. I am sure that, to the Council Fathers, everything must have been telling them that our "springtime" had finally come... but springtime is never as cut and dry as that.
We were promised an ecclesiastical springtime, and that's exactly what we got. In the temptation of sunny days, we let the warm fire of tradition grow cold, failed to gather more wood to keep the hearths burning, and hastily planted our gardens, only to be left wondering how our seedlings could be buried under snow as we shiver by dying coals. Our springtime optimism was dashed by the bitter north-winds of communism, secularism, the sexual revolution, corrupted clergy, and rising persecution of Christianity in the heart of old Christendom. Like the disciples, we went with Christ into a cheering Jerusalem, only to see him crucified as we ran from his presence.
Still, there is work to be done. We cannot cower in disappointment and let the coals of tradition burn out because our hasty planting has died in the ice of modernity. Through study and liturgical reverence, we gather fuel to rebuild the fire of tradition into a blazing inferno; through our prayers, we carefully cover the tender plants to keep them safe from frost; through our evangelism, we open the door of our warm home to those shivering in the unexpected snow. Now is not the time to experiment and rush to plant new fields, but to remain faithful, prudent, and dedicated to age-old ways. If, like the Blessed Mary and St. John, we remain close to Christ and return to the tradition he gave to us, we will behold the Church in her resurrection with her risen Lord.
In the various traditional rites of the Church, be they Latin, Byzantine, Maronite, Anglican, etc., there is an air of wintertime sobriety. The cold rains of post-modern chaos, political extremism, heresy, paganism, and moral degeneracy pour outside, but in these ancient liturgies the fires of tradition sustain the family of God in health and safety. There is no place for experimental optimism either in the ancient Mass, or in the present crisis of the Church. Our task of wintertime labor has not yet given way to the ease of warm days and late sunsets, so return to the warmth of tradition, brave the snowy wind of the world, and fulfill the duty you have been given.”
The wonder of the warmth of tradition is that it teaches us something on a primal, even soul level that we cannot possibly hope to fully explain. We are formed by the tactile reality of the movements of our bodies: kneeling, making the sign of the cross on our bodies, genuflecting, bowing, opening our mouth and receiving the Blessed Sacrament. The wonder of the practice of our faith we see when the priest faces the altar, on our behalf, and offers up the present sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our sins and the sins of the whole world, as it has been done in the liturgy of the Church for the last 2000 years.
Our children see that and feel that in an unadulterated and beautiful way that we would do well to learn from. In the traditional liturgies of the Church, we are (in the words of my friend Ben) “infantililzed”, not feeding ourselves with our own hands but being fed by the loving hands of a Saviour and brought into the warm embrace of a loving Father. We are not in control and that is a very good thing.
“Daddy, is that Jesus?”
Yes, my daughter.
That is Jesus, dying on the cross for the sins of the world.
That is Jesus, standing even now at the throne of God pleading His own shed blood.
That is Jesus, calling His brothers and sisters to pray and kneel and bow and weep before Him.
That is Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, come in the flesh so that you and I may literally embrace the wonder of salvation right before our very eyes.
That is Jesus whom we receive at the altar when we kneel in humble submission, understanding that we cannot feed ourselves.
That is Jesus and He is the wonder of it all.
Thanks be to God!