Monday, November 12, 2018

First time at a Latin Mass

I attended a Latin Mass for the first time, at St. Joseph Church in Rockdale, about half an hour east of me, a tiny old village caught up on some very steep hills between the I-80 expressway and the Des Plaines River, south of Joliet. A small, old church, in the old, spangled-ceiling and Corinthian (golden) capital style; about 150 people, of the same wide variety of ages as in any parish, including quite a few obviously growing young families. Many women and girls wore chapel veils, even little toddler girls in pink. Each (somewhat rickety) pew had large missals full of golden-bordered photographs, not only of priests at various parts of the Mass, but also of ancient illuminated manuscripts; at the beginning of this Saint Edward Campion Missal was an exhortation from the publishers hoping that many more houses would take care to reprint these ancient and beautiful testimonies.

We were celebrating today, bizarrely but for a sound procedural or calendrical reason, the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany ... there was an altar rail. Everyone knelt by fives and sixes. No one says "Amen." There is no question of a chalice and communion in both kinds. Ten people indifferently dressed do not pump hand sanitizer beforehand, and do not then drink down the last of the "Precious Blood" in a hallway after. No cell phones rang, although I imagine they must do sometimes.

Above all else I was impressed, not so much by the Latin, which after all does cloak meaning, and not even by the invisible and modestly talented choir (though that was a relief). I found myself impressed by the altar servers. They were four young men, plus a boy and an even smaller boy, and what I think is a "subdeacon," a man around fifty who stood and simply faced the congregation a lot. So much for the Novus Ordo caterwaul about girls "stepping up to serve" because the boys won't. The boys will serve, I daresay, if the job is serious and they are treated seriously about it. They were dressed in the old style, black cassock and white surplice, not the vague sort of baptismal shift a la Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972, that looks all right for boys and for girls with their hair hanging down their backs, and they had full jobs to do: much kneeling, incensing, bowing, and holding out of thick beribboned book. One young man corrected a boy's mistake with just one flaming eye, it seemed to me. Here is continuity, it seemed to me: at least a chance that these are tomorrow's priests, whereas the altar girls can only be the mothers of tomorrow's altar girls -- which is exactly what they brag about on FaceBook.

And I don't for a moment hold that the Novus Ordo Mass is not the same as the "TLM," the Traditional Latin Mass. Clearly, behind the Latin, they are essentially the same, especially since more traditional translations have been put into use in the last ten years or so. What must be done away with next, I hope, is the excessive lay participation. The six altar servers today were like a liaison between the priest's work at the altar, and us. They left us free to be the faithful. Incessant lay participation is oppressive and the seedbed of irreverence. They gum up the work because where they want to serve, the work must be altered for them. If nothing else, they alter it by their appearance, their attitude, and their numbers.

All that aside, I can begin to appreciate why so much of the Mass used to take place behind a "rood screen" in English churches for example, for it may as well do so. The men at the altar -- climbing the mountain, facing east with us and for us -- need scarcely turn around at all. And I can understand why Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and other woolgathering types would have exchanged love notes scribbled in their very Psalters during, or why young Italian dandies in particolored hose might have wandered in whenever they liked, to see who was there. Yes, the vernacular was a good thing, for it had to have refocused comprehension. 

This experience also makes my grandmother's old Missal all the more useful, for it is the English-language "TLM," for the full year, forever. I wonder if "our Lord" -- as today's Father only ever called him during his homily, and as my own father only ever called him -- he was never the casually familiar "Jesus" -- would permit me to read those Masses whenever I like, and if he would count them as such. 

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