Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
I didn't start attending the "Latin Mass" out of some strange, retrograde desire to unring the bell of the liturgical changes brought on by the Second Vatican Council. Nor did I first darken the door of the local Chapel staffed by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter because I was shocked— shocked!— by the liturgical abuses of my juridical parish. Rather, when Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio Summorum Pontificium in 2007— and my liberal Catholic friends started gnashing their proverbial teeth, rending their clichéd garments, and literally wringing their hands— I thought I'd find out what all the skull-clenching was about.
Born in 1970, I grew up knowing only the Novus Ordo Mass. And I very much loved it, becoming a daily communicant in college and throughout graduate school, as well as serving as lector and altar server. At Notre Dame, I also became a tour-guide of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as well as participating in the weekly Eucharistic Exposition and Benediction and the Stations of the Cross, all according to norms of the Second Vatican Council.
So I had no "reaction" to the "new Mass", no axe to grind, no animosity— only a vague curiosity as to why Pope Benedict (who, if nothing else, was obviously a bona fide genius; one need only read his books Jesus of Nazareth or God Is Love to realize this) would "bring back the Latin Mass"— and why so many Catholics I knew and admired found this so appalling.
By one of those coincidences that are not coincidences at all, but the hand of God at work, my wife and I had just adopted twins in the spring of 2007. We had had little time to prepare (only 24 hours) before twin-infants arrived thanks to many prayers and the Division of Youth and Family Services of New Jersey. Suddenly "personal time" and "down-time"— make that "time", period— was at a premium. While we still made it to Mass on Sundays, our Monday Night Holy Hour (during which we had prayed that God would finally give us children!) became a luxury we could no longer get to. My K of C meeting attendance became sporadic. And then one evening when my sister-in-law took mercy on me and said she’d watch the twins, I noticed that there was a 7pm Mass at a Chapel staffed by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, just six miles from our door. So I went, not knowing to what, exactly, I was going to ... but that I needed to pray to be a better father and husband.
Having never been to a "Low Tridentine Mass", I had no idea what to expect. It was, in a sense, like getting contemplative bends: instead of barking out "Amen" (this chapel does not do the "dialogue Mass"), or the Confiteor or the Kyrie or ... anything, there was just silence. And more silence. Even the responses from the server were so muted it was almost impossible to tell (without a 1962 Missal which mercifully I had, as a gift from my late grandmother) what was going on.
What was going on was an "active contemplation": I was very much a neophyte that night, but the twenty or so souls around me were edifying to see: the women wore mantillas, the men even had on neckties. There was no musical fillip, no "Let's-try-to-sing-Holy-God-We-Praise-Thy-Name-acapella". Just ... silence. And still more silence. A pure, nearly unbroken sacred quiet.
I had often heard the phrase "full and active participation in the Mass" and, at first blush, this "Extraordinary Form of the Mass" seemed to be the opposite: the priest and altar boy (and I do mean boy) seemed to be having a very private dialogue, and on the few occasions when the priest turned to face the congregation, his eyes were lowered ever-so slightly so he wasn't even really looking at us.
But at some point at that Mass I had an epiphany that may seem a bit obvious: whoever said that "full and active participation" in the Mass means singing loudly (and often badly)? Or that shaking hands at the "kiss-of-peace" (a gesture that no priest shares with another minister: they kiss on the cheek or somewhat hug) makes some kind of sense? Or dozens of people drinking from the same chalice— a practice that I'd forgone since undergoing radiation treatments in 2003 when my immune system was worse than a stray kitten's—was a manifestation of “full and active participation” at Holy Mass?
Again, this was no "This-is-the-ONLY-way-the-Mass-should-be" moment, but rather it seemed like a sane and solemn tonic to variations of the Novus Ordo Mass I’d witnessed over the years. Examples included full-on folk bands replete with drum-sets and glockenspiels; speaking in tongues at a university chapel, liturgical dance at an abbey, and at one memorable occasion, a full-blown gospel tabernacle choir of recovering alcoholics belting out "Hallelujah!" ... during Lent. (Though I couldn't really blame them, as it turned out they weren't Catholic and were just visiting.)
It is, of course, easy to throw the new Mass under the bus, and that is (a) wrong, and (b) not my point. My point is simply that in a world where we each have more email, voicemail, texts, meetings, and Skype-chats than we could possibly digest in a lifetime, the Tridentine Mass offers a complete contemplative oasis. You have the right to be silent when you pray. True, on Sunday at the Novus Ordo, we SHOULD sing "loud-and-proud"— but at Low Mass you can be, you MUST be, silent before your God.
This I found (and find) wonderfully fulfilling — and terrifying. “Fulfilling” in the sense of theosis: as the Mass culminates in Holy Communion, one is literally filled with the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is, of course, absolutely true in the Novus Ordo as well— but this is “terrifying” in that the quieter it is the more one is AWARE that this is happening. Christ becomes present again, and we are about to receive him in perfect silence— not even an "Amen" after communicating.
Nearly eight years later, I attend the Novus Ordo Mass regularly and the Low “Latin Mass” whenever I can—which is “right and just” (for me). The former is the Ordinary Form, the latter Extraordinary. And the silence is not only a respite from this “world of bilk and money”, but a reminder that full and active participation at Holy Mass can mean simply being fully and actively present. Pope Benedict’s wisdom that ours is very much a “both/and” expression of faith seems if not prophetic, than a perfect fit for our faith. Or to use the Pope Emeritus’s own words: “These two expressions of the Church’s ‘Lex Orandi’ [Law of Prayer] will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s ‘Lex credendi’ [Law of Belief]. They are, in fact, two usages of the one Roman Rite.” Amen.