ROME — Solemn processions … strains of Gregorian chant … The Gospel sung in Latin … Pope Benedict XVI's inaugural Mass last April may have seemed to some viewers to be a throwback to an earlier age of the Church.
Yet the Mass was a well-executed example of exactly the type of liturgical reform called for by the Second Vatican Council. And there are signs that Latin and chant are making a strong comeback in the first year of his pontificate.
For the many years he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope was a careful but firm critic of the way in which Vatican II's call for reform has been used to justify abuses in the new liturgy. Those ranged from omitting required genuflections to changing the words of consecration.
For this reason, Catholics who have long complained about liturgical aberrations in their parishes, and traditionalists who call for greater access to the Latin Tridentine Mass both welcomed the election of the Holy Father.
“Latin to me is a unifying language. It represents the early Church and our Christian roots, and I think the Pope has a really deep understanding of this,” said Jackie DeForge, a 30-year-old parishioner of St. Agnes Church in Arlington, Va.
She attends a Mass offered in Latin there by Father Christopher Pollard, parochial vicar. “I still appreciate the Mass in my own language because I can understand it,” she said. “But there is something special about Latin.”
Roger McCaffrey, founder and former editor of The Latin Mass magazine, wrote for the online journal Seattle Catholic that Benedict “will prove to be a Godsend for traditionalists who have read his almost adamant endorsements of the 1962 [pre-Vatican II] missal as a legitimate and desirable option for the Mass. Just as importantly for the Church, he will prove to be a reformer of the new rite — for years he has called for such reform. Be prepared to rally around him.”
Traditionalists were especially heartened that in Cologne last month, at the first World Youth Day led by the Pope, preliminary events included a Latin Tridentine Mass. The liturgy took place in a Dösseldorf church and was attended by hundreds of young people who belong to Juventutem, an international group devoted to the pre-Vatican II liturgy.
The fact that the Latin Mass was included in the World Youth Day program, where clapping is more the norm than chanting, shows that the traditional Mass should have adherents even after the pre-Vatican II generation passes away.
‘Holiest and Highest’
In a host of books, articles and interviews over the years, Benedict has laid out a well-reasoned and deeply spiritual explanation of the sacred and timeless nature of the liturgy and the means by which these elements are best expressed.
Assessing the sudden reform of the Mass with the promulgation of the new missal in 1970, he wrote in his 1997 book Spirit of the Liturgy that “a community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden.”
As a cardinal, he offered the traditional Latin Mass on a few occasions. And just last month he met with Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the Society of St. Pius X — the schismatic group founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre that offers Mass exclusively in the old rite — in an apparent attempt to bring the community back into communion with the Church. Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated in 1988 for consecrating four new bishops against the orders of Pope John Paul II.
The new Pope has pointed out, with many other defenders of “organic” reform, that while Vatican II's document on the liturgy allowed for judicious use of vernacular languages in the Mass, it also decreed that Gregorian chant be given “pride of place” and that the people be taught to “say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass that pertain to them,” such as the Gloria, Creed and Our Father.
After his election, Benedict did not wait long to act on these directives. On June 28, in promulgating the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he urged Catholics throughout the world to memorize the most common prayers in Latin to “help Christian faithful of different languages pray together, especially when they gather for special circumstances.”
The compendium contains an appendix with the Latin texts of many traditional prayers, including the Sign of the Cross, the Gloria, the Hail Mary and Come, Holy Spirit.
Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro, who offers Mass with permission of his bishop exclusively according to the traditional rite and serves as director of the Rome office of Human Life International, expects that Benedict will take a two-pronged approach to reform.
“He will make the traditional Mass more available,” Msgr. Barreiro said, “and will also make changes in the new Mass to highlight its sacral nature.”
A number of U.S. parishes, including some led by young priests, have been promoting Latin among the faithful.
Father Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary's Parish in Greenville, S.C., who was ordained in 1993, has been teaching Latin to his congregation for the past four years, including the Sanctus (Holy Holy Holy) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). More recently he has added the Gloria, Creed and Our Father in Latin.
The parish was featured in George Weigel's book Letters to a Young Catholic as an example of a parish implementing the true spirit of Vatican II. In July, the parish's newly ordained parochial vicar, Father Christopher Smith, offered his first Mass entirely in Latin.
In a letter to parishioners, Father Scott said that the gradual introduction of Latin into parish Masses will “help fulfill the vision of the Second Vatican Council for the authentic renewal of the liturgy.”
Father Pollard, the Arlington priest, has recorded and distributed instructional CDs of the new Mass in Latin for priests and lay faithful. Influenced by Benedict's writings, he offers his private Masses facing the altar, a centuries-old practice called ad orientem (toward the East), reflecting the tradition that Christ will arrive in his Second Coming from the East.
“People say the priest has his back to the people, but the truth is that the priest is facing the same way as the people, toward God,” Father Pollard said. “The traditional Mass makes perfect sense. When the priest is addressing God, he faces the altar, when he addresses the people, he turns to face them.”
He added, “I think in today's liturgy, many people have a sense that something is missing, but they don't know what it is — the sense of mystery and awe in the presence of the sacred.”
Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.