The Mass Should Be Our Refuge From These Loud, Proud and Flashy Times

Traditional Latin Mass celebrated on Palm Sunday 2009 in the chapel of Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross
Traditional Latin Mass celebrated on Palm Sunday 2009 in the chapel of Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross (photo: Photo Credit: John Stephen Dwyer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

We live in loud, proud, and flashy times. The “noise” of our cultural landscape is so pervasive that many people are downright unnerved by silence. Some actually have difficulty falling asleep unless a television or radio is playing in the background. Visually, we are awash in light and imagery from computers, cell phones, televisions, advertisements, Jumbotrons, and any number of eye-catching displays. In restaurants, bars, and airports, televisions play mindlessly in the background. It is becoming more and more common for this to be true even at the gas pump, in the elevator, and in the backseat of a taxi! The advent of inexpensive digital photography has meant that people take thousands of pictures each year, but are often so busy capturing images that they miss reality itself.

These are also proud times, times in which man is at the center and God is marginalized.

I would like to frame this reflection in the context of the liturgy, old and new. There are important things that the liturgy can teach us about our unexamined premises.

A number of years ago a friend of mine told me that he had just attended a couple of Traditional Latin Masses. As he related his experience he seemed visibly agitated, even angry. He had expected to hear Latin and beautiful music (and he did hear some, because one of the Masses he attended was a Missa Cantata (a sung Mass)), but he was surprised to find that most of the Mass was conducted in lengthy silence and that he couldn’t see or hear very much.

This is understandable because the priest whispers much of the Canon and many of the other prayers as well. In addition, because he faces the altar (rather than the people), what he is doing is less visible. It didn’t help that the second Mass my friend attended was a recited (low) Mass, most of which is palpably silent. The Mass is almost entirely whispered or spoken softly (sotto voce); the priest and servers speak in somewhat audible but not projected voices.

There is a kind of culture shock in store for those who attend a Latin Mass for the first time. Its fundamental premises are pre-modern. Though exquisitely beautiful (especially in its High and Solemn High forms), its beauty requires some adjustment and training in order to appreciate. It is poetry in motion, a kind of liturgical dance (pardon the expression), as the priest and other ministers move back and forth at the altar.

There are great stretches of quiet and much of what the priest says is inaudible to the congregation. What is the background of this whispered quality of the Traditional Latin Mass and what can we learn from it?

First, let me furnish some background.

We take it for granted today that audibility is easy to achieve. But this has not always been so. Microphones and speakers have only existed for a little more than a hundred years. Prior to that, audibility was not always presumed. In order to hear in a larger gathering, people had to draw close and listen carefully. Many larger parish churches positioned the pulpit halfway down the nave in order that the sermon could be better heard by the congregation. Other churches had acoustical shells above and behind the pulpit to help direct the sound. Buildings had hard floors and stone walls, which helped project the sound a bit. But despite these, it was hard to ensure audibility for everyone in a large public gathering. In those days, people didn’t expect to be able to hear and see everything, especially in larger churches.

One way to increase audibility was to use a loud, proclamatory tone, like that of a town crier. And while this might be appropriate for preaching or reading a passage from Scripture, it is hardly becoming for a prayer addressed to God; it gives the impression that one is shouting at God or that God is somehow deaf. Because of this, while greater attempts were made to improve the audibility of the words directed toward the people, it was deemed less necessary for prayers directed to God.

The chanting of certain prayers and especially of the readings was another way of projecting a more audible sound. But here, too, there are limits. Sound only carries so far and singing at for a long time at great volume can tire the voice.

So the first historical perspective to understand is that until fairly recently people did not expect to hear and see everything. They were generally content to know that the priest was celebrating Mass on their behalf, even if they could not see, hear, or understand all that was being said and done.

A second (and debated) historical origin of silence in the Mass is the monastic connection. In monastic communities there were often numerous priests along with the Brothers. Concelebration (as it is practiced today) was unknown; every priest was expected to offer his own Mass daily. Because of this, there were many side altars in monastic churches, often positioned somewhat close together. In the early hours of the day there might have been as many as a dozen Masses being celebrated at these different side altars at the same time. In order to respect one another and to avoid cacophony, the celebrants whispered the Mass.

Monastic liturgy and traditions of prayer tended to set the pattern for the liturgy outside monasteries as well. The whispered liturgy took on a life of its own and the silence took on an aura of holiness and mystery. The whispered Canon came to be used even outside the settings in which it was necessary.

Now that we have this background, what can we learn from the rich silence of the Traditional Latin Mass?

First of all, auditory silence is not the same as spiritual silence. Our conversation with God is not of the auditory kind, it is a communication at the level of the heart. In fact, audible sound can interfere with this deeper conversation. Scripture teaches of a kind of holy silence that is required of us at certain times:

  1. Silence, all people, in the presence of the LORD, who stirs forth from his holy dwelling (Zechariah 2:17).
  2. Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near (Zephaniah 1:7).
  3. Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth (Psalm 46:10).
  4. Then Job answered the Lord: “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:4-6).

Those who love the Traditional Latin Mass often remark that its silence is a refreshing pause from a loud and distracting world; it permits them a quiet time to pray in God’s house.

The silence of the Traditional Latin Mass also distinguishes what is directed to God and what is directed to His people (or is meant to include them). Thus the readings, liturgical greetings, and the Collect (opening prayer) are said in an audible voice. Conversely, the Canon of the Mass and some of the other prayers directed to God are said in a low or inaudible voice; there is no need to shout or proclaim these words because God can hear them just fine (and He knows Latin, too). While there may be some value in the congregation being able to follow along, this is not the primary purpose of the Eucharistic prayer, which is directed to God the Father and prayed by the priest on behalf of the congregation. At certain times during the Mass, the priest does speak audibly and will then often turn toward the people to address them, but most of the Canon, indeed the Liturgy of the Eucharist, is directed to God.

This is an important and humbling lesson, especially for us today who live in such an anthropocentric culture. The Liturgy of the Word (called the Mass of the Catechumens in the older form), is largely and properly directed to the congregation; they are its intended audience. But the Liturgy of the Eucharist is directed to God. The priest prays in the person of Christ to the Heavenly Father. It is God the Father who is being addressed. Neither the priest nor the congregation is the focus, God is.

Therefore, concerns such as “I can’t see” (when the priest faces the altar and not the people), or “I can’t hear” (the quietly recited Canon), or “I can’t understand” (the prayers in Latin), bespeak a certain misunderstanding of the moment.

While some may argue that it is still preferable for the congregation to be able to see and hear so that they can follow along, the fact that this is not perfectly realized within Latin Masses does not amount to an injustice or even something that is “wrong.” If it is wrong, then we’ve been getting it wrong for the better part of 1900 years!

Even if one prefers to be able to see and hear everything, some room ought to be made for the teaching of antiquity, wherein significant silence and a focus on God were unquestioned. In these loud and flashy times, silence—holy silence—is worth rediscovering. In a culture that is hyper-visual and always “in your face,” the idea of turning as a whole community upward and outward toward God is of remedial value. In our anthropocentric culture there is value in a liturgy that is more intentionally theocentric; there is value in being reminded that not everything is about us and what pleases us.

That my friend many years ago found the traditional Latin Mass shocking, even annoying, is both instructive and remedial. It is instructive because it illustrates the problem; it is remedial because it shows another way that we must not forget.

Does this amount to a demand that the Traditional Latin Mass, or a whispered Canon, or an eastward orientation be restored everywhere and without exception? Not necessarily; that might set off an overreaction. Perhaps it is best to suggest the wider use of the older from of the Roman Rite, which Pope Benedict hoped would have a positive effect on the modern or more ordinary form.

Indeed, many of the elements of the Traditional Latin Mass can be applied in the Ordinary Form. The priest is permitted to use an eastward orientation; nothing forbids it. He need not shout or proclaim the Eucharistic prayer, but he doesn’t have to whisper it either. A quiet (though audible and dignified) praying of the Eucharistic prayer, either facing eastward or facing the people with eyes raised upward rather than looking at the congregation, can be a good element to restore to make the Ordinary Form more of a refuge from these loud, proud, and flashy times.

Here is a beautiful, and accurate, rendition of the old Mass from the movie True Confessions: