The first Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum of Pope Benedict XVI was promulgated when I was a friar in religious formation. As young friars, we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity the pope was extending to experience the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), and we quickly fell in love with everything about it. Learning and celebrating the TLM even seemed to help us celebrate, serve, and attend the Novus Ordo Mass with more understanding and devotion. Naturally, we wanted to share this treasure that we had found with others, so we organized an educational session for the public about the Extraordinary Form, followed by a traditional High Mass. Something happened at that Mass that has remained with me ever since.
In attendance at that presentation and Mass were a devout Catholic mother and—compulsorily—her 16-year-old son. Her son had wanted nothing to do with the Mass or with the faith of the family. During the Mass, though, something changed. Her son’s attention was riveted on every word, action, and song of the Mass. Afterward, he thanked his mother profusely for having brought him to the Mass, exclaiming, “That was the most beautiful, the most sacred thing I have ever seen!” Not only his excitement, but his word choice caught my attention: “sacred.” That is not a word most teenagers use every day. It prompted me to ponder our natural search for truth and beauty.
I considered my youth and the experiences of so many young Catholics who grow up with the typical modern American Mass and who leave the Faith, seeking elsewhere (e.g., in Buddhism, Wicca, etc.) something profound, something beautiful, and something sacred, even if unconsciously. I contrasted—especially from a young male’s perspective—the banal and effeminate songs that I grew up with at Mass (which made me want to leave) with the ancient, beautiful, and profound Gregorian chant that he had heard in this High Mass. Many adults and Church leaders at the time seemed to think that the TLM held nothing good for anyone, and certainly wouldn’t attract the youth. But the growing vacancy and age in our pews over the past five decades combined with this teen’s positive experience of ancient liturgy tell a different story, or at least ask for an open mind to consider possible renewal via ancient paths.
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Years after that experience, and after being told that the religious life and priesthood were not my vocation, I returned to my previous profession of teaching high school boys (which I have discerned is my vocation), and that powerful lesson came along with me. Having been assigned to teach high school juniors about the Sacraments, I wanted above all to get my students to appreciate the Sacraments (especially Confession and the Eucharist) and to make use of them. Having seen one boy’s transformation through the Traditional Latin Mass, and seeing my students’ general aversion to the Novus Ordo Masses that they were familiar with, I decided to see if the TLM or the experience of another Catholic Rite might awaken in them a new appreciation for the Mass.
During the past three years, I have given all my junior students an assignment: to attend either the Mass of another Catholic Rite or the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, and to describe their experience, writing what was the same or different and their honest reactions to it. I kept records of their choices and written reactions. Nearly all of them chose to attend the TLM for their first time. Considering the fact that these were teenage males from seemingly typical Catholic families who were engulfed in “the world,” and that they were not well schooled in the history and meaning of all the actions of the TLM, their reactions to the ancient Mass were nothing short of astounding. Other than a general difficulty following the liturgy (which is certainly understandable for a teenager experiencing the Traditional Latin Mass for the first time), they had an overwhelmingly positive experience; only one out of 163 students reported an overall negative experience (a mere 0.6 percent).
Their comments centered around experiencing a greater sense of sacredness as well as reverence for a holiness that they see as lacking in the Novus Ordo Mass and abundant in the TLM. They particularly and almost universally loved receiving Communion kneeling and on the tongue, even if they felt nervous about doing so for the first time. Rather than continue to tell you about their responses, I will let the youth speak for themselves, expressing their own observations and interpretations. What follows are my students’ reflections on their first experience of the TLM. I have left their quotes unaltered, except for an occasional correction of punctuation, capitalization, or spelling, for the sake of uniformity and to avoid filling this article with “[sic].” These are teenage boys, and because they are minors, I have omitted their last names.
“Overall, the Traditional Latin Mass seemed more holy than the ordinary Mass I’m accustomed to. Rather than an interaction between the priest and the people, as it seems to be at an ordinary Mass, the Extraordinary Mass was almost exclusively an interaction between the priest and God. The priest was almost entirely focused on the altar, which made it truly seem like the ‘holy sacrifice’ of the Mass. This sense of sacrifice was furthered by the actions of those attending the Mass, as the majority of the time we were kneeling in silence. The silence and reverence of the Mass is significantly greater than that at ordinary Mass; personally, this made me feel and understand the sacredness of what was truly happening. This sacredness translated to all parts of the Mass, most notably the reception of the Eucharist, which was different than what I have previously experienced. By kneeling and receiving the Eucharist, I felt the real presence of Christ stronger than in times past. The final obvious difference was the use of Latin for most of the Mass instead of English, which, although hard to follow, made it seem more sacred.” ∼ Jack
“The Latin language as a whole, I feel, is much more fitting for what the Mass really is. […] I felt more in the presence of God than I normally do during a normal Mass. […] I also really enjoyed the relative silence and meditativeness that came with it. […] It was much more beautiful in comparison to the modern Mass.” ∼ Peter
“One thing I really liked about the Latin Mass was the meditation that is involved. For me, it forced me to examine my conscience. It helped me realize how much I sin, and how I need to do a better job of going to Confession and to try to avoid committing the same sins. Another thing about the Mass I really liked was the way we received Communion. We went up and knelt down in front of the priest. It was like I was kneeling before Christ. When we received Communion, I also liked having the priest place the Eucharist in our mouths without me touching it. […] I felt I was receiving Communion directly from Christ. […] I also liked how the priest was turned around most of the Mass. I felt like he was offering everything up to God.” ∼ Noah
“I thought the Traditional Latin Mass was better than the ordinary form of the Latin Rite Mass. […] It sounded as if angels were singing […]. Everything they did and said was meant to be respectful towards the Sacrament and God. […] If I had to choose between going to the Traditional Latin Mass and a normal Mass, I would definitely choose the Traditional Latin Mass, because everyone there is very reverent, dressed nicely, and everything they do is for the honor and glory of God, not for the people like the regular Mass.” ∼ Brett
“I like the Latin language, and the way that it sounds is much more beautiful than the English language and is very fitting in a Mass. […] I think it gives the Body of Christ much more respect and the authority it deserves when the priest gives us the Eucharist by mouth when kneeling.” ∼ Alex 1
“The Mass itself just, to me, seemed right. The way that the priest was facing toward the altar seemed that he was talking more to God than he was to us, and I thought it was better. Also, I liked that we, as witnesses to the Eucharist, had to kneel when the priest was talking to God. The Mass seemed more like an offering to God. I also liked the way we had to receive the Eucharist.” ∼ Alex 2
“The music seemed to fit very nicely with the tone of the Mass, which allowed for a more reverent and beautiful Mass. When I went up for Communion, I noticed that we had to kneel in a line and Father would give us Communion on our tongues. I believe receiving on the tongue is a lot better in some ways than receiving in the hand.” ∼ Blaine
“I had a much easier time staying alert and focused, which is sometimes hard for me to do at regular Sunday Mass. […] I also noticed that everyone there, including the women, was dressed very modestly. This usually isn’t what you see in regular Sunday Mass, and without these distractions it was easier to spend my time focused on the priest instead of the people around me. Another thing that I noticed was that when I went up for Communion, I had the Body of Christ placed straight in my mouth, which was new for me, and it was much more humbling to have it placed directly in my mouth instead of me doing that myself. […] Although most of the Mass was said in a different language and it was hard to follow along, it was a lot more holy in my opinion, because I don’t speak that language, so it put me in a different mood than I would have been if I was speaking in the language I do every day.” ∼ Tommy
“I was speaking and listening to the prayers, blessings, and consecrations of the Mass in a language the earliest Christians used. […] It is truly amazing to experience something that has withstood the test of time, truly showing the power of Christ’s established Church, an extension of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, and demonstrating the eternal reign of Christ the King, as the Church, which has been persecuted and scrutinized since its beginning has remained one, holy, catholic, and apostolic through schisms, attempted destruction, and other evils.” ∼ Drew
It is clear by these teenage boys’ first reactions to the Latin Mass that the traditional Liturgy is quite effective in reaching the youth. It inspires a sense of sacredness and respect for the Mass, for Christ, and for his Church: “unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam.” This is not something to keep alive merely for the sake of nostalgia, but a treasure—proven through the centuries—of inestimable value. As so many of our young people are leaving the Faith, we as a Church need to face growing evidence that common assumptions about what they want and about what is most helpful for them (e.g., Novus Ordo guitar Masses) may in fact be false. With the growing tide of young people attending the TLM, and with testimonies such as these above, is our general insistence on the liturgy that we’ve made normal and the shunning of the Extraordinary Form truly what is best and most effective?
We should not accept the false assumptions of those who stubbornly hold on to their own wills and ideologies, of modernists who are working toward the destruction of the true Faith (quia lex orandi, lex credendi), or of some who merely have no experience of anything else and are kept from it. At the very least, these boys’ reactions show that we must have an open mind with regards to the TLM and the increased scope of its use, that is, if we are honestly seeking “that the Church of Christ should offer worthy worship to the Divine Majesty, ‘for the praise and glory of his name’ and ‘the good of all his holy Church.’” (Summorum Pontificum, #1)
(Photo credit: Greg Hartman / Catholic Telegraph)