Nothing is more deadly to discourse than Johnny One Note launching another pitch for his particular crusade. I risk sounding a familiar theme only because I just witnessed powerful evidence favoring its cause.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I refer to an overwhelming, positive reaction shown by a congregation to a Gregorian chant Mass, given at Saturday five p.m., the Mass of mixed demographics, several of whose regulars exit after Communion. Contrary to any concern, there was no increase in that number in the wake of Latin liturgy.
Catholics driving fifty miles to attend a Latin Mass know why they are going and are eager to get there. But how would this liturgy affect Catholics exerting no effort or enthusiasm to have it? People, in the opinion of one rankled parish priest, being force fed?
Highly exercised, this usually mid-mannered cleric told me it was “terrible” to inflict such liturgy at five p.m.; it should be scheduled for a special hour. The inference was that only nostalgic dinosaurs would show up. To do otherwise was entrapment, a dirty trick. In fact, the pastor’s decision to invite chanters to 5 p.m. was inspired. Catholics who had never experienced Latin, or chant, finally got the opportunity to do so.
The results surpassed my wildest expectation. Our church resonated with hymns and responses. Other than carols at Midnight Mass, I’ve never heard so much strength in congregational singing. It was a far cry from anemic participation in lame hymns of the ’60s and ’70s.
After brief preparation before Mass by the leader of the visiting quintet of laymen, aided by sheet music in the pews, the previously untutored and the rusty sang the Mass. An atmosphere of reverence was palpable and the reason is clear: Latin does something to its hearers. It catapults us into a different spiritual climate. It takes us from the here and now to the here and then. It makes the past present, enriching the now.
If the congregation amazed me with its robust et cum spiritu tuos and efforts to chant even the uprinted Gloria with the choir (later remarked by a surprised and delighted celebrant), I amazed myself. I actually found the blend of tongues agreeable. Previously the pairing of Latin and English offended my ears. When Latin went the way of hula hoops, resignation set in. Maybe mine was an elitist view. After all, my own mother welcomed the vernacular. But she, with others, mourned the purge when Tantum Ergo was out and Kumbaya was in.
Changes, however, are blowin’ in the wind today, absent yesterday. They move us in a healthy direction to the kind of liturgy Mass deserves. It isn’t Latin and chants that are dated and irrelevant. It’s the argument against them. Their restoration to Mass is an idea whose time has come. This is the prescription for what liturgically ails us. Current liturgies are either flat or frivolous. In either case, they fail to help us pray. This, I believe, is the most persuasive reason to bring Latin back. It is common sense, responding to compelling need.
Twenty years ago I took an unruly CCD class to Benediction at a monastery nearby. In the presence of chanting nuns and Latin prayers by the priest a transformation occurred. The children were visibly moved. A child named Anne summed it up as we left — “Oh, Mrs. Smith, it was so easy to pray in there.”
Latin focuses; it does not distract. Initial interest in the five robed chanters last week gave way to attention on the priest and the altar. Unlike modern liturgies, where performers often assume priority, the choir became integral to Mass not as the picture but as the frame. It was liturgy that lifted our hearts to the Lord. It made it easy to pray.
This column originally appeared in the April 1996 issue of Crisis Magazine.