Why the fuss about Latin Mass?

(Photo: Unsplash/Grant Whitty)

My first encounter with the Latin Mass was at an Anglican Benedictine monastery in West Malling in the late 1980s. I had gone there for a week's retreat and had been given a room in the gatehouse. In the gatehouse were two rooms for guests. The building itself was part of the original Catholic monastery founded in the 11th century.

And that, I imagine was why the room opposite mine in this ancient building, was temporarily taken by a Roman Catholic Abbot making a retreat.

Dom Aelreed Sillem was the Abott of Quarr, a Cistercian monastery on the Isle of Wight. He had been elected abbot when I was 10 and was now pretty elderly and physically a bit frail. He was the epitome of a man who had spent his life praying and meant it. He had come to make his own retreat in a place that had belonged to his spiritual forebears. Since then it had been destroyed by the English authoritarian state under Henry VIII, borrowed by the wealthy bourgeoisie, and finally re-adopted in the early twentieth centuries by the high church of the Church of England.

I liked him on sight, and through his generosity we quickly became friends.

He reminded me he had to celebrate the Catholic Mass himself each day (separately from the Anglican nuns whose eucharist had been declared ineffective by Pope Leo 13th in 1870) and did so in the ancient chapel of this ancient gatehouse. He asked me if I would care to serve for him, that is help him at the altar with some of the practicalities, while he prayed the liturgy. I could not share in communion, but I could share in the prayer. I said I would be delighted. And so I joined him early the next morning. The liturgy he used was the Latin Mass, which had remained the same for 500 years, from 1570 (the Council of Trent.)

One never goes to worship looking for 'an experience.' But sometimes our perceptions are bounced into a heightened state of awareness by a mysterious combination of things. And this, my first Latin Mass, celebrated by an elderly monk, in the remnants of stones soaked in adoration over a thousand years old took me into what seemed like a translucent antechamber of heaven.

Everything glowed; everything was luminous; the presence of God and the angels seemed nearly tangible, and could almost be sipped from the air as one breathed. As the early morning light poured in through the enormous window above the altar, the priest glowed at his prayers. The Latin was like an ornate key that allowed a huge portal to swing open to another world.

Pope Francis has addressed the issue of the use of the Latin Mass with a personal papal letter (a Motu Proprio meaning written at his own impulse, on his own initiative, as in, not in response to anyone). It was called Custodes Traditiones (guardians of the tradition,)

In effect, he declared that the Latin Mass can no longer be used at the discretion of the individual priest, but only by permission of his bishop. He justified this with a number of arguments, not least that the kind of clergy who used it were 'rigid' in their outlook on life.

It would take some space and some time to document all the arguments used and how they have been analysed. It might be more helpful instead, particularly for non-Catholics, to paint a broader picture to place the opposing views in.

At the heart of this argument are the issues of transcendence and immanence; their proper relationship and the challenge posed by the extraordinary rapidity of the change of culture and what it might signify (or not) for Christians.

Every situation or group of values contains strengths and weaknesses; one might also say vices and virtues.

In this case, the issue has much to do with the balance between transcendence and immanence.

The Latin Mass has many aspects to it; not least the utilitarian one that down through the centuries all Catholics prayed with the same words irrespective of their nationality, century or geography. But it also acted as an ornate and mystically charged encounter with the holiness of God; more transfiguration on the mount than BBQ by the lake.

But one of the aims of the reforming Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s was to make a relationship with God more accessible. One of the most explosive changes was the move from the universal language of Latin (inaccessible to some but very beautiful and profound) to the offering prayers of the liturgy in one's own language (much more accessible but risking the trite and the shallow.)

Transcendence and immanence, however, need one another. An encounter with God in transcendent mode may well involve us being transported in awe and breathless with adoration with everything, quite rightly, just beyond our reach. Think Isaiah chapter 6.

But, through the incarnation, God slips alongside us in immanence. He shows himself as being or coming closer to us than we are even to ourselves.

The intimacy of immanence makes the transcendence bearable; and the transcendence saves us from the idolatry of restricting God to playing the role of becoming the validator of our needs; which the immanent sometimes slips into.

Praying a deeply rooted liturgy in the historic (and universally embraced) language of Latin prioritised transcendence. Reformatting the language in whatever dialect was local prioritised immanence.

So when Pope Francis withdrew permission recently for priests to celebrate the earlier Latin rite without needing to gain the agreement of their bishops, he re-opened the door on a political, cultural, spiritual and theological debate within Catholicism. This might be of interest to non-Catholics as it reflects similar issues in other communities. It has to do with the balance of transcendence and immanence, and the relationship of the church to culture and in particular to modernity.

The second Vatican Council in the 1960s was an experiment. It looked modernity in the face and set out to construct a compromise with it. But it wasn't clear in this new dance between the ancient and authentic, and the new and experimental, whether any balance could be achieved in the new choreography.

The generation that constructed Vatican 2 largely thinks it was successful. Pope Francis is a leading voice in this progressively optimistic but now elderly generation.

Subsequent generations have looked at the secrets Modernity kept up its sleeve, (with more realism than optimism perhaps) and critiques the Vatican 2 generation for what they now suggest is the naivety in their optimism.

There may have been great progress in terms of technology, but in philosophy or even spirituality, the last 100 years or so have created a crisis for the Church, and not only the Church. Modernity (and its anarchic love-child, post-modernity) have created a rampant relativism, a wilderness of narcissism, a desert of self-indulgence. It has traded in a hard-nosed, skilled struggle with reality for a self-deceptive, solipsistic self-soothing.

The idea was that the more you reflected the cultural preferences of modernity and progressive culture, the more those shaped by it could access Christ.

At first sight it makes sense. But there is a growing critical mass that says this has not worked. More importantly, modernity is showing itself with its uncompromising, over-sexualised, self-indulgent, hyper-immanent selfishness to be an implacable foe. A destroyer of any balance between transcendence and immanence. This group is labelled traditionalist; with a variety of adjectival prefixes. Rad Trada; Pente-trads; etc.

There is a further complication. If Pope Francis and the generation he represents were as inclusive as they aspire to be, they would be content 'to let a hundred flowers bloom' and allow the traditional Latin Mass to survive and perhaps flourish (as Pope Benedict specifically set out to do).

But there seems to be an animus against it instead. Quite what the multi-layered animus consists of is a matter of complex spiritual discernment.

A variety of views have been expressed. One view would be that traditionalists have created a de facto church within a church by rejecting the contemporary liturgy (the novus ordo) and so ought to be dragged out of a ghetto they should never have been allowed to create; an alternative view is that the elderly progressives are disgruntled that their lifetimes' commitment to accommodate the secular culture has proven to be a serious mistake and are unable or unwilling to own up to their mistake and misreading of theology and history. Shooting the messenger rather than facing up to the indigestible reality of the message, is always easier.

And the Latin Mass is the messenger.

Counterintuitively, it is certainly true that the TLM communities are experiencing extraordinary growth in numbers and commitment. Reserving one's position on the issues of causality and mere correlation, the modernising experiment in the late twentieth century has haemorrhaged Christians in the Catholic Church. The Trads say they have the answer.

For those who have always, or have come to believe in such things, perhaps we might turn to the more public and articulate of the Church's exorcists, like the Italian Fr Gabriel Amorth and the American Fr Chad Ripperger. When asked, they report that the demons they encounter in their complex and hard-fought ministries of deliverance are wont to complain that they particularly hate and are discomfited by the power of the Latin Mass.

Of course modernists don't believe in such things, which is a reminder that the two sides in this dispute are separated by more than just different values or takes on tradition, language and culture. Everyone knows that faith in general and Christianity in particular faces the most serious of crises at the beginning of the 21st century. The argument about the Latin Mass also represents two very different diagnoses of what the problem is, and what the solution might or ought to be.

Dr Gavin Ashenden is a former chaplain to the Queen. He blogs at Ashenden.org