Tridentine as a Second Language: A Latin Mass Experience

Last Sunday, I heard the Traditional Latin Mass with some non-traditional trappings. I was at a church where people usually hear the new Mass, and it really showed.

If you’re super-traditionalist about your liturgy, you’d be appalled . . . but I found it interesting. It will never be how I prefer to get the old Mass, but I can see it as a bridge connecting contemporary Catholic worship to something more traditional.

From experience, I know that sudden, full immersion in a Latin Mass can be a strange experience. My first Masses felt like something I was supposed to know . . . and yet I had no idea what I was doing! The strangeness came from more than doing familiar routines in a different language: Even the routines were in another language of their own! A bilingual missal helped a little, but only when I didn’t lose my place. To be honest, it took over a year for me to feel really comfortable with the Tridentine rite. And that was because I was willing to persevere. Two other people whom I took to a low Mass were so turned off by that strangeness that they swore never to return to one.

Last Sunday’s Mass was different enough –that is, familiar enough — for me to wonder whether it would have affected them differently. Another friend who loves the Traditional rite told me it takes a whole different theology to appreciate the old Mass. But maybe building people a bridge to that theology, rather than making them sink or swim for it, would make a difference.

Bridge: Slow Latin, Clear Chant

This is honestly the first Latin Mass I’ve been to in which the priest seemed to care about being heard and being understood. He chanted the prayers slowly and clearly, as if he were offering Mass for a congregation of Latin learners. Or as if he were aware that most of us were “Tridentine learners”! And I could follow along without looking at my missal, understanding both the regular prayers and the propers.

Granted, I am an advanced Latin and Tridentine learner. But I’m also someone with a background in language learning and teaching. I admit I needed two years of reading daily propers to grow familiar with their structure and frequently-used words. (If you slowly read aloud, say, a saint’s Collect, I could tell you why we venerate him and what the Mass intention is.) If I had also heard the daily propers, as I heard them last Sunday, I would have advanced faster. Persistent learners need a bridge, too!

A friend told me that Father and the second priest who offers Latin Mass in that parish have the same style. Accordingly, I’d recommend this church to a Latin learner before I recommend my usual one.

Sink or Swim: Fast Latin, Mumbled Chant

In contrast to last Sunday’s “bridge” Mass, all the other Latin Masses I’ve heard in my life have been “sink or swim” Masses. This can be hard to see if you’re familiar with the old rite, but very obvious if you only know the new. And everyone who wishes that more Catholics would learn “Tridentine as a second language” should be aware of why many Catholics don’t.

My very first Tridentine experience was a dialogue Mass. Father spoke audibly and slowly. But as I’ve said, even with the rest of the congregation answering in the same style, I often lost my place in the missal. Recalling it now, I’d say that the Mass was very clear if you already knew it.

Then I heard the Masses of some priests who probably chose to mumble along because they were still learning it. (Again, if you already knew the Mass, you could see the more experienced sacristans giving them cues!)

When I found my current parish, it was struggling along with a donated sound system. By then, I was familiar enough with the liturgy and only missed most of the homilies. Today, we have much better sound . . . all the better to hear that musical talent isn’t a requirement for the priesthood! One priest is shrill, another warbles, and a third sings Latin so beautifully that it almost makes up for his difficulty delivering homilies in English.

In summary, if you never heard the idea that the Mass is the priest’s prayer — meaning that our assistance is actually not necessary — you’ll be adjusting not just to a new language and a new liturgy, but also to a new theology. This can be very difficult.

Bridge: Screens

Even the clearest Latin could use a visual aid. At most Traditional Latin Masses, you will use a missal. At last Sunday’s “bridge” Mass, we had a slide show projected onto a third of the front wall.

This is something I grew up with in the new rite. As a child in the Philippines, I learned to read hymn lyrics from an overhead projector screen. When I went to New Zealand, my parish had a similar setup for the Gloria, Credo, and other parts of the Mass that the congregation says. Back then, I frequently took curious non-Catholic friends to Mass and I appreciated the projected prayers for their sake. Some time after I returned home, my then-parish replaced its screen with a network of wall-mounted flat-screen TVs. Today, most Catholic churches in the city have such a “slide show missal,” often illustrated with public domain images.

I’m personally not a fan. These screens can be garishly ugly. Even when done well, they can be distracting: All are obviously installations in churches that were not designed for them. But as I was grateful for them when they helped my non-Catholic friends appreciate the new Mass, I like how they can help Catholics from the new Mass appreciate the old one.

Even unnecessary directions like “All stand” and “All kneel” are helpful to those who don’t know them yet. I still think it’s better to follow what those around you are doing. And I hardly cared for reminders like “Seats are for people, not for bags” during the liturgy. But if you grew up guided by a screen rather than your neighbor, the former is at least a more familiar bridge.

Sink or Swim: Missals

As I wrote in a previous post, it takes time to use your missal properly. Before you master this skill, it can be more of a distraction than an aid. During those times I took someone to Latin Mass, I thought I’d be helpful by occasionally pointing to where we were in the missal or the printout of propers. They later told me I was just another distraction!

If you’re still learning, a “slide show missal” has the advantage of showing the way without breaking your concentration. Instead of a friend’s finger suddenly invading your space to point to some line, it is a teacher’s pointer gently tracing the text as you read. It even “turns the page” for you!

This may seem a little infantilizing, but language learners really are much like children. And at least one study has shown that we advance faster when teachers treat us accordingly. (Source) When you feel you have outgrown the screen, you can always ignore it. Just focus on your missal and what is going on at the altar. If I hadn’t been so interested in the screen as a “bridge” resource last Sunday, I would have!

Have you heard the old Mass with any new trappings?

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