It was about the time of the Holy Father's release of Summorum Pontificum in July 2007 that I attended my first celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass. Having celebrated the Novus Ordo Mass with love and devotion for the last 20 years I found this 'new' form of the Mass deeply moving and highly significant.
I desired to know and experience more so I started to immerse myself in ecclesiastical Latin and with the assistance of the Chaplains of the Melbourne Latin Mass Apostolate and a Fraternity of St Peter priest I, along with a small number of others, learned to celebrate the 'extraordinary form of the Mass' as Pope Benedict had named it.
I am very grateful to these priests for their inspiring dedication and love of the traditional liturgy of the Church and their generosity in sharing this great spiritual treasure with others.
Weekly Latin Mass
We now have a weekly Thursday evening 'extraordinary form' Mass ('EF') at St Agatha's Parish, Cranbourne, Sale Diocese, where I am Parish Priest. This is an extra weekday Mass which can be offered because we also have the services of an assistant priest in the parish. Our 'EF' Mass was requested by parishioners after I spoke positively in a homily about the Holy Father's Motu Proprio. On average 30-40 parishioners attend the Mass and there are often new parishioners coming for the first time to see what this 'EF' Mass is all about.
The laity is certainly called to full and active participation in the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). This is an active participation centred on a contemplative engagement of heart and mind with the unfathomable mystery of Christ's love and self- giving taking place upon the altar. This profound interior participation in the sacred mysteries is a key goal for all liturgy.
It is fostered in the 'EF' Mass through a rich experience of sacred ritual, language and silence. The things that are holy are often veiled or partially hidden from our eyes in the TLM. This is not because what is happening is distant or inaccessible to us as if we are cut off from it. Rather, since time immemorial sacred realities have been veiled or hidden to convey that they cannot ever be fully grasped, possessed or understood on a human level.
This is for us the Mystery of God in Christ giving Himself completely to us and for us as the Word made flesh; at the same time He always remains utterly beyond our reach as the Divine Son within the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The TLM fosters an active participation in being with Christ in His work of redemption rather than one of doing at the external level of the liturgy. This is not to say that one form of participation has to be chosen to the exclusion of the other, it is more a question of emphasis between the two forms of the Mass.
An image of the Traditional Latin Mass that also speaks powerfully to me is the Biblical motif of ascending the mountain to encounter the presence of God. I am thinking particularly of Moses ascending Sinai to encounter God and bring back the precious gift of God's saving word in the Ten Commandments. There is also Peter, James and John encountering the glory of the Lord on Mt Tabor at the transfiguration.
In the prayers at the foot of the altar, to begin Mass in the extraordinary form, the priest and the people with him humbly pray for mercy, forgiveness and purification before the priest ascends the steps to the altar of God. The priest and people face the same direction towards the Lord (orientated toward the altar cross), the priest representing Christ the mediator stands between God and the people as the one who is leading and ministering on their behalf.
The image is also one of priest and people on a pilgrim journey moving towards the Lord who in turn comes to meet them in the Eucharistic sacrifice and ultimately in its fulfilment at the Parousia.
In the Traditional Latin Mass, shortly before the Eucharistic prayer, the priest turns to the people to ask them to pray for him and with him that the sacrifice may be accepted by God (Orate fratres). The priest then turns to enter the holy of holies of the Eucharistic mystery and the people do not see his face again until he holds before them the gift of Jesus Himself (Ecce Agnus Dei ...).
Some may object that in this form of the Mass the people don't see what is happening on the altar. However the truth is that in the Novus Ordo we do not see what is really happening on the altar either. Even if the priest in a Novus Ordo Mass makes an exaggerated gesture of holding the bread and wine out towards the people during the Consecration we do not see the moment when time stands still and heaven and earth are joined as the living body and blood of Christ become present on the altar.
This supreme moment of presence and redeeming sacrifice is hidden and veiled from our eyes, yet it is the reality of what happens at every Mass. The TLM beautifully manifests the reality of the Mass as Sacred Mystery and so the exalted language that I employ in writing of the sublime greatness of the Eucharistic Mystery is entirely appropriate.
Actually I find it very sad when the sacred reality of the Mass is excavated by some to focus on a simple minimalist interpretation. Today this inevitably focuses on the Eucharist as an example of Jesus' table fellowship with others at everyday meals during his public ministry.
It should be emphasised that if the Mass makes present in a certain sense a theophany on the holy mountain it also involves the reality of coming down from the mountain into the messiness of everyday life. Moses came down from Sinai to witness the apostasy of Israel and Jesus; and the apostles descended Mt Tabor to encounter the disciples and scribes arguing over the epileptic demonic. Jesus declares 'Faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?' (Mk 9:19).
While the priest enjoys the awesome privilege of glimpsing the glory of the Lord at the altar of God, he is also called to bring the Lord Jesus to others with his whole life as a priest and not just in the Eucharistic liturgy. Jesus came 'not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many' (Mk 10:45). The Ministerial priest acts in the person of Christ the Priest, but he is also to give his whole life with Christ the Victim offered up on the cross for the life of the world. Moreover what is true for the priest is also true in its proper way for all Christ's faithful people in living out their Baptismal vocation.
Benedict XVI has stressed that the reforms of Vatican II must be understood through a hermeneutic of continuity and organic growth rather than a hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity. For me the discovery of the Traditional Latin Mass has been like someone with memory loss suddenly recovering his memory and rediscovering and reconnecting with his true identity in remembering once again his past life.
I now feel a new affinity in mind and heart with many of the saints from centuries past. I also feel a new closeness in spirit to the pioneering priests and bishops of the Australian Church of the past whom I greatly admire. Interestingly the Traditional Latin Mass has enriched my appreciation and celebration of the Novus Ordo Mass as well. I now understand and appreciate the splendid liturgical origins of the simplified ritual of the new Mass.
An understanding of how the teachings of Vatican II are meant to be applied in the Church today has also become clearer for me. For all of this I have no doubt the Novus Ordo will remain normative for the Church and if the new Mass is celebrated according to the mind of the Church I believe this is as it should be.
At the same time I note that Benedict wrote in his letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum that he hopes there will be mutual enrichment between the two forms of the Roman Rite. I too share this hope, because the Sacred Liturgy is not frozen in time but with the help of the Holy Spirit develops in continuity with all that has gone before. Please God this legitimate development will slowly continue in the Church solely under the direction and authority of the successors of Peter.
In speaking to the people of St Agatha's Parish about the introduction of a weekly extraordinary form Mass I emphasised that absolutely nothing is being taken away from what we already do as a parish, rather there is now a new opportunity to encounter and worship the Lord in His act of Eucharistic self-giving. This liturgical opportunity is something new and fresh (even if initially baffling) to most Catholic people today.
With the Traditional Latin Mass taking a place of esteem and honour beside the ordinary form of the Roman Rite I have no doubt the authentic Catholic identity of the Church will be reinforced and deepened. In this way the saving presence of Jesus Christ will also be strengthened for a world that so desperately needs Him today.
Fr Andrew Wise is a priest of the Sale Diocese and holds an MA in Spirituality and Spiritual Direction from Creighton Jesuit University in the United States.