On the Cusp of Something Great

Elizabeth Scalia, raised between Rites, welcomes back the Old Latin Mass, and wonders if its return might help improve the New.

A magnificently voiced organ and the clear treble of the girl’s choir combined to sound like angels from on high. The billowing incense seemed to charge the church interior with holiness and mystery, and we knew our innocent prayers would be swiftly borne up to heaven on those spicy, fragrant clouds.
The priests and altar boys wore festive, gorgeous red beneath their impeccably starched or delicately laced surplices, and all around us was beauty, joy, order, meaning, mystery — and something else: a sense of confident and grave purpose.

At this first Holy Communion, circa mid-1960s, we girls in identical veils and the boys in their blue suits, genuflected before entering our pews, and believed ourselves embarked upon a well-plotted journey with few surprises in store. Before us was an altar. A priest — his back to us — performed a sacrifice. We did not fully grasp all of it, but we understood sacrifices were pleasing to God; we comprehended that even though this spring day was "about us," we were taking part in something vastly larger than ourselves. Schooled in reverence by dedicated sisters, we knew we would kneel in turn at the altar rail, respond "Amen" to the proffered declaration "the Body of Christ," and then self-consciously stick out our tongues. Thus, we would receive into ourselves — through a great and holy Mystery of God — the real, physical Body of Christ, the God-man on the cross who fed the multitudes with bread. Now, He would feed us of Himself.

Returning to our seats, allowing the Sacred Host to melt within our mouths, we had been instructed to speak in secret to Jesus the deepest longings of our hearts, to thank Him, to make Him welcome.
I knelt at my seat, thanking and welcoming Jesus, as I’d been taught, and suddenly I was in the grip of something I had never felt before — an indescribable sweetness, an overwhelming sense of . . . what, exactly? I could not have then articulated the ringing sense, deep within myself, of "holy, holy, holy" like the peal of a bell. It vibrated up from my core, powerful enough to bring tears, and I did not hide them. I was not alone; beside me a pretty strawberry-blonde named Aileen also wept. Hearing her sniffles, I turned my head and we exchanged soggy smiles in perfect understanding. Something beautiful had happened, and everything leading up to it within the preceding hour — the music, the reverence, the bowed heads of our parents, the precision of the altar boys and the seriousness of the priests — had contributed to this singular moment, and had reinforced it, too.
Afterwards, still sobbing, I was led away from my classmates by Sr. Mary Alice, my second-grade teacher, who knelt before me and asked what was wrong.
"Sister, you have to make me repeat the second grade!" I told her.
"But why, dear?" She asked.{mospagebreak}
"Because I want to do that again!" I wailed. "And I can only make first Holy Communion in the second grade!"
Sister assured me that, while I could only make my first Holy Communion once, I could now receive Jesus in the Eucharist "every Sunday — every day if you want! You will always have this — the Mass and Holy Communion!"
On that cloudless day, "you will always have this" seemed like a promise one could take to the bank. After all, "this" had been going on, more or less unchanged, for 2,000 years. Taking that into consideration, I was somewhat mollified.

♦ ♦ ♦

How did it happen, then, that a short time later I found my favorite childhood hymn ("Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creaaaaaation") replaced by a congregational rendering of Bob Dylan’s "Blowin’ in the Wind," our doubtful voices urged on by a swaying man wearing blue jeans and strumming a guitar? Why was our priest preaching, not about sacraments or sin or salvation, but about the wisdom of Paul Simon’s Mrs. Robinson, which told us that — coo-coo-catchoo — Jesus loved us more than we knew?
Talk about having a rug pulled out from under you. Seemingly overnight, the genuflections were passe, the organ was silenced and its loft emptied. The chants, which had brought chills and stillness — even to us children — were forgotten. The altar rails were down, the women’s heads uncovered, the sisters mostly gone, and our priests were facing us at a "table." The Holy Mass that had so recently moved Aileen and me to ecstatic tears had suddenly become unrecognizable, and almost nothing about these changes was explained.
I was a grown woman before a kind priest told me that the lifting of the Friday ban on meat was not — as I had come to think of it — the equivalent of a doctrinal tooth extraction that replaced something with nothing and left a gaping hole in my understanding. Who knew that the Council’s intent was to free the faithful to choose their own, more personally meaningful — and therefore more worthwhile — sacrifice to perform on Fridays, in remembrance of Good Friday?
I suspect the news that the powerful men in Rome had actually meant to treat the faithful like adults capable of self-discipline would have been very welcome and inspiring in that era of liberation and self-discovery, but I’ve never met anyone who was taught it. Lacking that, most Catholics wondered why things that used to matter suddenly did not, opening wide the doors to doubt, and then forgot about a useful spiritual exercise. Suddenly Friday became just like any other day, and thus time became less sanctified — as did most things.{mospagebreak}
We youngsters riding on the cusp of change grew up anxious, never quite knowing what to expect at Mass. Would we be clapping hands today? Will there be bells at the consecration? Are we always going to recite the Eucharistic prayer along with the priest like we did last week? Should I bring my tambourine?

♦ ♦ ♦

My memory of the Traditional Mass is cloudy and vague, and I suspect a bit romantic, but I recollect the first translations of the Novus Ordo very well; they were more exact, and more spiritually focused than what eventually followed. We easily learned our vernacular responses, which were pretty nice:
"The Lord be with you."
"And with your spirit."
"Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; speak but the word, and my soul shall be healed."
And then we learned them again:
"The Lord be with you."
"And also with you."
"Lord I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word, and I shall be healed."
Small differences brought significant changes in meaning, and we sensed it. The liturgy kept evolving, the emphases kept changing, and every reform and bizarre new experiment was described as being "in the spirit of Vatican II." To many of us things often seemed arbitrary, impermanent, and disordered. Weighed against the aura of mystery, gravity, and unambiguous purpose that we remembered, the attractions of Mass in the vernacular — and there were many — seemed to rise in the balance. In short order, Masses became so individualized and unpredictable that it became easy to walk away from a church that seemed to fit itself to times and trends, rather than transcend them.
And so we left in droves. A great number of us have never found our way back into the pews; those who have often squirm a bit, wondering: Is the so-so liturgy, the casual-Fridays atmosphere, and the truly deplorable three-chord campfire music really as good as it can get? Is this really the best and most reverent worship we can offer to the Almighty?
For those of us whose religious formation was transitional, the implementations of Council recommendations were successive earthquakes and aftershocks, inflicting huge cracks upon our foundations. We, who had only begun to absorb and appreciate our Catholic identities and traditions before everything changed, have been straddling a spiritual chasm ever since. One foot catches on the pre-Vatican II soil of tradition, vertical worship, mystical awe, and order. Maybe, we concede, it was a bit sterile and distant; perhaps there was a little too much order. Our other foot is planted post-conciliar, amid informality and determined outreach. It’s warmer, more accessible, and less exalted, but — well, it’s less exalted. We stare into the breech and wonder if the attractive bits we see lingering on both ragged edges can somehow be brought together.
A few years ago a "cuspy" Catholic neighbor and I, exchanging memories of the Tridentine liturgy and bemoaning the sort of knockabout, sloppy Masses we had been suffering through, decided to attend an "Old Rite" Mass in the area. We came away from it feeling surprisingly less satisfied than we had hoped. The Mass was beautiful, indeed, reverent and purposeful, but "I didn’t like his back being to us," my friend complained; "I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, and I felt like he didn’t care whether we were there or not!"
"I didn’t like the head covering," I admitted, "it distracted me and I wanted to pull it off."
"But still, I liked kneeling to receive the Eucharist," she said.
"Yes, and the silence after Communion. You never hear Holy Silence at Mass anymore."
"Yeah, but I hated not making the responses. I forgot that the altar boys did that . . ."
Perhaps our memory nags us into craving more than we actually want.
We drove home imagining the "perfect" Mass. It would be the Novus Ordo, after all, but with a more inspired, less horizontal translation. There would be more "The Church’s One Foundation" and less hand-clapping. The Eucharistic responses would be in Latin — "and," said my friend, "if after all these years, someone can’t compose a singable Gloria that doesn’t plod, let’s just go back to chanting it, can we, please?"{mospagebreak}
The Novus Ordo isn’t going anywhere, but many Catholics who appreciate its music, relaxed standards, and the dicey creativity of parish liturgists are wary of Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum. They worry that the "traditionalists" who have longed for greater availability of the Tridentine Rite and more traditional worship will try to inflict what they perceive to be dead forms onto the newer Mass.
In truth, their worries, while probably excessive, are not baseless. Many Catholics perceive over-corrections within post-conciliar liturgies and devotions, and the pendulum is, predictably, swinging back. The weaknesses of the vernacular translations of the Mass, particularly from Latin to English, have been recognized and are being addressed. Bishops are gently discouraging the liturgical excesses that a decade ago affected a great deal of Catholic worship and often led to eye-rolling in the pews and angry letters to the Vatican. Most notably, there is an increasing trend among Catholics — particularly young Catholics, who got a taste of a fuller, more solemn liturgy with the funeral mass of Pope John Paul II — to seek out the so-called Old Latin Rite. Summorum Pontificum is Pope Benedict’s happy recommendation that their bishops oblige them in their desires, but whether the promotion of the 1962 Missal and a greater availability of that Mass has any discernable effect on the primacy of the Novus Ordo remains to be seen. For those of us raised in a religious environment that was half Tridentine and half free-for-all, I suspect we will continue to straddle the chasm.
It is doubtful that the re-emergence of the Old Rite will bring a large number of us cuspers back to it, but interest in the Tridentine Mass might actually benefit the Novus Ordo. It may restore some equilibrium to those self-indulgent liturgists who have come to believe that any old thing they can come up with must be a better option than what worked for 2,000 years. A return to seriousness and an appreciation of what came before could help strengthen liturgy that has been too long unsettled (and as the liturgy goes, so goes the worship). In that case, Summorum Pontificum could be a win/win for everyone.

♦ ♦ ♦

Not long ago, one of my children — a fairly reverent kid — accompanied me to Mass in a neighboring parish, one we do not usually attend. Referred to as the "choir" Mass, the liturgist chose older hymns almost exclusively, and while the Novus Ordo was used, there was a pre-Vatican II moment that threw us both for a loop. "Angus Dei," the choir intoned, and suddenly the whole congregation was plainchanting, hauntingly and without accompaniment, "Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis." I was plunged back 40 years into poignant remembrance.
My son leaned over and asked, "What is this?"
"It’s the Lamb of God."
"I love this; this is amazing," he whispered back.
"I know," I answered, wishing he’d be quiet.
He was right, though. That brief use of Gregorian chant, and the effect it had on us and the congregation, was amazing. It brought the Holy Silence, not outside, but within. It reinforced the solemnity of a profound moment of invitation and revelation. It brought us — willingly, sensibly — to our knees, and rang holy, holy, holy deep within.
"Why can’t we have this all the time?" my son asked.
"You will always have this," came Sr. Mary Alice’s voice, through the years.
"We do," I said. "We will, I think. Almost."

Elizabeth Scalia is a freelance writer who has contributed to numerous Catholic publications and has lately preferred editing the work of others — both fiction and non-fiction. She lives in New York with her husband and children.

Elizabeth Scalia


Elizabeth Scalia is the popular writer and blogger known as "The Anchoress." She writes a weekly column for First Things and is the managing editor for the Catholic Portal at Patheos.

  • William

    Thank you Anchoress, that was lovely. I was just over to that new Catholic blog on the block, “Pray Tell.” Coming from there to here and reading this was most reassuring. If folks here haven’t as yet visited “Pray Tell,” do so; they need all the balanced in-put that readers here can supply!

  • Criffton

    I am a young convert, and the first time I heard the N.O. mass setting that includes a little bit of Latin I was blown away by the beauty of the words.

    The Summorum Pontificum sparked my interest, and I have been attending a FSSP apostolate for the past two years. Not to knock the Ordinary Form, but I dread traveling. It may be done reverently, and I think I have seen it done so, but for the most part around western SD and NE I just have to grind through it. Not that it is intentional, but the omission of so many outward signs of devotion and reverence are completely gone.

    However, it is a good occasion for mortifying my will by “Doing as the Romans Do” and not making responses in Latin / ignoring the sign of peace / or using the prayers from the E.F. (Like the old confiteor or Domine, non sum dignus).

  • Aaron

    Our other foot is planted post-conciliar, amid informality and determined outreach. It’s warmer, more accessible, and less exalted, but — well, it’s less exalted.

    I know the newrite is meant to be warmer and more accessible, but I wonder if that’s true. I certainly don’t find many of the modern churches done in “branch library” style to be warm, compared to our “throwback” parish with its marble statues, ornate Stations of the Cross, and numerous candles.

    As far as accessibility goes, no one I grew up with in the 70s and 80s understood the Faith or the Mass any better than people did in the 50s, and in most cases I’d say we knew far less. You could say that’s because we weren’t taught (and we certainly weren’t), but wasn’t the whole point of using the vernacular and dumbing it down to make it so accessible we could just get it without learning complicated prayers in a foreign language and studying a serious catechism? So much for that idea. All we “got” was that there wasn’t much to get.

    On outreach, Michael Voris says that Vatican II said the lay people should become more involved in spreading the gospel, but instead of spreading it outside the walls of the church, they took that to mean they should take over as much of the priest’s job inside the church as possible. I think there’s some truth to that, although I don’t think it was an accident. I’ve seen very little outreach by Catholic parishes in my lifetime; most of them are just trying to hang onto the people they’ve got. The only growing parish I’ve ever been involved in is the Traditional Latin Mass church that I now attend, and we’re also working on some outreach ideas, because there’s so little of that today.

    Less exalted, though–I can agree with that one wholeheartedly.

  • joan

    Elizabeth Scalia…If your first Holy Communion was in the Traditional Rite, the Priest says in Latin three times,
    Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.

    May the Body of our[smiley=wink] Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul unto life everlasting.{ Instead of, The Body of Christ}
    You would then receive and only the Priest would say Amen.[smiley=wink]

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    You’re right about the three times “Lord I am not worthy…”

    But I distinctly remember “Body of Christ” and “Amen.”

    But this was the mid-sixties, as I said. For all I know what I was encountering was already changing.

  • Ann

    I ws raised in the church in the fifties. I remember the missal with the Latin on the left and the english translation on the right. The congregation, not just the altar boys, responded in Latin. I remember the Sisters of the Incarnate Work drilling us in the correct pronunciation of the Latin. The Mass at that time seemed so heavenly and majestic to me. I still miss it.

  • Siobhan

    I am not a devotee of everything aired on EWTN but I certainly do appreciate the way they offer Mass. It is the Novus Ordo but with a difference. That difference is it’s balance and reverence.

    There is some use of Latin but it is offered with a clarity that is invitational and involving for all of the worshpers.
    And English, or Latin, everything is spoken (and sung) by everyone participating, on the alter or in the pew, with a beautiful REVERENCE.

    Sometimes I wish the expressions on the faces of the people in the pews were less doleful. But at least they are utterly attentive. And,their demeanor is deeply REVERENT. They behave as if they really believe that something truly wonderful and uniquely special is taking place.

    Annie Dillard said something like that if we really knew what was happening during the Mass we would wear helmets instead of flowered hats. She got that right. Why can’t the parish liturgy planners and the priests get that? How long, O Lord, must awe and reverence for what is truly happening during the Mass be obscured by “warmer, more accessible, less exalted” banality, triviality and mediocrity?

  • meg

    “I didn’t like his back being to us,” my friend complained; “I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, and I felt like he didn’t care whether we were there or not!”

    I had the opposite experience – when I went to my first Latin Mass I loved that the priest was facing Christ on the cross and in the tabernacle. And I was glad he was in his own world and not worried about me at all.

    These two things totally clarified the Mass for me; without responses to say I could turn inward and focus on real worship, as the priest before me was doing. My faith was finally galvanized with the Latin Mass after years of wondering: what’s wrong with me – why don’t I feel satisfied when Mass is over?

  • Pat

    I can only just remember the Latin Mass, so I haven’t any real experience of it. An anecdote: my grandfather was a daily Mass goer. The parish had a new priest. One day a fellow parishoner met him in the street and asked him: “Paddy, what’s the new priest like?” He replied, “he seems a nice chap. Mind you he take a terribly long time to say Mass – he took 20 minutes this morning – I only just finished my rosary!” So maybe not everything was solemn and beautiful! I guess it’s about balance.

  • HBanan

    Eh, daily Mass shouldn’t have to be more than 30 minutes at the outside. I don’t believe that duration = reverence. My Sunday Mass is 1 hour. If we didn’t sing every verse of every hymn, sang a shorter “Gloria” and “Sanctus” that didn’t repeat every line over and over, the priest could still give his nice homily and we’d be out of there in around 40 minutes. Or we could stay and do another 30 minutes of Rosary and other prayers. The reverence could go up, down, or stay the same. If we chanted the Gloria and Sanctus, I would actually find it more reverent than it currently is. And, if we didn’t sing all those verses, or have people reading from the bulletin for the announcements for 10 minutes before Mass was dismissed, maybe we could take 20 seconds or so for a holy and reverent silent pause now and again.

    I’ve heard people bring up the short Masses of pre-Vatican II before, as if that is something that would turn people off, and all I can think is that that sounds fantastic to me. I love the Mass, and I personally wouldn’t mind it being 2-3 times longer than it is, but I have to say I would be thrilled to have a 20 minute daily Mass and a 30-40 minute Sunday Mass.

  • Aaron

    I personally have not heard of the pre-Vatican II Mass ever being shorter than the novus ordo Mass. I attend Latin Mass every Sunday and daily when I can and I’ve found that the Latin Mass is loner than the novus ordo. This does not deter me however because I love the Latin Mass and time does not bother me. At my parish, the daily Latin Mass takes about 30-40 minutes and Father doesn’t even give a homily. The normal Sunday Mass, whether it’s a low or high Mass generally last about an hour and twenty to an hour and thirty minutes, depending on how well or priest is (he is rather elderly.) This may seem like a while but my view is that since Mass is the most important thing that one can ever do in their life and that at Mass God is made present on the altar, time should not matter to me. Mass isn’t about me, its about giving God the honor, adoration, love, and thanksgiving that He deserves at the Supreme Creator.

  • Siobhan

    In the “old days” of the Latin Mass there was a joke that said the words of dismissal, “Ite missa est”, really meant “Gentlemen, start your engines” signalling that the race was on to see who could get out of the parking lot first.

    There were arguments about whether it was an advantage to park close to the door of the church or closer to the exit to the street if you wanted to make a fast exit.

    It was said, “Father X says a ‘good’ Low Mass: never more than 20 minutes max.”

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    For all those who wish for a shorter length of time at Mass: Did you have somewhere better to be?

  • Mary Teresa

    I would like to thank Ms. Scalia for an excellent and important piece of work, which will be widely circulated and shared. You will affect many hearts, minds, and especially souls. May Our Lord bless you abundantly in this new year and may He continue to inspire you and guide you. My husband and I are bringing up our two young daughters, ages eleven and four, in the traditional way of the Church, and we are well aware of everything you wrote – and then some. You hit the nail on the head. We are both highly educated professionals, my husband is an attorney and graduate of Notre Dame (business), Fordham (JD)and NYU (Masters in Corporate Law). I studied in Europe and hold two graduate degrees myself. We are older parents, and we lived through the changes described in this insightful article. The changes in the liturgy mirror the moral and intellectual – and above all, spiritual – revolution that took place in the Church in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Many if not most of the leaders of this revolution are still around today, but the Magisterium has consistently refused to take any action to correct or silence them, or to remove them from positions of power, influence and control. This has resulted in a terrible crisis in catechesis. The vast majority of Catholics today do not understand the Faith, or have lost their faith altogether. They reach out and grab ahold of bits and pieces of other faiths to fill the void and answer the questions and needs their souls so desperately seek. However, there are tremendous signs of hope. New Catholic communities are springing up everywhere, organized by educated lay people. The majority of our vocations are coming from home schooled families and families with traditional leanings. Our young priests are FAR more orthodox than their predecessors who came through the seminaries in the ’70’s and ’80’s and even ’90’s. Educated Catholic parents are catechizing their own children. My eleven year old received her First Holy Communion at a TLM, kneeling at the Communion rail, taking the Host from consecrated hands on her tongue. The next week, she was with her diocesan Catholic school class at a First Communion Mass standing around the altar in the sanctuary, girls fluffing their dresses, boys trying to behave, some not having even made their First Reconciliation (Penance)or even been baptized. It was very clear to me that the children had no idea what was happening at the consecration, or even when it was taking place. Her teacher, one of the two nuns in the school, was a devotee of Schillebeeckx. The head of the CCD and religious education program at the school, a lay woman, constantly taught the children heresies, including that there would soon be a woman pope. Purgatory, to their minds, was a gross fairy tale. We were the only parents I know of who actually came and reviewed the mandatory K-8 HIV AIDs instruction curriculum at the school (it had been estabished and approved by the NYState Catholic bishops, headed by Bishop Howard Hubbard in Albany). We have now moved to a different state, and our daughter now attends daily Mass in a private Catholic school run by Catholic parents. Our four year old knows all her prayers, and she will be brought up to know that the concept of Sanctifying Grace is not a blasphemy. Thank you again for a truly significant piece of work.

  • Cathy

    You’re blessed! I found myself crying many times during the Consecration, much later in life. I think its a sad situation, as Mary Teresa pointed out, when children are entrusted to diocesan schools whose teachers teach against the faith, instead of faithfully handing it on. At present, we are reaping, in many ways, what was allowed to be sown and instead of warmth and fellowship we find ourselves suspicious and necessarily vigilant as to what Catholic educators are teaching the children. I honestly hope that parents today realize that they themselves too often were not properly catechized on what the Church teaches. Too many got a lukewarm glass of water, with a drop of wine and were ill-equipped to recognize the wickedness of their own generation. Thank God for EWTN, for Lent one year I gave up all TV for the season except for EWTN. I learned more about my faith in those 40 days than I had in forty years.

    Thanks and God bless you!

  • Siobhan

    Thank you, Elizabeth, Mary Teresa and Cathy, for your truth-filled words which give reason for hope.

    I hold two graduate degrees. One of them is in Theological Studies. It was awarded in 1988 by a Catholic College established and administered by a religious order. I am still dealing with the trauma of that experience.

    The task for all of us who despite such experiences remain willing to try to restore what was essenial to the Catholic Church, and rebuild what stustained it, would be much easier if those who would deconstruct and destroy were outside the gates instead of still within the sanctuary, convent and classroom.

    But they will not be there forever. In this lies a basis for hope: your children will replace them.


  • Shirley Twining

    I enjoyed this article immensely for the balance of the views and also resonated with the difficulties described. I was a catechist for our parish RCIA, working under a “used to be Sister”. What was being taught was not even “Catholic Light”, just “light”! I quit.

    When I came into the Catholic Church, many moons ago, we were still in Latin and our missals were English on one side and Latin on the other. I loved it!

    It’s always good, however, to remember that in all things the pendulum swings from one side to the other and, true to form, our liturgies are a-swingen’ back. For instance, at our daily Mass we sing hymns and the Mass parts. About twice a week we now chant the Sanctus and Agnus Dei in Latin. My husband and I are members of one of the parish Sunday choirs. We sing the parts of the Mass in Latin during Lent and Advent.

    One more thing of importance: “Call to Action” which used to be a disturbing presence in our parish has now been relegated to a better position — deep under ground!