What the Traditional Mass Means to Me

I came to the Church through the Traditional Latin Mass.

I would have converted anyway. It was becoming more and more obvious that the Church was where I belonged, and it seemed pointlessly obstinate and even artificial to remain apart from her. But the Traditional Mass made the situation clearer, because it made it more obvious what the Church is.

It is easy for present-day Americans to get that point wrong. The Catechism and the Second Vatican Council say that the Mass is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” The claim seems odd to most of us today. Americans usually think religion has to do with spirituality, which we see as personal and rather vague, with moral commitment, whether defined as “family values” or as “social justice,” or with joining a community of mutual concern, acceptance, and support. Even if we accept in theory that the religion to which we claim to adhere is something much more definite, it goes against the grain to treat the definite part as more than decorative. After all, doctrine divides, and we’re all pragmatists, so why emphasize that side of things?

If you look at religion that way a worship service becomes something like a lecture, pep rally, self-help meeting, or social get-together. Other people do those things at least as well as Catholics, so why bother with Catholicism? Why not go with something even more modern and American than the New Mass as presented in the average suburban parish? Why not do praise and worship at a megachurch?

 

The Traditional Mass made it clear that the Mass is something different from all that. The formality, the silences, the use of an ancient language, the orientation and gestures of the priest, the indifference to popularity—all those things meant the Mass wasn’t anything like an ordinary meeting. It wasn’t about the people present, and at bottom it wasn’t even their doing. To the contrary, those present evidently understood what was going on as awe-inspiring, mostly invisible, and dependent on someone other than themselves. There was no other way to make sense of how they were acting.

So the Traditional Mass made it clear that there’s a basic dimension in Catholic Christianity, the reliable concrete presence of God, that I couldn’t find anywhere else. That realization clarified what the Church is—she is the way God maintains a visible presence in the world—and the necessity of becoming part of her for those who want to live a complete life.

We’ve been hearing a lot about mercy lately. That’s good, because mercy is the whole of Christianity. We’ve fallen away from God, and his mercy is his readiness to reach out to us to help us come back to him. So whatever makes it easier for people to understand the means of mercy and make use of them helps the mission of the Church.

The Mass, in which God becomes present to us in the most concrete way imaginable, is an extreme case of His mercy. The Traditional Mass makes it as evident as possible what is going on when it is celebrated. That feature helps people recognize and accept what is offered, and eliminates the barrier to mercy that arises when the nature of the Mass is obscured.

In the divine mercy it is God who defines the way and makes the first move. That means that we don’t form the Mass, it forms us, and the Traditional Mass makes that clear. It is what it is, so it’s the same for young and old, rich and poor, happy and sad, saints and sinners, Irishmen and Brazilians. It’s a Mass for all seasons that joins Catholics every place it is celebrated with other Catholics all over the world and throughout the ages. It works for all of them, because it has to do with what they all have in common: they’re human beings who are born and die, who go astray, and who hope to see God.

Which leads to another benefit of the Traditional Mass: it helps the Church see herself as a whole, as the same always and everywhere, and it unites the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in a special way. Relics of the saints help us feel their presence and communion as a reality. The Traditional Mass is a relic of the saints whose images are in the niches and on the walls, and who surround us when it is celebrated, because so many of them worshiped through the same Mass or something close to it when they were visibly here among us.

This discussion started as a conversion story, and every conversion has its more personal aspects, so I should also mention benefits the Traditional Mass had for me in particular. The New Mass, especially the earlier translation, was very close to the Episcopalian eucharistic service I was used to before becoming Catholic. The two had evidently been designed to be as similar as possible. That was a problem for me.

What the intentional similarity suggested to me was that the New Mass didn’t give nearly so distinctively Catholic a view of things. I won’t claim that view was fair or that I knew more about the needs of the Church than Bl. Paul VI did, but that was what I saw. The New Mass looked to me like it had been produced less by saints and the sensus fidei fidelium than by an interdenominational committee of credentialed experts and then modified in accordance with the demands of particular communions. For that reason I found it hard to trust unreservedly. It seemed to have been produced in cooperation with people I had good reason not to trust and wanted very much to escape from.

The Traditional Mass did away with that problem. It was something I knew I could rely on because it came out of Catholic devotion that saints and ordinary believers had lived by for hundreds of years. It made the Mass a no-spin zone that let me forget about the factions bedeviling the Church during the current period of her history and helped me see the Mass as the action of God through His Church.

To summarize a somewhat rambling and personal account, it seems to me that the Traditional Latin Mass helps believers and the Church, because it helps believers see what the Mass and Church are all about. It helps people see the Mass as more than an ordinary assembly and the Church as more than a collection of individuals with varying tendencies and idiosyncrasies. So it helps the Church reach people with what she has to offer. It also helps the Church see herself as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, and so helps focus her on her nature and mission. What could be better, or more Catholic, than all that?

James Kalb

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James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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