Exploring the Family Attic: A 30-year-old Discovers the Tridentine Rite

Imagine discovering an attic in your house, one you never knew existed, filled with dusty family heirlooms: Grandmother’s wedding dress, Grandfather’s letters to her, Great-Aunt Betty’s diary. As you explore this attic, the family history comes alive for you. As you read the letters and diaries of your forebears, you think, “These are my origins, my people; so this is where I came from.”

In January 1990, the Tridentine Rite Mass was offered in our parish church for the first time in nearly a quarter-century, and for me, for the first time in conscious memory. As I knelt in the church listening to the dialogue between the priest and the altar boys, hearing words so new to me and so familiar to the older people there, I felt a sense of awe, of timelessness. I had never felt so close to my ancestors as I did kneeling there and hearing, “Confitebor tibi in Cithara….” “Confiteor Deo omnipotenti….” As I watched and listened I thought, “My great-great-grandmothers heard these same words as they knelt, covered heads bowed, in country churches in Louisiana and Ireland.” As I responded, “Sed libera nos a malo,” I felt surrounded by a vast crowd of people living and dead, asking, as I was, to be delivered from the evils that forever plague us: war, famine, disease, sin and all its effects.

It is ironic that one criticism often advanced against the Tridentine Rite Mass is that it encourages a sense of isolation, whereas the New Roman Rite encourages a sense of community because I had never felt less alone at Mass than at the Tridentine Rite. During the Mass I often thought of how exactly the same syllables fell on the ears of my ancestors as were falling on mine; of how hundreds of saints worshipped exactly as I was doing, with the same words, gestures, and motions. The Novus Ordo has never given me that strong a sense of continuity with the past, probably because it is trying so hard to be contemporary rather than timeless.

In the document “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (1963), the Second Vatican Council offered several guidelines for liturgical reform:

The Christian people, as far as possible, should be able to understand [these rites] with ease and take part in them fully, actively, and as a community… in the revision of the liturgy… the rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity. They should be short, clear, and free of useless repetition. They should be within the peoples’ powers of comprehension.

All this sounds mild enough, but zealous reformers often made these changes in a sudden, sweeping manner that scandalized and alienated many of the faithful. The specific changes made in churches (priests facing the congregation, the complete elimination of Latin, the use of secular music with no theological content, a general air of informality at Mass) were not all recommended by the Council, and some were actually contrary to its directives. Traditionalists simply love to regale you with (unfortunately true) tales of choirs singing Bob Dylan songs as Communion hymns, priests vesting in clown suits, and other liturgical horror stories. Abuses and extremes abound, and various Jeremiahs have lamented them elsewhere; for a particularly depressing portrait, see Anne Roche Muggeridge’s excellent The Desolate City. The point I wish to make here is that there is a vast difference—reading the Vatican II documents, I was shocked to find how vast it is—between the guidelines given by the Council and the extreme way in which they were carried out.

Promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970, the New Roman Missal officially replaced the Tridentine Rite (so called because it resulted from the Council of Trent, 1545-63) with the Novus Ordo as the official Roman Catholic rite of the Mass. In October 1984, partly in response to the Lefebvrite movement, Pope John Paul II granted to bishops the authority to celebrate the Tridentine Rite Mass for the faithful. In a letter dated October 3, 1984, the Congregation for Divine Worship stated, “The diocesan bishop may allow those who are explicitly named in a petition submitted to him to celebrate Mass by use of the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal.” The July 11, 1988, edition of L’Osservatore Romano reported that “The Holy Father has stated that wherever there are seven Catholics who want the Latin Mass, it should be given to them on a weekly or even daily basis in their parish church.” It was in response to that directive that the Latin Mass was offered in our parish church.

For me it really was like stumbling suddenly on a treasure-chest, a rich inheritance. But how would you feel if you realized this legacy was yours by right but that your family had deliberately cut you off from it, had hidden it from you? Yet this is exactly what the modern Church has done to an entire generation.

C.S. Lewis says somewhere that one advantage of becoming Christian was that he could now study medieval literature from the point of view of those who wrote it. When it comes to the study of literature, Catholics who grew up in the pre-Vatican II Church have an enormous advantage over those who didn’t. As I glance through my 1955 St. Andrew Missal (found in a second-hand bookstore), once-opaque literary allusions suddenly become clear; just reading through this dusty black book is a course in Western civilization. Lines and titles of poems, e.g., Baudelaire’s “De Profundis,” Austin Clarke’s “Tenebrae,” gain a deeper meaning: “Oh, that’s what that title means—now I see what that poem is about!” T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” contains lines not only from the Mass but from the “Salve Regina” and recognizing these quotations deepens a reader’s understanding of the poem. Yet how many people who grew up in the post-Conciliar Church know that prayer, even in translation?

In the recent film My Left Foot, Irish artist Christy Brown mutters, “Introibo ad altare Dei” as he drains the first of several glasses of wine. He was referring, I suppose, not only to the Latin Mass but to the opening lines of Joyce’s Ulysses, which is itself fraught with references to the Tridentine Rite. How many other allusions in film, poetry, and opera have I missed because I grew up in the post-Vatican II Church? How many avenues into art, music, and drama are closed to me because I know so little of Catholic liturgical traditions?

But it’s not just a matter of recognizing titles, tags, and trivia—it’s culture in a much broader sense. Why, after all, are there so many references to traditional Catholic funeral liturgy in music and poetry? Why have so many composers and poets drawn inspiration from it?

As I page through this musty missal, I think I can suggest an answer. It’s because the funeral liturgy served the occasion well: it gave people the words to say goodbye at a time when they were overwhelmed with emotion and couldn’t find the words to say. It also, I imagine, made bereaved people feel less alone in their grief. Hearing the Dies Irae chanted, they’d realize that many people had heard or had sung over their remains these same words, in this same language, set to the same starkly lovely melody.

I think knowing this would make it easier. The modern Catholic funerals I’ve been to are awkward affairs: they’re mostly improvised; nobody knows what to expect; and as a result, they’re harder on family and mourners than they need to be. The advantage of adhering strictly to prescribed ritual and language at a wedding or funeral is that less emotional strain is placed on people: they can slip into the ancient ritual with relief, as into an old sweater, follow along, and not have to assume the burden of being original. They don’t have to worry about what to do or say, because the rite gives them the words to utter and the gestures to make.

Ancient, familiar prayers are comforting, too, especially when they employ language elegantly. Compare these two Offertory prayers from the Mass for the Dead, the first from the St. Andrew Missal, the second from that wonderful pamphlet of contemporary mediocrity, “Celebrating the Eucharist”:

O Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory, deliver the souls of the faithful departed from the pains of hell and from the deep pit; deliver them from the lion’s mouth, that hell may not swallow them up, and may they not fall into darkness, but may the holy standard-bearer, Michael, lead them into the holy Light.

Lord, we are united in this sacrament by the love of Jesus Christ. Accept these gifts and receive our brother (sister) into the glory of your Son, who is Lord forever and ever.

The beauty of the first prayer would, I think, console and uplift those who are mourning the loss of a loved one, especially if they were hearing it in Latin and following along in the Missal. Hearing it in an ancient language would put one’s loss in the perspective of tradition, and beyond tradition to eternity. The first prayer expresses all the stormy emotion of a funeral in a formal, stylized way that allows one to feel grief without being overwhelmed by it.

The second prayer represents a deliberate lowering of the tone. Why? To make the liturgy more popular? Judging from the decline in Mass attendance since Vatican II, it has had just the opposite effect, and I can easily see why. It’s much more insulting to talk down to people than to talk over their heads.

The late Joseph Campbell, lapsed Catholic and lifetime student of myth and ritual, once remarked in an interview that when the Church stopped using the Tridentine Rite, “they scrapped the greatest work of art Western civilization ever produced,” He added that “just when they stop doing Latin in the Mass, the kids start chanting Sanskrit.”

Although I’ve never formally studied Latin, I found the Scripture readings at Mass more meaningful, rather than less so, in an unfamiliar language (as long as I could follow along in a Missal). I had to pay closer attention to them, and I gained a deeper understanding of the readings by seeing them in two different languages, just as reading the same poem in both original and translation enhances the awareness of nuance.

While the Mass is concerned with prayer and the giving of sacramental grace, it is also concerned with nourishing souls, and beauty—graceful, poetic language—feeds the soul. Certainly Catholics should interpret Christ’s words, “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink,” to mean physical hunger and thirst. But depriving people of the Church’s traditional poetry, ritual, and doctrine causes hunger and thirst no less real. People need to be nourished with beauty as well as with food; “man does not live by bread alone.”

I happened on a copy of the Baltimore catechism when I was 21. I’d never seen it before; my CCD classes had consisted mostly of sitting on a classroom floor singing Simon and Garfunkel songs. As I read through the catechism for the first time, I felt as though I’d been handed a plateful of meat and vegetables after living on cotton candy for 21 years. At last, some real nourishment: all these clear, straightforward definitions. My favorite was the famous answer to “Why are we here?”: “God put us in the world to know, love, and serve Him in this life and be happy with Him forever in Heaven.” I was in the throes of a big “what’s the meaning of life” crisis and was reading all the Camus I could get my poor little hands on. I read these words and thought, “Now there’s an answer—much more satisfying than Sisyphus and his rock. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that?”

I have little patience with Catholics older than I who complain about how awful it was to have to memorize all that tedious dogma in catechism class, or to have to sing Gregorian chant. Listening to them, I feel like someone who grew up in poverty, eating nothing but moldy bread, listening to rich kids complain of having been fed steak all the time. I feel like saying to such people, “At least when you left the Church, you knew what it was you were leaving. When you decided you didn’t believe all that stuff, at least you knew what all that stuff was.” My generation has been denied weight and substance, roots and soil, and left “blowing in the wind” like dried leaves.


  • Lucie E. Mayeux

    At the time this article was published, Lucie E. Mayeux wrote from Louisiana.

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