After 17 years as a Roman Catholic, I attended my first Traditional Latin Mass today. It wasn’t at all what I expected.
The very fact that I converted to Catholicism 17 years ago, and yet this was the first time a local parish was celebrating the traditional Mass, demonstrates just how strongly the novus ordo has taken hold (or, some would argue, how effective post-conciliar modernists were in repressing it). In the course of my studies in American Catholic history, I read many commentaries of the Vatican II period. Several of these lamented the loss of the TLM, denouncing the novus ordo as hopelessly banal, even blasphemous.
One can see how such commentators had a point. In his 1968 volume The Catholic Left, James Colaianni describes one experimental Mass organized by the radical Sister Corita Kent of Los Angeles’ Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters:
“There is no fumbling for rosaries or mumbling into prayer books. These events feature puppet shows, plays, dancing...Many girls have bells and homemade noise-makers which sound in time to the beat of the live jazz band. Then the ‘yea, yea, yea’ of the Beatles bursts forth, everyone singing and clapping in time. Then carnival music begins...”
As one who has sat through more than my fair share of bongo drums, harmonicas, “liturgical” dances, and choruses of “Kumbaya” at various Masses I’ve attended over the years, those championing the TLM had my sympathy. Whatever the traditional Mass was like, it had to be more uplifting that some of what I had experienced.
And yet, those favoring the TLM may also have been guilty of a bit of hyperbole…or perhaps they were simply seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses. In my reading, the Latin Mass was said to be reverent, awe-inspiring, mystical, beautiful, and infinitely superior than the vernacular dialogue Masses today. The TLM, I read, drew one in and inspired a sense of oneness with God completely unattainable through the Mass as it is more commonly celebrated today.
I don’t say the traditional Latin Mass ISN’T reverent, awe-inspiring, mystical, and beautiful. Very likely it is to many people. But I did not find it so. Very likely, this is because I wasn’t prepared for what I experienced, and had a mistaken impression of what the Mass would be like.
I'd assumed the TLM would be similar the high-church Anglican service I once attended with a friend, but more so: clouds of incense billowing, frequent pealing of multi-toned bells, a choir singing Gregorian chant in Latin, all building to the consecration and elevation of the Host. But that was not what I experienced.
Instead, my first TLM was a traditional LOW Mass...meaning it was celebrated almost entirely in silence. I was prepared to follow along in the Latin missal that was handed out; but I became lost almost at once because, as I discovered, nearly all the prayer before the readings (and then again after them) are read silently by the priest. With the exception of a few faint “in saecula saeculorum”s, there was nothing to hear, nothing to indicate where in the Mass we were. Even the beautiful illustrations in the missal of the priest’s gestures were largely superfluous, as since the priest faced the altar, I couldn’t see what he was doing.
The end result was that I ended up staring at the priest’s back, wondering where in the Mass we were now, and listening to the silence -- which in practice meant listening to crying babies and rambunctious toddlers.I can understand now why so many people apparently said the rosary or recited individual prayers during the TLM back in the day. It also explains how the average Catholic parish was able to have as many as eight Masses on an average Sunday morning; with most of the Mass read silently, the priest is able to say it much more quickly. (On an average Sunday, Mass begins at 9 am and concludes somewhere around a quarter to eleven. The TLM began at 9 am, and I’d finished Mass, had a doughnut in the parish hall, and was in my car before 10.)
I concede that I likely approached the traditional Mass with the wrong attitude. This may be due to my Protestant upbringing, or perhaps I’m just acclimated to the modern Mass and am simply unfamiliar with and unused to the power of concentration necessary to fully participate in the traditional Mass.
It occurs to me that, to truly “participate” in the TLM, one would either have to be fluent in Latin, have the entire Mass memorized, and somehow be so familiar with it that one could intuit which silent prayer the priest was saying at any given moment; or, one should completely give oneself over to spiritual communion and prayer. The first would require greater knowledge and experience than I possess; the latter, a far deeper and more focused spirituality.
Perhaps a traditional Latin HIGH Mass more closely resembles what I expected. I hope to be able to attend one someday. Until then, I will continue to appreciate what my parish does on an average Sunday. The novus ordo is said, but in an extremely reverent manner. The priest faces the altar throughout; the mass parts -- Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and so forth -- are sung by priest, choir and congregation, in the traditional Gregorian Latin chant. Communion is received on the tongue, kneeling. When I first attended this parish, I was astonished. in my 17 years as a Catholic, I’d seen the rare individual kneel, but never the entire congregation in an organized fashion. In fact, I hadn’t knelt at a communion rail since my youth in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. (I have since come to understand that the Lutheran order of service I grew up with in the Wisconsin Synod in the 1970s was more “Catholic” than what most Catholics were doing at the time.)
My parish’s weekly celebration strikes me as an ideal combination of old and new. It is deeply solemn and reverent, preserving the best of the traditional Mass, but is still easily understood and encourages active participation – a happy via media between the silence of the TLM and aging hippies singing “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

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