Rorate Caeli

Keeping Secrets at Mass

There are times (usually in the summer) when it happens that no one else is available to serve the traditional Latin Mass and I have the opportunity to don cassock and surplice. It is hard to describe my feelings on these occasions. Normally my perch is either up in the choir loft directing the schola or down in the pews following along in a missal. I do not often have the opportunity to see the Mass “close up” like this, and it always moves me—not to mention the fact that kneeling for so long on marble, keeping my back straight, is a good penance.

One thing that struck me this summer as I served a number of Masses is the immense beauty of the priest saying the “Secret” prayer silently—and since this is an example of a practice that liturgists in the middle of the 20th century assumed ought to be changed (and so it was changed in the Novus Ordo), it seems worthwhile to ponder it more carefully, lest we make the same mistake with some future edition of the traditional Missale Romanum.

At first, it bothered me that, whenever I was serving, I could not know what the priest was praying in the Secret, unless I remembered to look it up before or after Mass. But as time went on, the thick silence of that particular prayer, right before the great offering of the sacrifice (and at a moment when the Novus Ordo has habituated me to expect to hear something), made me realize with a new vividness how the Mass is a prayer directed to God first and foremost, to such an extent that my hearing and following of this prayer is secondary. The priest was not addressing it to me, but to God—and as I experienced this orientation of the prayer, it humbled me, focused me, purified me of some subtle remnant of self-interest that would take offense at not understanding everything. “It is good to hide the secret of a king” (Tobias 12:7).

Now, I know some of you are thinking: “Wait a minute, St. Thomas Aquinas says that we worship God not for His sake, since He gains nothing from our prayers, but for our sake, that we may be perfected by ordering ourselves to Him. And so it is crucial that we understand what we are saying; otherwise, why not have the entire Mass be a completely silent act of adoration culminating in communion? Surely, things are said aloud in order to be grasped by us, since God has no need of our words.” Not surprisingly, I agree with this point; I would never say that we should have no idea of what is going on or what is being prayed in the liturgy. This is why much of the Mass, whether Solemn, High, or Low, is sung or spoken aloud, and this is why, in an age of near-universal literacy, daily missals are an excellent aid. My own spiritual life has been immensely nourished by years of following along in my missal, which, together with the singing, the postures and gestures, and simply watching and listening, has been an incomparable apprenticeship to the sacred liturgy, the Church’s school of prayer par excellence.

Consequently, I think it is very important for the faithful to follow the prayers; and the Secrets are very rich prayers that deserve to live in our hearts. But that does not change the fact that the way in which the Secret is
liturgically prayed sidesteps us altogether, leaves us behind. My point is not about the liturgy as such or as a whole; it is about a particular aspect, namely, that some things in the liturgy are done in secret, in silence, hiddenly, in such a way that they are for God alone, as if whispering a confidence or a tender word to one’s beloved—and this is absolutely fitting and terribly important for us moderns who think we are (or ought to be) the center of attention, especially in an age of versus populum celebrations. The Secret prayer at the Mass, said ad orientem, with no man as audience, has therefore become for me a powerful symbol of what Cardinal Burke calls “the theocentric character of the liturgy.”

The earlier appeal to St. Thomas in favor of a kind of liturgical rationalism fails on many grounds, but let us note that Aquinas himself defends the custom of praying secreto in the Mass—a custom that, by the glorious 13th century, was already universally established:

And there are other words which the priest alone recites, namely, such as belong to his personal office, “that he may offer up gifts and prayers for the people” (Heb. 5:1).  Some of these, however, he says aloud, namely, such as are common to priest and people alike, such as the common prayers; other words, however, belong to the priest alone, such as the oblation and the consecration; consequently, the prayers that are said in connection with these have to be said by the priest in secret. (Summa theologiae III, q. 83, a. 4, ad 6)

As I have served Mass, I have become more and more grateful that we are, so to speak, left out of the secret at times, which reminds us of all the mysteries in life, in the world, in the church, that we do not understand and will never understand in this life, and perhaps not even in the life to come. (I have always been struck by the prayer in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, which the priest offers silently prior to the Sanctus: “You are God ineffable inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible . . . we give thanks to You, and to Your only-begotten Son, and to Your Holy Spirit, for all that we know and that we do not know, the manifest and the hidden benefits bestowed upon us.”) We are reminded that, in Milton’s words, “those also serve who only stand and wait”—or, in the case of a worshiper at Mass, kneel and wait. We are waiting for the full revelation of God, which will not come all at once, on our terms, but in roundabout ways, surprising us like a thief in the night, in unexpected illuminations and unsought graces.

In general, my experience over the past 25 years has taught me that even if I do not understand why something is done in a certain way in the classical Roman Rite, it is very important to be patient and not to judge the liturgy to be defective just because it does not stand up in the court of my all-too-rational laws and justify itself to me. I should rather judge myself defective for failing to grasp the meaning and purpose of this or that aspect of it. In short, I do not (and dare not) measure the liturgy; the liturgy measures me. Yes, we all know that liturgy develops over time and that corruptions can sometimes creep in; but never, until 50 years ago, did anyone dare to suggest that the very shape of the liturgy and the manner of offering it were fundamentally flawed. This is the revolutionary break; this is the moment of towering hubris; this is the moment of rupture. This is when the Secret, the Canon, the Embolism, and other such prayers were no longer allowed to be ritualized secrets, theocentric not only in their content but in their very execution; this is when everything had to be extroverted, audible, comprehensible, anthropocentric not only in their execution, but too often in their content as well.

Traditionalists today recognize, with some melancholy, how right Pope Pius VI was in condemning the Synod of Pistoia and all its pomps and works 220 years ago. That redoubtable pope identified part of the Pistoian program as “recalling [the liturgy] to greater simplicity of rites, by expressing it in the vernacular language or by uttering it in a loud voice,” on which he commented: “as if the present order of the liturgy received and approved by the Church had emanated in some part from the forgetfulness of the principles by which it should be regulated.” To this view Pope Pius VI memorably applied the following pontifical appraisal: “rash, offensive to pious ears, insulting to the Church, favorable to the charges of heretics” (Bull Auctorem Fidei, August 28, 1794, D.S. 2633).

Thanks be to God that there always were, still are, and will always be those who know that such reforms, whether hailing from the heyday of the Enlightenment or percolating in the periti of the Vatican, are a colossal mistake, a capitulation to an evanescent and prematurely aging modernity, and that the God “who gives joy to my youth” is still being invoked every day, on every continent, by those who hold fast to the Mass of the Ages, the Mass of the Saints.

(Top photo courtesy of the Campion Missal Project.)
[New Catholic:] We are so happy to welcome a new and distinguished contributor, Professor Peter Kwasniewski, PhD, professor at Wyoming Catholic College and (sorry if this embarrasses you, Professor) a treasure for the Church in our time. He is well known for his many texts published elsewhere and he will be adding his voice here, as he often did in the past, but now as a contributor himself. Welcome!