Rorate Caeli

Latin and Liturgical Participation


By James Baresel

When told his movie The Producers was vulgar, Mel Brooks quipped “It rises beneath vulgarity.” That anecdote came to mind in reference to one of the most telling attempts to defend the restrictions placed on the Tridentine Mass over the past two years—an attempt which rose beneath ignorance to reveal that the foundation of the anti-Tridentine position is incompatible with Catholic dogma.

In their now-notorious series of articles, Father Thomas Weinandy, John Cavadini and Mary Healy gave the game away in two simple sentences: “Without the vernacular, the active, vocal, intelligible participation [making responses together with the servers, singing together with the choir, etc.] of the faithful [at Mass] would have been impossible—at least for the vast majority” and that “[t]o return to the Tridentine Mass is, then, to lose or obscure a foundational dimension of the Church and her worship.”

Factually speaking, the first sentence may be true. But in this case, the assertion reveals a warped concept of “participation” rather than the necessity of the vernacular.

Session Twenty-Two of the Council of Trent declared that “it has not seemed expedient to the [Council] Fathers, that it [Mass] should be everywhere celebrated in the vulgar tongue” and that “[i]f anyone saith, that the rite of the Roman Church, according to which a part of the canon and the words of consecration are pronounced in a low tone, is to be condemned; or, that the mass ought to be celebrated in the vulgar tongue only… let him be anathema.” For centuries before and after the council, most Catholics attended Mass in a language they did not understand. For centuries before and after the council, nobody questioned the implication of its teaching—that any form of “participation” requiring the congregation to understand the language in which Mass is offered cannot be essential, let alone “foundational.”

Far from insisting upon “participation” by the congregation, Church discipline often emphasized that the priestly acts were set apart—like those of an Old Testament priest entering into the Holy of Holies while the laity spiritually united themselves to him from outside. The Eastern Rite iconostasis is an obvious example of how universal this was. It mirrors such older western practices as the use of rood screens and the more recent altar rails. Scholarly studies have shown that this model tended to be followed as early in Church history as it became feasible. Even the Biblical accounts of the Last Supper seem to support this quasi-separation. Only the apostles, the first bishops, are recorded as being present when Christ said the first Mass.

In the Roman Rite, publishing the text of the canon (whispered by priests) in missals for the laity was long prohibited. Permission for publication was first given on the condition that only the Latin text be published, whereas vernacular translations could be printed side by side with the Latin for other parts of the Mass. And while the congregation could sing together with the choir at High Mass, for centuries only the altar servers—or, in Solemn Masses, the deacon and subdeacon—were permitted to make the responses. The “dialogue Mass” (in which members of the congregation make the responses) was only authorized by the Holy See during the pontificate of Pope Pius IX, and then only with permission of the diocesan bishops and with the admonition that such permission should be given with great caution (on the grounds that the multitude of voices could be distracting).

Such an approach was part of a shift which was more nuanced than critics of the Tridentine Mass suppose. Responding to the developing Liturgical Movement, early to mid-twentieth popes took the position that congregational “participation” is optimal to the extent that all other things are equal—but that it is unnecessary, that all other things are rarely equal and that some people can pray better without “participating.” Pope Pius XII most clearly addressed the issue, teaching in Mediator Dei that:

“So varied and diverse are men's talents and characters that it is impossible for all to be moved and attracted to the same extent by community prayers, hymns and liturgical services...Who, then, would say...that all these Christians cannot participate in the Mass nor share its fruits? On the contrary, they can adopt some other method which proves easier...they can lovingly meditate on the mysteries of Jesus Christ or perform other exercises of piety or recite prayers which, though they differ from the sacred rites, are still essentially in harmony with them.”

It is notable that ignorance of Latin was not among the reasons Pius XII gave for the legitimacy of spiritually uniting oneself to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass through mental or devotional prayers rather than through making responses or singing. His encyclical made clear that being able to pray more easily through such “individualistic” mental prayer exercises of piety is sufficient justification for them and that some people are indeed better able to pray by using such methods. Vatican II in no way changed this, encouraging “participation” rather than requiring it.

To claim that “participation” is necessary or foundational is to claim that the dogmas of the Council of Trent, centuries of Church practice and the teaching of Pius XII were erroneous—to take a position incompatible with belief in the infallibility and indefectibility of the Church. Yet insistence upon “participation” is the constant cry of enemies of the Tridentine Mass, from Pope Francis to Cardinals Roche and Cupich to Andrea Grillo to Weinandy, Cavadini and Healy.