When Pope Benedict XVI issued his letter of July 7 eliminating most restrictions on the use of the so-called Tridentine Mass, my reaction oscillated between mild irritation (Will this ignite conflict? How will we ever provide such Masses?) and vague interest (Is there perhaps some hidden treasure in the old Mass?).
Within a week, letters trickled in. Some demanded a Latin Mass every Sunday, insisting that the pope had mandated its regular celebration. Others were more reasonable. In August, I met with a dozen parishioners who wanted the Mass. The meeting became steamy as I explained that I had never said the old Mass as a priest and had served such Masses as an altar boy for only two years before everything changed. Some thought I was just feigning ignorance to avoid doing it.
A few days after the meeting, I obtained a 1962 missal, looked through it, and concluded, reluctantly, that I knew more Latin than I had thought. My original cranky demurral crumbled under the force of my own pastoral self-understanding, which had been largely shaped by the Second Vatican Council. As a promoter of the widest range of pluralism within the church, how could I refuse to deal with an approved liturgical form? As a pastor who has tried to respond to people alienated by the perceived rigid conservatism of the church, how could I walk away from people alienated by priests like myselfprogressive, low church pastors who have no ear for traditional piety? An examination of conscience revealed an imbalance in my pastoral approach: a gracious openness to the left (like feminists, pro-choice advocates, people cohabiting and secular Catholics) and an instant skepticism toward the right (traditionalists).
Having decided to offer the Tridentine Mass, I began the arduous project of recoveringand reinforcingmy Latin grammar and vocabulary so that I could celebrate the liturgy in a prayerful, intelligible way. As I studied the Latin texts and intricate rituals I had never noticed as a boy, I discovered that the old rites priestly spirituality and theology were exactly the opposite of what I had expected. Whereas I had looked for the high priest/king of the parish spirituality, I found instead a spirituality of unworthy instrument for the sake of the people.
The old Missals rubrical micromanagement made me feel like a mere machine, devoid of personality; but, I wondered, is that really so bad? I actually felt liberated from a persistent need to perform, to engage, to be forever a friendly celebrant. When I saw a photo of the old Latin Mass in our local newspaper, I suddenly recognized the rites ingenious ability to shrink the priest. Shot from the choir loft, I was a mere speck of green, dwarfed by the high altar. The focal point was not the priest but the gathering of the people. And isnt that a valid image of the church, the people of God?
The act of praying the Roman Canon slowly and in low voice accented my own smallness and mere instrumentality more than anything else. Plodding through the first 50 or so words of the Canon, I felt intense loneliness. As I moved along, however, I also heard the absolute silence behind me, 450 people of all ages praying, all bound mysteriously to the words I uttered and to the ritual actions I haltingly and clumsily performed. Following the consecration, I fell into a paradoxical experience of intense solitude as I gazed at the Sacrament and an inexplicable feeling of solidarity with the multitude behind me.
Even as I cherish this experience, I must confess that I felt awkward, stiff and not myself. Some of the rubrical requirements, like not using ones thumbs and index fingers after the consecration except to touch the host, paralyzed me. As a style, it doesnt really fit me (I also cant imagine wearing lace). But as a priest, I must adapt to many styles and perform many onerous tasks. Why should this be any different? Perhaps we have here a new form of priestly asceticism: pastoral adaptation for the sake of a few.
My reluctant engagement with the Latin Mass has not undermined my own priestly spirituality, born of Vatican II. Rather, it has complemented and reinforced the councils teaching that the priest is an instrument of Christ called to serve everyone, regardless of theological or liturgical style. Ultimately it means little whether Mass is in Latin or in the vernacular, whether I see the people praying or hear their silence behind. For sure, I have my preference, but service must always trump that.