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FAQs: The Latin Mass

1. What is the Latin Mass?
2. How long has Latin been used?
3. Why is the Mass offered in Latin?
4. Where has the Latin Mass been for the last 30 years?
5. I feel that liturgy is a matter of personal preference. Why is the Latin Mass so important to you?
6. Shouldn’t the liturgy reflect the times and the cultures of people?
7. Isn’t the Latin Mass unsuitable for modern man and his needs?

Photo of a traditional Latin Mass offered in Mount St. Michael's chapel

1. What is the Latin Mass?

The Latin Mass is often called the Tridentine Latin Mass, a reference to the fact that it was codified by Pope St. Pius V shortly after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), from which is derived the term “Tridentine.” Contrary to what some people think, Pope St. Pius V did not issue a new Mass but simply unified the already existing liturgy. His Quo Primum decree not only declared that this Mass was to remain unchanged for all time, but it forbade the introduction of new Mass liturgies. The Latin Mass itself can rightly be called the Mass of the Apostles since it dates back to the time of Our Lord and the Apostles. Remnants of early liturgies parallel the Tridentine Latin Mass in its essential details.

2. How long has Latin been used?

The Mass was originally said in Aramaic or Hebrew since these were the languages which Christ and the Apostles spoke, the words amen, alleluia, hosanna and sabbaoth are Hebrew words which were retained and are still found in the Latin Mass of today.

“When the Church had spread to the Gentile world, about the year 100 AD it adopted the Greek tongue for the liturgy because it was the common language of the Roman Empire. Use of the Greek language continued throughout the second and into part of the third centuries. The Kyrie eleison is a remnant of Greek which survives in the Latin Mass. The liturgical symbol IHS is a derivative of the Greek word for Jesus.

“The beginnings of the Roman Mass are found in the writings of St. Justin (150 AD) and St. Hippolytus (215 AD). Latin finally replaced Greek as the official language of the Empire. By the year 250 AD, the Mass was being said in Latin throughout most of the Roman world. This included the cities in North Africa and northern Italy such as Milan. The Church in the western empire adopted Latin for the Mass by 380 AD. The Latin Canon as we know it was finished by 399 AD. Latin ceased to be a vernacular language between the 7th and 9th centuries; however, the Mass continued to be offered in Latin because much of the liturgy had already been established in that language. The Fathers of the Church at that time, saw no reason to adopt new vernacular languages which were developing throughout the known world. This was a fortunate situation, since a language, although ‘dead,’ served as a common means of communication throughout the Church, down through the ages. Was this part of God’s plan to preserve His Church until the end of time as He promised?” 1

3. Why is the Mass offered in Latin?

The Mass is offered in Latin because it is a “dead” language. As it is no longer spoken as the vernacular language in any country today, Latin words do not change in meaning. The English language we speak may be easier to understand, but because of slang, colloquialisms and various local influences, the words we use vary in their meanings from place to place and year to year. As Pope Pius XII explained, “The use of the Latin language... is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth” (Mediator Dei). As for the difficulty of not understanding Latin, most missals display the English translation side-by-side with the Latin text. Even children learn to use them with ease and soon know by heart even many of the Latin prayers.

4. Where has the Latin Mass been for the last 30 years?

Although the Latin Mass dates back to 150 AD, the advent of the New Mass (Novus Ordo Missae) on March 22, 1970, by Paul VI has caused it to be offered by fewer priests. Nevertheless, traditional Catholic parishes are opening and many are returning to the Mass as they remember it and as Christ left it.

The priests of the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, which was begun in 1967, have always offered only the traditional Latin Mass. This is not because the members of CMRI are simply old-fashioned and prefer the reverent atmosphere of the ancient liturgy to that of the more casual services which have become the norm today. Nor have they chosen to retain the traditional Mass out of stubbornness or disobedience. Rather, the Marian priests and religious act in obedience to past infallible teachings of the Catholic Church. They have kept the Latin Mass because it is the Catholic thing to do.

5. I feel that liturgy is a matter of personal preference. Why is the Latin Mass so important to you?

Pope Pius XII taught that the sacred liturgy is intimately bound up with the truths of the Catholic Faith, and therefore must conform to and reflect these truths — so much so that the liturgy actually serves as a safeguard of the integrity of the Faith (Mediator Dei). For this reason, the the Church has always carefully protected the text of the Mass in order to prevent doctrinal errors from creeping into the liturgy. The traditional Latin Mass is, then, a perfect expression of the unchanging truths of the Catholic Church.

Even the Protestant reformers recognized the connection between Church teaching and the Mass. Luther felt that by overthrowing the Mass, he would overthrow the papacy. He and other Protestant reformers made it a point to eradicate the idea of sacrifice from their “reformed” liturgies. Altars and crucifixes were removed, and Scripture readings and sermons replaced the concept of the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. This was done gradually, so that Catholics, who, after all, were going to the same churches and often had the same pastors, were hardly aware that they were little by little becoming Protestants.

Since the early 1960’s, many of these same changes were gradually introduced into Catholic churches. Then in 1969, the Mass was rewritten by a Vatican commission assisted by six Protestant theologians. No references to the Mass as a sacrifice remain in the new liturgy, which is defined as “the memorial of the Lord” and closely resembles a Protestant service. The New Mass is not an expression of the traditional Catholic Faith but of a new ecumenical religion.

6. Shouldn’t the liturgy reflect the times and the cultures of people?

The Mass is the supreme act of worship of God, Who is above time, language, and culture. The focus and end of the Mass is to give to God the honor and reverence due to Him.

For centuries, a Catholic could attend Mass anywhere in the world and always find it the same. Were it possible to travel in time, the same would still hold true: a Mass offered by an Catholic priest living in Rome in 570 would be nearly the same as that offered by one offered in the same city in 1570. Moreover, that Mass offered in 1570 would be the same as one offered by a priest living in Nagasaki in 1940 or at Mount St. Michael in 1998. This fact reflects clearly two of the four marks of the Catholic Church — its unity and catholicity, both in regard to location and time.

You may remember learning in your catechism as a child that the four marks of the Church are those clear signs by which all men can recognize the one true Church established by Christ. Only the Catholic Church possesses all four of these marks: it alone is one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic. It is one because all of its members profess the same faith, the same Sacrifice and Sacraments, and are united under the same authority. It is holy because it was founded by Jesus Christ, Who is all-holy, and because it teaches holy doctrines and provides the means of living a holy life. (Unfortunately, because of man’s free will, not all Catholics make good use of those means.) It is catholic or universal because it is empowered to receive all men in all places and all times. Finally, it is apostolic because it was founded by Christ on the apostles and has always been governed by their lawful successors.

7. Isn’t the Latin Mass unsuitable for modern man and his needs?

Some people object that they don’t get much out of the traditional Latin Mass, that it is “boring” because they don’t understand the Latin, that the priest doesn’t make the service interesting by getting the people involved — that he even has his back turned to them most of the time, that there is no music or they would prefer more “upbeat,” modern music, etc. What they forget is that the Mass is not for them but for God. Worship is not a social gathering intended to give us a warm, fuzzy, neighborly feeling inside. It is an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and His infinite perfections, and an expression of our submission to Him as creatures to their Creator and Lord. As the catechism teaches, the purposes for which Mass are offered are:

  1. first, to adore God as our Creator and Lord;
  2. second, to thank God for His many favors;
  3. third, to ask God to bestow His blessings on all men;
  4. fourth, to satisfy the justice of God for the sins committed against Him.

The Mass is, moreover, the public worship offered by the entire Church to God through Jesus Christ Who, as the Eternal High Priest, offers Himself anew to His Eternal Father as He did on the cross. He is the Lamb of God, the spotless Victim Whose sacrifice takes away the sins of the world, “standing as it were slain” (Apoc. 5,6) — that is, offering to His Heavenly Father again the sacrifice of His life on the cross. The Mass, then, is the fulfillment of the prophecy: “From the rising of the sun even to the going down...in every place there is sacrifice and there is offered to my name a clean oblation” (Mal. 1:11).

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1 What Has Happened to the Catholic Church, Frs. Francisco and Dominic Radecki, CMRI, pp. 159-60

Bishop Mark A. Pivarunas, CMRI
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