I will tell you a Church “reform” I would like to see. But now I will be using this word as a synonym for “restoration,” and not as the world is currently using it. I would like to see Latin restored as the normal as well as normative language of the Mass, for many different reasons. But for today’s purpose, I will give only one reason. It would contribute to the restoration of parishes; which in turn would contribute to the unity of the Church.
“The Eucharist is not a private business,” Joseph Ratzinger (as he then was) explained, in a memorable homily. (It was for Corpus Christi, and is reprinted in the first volume to be issued of his Collected Works, in English translation, just out from Ignatius Press, page 405.) It is not the meeting of a club, a gathering of like-minded people, or those who enjoy each other’s company. Indeed no institution in all human history comes close to the Catholic Church, in the diversity of her members. That is no accident, but the intention with which she was entrusted by her Founder from the beginning. She is there for all souls; and He meant, all souls.
In the good old days, of the first centuries, when we were being persecuted by the Romans — and in a way closer to what is now happening in the Arab than in the Western world — we established our churches wherever there were Christians, above ground when possible, underground when not. In these good old days, when the Church was digging in, principally around the Mediterranean Sea, including Anatolia, Egypt, North Africa — we settled upon a very particular and controversial practice. There was to be one (1) church in every town, or within any other given jurisdiction or “parish.” Note that number carefully, which is different from two, three, or any other number. For there were to be no “niche” churches, adapted to specific classes or ethnicities or enthusiasms or groups of any other sort.
Ratzinger: “It was characteristic of the Eucharist, then, in the Mediterranean world in which Christianity first developed, for an aristocrat who had found his way into Christianity to sit there side by side with a Corinthian dock worker, a miserable slave, who under Roman law was not even regarded as a man but was treated as a chattel. It was characteristic of the Eucharist for the philosopher to sit next to the illiterate man, the converted prostitute and the converted tax collector next to the religious ascetic who had found his way to Jesus Christ.”
This was, in our current fashion idiom, “transgressive” on the part of the Church. People resisted such seating arrangements, and as we may recall from the literature of that age, the right-thinking types considered it contra naturam and a scandal. Not as big a scandal as the theological one, however: the very idea that God could have a Son, so weak and hapless as to allow himself to be crucified in plain public view. (When the Muslims mock our Christian account of Jesus, they use exactly the arguments the old Romans used.)
One “scandal” at a time, however, and today’s (holy) “scandal” is putting the variety of people all in one Church, generally, and specifically all in one locality into one local church — and inside that, celebrating the Mass in one liturgical language, transcending all ethnicities. To the many objections, even from within, the answer from the bishops was, and should be: “You’ll live.”
Christian community was built in this way; by which I mean, the thing itself in flesh and blood, not abstract slogans and theatrical postures. Christendom spread, through the many and multiplying local churches, and on the mystical breath of common liturgy. Christians were not to be atomized. We might call this the Old Evangelization, in contrast to the latest marketing ploys. The people were bound together not by worldly affiliations, but in Christ. (St Paul and St Luke cast so much light on this.)
There is an apparent paradox here, that is not a paradox. Our post-modern “liturgists,” in that “Spirit of Vatican II,” tell us that the liturgy is all about community; and about “creativity,” “freedom,” “participation,” and other vogue words of this nature, each taken at current face value, after catastrophic intellectual inflation. They stand, to my mind, in opposition to the Word. The New Mass has been filled with talk, more talk, responses, more talk, and “audience participation,” with feelgood popular karaoke hymns. (As Ratzinger observed, the liturgy itself is the first thing to set to music. To insert sung hymns into a said Mass is to throw them at the liturgy.)
By comparison, the Old Mass was full of silences. The music — the glorious, ancient heritage of Catholic music, which the “liturgists” sabotaged by gratuitously changing the scanning of texts — was participative in a quite different way. To the words of the liturgy, embodied in the poetry and music of the Mass, the congregation listened. It spoke through them, in common prayer. It was meant to be beautiful, to raise people up, not to degrade them; the highest possible standard for God, not the lowest common denominator of the congregation. The people participated in this way; they were steeped in bottomless profundities which — said or sung — echoed through interior contemplation. Not a passing variety show, a kind of spiritual vaudeville with the latest happy-clappy tunes, but the same ever anew, unfolding in the harmony of the seasons — yesterday, today, and forever. The congregation participated not volubly, but reverently. Seldom, when spoken by the priest, was the whole Canon of the Mass pronounced aloud: it sufficed to pronounce the first few words of each section of prayer. The congregation was following, humbly and intently, repeating the rest of the prayer not in a showy, but in an interior way. It was drawn out of itself, and it participated in that drawing out, its focus upon the Cross, and thereupon what is true, immortally.
In short, the community was being formed, not in itself, but in Christ. All the souls gathered in Him.
So far as I can see, all the changes made to the liturgy, in the chaos of the 1960s and ’70s, sabotaged this action. Consult the reasoning, and one sees that it was sabotaged intentionally. (A decent, if rather fey attempt is being made to roll some of this back: to correct at least the “reforms” that were directly in conflict with instructions from the actual Vatican II.) The congregation is distracted by the sound of its own voice. Its attention is turned to the priest, facing, then mirrored back onto itself; not priest and people together in one single attention to the liturgical East. There is all this “we are the people of God” pomposity: the arrogance of the “democratic” mob, celebrating its own vulgarity. Distraction has been piled upon distraction. By contrast, to pray, with all one’s soul within the sacred chant, and polyphony — and to pray the silences, in rhythm with the whole Church — is a profound participation. (Again, read Ratzinger, and discover through his works all the real authorities on the liturgy, spread as they are through twenty centuries, and not just the conceited, bureaucratic “experts” of a decade or two.)
A community, in Christ, is formed in this way; a local community within the universal community. The liturgy itself is forming this community: in the practice and very presence of Christ. Something so deep cannot possibly be casual; nor altered by whim from week to week.
The old Protestant insistence, that services be conducted in “a language understanded by the people,” may be taken in stride. Anyone in possession of an American Catholic Missal, published before Vatican II, will note that the Latin is translated to English in parallel columns, in case anyone is wondering what is going on. And, since they would be attending every Sunday, at least, they would eventually get the hang of it. There were people allergic to Latin even before 1962, of course, but they’d live.
Now what happens if, as in any large city today, we have people whose native language isn’t English? Or who, even though they have more or less adapted to the civil lingua franca in these parts, remain sufficiently “multicultural” that they attend (when they attend at all) ethnically-themed Catholic churches? Or Masses in different languages within the same church, which similarly divide the Catholic faithful into ethnic ghettos, setting natives and immigrants apart? Gentle reader may begin to see where Latin comes in: for it was and must necessarily remain the lingua franca of the Western Church; as Greek is of the Eastern, including that part of the Eastern in communion with Rome. Hardly are these the only languages, and the Mass could be sung in many more, but wherever the Catholic Church has travelled, and it has now travelled the whole world, Latin is the language of first resort.
I’m not touching here questions of schism, except indirectly. Rather, I observe that an attribute of the One Church, is oneness. Arrangements may be slightly adjusted from province to province, diocese to diocese, even parish to parish, but in each case and at any location, visibly, one Church. (It is the more painful that the contemporary, faithful Catholic must often cross parish boundaries to attend a church where heresy is not being preached from the pulpit.)
Have conditions changed in the world today? But of course: things are rather different than in the first centuries. But the fact of variety has not changed, nor has the fact of the Church. And with regard to the important matter of human ontology and immortal life: no Catholic is a “niche” Catholic.
As ever in these idle essays, I invite gentle reader only to think of this; to think things through. The points I make are those which strike me as obvious and incontestable, even though the same reader may see them as irretrievably subtle and easily contested. But again, think it through, and in its context: the fallout from all the disintegrative liturgical innovations done in the name, not of Jesus Christ, but of the “Spirit of Vatican II.”
Galatians, towards the end of chapter three: “There is neither Hebrew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”