Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Tridentine in Santa Clara

I was excited when I saw the news at California Catholic Daily (via Gerald) that an indult had been granted by Bishop McGrath of San Jose for the celebration of the Tridentine Mass in nearby Santa Clara, under the supervision of the Institute of Christ the King. It took me a while to get down there, but I finally attended Mass at the little chapel of Our Mother of Perpetual Help last Sunday, March 4.

Like most cradle Catholics my age, I hadn't heard a Tridentine Mass for forty years or more. I've been looking forward to hearing one again for years, and I was prepared to love it. But I wasn't so excited by the time Mass was over that day. What I experienced struck me as, in many ways, illustrative of how NOT to re-introduce the Tridentine to the majority of Catholics, who have never seen one celebrated.

There were some problems within the Mass itself:
  • The Latin was delivered too fast, often slurred. The poor priest was doing his best, I'm sure, but he was 85 if he was a day, and was so short of breath that he would simply not be able to pronounce the end of some sentences. His homily started out well enough, but he had to give up after a minute or two. Even in the tiny chapel (which I'll comment on later), he was often inaudible or unintelligible in places where he should have been heard. I lost my place several times, though fairly skilled at Latin.
  • Along the same lines, in the responsory sections, the priest and servers were stepping on each others' words constantly. The overall impression given was of hurry, that they simply wanted to get it over with as fast as they could. I should add that this was a defect that was fairly common, and all too frequently noted, when I served Mass back in my boyhood. I'm sure it's not what they intended, but that's how it sounded.
  • There was an awkward moment at Communion, when the priest loudly rebuked a boy for not putting out his tongue far enough.
Of course it needs to be considered that this priest might have been summoned to substitute at the last moment, may well have been in pain, and so on. He certainly looked uncomfortable and was obviously very frail. We always need to remember that priests are people, too, and have just as many reasons as any of us to be having a bad day.

With that said, I have to return to considering this experience with the question in mind: how do we make the Tridentine popular?
  • Surround the Mass with traditional beauty. Sadly, this very tiny chapel (capacity 49, though I doubt the pews would hold more than 30) wasn't up to the task. It was probably a former Protestant church from the look of it, without stained glass or even Stations of the Cross. Pews and fixtures were dilapidated and shabby. Someone had done a very nice job with equipping the altar with traditional statuary and other decorations, and of course that's where the focus has to be first -- but the rest of the environment was downright unpleasant.
  • Show off the splendor of the Church's tradition of Gregorian chant, if not the full richness of its later musical gems. There was no music at all, at this Mass. A very Low Mass indeed.
  • Have someone come out before Mass and welcome the congregation, especially newcomers who have never heard a Tridentine. People need to be thanked for their interest in making the effort. Yes, I know that should be unnecessary. But in today's world, it must be done.
  • Speak the Latin at a moderate, understandable pace, all the more so in these early years of revival when people are still rediscovering the tradition.
  • If possible, train the congregation to speak the servers' lines, too. This was the so-called "dialogue Mass" pattern that was being encouraged in the 40's and 50's. If one of the complaints about the Old Mass is that the new ways are more "participative", this is the antidote. And if 9-year-old boys could learn the responses in the past, I don't see why we all can't learn them today, unless we really have grown that hopelessly lazy and stupid.
I'm convinced that the Latin Mass, in some form, is the way forward for the Catholic Church. The effort in Santa Clara is a start for this area, full of promise, but if it's ever going to be anything other than a curiosity attended by a few, lessons need to be learned, and quickly. No, the Mass isn't a product needing marketing... but yes, it is. This is one place where aggiornamento in attitude would do a deal of good.