Whether the Mass is in Latin or the vernacular—it’s the same Eucharist that unites the church

Let’s set the record straight: Pope Francis did not “ban the use of Latin in the Roman Catholic Church,” as one person recently put it to me. He didn’t even ban Latin from the Mass. Pope Francis, in fact, didn’t ban anything. As America’s Vatican correspondent explained on July 16, “Pope Francis has revoked the faculty given by his predecessors that [since 2007] allowed any Catholic priest of the Latin Rite to celebrate the Tridentine Mass.” What does that mean?

In the Latin rite, there are two ways in which the Mass is celebrated, each with their own texts and logic: the “ordinary form” and the “extraordinary form.” The ordinary form is the usual parish liturgy with which all of us are familiar. In most places, the ordinary form of the Mass may be used in any language, including Latin, and there are several Catholic communities in the United States where the ordinary form of the Mass is said in Latin. Those communities are unaffected by the pope’s action.

The extraordinary form of the Mass is the liturgy prescribed in the Roman Missal of 1962, which is a descendent of the Missal promulgated after the Council of Trent. The extraordinary form is mainly celebrated in Latin and contains elements, like the priest facing away from the congregation, with which some of you will be familiar. St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had made it easier for priests to celebrate Mass according to this older, extraordinary form. Pope Francis has changed the rules. Now, a priest must have the permission of his bishop to celebrate Mass in the extraordinary form and, in certain circumstances, the bishop must seek permission from the Vatican.

While Pope Francis’ decision does greatly restrict the use of the extraordinary form, the pope has not abolished it.

While Pope Francis’ decision does greatly restrict the use of the extraordinary form, the pope has not abolished it. The extraordinary form can and will continue to be celebrated in those places where the diocesan bishop determines that it is necessary to meet some pastoral need.

Why did the pope do this? Basically, Francis’ predecessors believed that greater access to the extraordinary form would act as an instrument of ecclesial unity. But Pope Francis believes that in some places the extraordinary form has instead become a source of division as well as a symbol of opposition to Vatican II. The pope made this judgment after consulting the world’s bishops about the matter.

Obviously, I take the pope at his word. He is doing his job. The first and last duty of the successor of St. Peter is to safeguard ecclesial communion. But if you had asked me about the matter before the pope acted, I would have questioned whether such a change was necessary. My view from the cheap seats was that the celebration of the extraordinary form was not really having the effects the pope describes, at least not in my corner of the Catholic world.

For one thing, very few people attend Masses celebrated in the extraordinary form. I suspect that a majority of U.S. Catholics are unaware that there even is an extraordinary form. And most of the relatively few people I have met who have a devotion to this form of the liturgy don’t strike me as opposed in any substantive way to teachings of Vatican II. And while the “experiment” with the extraordinary form is three or four decades old, this is not a great deal of time for a church that is more than two millennia old.

I am awestruck by the beauty of the Eucharist wherever I encounter it. That’s a big reason why the so-called liturgy wars bore me. 

Then again, the pope is not a politician or a pundit. He’s a pastor. And he has more and better information than I.

Still, I think it’s worth noting that the unity-in-diversity that the original papal permissions for the extraordinary form were meant to engender is a worthwhile, even necessary goal. Even within celebrations of the ordinary form there is a great deal of diversity. I have never celebrated Mass in the extraordinary form, but I have concelebrated in the ordinary form, with the pope himself at St. Peter’s Basilica. I have also concelebrated at the Basilica of Sacre Coeur in Paris on the feast of the Sacred Heart, and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Christmas and Easter. I have also celebrated Mass in thatched-roofed churches in the heart of Latin America, in prisons and at coffee tables in the living rooms of the sick or dying.

I am awestruck by the beauty of the Eucharist wherever I encounter it. I often think, “Isn’t it a miracle that we’re here doing this and haven’t blown up the world yet?” That’s a big reason why the so-called liturgy wars bore me. To be sure, rubrics and form, not to mention plain good taste—all of that matters. But what unites us in the Mass is the Lord himself, present in the Eucharist. That is enough to make it beautiful. For whether it’s performed by a royal company or the local high school drama club, Shakespeare is still Shakespeare.

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