Doubtless you’ve read about the old days when our country was dotted with one-room schoolhouses. Well, good bishop, I am a one-man school staff: principal, teacher, tutor, and sometime janitor. My two classrooms—one doubles as a breakroom and study hall—I rent from a local Presbyterian church. My students, home-educated teenagers, sit weekly at my seminars in Latin, history, and literature and then depart for home, where, depending on the requirements of the seminar, they complete four to six hours of study. Having previously taught in college, prison, public schools, a private school operated by renegade nuns, and another for middle-school girls founded by a minister who enjoyed dressing like a nun, let me assure you that, comparatively speaking, teaching home-schooled teens the intricacies of Vergil or the primitive beauty of Beowulf is pure bliss. My students misbehave, when they do misbehave, in the innocuous manner of their grandparents when young: chewing gum in class, sending a note to a friend, skipping their homework.
But lingua Latina, not my students, has hold of my thoughts today.
Last year, in the spirit of the Solemnity of Pentecost, various parishioners commemorated the day when all in the crowd could understand the preaching of the Apostles by offering up, during the Prayers of the Faithful, petitions in 12 languages ranging from Tagalog to Russian, from Vietnamese to Polish.
Sed nihil Latine.
In July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued a motu proprio (Summorum Pontificum) encouraging the use of the Latin Mass based on the 1962 Roman Missal. You yourself then announced that the Extraordinary Mass, as it is sometimes called, would be offered throughout our diocese, and this promise has become a reality—everywhere but here. With other vicariates now offering the Old Mass, then, I am writing to ask why we in the Asheville Vicariate have no such option. Having mentioned this deficiency to several priests without receiving an adequate reply—one retorted that no one wanted such a Mass, while another replied that no priests were qualified to offer one—I decided to write with some questions.
Has no one in the Asheville Vicariate requested the Latin Mass? If not, please consider this a request. If priestly preparation is the problem, why not return Latin to the curricula at our seminaries? After all, this ancient tongue remains the official language of the Church. Our seminarians needn’t become fluent in Latin, but they could surely be taught enough to offer a Latin Mass.
Why do so many priests and lay leaders fear the Old Mass? Mention the Latin Mass to certain clerics, and they grimace as if you’d greeted them with a Seig Heil and the click of jackboots. What offends them? Are they frightened that the Old Mass may hold more appeal than the Novus Ordo, that some parishioners might prefer prayer and reflection to the glad-handing push-and-shove that passes for Mass in some parishes today?
Over the past five years, several priests and religious have made derogatory comments about the Old Mass. During his homily one priest, old enough to know better, said, “In those days the priest turned his back on the people and faced the wall.” (No, in those days the priest, along with the congregation, faced Christ in the Eucharist.) A nun in civvies remarked to me, “No one back then could understand what was being said.” (Could they not read? Each page of Latin was mirrored by its English translation on the opposite page.) A bishop told a group of petitioners, “No one wants the Old Mass anymore.” (Allow the Mass, and you’ll see the truth.)
A Latin Mass offers several benefits. Language differences today have splintered many parishes; Latin offers a chance for unity, allowing Spanish and English speakers to share a Mass with a common language. A Latin Mass might also attract more people to the Church. The use of a sacred language—Hebrew for the Orthodox Jew, Arabic for the Muslim, and, once upon a time, Latin for the Roman Catholic—appeals to a certain aesthetic in some people. Yes, yes, I know, we should be able to find God anywhere, but for many that search is better conducted in a shadowy, hushed church perfumed by candles and incense than in some bare concrete-block room smelling of Lysol and social indignation.
Finally, the Latin Mass connects us to the past, sweeps us momentarily from the mess we moderns have made of the world. The quietude of the Old Mass, the solemnity of its prayers, the opportunity for private prayer, kneeling to receive the Eucharist: These appeal to millions of Catholics around the world.
Pax tecum, bone episcope, et gratias tibi ago!