Fifty years ago last week, something called the Second Vatican Council came to an end. It had lasted more than three years and had considered the Roman Catholic Church in the modern world.
It was widely covered, as religions comprising more than a billion people tended to be.
The council, frequently referred to as “Vatican II,” had issued many documents in the form of constitutions, declarations and decrees. These were widely misinterpreted, primarily by those who had not read them.
The most celebrated change brought about by Vatican II was that the Mass could now be said in the vernacular – the languages of various countries; previously, it was said in Latin everywhere. This was taken to mean that it must be said in the vernacular, which was never the case.
Congregations went hog-wild. Soon there were folk-rock Masses, hootenanny Masses, puppet Masses, and so on. Encouraged to participate more actively in the Mass, congregations were soon flailing their arms around, adopting postures reserved for priests, and undertaking other alterations to the principal service of the Church. Those who looked askance were told to get with “the spirit of Vatican II.”
Translations into the vernacular were, often as not, very loose. They were not so much translations as interpretations, which sometimes included what various groups wished the liturgy would include.
(The liturgical changes during the swinging ’60s and nearby years were by no means limited to Roman Catholicism. In one famous example, the beautiful language of the Anglican/Episcopal “Book of Common Prayer” of 1928 was cast aside for . . . something else.)
The liberties taken with the purported findings of Vatican II were such that in 2007 Pope Benedict issued an apostolic letter, Summorum Pontificum, in which he decried the pain caused by “arbitrary deformations of the liturgy.” The Latin Mass was still permissible, he said, and always had been.
There’s much more to it, but this brief history is necessary to introduce a wonderful and remarkable thing: This month, for the first time in nearly half a century, the traditional Latin Mass is regularly being said in Athens. It is celebrated each Saturday at 8 a.m. at St. Paul Church.
The revival of the old liturgy is the work of Fr. Jonas Shell, who arrived in Athens as parochial vicar in July. Young and enthusiastic, he began the Latin Masses Dec. 5, in response to the request of several parishioners, some of whom had sought it for years. (It wasn’t that there was opposition to the Latin Mass here so much as a shortage of priests with the time to add it to their schedules; contrary to popular supposition, priests and other clergy do not have six days off each week.)
Let me describe the Latin Mass to you, because it is unlike anything that you, Catholic or not, are likely to have encountered.
It takes place in a largely darkened church. The priest and two servers enter, and in Latin, give the traditional words and responses. The congregation is free to say them along – “Dominus vobiscum” “Et cum spiritu tuo” – or not, as they wish. The servers, whose role is more elaborate than it is in other forms of the Mass, stand in for the congregation in the liturgical celebration. There are a homily, in English, and communion.
As has been true in other places where traditional Mass has been reintroduced, the congregation (at the two celebrations of it so far) has included some who are old enough to remember when it was the only form of the Mass offered, but also a number of young people filled with love for the Church and eager to know its depth. A family of mother and father plus two young sons and a daughter from Stockport, Ohio, have come to the traditional Mass both weeks, mother and daughter each wearing a mantilla, as was once expected.
The difference in the liturgy and the atmosphere could not be more pronounced.
Modern Mass is conducted as if silence is the enemy, that there should never be a time when there isn’t something noisy going on. Active participation is so encouraged that it sometimes seems as if there isn’t an opportunity to contemplate the mysteries of faith. Even during communion itself, the most fundamental of the seven sacraments, congregants are expected to sing rather than think about how profound it all is.
The Latin Mass is quiet, often silent or close to it. The Church teaches (and I think it stands to reason) that prayer must include listening, to hear what God tells us. This is easier to do, especially for easily distracted persons such as myself, when there’s not sensory overload. When there is music with the traditional Mass (as Fr. Jonas hopes to institute from time to time, employing seminarians), it is typically in the form of chants that encourage this phenomenon rather than replace it.
Modern Mass has in some ways unintentionally come to resemble, say, a PTA meeting. The instant it is over, people are talking and laughing, greeting people across the room, immediately transported from whatever was going on minutes before to the modern secular world. Those who wish to stay and pray must have powers of concentration that far exceed my own. (I am as guilty of these things as anyone else, alas.) The Latin Mass ends in silence, and congregants remain silent; most remain to continue their prayer.
It is entirely beautiful and at least to me inspiring. And now it is to be had here in Athens again, after an absence longer than most people here have been alive.
Some no doubt see it as a liturgical relic, but it is far more than that. It transforms the church into a room full of holiness upon which those there may draw, taking from it as much as they wish or need.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at email@example.com.