by Ed Wilkinson
If dalmatic, amice and biretta are part of your daily vocabulary, you probably were present at the Pontifical Solemn Mass that was celebrated last weekend in Latin at St. James Cathedral-Basilica in Downtown Brooklyn.
For the first time in 50 years, a bishop celebrated Mass in Latin at the cathedral in accordance with the Tridentine Rite. The liturgy was prepared and conducted by the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny, a lay organization that promotes a return to traditional rites, in accordance with permission granted by the Holy See. The group supplied all the personnel needed for the liturgy, from its own deacons and subdeacons to its own magnificent choir from St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk, Conn.
The almost 300 people who attended were obviously fans of the way the liturgy used to be celebrated in our Church. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Mass was offered in Latin. The reforms of Vatican II reintroduced the vernacular to the Church’s liturgical life. The priest turned around and now faced the people during the Mass, and he spoke in the language of the community.
This was upsetting to some, although most embraced the changes. Participating in the “old” liturgies is a nostalgic experience for many like myself who grew up learning the Latin responses in order to recite the prayers at the foot of the altar. For those who remembered the Latin Mass, it was an opportunity to experience the Church of a less turbulent era when there was more certainty and we all knew what it meant to be a Catholic.
While acknowledging that the Church is not going back to way it was, there are aspects of the Tridentine Rite that we can learn from. For instance, there certainly was a sense of reverence and awe that is missing from our modern liturgy. Maybe, it’s the ethereal flow of the Gregorian Chant. Or the sense of other-worldliness that emanates from a language that we do not understand.
One observation is that there certainly were more men in the cathedral last Saturday than we find in our Sunday Masses in the parishes.
The Tridentine Mass allowed the cathedral staff to show off some of its treasures. The chalice used by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, the celebrant, was one that belonged to Brooklyn’s third bishop – Thomas J. Molloy. The ornate gold ciborium used at Communion was inscribed to Brooklyn’s second bishop, Charles E. McDonnell, on the day of his consecration as bishop in 1892.
While there is a place for the Tridentine Rite in today’s Church, it certainly could never replace the contemporary Mass. Today’s liturgy is more understandable. It’s simpler. It pays less attention to the frivolous and concentrates on Scripture and communal offering more than we understood in the past. It certainly is more beneficial for the community to listen to a reading in its own language than to have to read along with a missal.
Today’s liturgy is less mechanical and more adaptable to the everyday needs of the community.
Following the Mass at St. James, there was a lecture by the bishop-celebrant, who spoke about his personal preference for distributing Communion on the tongue while the recipient kneels.
Again, there was much reverence for the Eucharist in that practice. During distribution last weekend, communicants kissed the bishop’s ring before receiving the sacred host on the tongue.
Attending the Tridentine Mass at St. James was a beautiful experience but needs to be kept in perspective. For those who wish to celebrate in that way, it’s available. But it does not signal a return to the former liturgical life of the Church.