Many priests who are my age wonder why some young seminarians and priests are so taken with the older form of the Mass known as the Tridentine Rite. Those of us old enough to remember have resonant and, at times, distasteful memories of the Latin Mass. Since Benedict XVI allowed the use of this “Extraordinary Form” of the Eucharistic Liturgy, many young priests who have had no experience of it in the Pre-Vatican II Church have taken to it with great passion and love.
My memory of the older Latin form of the Mass was that while it had a beauty to it, it was often ‘gone through’ in a perfunctory way. We had a priest in my parish in the 50’s who said this Mass in 10 minutes, which was fine for us since no one understood what was going on. It just meant that we could receive Communion and get out earlier, which was great for us kids who had to memorize our Latin responses phonetically since we had no idea what we were saying. But the odd thing was that the seminaries were full and there were many who wanted to be ministers of this Latin language Liturgy. Why was that and why does the attraction endure?
One can take a negative stance on this and see it as merely the reaction today of a ‘demoted priesthood’ and a desire to retrieve a ‘shamanistic’, that is, almost magical view of the ordained ministry. The priest, in effect, does everything and only he knows what is being prayed. Everyone just watches and prays on their own. While this may play a part in the clinging to this tradition, I think it is too reductionist a view of what is going on.
I believe that a deeper answer lies in the twin perspectives of liturgical prayer: The Vertical and the Horizontal, and a present imbalance in the way we celebrate the new form of the Mass.
By the Vertical I mean the in-breaking of the Divine in the here and now. It is the concern with and the actualization of our down to up (vertical) relationship with the Divine. At Mass we are addressing God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I can do this as an individual or we can do this as a community but it is an upward directed prayer to God.
By the Horizontal is meant that which we do for one another. It does not point upward but toward my neighbor. Its goal is the fostering and the enhancement of fellowship. The Horizontal is part of worship but it could also be present in an association of the like-minded and mutually supportive atheists.
We can see the two dimensions when we look at the Altar Table in the Sanctuary. It is an altar – i.e. a place where Jesus is sacrificed to the glory of the Father and gives us Himself (Vertical) but it is also a Table reminiscent of the Last Supper and the concern Jesus had with the community he was leaving behind (Horizontal). It is both Calvary and the Cenacle, Good Friday and Holy Thursday. The overemphasis on one or even the total exclusion of that one will create a liturgical imbalance.
Now Mass before Vatican II was very clearly weighted toward the Vertical dimension. The community was just there. It was clear from the actions of the Priest and his use of the liturgical language of Latin that the prayers were addressed not to the people but to God. He did not merely have his back to the people. That was not the intent of his posture. He faced the same direction as the people because he was their representative to God. Hence, the entire form of the Mass was intensely Vertical. We even called it ‘the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass’. The Last Supper was of secondary value.
Suddenly after Vatican II a major change occurred. By turning the altar around and having the priest face the people it became a closed circle looking inward. Gone was the facing in the same direction to a common God. The altar looked more like a table and the guiding image became not Calvary, but the Last Supper. The Priest was in dialogue with the people. Everything was understood because the vernacular was being used. With this new emphasis it was easy to see the Mass as an exercise of community. We still prayed to God but we faced each other and the emphasis shifted in a simple but all pervasive way. But just as the ‘old mass’ was an exaggeration of the Vertical, the ‘new mass’ became the exaggeration of the Horizontal.
This hit me powerfully during a Mass I celebrated a number of years after my ordination. At that Mass I was concerned that I make eye contact with the congregation, that I pronounce my prayers so that everyone understood me, etc. Suddenly while I was saying the prayers of the Mass I asked myself: To whom am I speaking? It seemed that I was talking to the people, but I realized in a flash that this was wrong. I was not addressing the people. I was speaking with God Himself as a representative of the people.
This shook me up. The new order of the Mass, beautiful as it is, obscures the direction of the prayer. The desire of some newly ordained to celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (the Mass before Vat. II) expresses a hunger for the Vertical dimension. Liturgy is not truly liturgy unless it addresses God and hence, for instance, the language of the Mass is inconsequential since God understands all language and the direction of the priest is not so much as having his back to the people but rather as being part of the people in a common direction facing the God he is addressing. Now it is still possible, I believe, to recover the Vertical Dimension in the new order initiated by Vatican II.
You may have noticed that in some churches a small crucifix is placed on the altar (in some places a large crucifix is used that blocks partially the eye contact between priest and congregation). I do not see that as a true solution. It can seem to separate the Priest from the congregation he is representing to God. But I think the use of silences in their proper place (e.g. after the homily and after communion) can give people and the priest the space to pray to God directly, which is the essence of the Vertical dimension.
A synthesis of the Vertical and the Horizontal is what is most to be sought after. One can do this by reverence in how we celebrate: on the quality of presiding by the Priest and by the robust and meaningful responses by the congregation in the prayers and the hymns. We have been given a great treasure in the Roman Catholic Liturgy. Let us strive to enter into this Mystery with devotion and respect.