Restoring a Sense of the Sacred to the Mass


In October 1966, less than a year after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, philosopher and eminent Catholic theologian Dietrich Von Hildebrand asked whether or not we are better prepared to “meet Christ in the mass by soaring up to Him, or by dragging Him down into our own pedestrian, workaday world.” (The Case for the Latin Mass, Triumph Magazine, October 1966). For nearly fifty years the Church has been struggling to address this question.

Following decades in which the liturgy was intentionally stripped of almost any sense of mystery, the current attempts at reform have gradually sought to recover a sense of awe and to restore the sacred to the Mass.

Discussing the mystery present within eastern liturgies, particularly in comparison to the west, former prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith noted:

The Orthodox churches and churches of the east still carry on their liturgy in that mystical fashion: there is chanting, there is use of different languages which are not spoken languages, then there is more incense…an aura of otherness happens and after the reforms of the Council, sometimes not because of the reformers but because individual persons decided to take matters into their hands and did things rather superfluously, the Church had gradually lost that mystical element, the element of the hidden. And that’s why our people are finding our liturgy…our prayer life…boring.

In the ongoing effort to recover this “mystical element” within the liturgy, the Church has been returning to such venerable practices as the use of Latin, chant and incense during the Holy Mass. Establishing a sense of awe through such tangible means has also helped to diminish the anthropocentric tendency so prevalent in the post-conciliar liturgy.

At last years Sacra Liturgia conference in Rome, Cardinal Ranjith spoke of the importance that Summorum Pontificum has had to this end:

The re-introduction of the usus antiquior -the older form of the Roman liturgy -by Pope Benedict XVI was thus not a retrograde step as some called it, but a move to bring back to Sacred Liturgy a deeper sense of awe and mysticism and a way in which the Pope sought to prevent a blatant banalization of something so pivotal to the life of the Church.

Latin: The Language of the Liturgy

The importance of this increasing use of Latin within the Novus Ordo cannot be overstated. In a 2012 speech given to the Fourth Meeting on Catholic Unity sponsored by Réunicatho, Bishop Athanasius Schneider was so bold as to identify “the total disappearance of Latin in the huge majority of Eucharistic celebrations in the Ordinary Form” as one of five wounds of the liturgical mystical body of Christ.

Further, the restoration of Latin to the liturgy serves as a source of unity for the universal Church, both across cultures and centuries. Less than twenty years before the Second Vatican Council, Pope Pius XII reminded the faithful that the “use of the Latin language, customary in a considerable portion of the Church, is a manifest and beautiful sign of unity, as well as an effective antidote for any corruption of doctrinal truth.” (Mediator Dei, 60).

I recently heard a homily online in which the priest rejected the use of Latin within the liturgy by saying, “I’m not going to say Mass in Latin because it doesn’t say anything to me.” This particular priest, who was ordained in 1970, illustrates the very urgent necessity for restoring a sense of awe to the Church’s supreme act of worship. Forty years of poor formation and anthropocentric liturgies have devastated the very understanding of the Mass. Latin, often spoken in silence by the celebrant, serves to remind us who we are addressing in the liturgy.

Chant: Pride of Place

Gregorian chant is yet another way in which the Church is recovering a sense of the sacred. When the Second Vatican Council stated that chant has pride of place in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116) it was simply reaffirming an already established and ongoing reform of music within the Roman Rite. In his 1903 Motu Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini, Pope St. Pius X reminded the faithful:

Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.

Sacred music within the Mass should glorify God and sanctify the faithful. In a 2013 pastoral letter to the people of the Diocese of Marquette, then Bishop Alexander Sample emphasized that music “proper” to the Sacred Liturgy possesses three qualities: sanctity, beauty, and universality. Bishop Sample explained that these qualities are not “arbitrary or subjective”, but instead “objectively flow from the essential nature and purpose of sacred music itself.”

Often in the post-conciliar years we have heard “inculturation” invoked to excuse a myriad of abuses and excesses. In his letter, Bishop Sample noted that sacred music transcends cultures and that not “every form or style of music is capable of being rendered suitable for the Mass.” As more parishes are now offering the Traditional Latin Mass in the years following Summorum Pontificum, we are now seeing a greater use of chant within the Novus Ordo as well.


Incense: The Ambiance of Heaven

Finally, an “aura of otherness” is being further recovered in the liturgy through the use of incense. Our olfactory receptors, which facilitate our sense of smell, are directly connected to the limbic system, which is believed to be the seat of emotion in our brains. For most, the smell of incense at Mass is something separate and distinct from other scents encountered outside of the Mass. Through the use of incense, then, the Church finds yet another way to communicate that we are entering the sacred when we participate in the liturgy.

Writing in his column Straight Answers for the Arlington Catholic Herald, Father William Saunders explains that, within the sacred liturgy:

The purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of purification and sanctification…the smoke symbolizes the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven: the Psalmist prays, “Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141).

Turning to sacred scripture for further insight, Fr. Saunders notes:

Incense also creates the ambiance of heaven: The Book of Revelation describes the heavenly worship as follows: “Another angel came in holding a censer of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God’s holy ones. From the angel’s hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God’s people.

Assessing the liturgical changes already underway by October 1966, Dietrich Von Hildebrand wrote: “The new liturgy actually threatens to frustrate the confrontation with Christ, for it discourages reverence in the face of mystery, precludes awe, and all but extinguishes a sense of sacredness.” In recent years Holy Mother Church has begun to slowly recover this sense of the sacred within the Mass through the use of Latin, Gregorian chant and incense. In the years to come may we continue to see the Church strive to “meet Christ in the mass by soaring up to Him”, fully seeking to restore the mystical element to our Catholic worship.

Posted on August 10, 2014, in liturgy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I recently learned another reason to make sure we have some Latin in the Mass: If we say/chant the kyrie, if we say/sing Alleluia, and if we say/chant Agnus Dei, we will in the Mass connect to the titulus, the sign Pilate posted on the Cross, “The King of the Jews” written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin so that all would understand it.

  2. @ bsjy—Excellent thought. I’m going to post your comment at my blog.

  3. Think about the Last Supper. Christ was sharing the meal with and facing His apostles when He instituted the Eucharist. The whole idea was not to lose the sense of sacred but to de-mystify the sacrament. I welcomed it along with the vernacular. I can still recite “Ad deum quae laetificate, juvenatum meum” from my time as an altar boy. I get more that a little annoyed by people who insist that Latin has some sort of sacred mystical quality. It doesn’t. It was the spoken language of the Roman empire. You want sacred mystical? Do the mass in Aramaic. it’s what Jesus spoke, not greek, not latin. aramaic.

    • Thank you for your comment Mike. A few points to address:

      1. We actually don’t know positioning or seating arrangements at the Last Supper. As Christ and His disciples were observing the Passover, they very possibly may have been on the same side of the table. Secondly, offering the Mass ad orientem is consistent with the entire history of the Latin Rite, and even many eastern rites. It is as much about the anticipation of the second coming that the priest, along with the faithful, face the liturgical east.

      2. Latin indeed has a mystical element. It is indeed a dead language. The vast majority of Latin Rite Catholics over the last fifteen plus centuries never spoke or understood the language, except for the liturgical Latin used at Mass.

      3. The Church for much of the second millennium resisted efforts to remove Latin and replace it with the vernacular. In fact, Trent declared a vernacular only Mass anathema. So, it was the Church itself that recognized the benefits and qualities of Latin. In his apostolic letter Veterium Sapientia (1962) St. John XXIII stated that only Latin was universal, immutable, and noble. The Church has always refuted the position you are arguing Mike.

      Lastly, as the Last Supper was also part of the Passover observance, Our Lord no doubt spoke Hebrew too.. the (dead) liturgical language of the Jewish people.

      Oh, and while the Last Supper was the first Mass, the Mass itself is a re-presentation of Calvary…not the upper room. We are not replicating the Last Supper; so the all too common appeal that Aramaic should be the language of the Mass is very wrong…and very tired.

      • To answer your points:

        1. We do, in fact, know the seating arrangement. Attendance and seating at any seder meal is always in accordance with ancient tradition. Been there, done that. I studied Judaism for 3 years. In fact it was attending the seder that brought the last supper forcibly into focus for me and a return to the church.

        The master of the house sits at the head and the family is arranged by seniority, DaVinci’s portrait notwithstanding. Christ certainly faced his apostles.

        2. Latin’s so called “mystical element”: My comment about the vernacular implied that the church used Latin in order to better enable the populace to understand what was happening, exactly as the english mass does for us today.

        3. The church did indeed declare vernacular mass anathema the exact same way that she declared anathema the printing press. This was done in order to keep the secrets of the church.

        I fully understand everything about the mass. I was an altar boy. I taught Catechism classes and am now a certified Cantor. It is indeed a reference to Calvary but it is also a clear reference to the upper room and the seder meal that occurred therein. Your “very tired” reference about Aramaic is wrong and insulting.

        I forgive you.

      • Mike,

        1. Most likely all sat (or actually reclined) on the same side of a U shaped table which permitted them to be served the meal. See Msgr. Pope’s article for more info which refutes your contention.

        2. For most of the sixteen centuries since Latin became the liturgical language of the Mass in the Roman Rite, the vast majority of the faithful have communicated in a language other than Latin. The educated may have learned Latin, but most would not have. And of course much of the Liturgy (the Canon for example) is inaudible to the faithful anyway.

        3. What secrets? And as you know the Church was very quick to condemn error filled unauthorized Bibles and other heretical works.

        Respectfully, I don’t believe you “fully understand everything about the Mass”.

        And you are correct, my “very tired” comment was uncharitable. I apologize and I thank you for forgiving me.

  4. What about the Greek, then? Wasn’t the majority of Jews and others speaking Greek? Wasn’t Hebrew only used as a sacred and liturgical language? Oriental rite Christians stiil use, as is said in the article, dead languages, like old ecclesiastical Slavic. As about the archaelogism, you could read for example Pavel Florenskij and discover, it’s not the traditional way of the Church. Also note, that the Jews changed many things as a response to the rising Christianity. Sorry for my language, but English is not my mother tongue.

  5. I’m a cradle Catholic and son of the Novus Ordo. For the past 5 months though, I’ve been religiously attending Eastern Catholic Divine Liturgy, and have also recently been introduced to Traditional Latin Mass. Today, like 30 minutes ago, I attended a Novus Ordo Mass… and oh my, I can so notice the differences!! This article is on point. The older rites do have a sense of sacredness and wonder that the NO lacks. For now, I am sticking with the Divine Liturgy. But I don’t look down on the Novus Ordo, I just think it lacks something.

  6. I am very late to this party, but the mystery and awe of mass is not language. A rose by any other name will smell as sweet. Hearts got lazy. Faith is an invitation to the Devine Mystery. We, the church, became complacent. We started fitting mass into our schedule not scheduling our life around mass. I am guilty too. Unfortunately, we became more interested in changing minds than altering hearts. Our best solution is prayer and example. The entire concept is radical and awe inspiring, we stopped being in awe. A man ‘s life and death, two thousand years later is discussed, pondered and debated and gives hope. That fact alone is mysterious and awesome. We, ourselves should be the draw. We are called to follow. Living the Word, practicing our faith and teaching our children the Way is so important. It’s not rational, it’s pure love. It challenges our senses, seeks our hearts and directs our souls as if our very breath depends on it because it does. Humility is needed, we are too busy still trying to eat the fruit of the knowledge tree and serve God. One Master, one everlasting life in his name, one soul at a time. Our tools are not of this earth, so neither is our solution. If this doesn’t mystify us, we must pray, exemplify and practice, practice and more practice Faith 1.0. May the peace and grace of God sustain us.

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