Latin Mass with Granny

Sunday was spent in Pennsylvania with my 96-year-old grandmother. She's feeling her age now, and relying on a walker to get around; going to church is a challenge she doesn't feel up to.

As such, for the first time in my life with Grandma, we didn't spend Sunday morning going to church. We spent Sunday morning watching church on TV. It was the first time I've ever done that before - and, also, the first time that I've ever seen a Catholic service using Latin before.

Completely honest here: I reacted strongly and badly to it, for a few basic reasons. My first response was that it felt like a point-by-point reminder of why the Thirty-Nine Articles needed writing in the first place.

My less visceral, and less polemical, response was of disappointment.

My mother (and my grandmother) were from the last generations that grew up before Vatican II. They remember a time when church was all Latin, all the time, and one of Mom's memories was that it had a sense of majesty surrounding it. I, by contrast, was raised not only post-Vatican II, but outside Catholicism; I have no memory of those times at all (although I do remember the early-Nineties folk masses fondly.) My grasp of Latin was entirely secular - and aimed at conveying the same sense of majesty.

Latin, to me, is the language of Gregorian chant CDs and Orff's Carmina Burana. Latin is the language of Hollywood choruses, singing with full orchestral accompaniment in the last fight scene of the blockbuster movie. Latin is the language that Warhammer 40K tries to sound like, not because they actually speak it but because its faith is shot through its universe, and because High Gothic carries the same sense of antiquity and sacredness that Latin does in real life. Latin is the language of What Was Then - and to my mind the one good reason for using it, in an age where it's a thousand years extinct, is to capture and re-present the beauty of a living tradition more than a thousand years old. And that was completely lost on the priest, because the Latin of that televised Mass had none of that.

At some point in my life, (at the very least) the churches in Williamsport lost the ability to put on a show. Part of why I remember the folk masses of my childhood so fondly is that they felt significant - that it mattered to the women who were strumming away up front, that it mattered to the priest, that it mattered to the organist that this litourgeia, this public work, should be done well. I am at most a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic (and then only because I spend most of them with Granny), but even on those high holy days I can't remember the last time I left a Catholic service with that sense that anybody really tried to convey the importance of what they were doing.

And the priest, speaking in Latin, didn't change that. He phoned it in. When he spoke it was the monotone of a last-period English class, reading Shakespeare for the first time with no idea who should emote how at what point in the reading. When he sang, it was unresolved, unresolving: melody without euphony, a progression without a destination. Absent the spectacle (and it was a spectacle) was any sense of reverence, or awe, or even an awareness of hey, we're on candid camera, maybe we should put on a show here.

It was phoned in. That's why I was so appalled by the whole affair. Hollywood and chant CDs and stuff taught me to cherish Latin for its majesty, for beauty, for its reverence - and then I discovered that for the people who actually used it, majesty and beauty and reverence are at best bonus features.

What I saw on TV didn't feel like it was a preservation and a re-presentation of what had been the Church for 1500 years - it was a rejection of the last 50.

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