Traditional Latin Mass explained – Intro to the Tridentine Mass

The Traditional Latin Mass Explained – What is the Tridentine Mass?

The Traditional Latin Mass is the venerable Mass that could be found all over the world, and was celebrated in no other form, from 1564 until 1962. The Council of Trent took place in 1564; this is when the Mass was “canonized” or standardized, but it was substantially similar to this canonized form even centuries before this. It had organically grown over the centuries. The Vatican 2 Council started in 1962, and ended in 1965. Five years later, the Tridentine or Traditional Latin Mass was practically thrown away, in favor of a new Mass, made up from scratch, called the Novus Ordo Missae (new order of Mass). So for more or less 400 years, the Tridentine Mass was the Mass attended by every Roman Catholic worldwide.

The Latin Mass has many differences compared to the New Mass, and also a few things in common.  One of the main differences is that the priest/celebrant seems to have his back to the congregation. But that is a superficial view of the reality. The priest faces what he is doing (offering Sacrifice) and facing God, because he is a mediator between God and man. Man is behind him, and God is in front of him, with Whom he intercedes. He also leads the congregation in prayer.  Because the Latin Mass is a rite of Sacrifice and not some kind of public meeting, he often speaks quietly, in a low voice, and sometimes his words are whispered.  Rest assured that God can hear him just fine. But this silence and reverence only adds to the mystery and awe that is fitting for a Sacrifice like that of the holy Latin Mass.

The reverence that is intrinsic to the Latin Mass is part of why it appeals to so many Catholics, young and old. Attend a Latin Mass and you will likely see many young people, young couples, young families, and lots of children — as well as what you would expect: older people who grew up with the Traditional Latin Mass.  But if you think about it, these people would have to be getting older and older. Even most Baby Boomers can hardly remember the Latin Mass today. And as of this writing, the average Baby Boomer is 65 years old. Now at St. Dominic’s Chapel you will find a large number of young families and plenty of young children attending our Sunday Latin Mass. The idea that the Latin Mass is only for nostalgia is a poorly founded one.

Recently, even the Conciliar Church had to admit this. The Vatican published a new document not too long ago entitled Universae Ecclesiae which explains their threefold purpose of bringing back the Traditional Latin Mass according to the 1962 Missal:

  1. to offer the Roman Liturgy in the Usus Antiquior to all the faithful, since this older liturgy is considered by the Church to be a precious treasure to be conserved for all ages;
  2. to guarantee and promise the use of the forma extraordinaria Extraordinary Form for all those who ask for it. It is also stated that the use of the 1962 Roman Liturgy is a faculty generously granted for the good of the faithful, so it must be interpreted in a sense that is in the faithful’s best interests — since the Faithful are its principal addressees;
  3. promote and encourage unity and reconciliation in the very heart of the Catholic Church.

So the purpose of giving the Latin Mass a wider availability today is pretty self-explanatory. The Latin Mass must be made available to all of the faithful who desire to hear Mass in this ancient form.  Ultimately, Catholics have a right to this Mass. But again please note that the Latin Mass is not just directed to those older individuals who were previously attached to it, but it is available to all Catholics, young and old, as a “precious treasure to be preserved.”

Traditional Latin Mass Explained
The theology of the timeless Catholic Faith is expressed in the rich symbolism of the Tridentine Latin Mass, (known in Indult circles as the extraordinary form of the Roman rite), or commonly known as the Traditional Latin Mass. We call it the Traditional Latin Mass because there are many Latin Masses out there that are basically the Novus Ordo Missae said in Latin or some kind of hybrid rite between the two. By adding Traditional or Tridentine, we clear up any possible misunderstandings or confusion. Tridentine is the adjective form of Trent, as in the Council of Trent, which codified and standardized the Roman rite of Mass in the 1500’s. This canonized form of Mass stayed completely intact and unchanged up to the 1960’s.

Orientation of the Priest and People

In the Traditional Latin Mass, Everyone — both priest and people — faces East
At the Traditional Mass, both the celebrant and the congregation face east, towards the Lord. This orientation is traditional, going all the way back to the Last Supper and the practices of the early Christians. So, naturally, it continues to be used at the Traditional Latin Mass.

This aspect of prayer, where everyone is facing a common direction, should not be viewed as the priest having his “back to the people” — though that is a common objection. Instead, this eastward orientation should be looked at as helping to fully expresses the meaning of the Mass: the priest, standing in persona Christi, leads the faithful towards the eternal goal of the Heavenly Jerusalem. He stands at the head of the people of God, offering their prayers along with the Eternal Sacrifice to God the Father. He offers the Sacrifice that is Christ, to God Himself, facing God. It helps to understand that in Catholic tradition, Christ comes from the East, the direction of the rising sun. There are many references to this in the Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament. This eastward orientation also helps the priests’ personality to be diminished and obscured. He becomes a mere servant, almost an instrument, in the sacred act that he performs, completely obedient to, and controlled by, the ancient rubrics which he faithfully follows, adding nothing special “from himself”. In the Tridentine Mass, it is very difficult for the priest to add his own personal touch to the ceremonies. He has no chance to “shine” as an individual: he is only a priest of God, standing in for the person of Christ by the sacred character of his ordination.

Ceremonies of the Traditional Latin Mass

Lex orandi, lex credendi: “The Law of prayer is the law of belief.” This timeless adage tells us that we must pray as we believe. You will believe as you pray, and pray as you believe. There is a give and take between the two. If you can change the belief of a people, their liturgy will naturally change. Or if you can change their liturgy, you will shape their beliefs. So the Liturgy is very important in the life of a Catholic.

For example, in the timeless Latin Liturgy, constant references are made to the Holy Trinity. But not only is the Trinity explicitly mentioned in the vocal prayers themselves, the liturgy expresses this belief physically in other ways as well. For example, there are many common gestures that occur in groups of three: three double swings of the censor or Thurible, three “Domine, non sum dignus” (“Lord, I am not worthy”), three “Agnus Dei”, three “Kyrie Eleison”, three rings of the bells during the consecration, and many others. Meanwhile, other liturgical gestures occur in groups of five, such as five signs of the Cross made over the Sacred Host and Chalice during the Canon of the Mass, representing the Five Wounds of Christ.

During the Canon, the priest, by the power of Christ received at his Ordination, consecrates bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. This high point of the Mass is recited silently by the priest, which shows a fitting respect for this holy Mystery. God’s descent to our lowly earth also occurs in silence. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) refers to this as “silence with content.” Again, this silence should not be viewed negatively as “shutting the faithful out of the liturgy” or anything similar. On the contrary, true prayer requires silence, so God can speak to our heart, and we can speak to God. It also demonstrates a respect for Christ. Now that isn’t to say that we should ignore these silent parts of the Mass, or get lost in our own private devotions: Popes such as St. Pius X have often encouraged the faithful to take an active part in the Mass by “Praying the Mass” with the celebrant, which is more easily accomplished through the use of a hand missal. There are many hand-missals available for the laity, and the Faithful would do well to make use of them.

In Solemn High Masses, incense is used, which demonstrates respect for the Holy Sacrifice of Mass, and adds to its glory and attractiveness. The incense rises up, symbolizing our own prayers before God. It smells sweet, which our prayers should strive to be (through humility). Another aspect of Solemn High Masses is that they have three ministers present, mirroring the Trinity: a priest, a deacon, and a sub-deacon.

Catholic Identity and Latin as its Official Language

Latin is the ancient language of our Mother the Roman Catholic Church. Even to this day, Latin remains the official language of the Catholic Church. Most important documents are issued in Latin. Latin was used in the Mass from the earliest days, as the first language of choice. The only language that came in before that was Greek, which is still seen in the Mass and Liturgy today. For example, the words of the Kyrie, and during Holy Week the Church still sings “hagios o theos”.

While the Eastern Catholic Churches (in union with Rome) each use their own sacred languages, Latin is still the universal language of the Liturgy for the greatest number of Catholics worldwide. In this way, the unity of Faith and the unity of prayer have been preserved for centuries, despite national and cultural differences.

The Latin language has also inspired great classical literature and Gregorian chant. And even the recent Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) used the Latin language extensively.

Sacred Music and Gregorian Chant

Sacred music brings the Liturgy to life in a unique way
The music of the Traditional Latin Mass is outside of time, rising above all passing fashions. The Church’s music, Gregorian chant, is timeless and can’t be replaced with anything else. The Church’s music comes to us from ancient times in the case of Gregorian chant. Even more recent forms of sacred music, the works of great composers such as Mozart, Bach, and Rossini, have a history of many centuries of use.

Even the Second Vatican Council, which destroyed many things in the Church, had to admit: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, …it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” This is certainly the case in the Tridentine or Traditional Latin Mass. Gregorian chant itself wasn’t invented out of nothing — it comes to us from the Old Testament Jewish religion, which used to be the One True Faith if you lived before Christ’s birth. Pope St. Gregory the Great cultivated this unique and specifically Catholic art. During the middle ages, Gregorian Chant became ever more beautiful while maintaining a certain continuity, staying true to its origins and tradition.

Musical Elements of Mass

The music heard at Mass can be placed into two categories: the Propers (introit, gradual, alleluia, offertory, communion — the parts that change based on the Mass being said that day) and the Ordinary which includes the parts that do not change.
The Propers include the Introit, Gradual, Tract or Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion verse. The texts for these parts of the Mass are drawn from Holy Scripture, and are different for each Mass.
The Ordinary music includes the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est. The texts of these pieces do not change at all, but the accompanying music can and does change, depending on the feast being celebrated or the desires of the choir director. The Catholic Church has assembled a rich collection of over seventeen “Masses” that may be used for various feasts. And this doesn’t count the various Ad Libitum (“as you wish”) versions of each Kyrie, which are found in many hymnals and even the popular book of chant, the Liber Usualis. For example, Mass IX “cum jubilo” is often used for feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and as the Latin name suggests, the melody is quite joyful. Others include Mass VIII or “Mass of the Angels” which is popular among Traditional Catholics, even over-used by chapels which haven’t learned any other melody. And then there is Mass XI, Orbis Factor, which is often used for Sundays after Pentecost. This one sounds more monastic or contemplative. Most of the melodies of these Masses are very easy to learn, as the melodies are very catchy and hang together very well.

Vestments and their Significance at Mass

The early Christians wore vestments very much like the vestments worn by the priest and other ministers at Mass today. Each article of clothing among the priest’s vestments has a particular meaning.

Vestments used during the Holy Sacrifice of Mass

The amice, a white piece of cloth that touches the head, represents humility. The priest ultimately places it around the back of his shoulders. But while placing on this particular article, the priest briefly rests it on the top of his head while he says a certain prayer.

After the amice, the priest puts on the Alb. Being completely white, it symbolizes the virtue of purity. Albis means “white” in Latin.

Next is the stole. This is the main emblem of the priestly office. The stole is worn over the shoulders, held close to the body by a cincture (rope or cord).

The maniple (which reminds one of a stole, or at least a mini version of it) is worn over the left arm. While wearing it, the priest should utter no vernacular (commonly spoken) tongue, which is why priests usually take off the maniple before the sermon. The maniple symbolizes the weight of office the priest alone bears in being charged with offering the Holy Sacrifice of Mass.

After all these, the priest places on the chasuble, or the outermost vestment that everyone sees during Mass. The chasuble covers the priest for the most part. The chasuble’s color, as well as that of the stole and maniple, are that of the feast being celebrated that day: gold or white on feast days, violet during seasons of penance (Advent, Lent), red for feasts of martyrs, black for funerals, green for Sundays after Pentecost, and rose on two Sundays of the year (Gaudete and Laetare Sundays).


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