Michael Coren is an author who is ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada.
It may be considered a dead language, but Latin seems to be very much alive, and kicking rather aggressively, if the past week is any indication. On July 16, Pope Francis reversed one of his predecessor’s most significant policies by reintroducing (and increasing) strict restrictions on celebrating the Latin Mass – or, to be more precise, the revised Tridentine rite so beloved of traditionalists and conservatives. He argued that this version of the mass was causing division within the church and being exploited by critics of the Second Vatican Council.
Vatican II, as it’s more commonly known, introduced some long overdue reforms into the church in the 1960s and allowed for a new, more participatory and, some would claim, more historically accurate mass, in the vernacular. Latin wasn’t outlawed but became increasingly difficult to find.
When the new service was introduced it certainly surprised people, but opposition was limited and relatively brief. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, loudly responded in Latin to show his displeasure. Writer Evelyn Waugh even asked to be excused from mass – but Evelyn Waugh would do that, wouldn’t he?
The Latin Mass enjoyed a renaissance during the pontificate of John Paul II, even though he wasn’t a particular devotee. There are now parishes that celebrate in Latin all over the world. Most also offer the service in the local language – but not always willingly or enthusiastically.
Under Pope Francis’s new policy, the old rite has to receive the approval of the bishop in each diocese, and newly ordained priests require permission to lead such services, with the Vatican also being consulted. The bishop must also ascertain if Latin Mass leaders and participants accept Vatican II, which will be extremely difficult to do, and there is ambiguity about where they may worship – whether they will be allowed to do so in churches.
It is, frankly, a bit of a mess. It’s also extraordinary that Francis would have done this while his predecessor Benedict is still living, and many see it as an unprecedented insult. In Britain’s The Spectator, the highly regarded Tim Stanley immediately wrote an article under the headline “The Pope’s merciless war against the Old Rite.” He stated, “Why does this matter for Catholics and non-Catholics alike? Because it’s a lesson in how liberalism in this gerontocratic, Brezhnev-esque stage behaves – utterly intolerant of anyone who breaks from the party line. It is not enough to be quiet or even submit. You must conform.”
Actually, it doesn’t really matter to non-Catholics at all, nor to the vast majority of Catholics either. But the reaction exposes how sensitive conservative Catholics have become around this issue. The influential Rorate Caeli blog went a little further: “Francis HATES US. Francis HATES Tradition. Francis HATES all that is good and beautiful.” A Canadian blog screamed of Francis, “You are evil, perfectly possessed and a filthy hypocrite. Your time is short, Bergoglio and the gates of Hell are open-wide.”
That conservatism, often hysterical and bizarre, is the key to all this. No doubt there can be a certain beauty in the Latin ceremony, but if it were all about aesthetics it would hardly matter. While not all Latin Mass worshippers are right-wing, an entire culture has developed around the old rite, layered with atavistic values and aspirations that are directly contrary to the progressive ethos and policies of Francis and many senior clerics. Spend time on any traditionalist message board or website and you’ll be shocked.
Hyperbole and anger aside, the pious paradox here is that the very people who most loudly proclaim papal authority when rejecting progressive Catholics arguing for the ordination of women or the acceptance of same-sex marriage now condemn that same authority and dismiss the Pope as a heretic.
Jesus, of course, spoke Aramaic. The people who crucified him spoke Latin. Or Greek, the language of the Eastern Empire, of educated Romans, and of the earliest Christian services. Church Latin was introduced relatively late, and the Latin Mass people are so determined to defend developed many centuries after that.
It’s perhaps illustrative of the contemporary crisis of the church that while the Pope continues to refuse to address the deep involvement of his church in the residential schools horror with any depth of contrition or authentic ownership, he gallops forth on a subject like this, and people react with such ferocity. Fiddling while Rome burns? Mea culpa.
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