The National Catholic Review
Michael Kerper
On presiding at a Latin liturgy
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On Sept. 23 I walked down the center aisle of our parish church, genuflected and made the sign of the cross while saying, In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Thus began my first Mass according to the Roman Missal of 1962 more than 22 years after my first experience of celebrating the Eucharist.

When Pope Benedict XVI issued his letter of July 7 eliminating most restrictions on the use of the so-called Tridentine Mass, my reaction oscillated between mild irritation (Will this ignite conflict? How will we ever provide such Masses?) and vague interest (Is there perhaps some hidden treasure in the old Mass?).

Within a week, letters trickled in. Some demanded a Latin Mass every Sunday, insisting that the pope had mandated its regular celebration. Others were more reasonable. In August, I met with a dozen parishioners who wanted the Mass. The meeting became steamy as I explained that I had never said the old Mass as a priest and had served such Masses as an altar boy for only two years before everything changed. Some thought I was just feigning ignorance to avoid doing it.

A few days after the meeting, I obtained a 1962 missal, looked through it, and concluded, reluctantly, that I knew more Latin than I had thought. My original cranky demurral crumbled under the force of my own pastoral self-understanding, which had been largely shaped by the Second Vatican Council. As a promoter of the widest range of pluralism within the church, how could I refuse to deal with an approved liturgical form? As a pastor who has tried to respond to people alienated by the perceived rigid conservatism of the church, how could I walk away from people alienated by priests like myselfprogressive, low church pastors who have no ear for traditional piety? An examination of conscience revealed an imbalance in my pastoral approach: a gracious openness to the left (like feminists, pro-choice advocates, people cohabiting and secular Catholics) and an instant skepticism toward the right (traditionalists).

Having decided to offer the Tridentine Mass, I began the arduous project of recoveringand reinforcingmy Latin grammar and vocabulary so that I could celebrate the liturgy in a prayerful, intelligible way. As I studied the Latin texts and intricate rituals I had never noticed as a boy, I discovered that the old rites priestly spirituality and theology were exactly the opposite of what I had expected. Whereas I had looked for the high priest/king of the parish spirituality, I found instead a spirituality of unworthy instrument for the sake of the people.

The old Missals rubrical micromanagement made me feel like a mere machine, devoid of personality; but, I wondered, is that really so bad? I actually felt liberated from a persistent need to perform, to engage, to be forever a friendly celebrant. When I saw a photo of the old Latin Mass in our local newspaper, I suddenly recognized the rites ingenious ability to shrink the priest. Shot from the choir loft, I was a mere speck of green, dwarfed by the high altar. The focal point was not the priest but the gathering of the people. And isnt that a valid image of the church, the people of God?

The act of praying the Roman Canon slowly and in low voice accented my own smallness and mere instrumentality more than anything else. Plodding through the first 50 or so words of the Canon, I felt intense loneliness. As I moved along, however, I also heard the absolute silence behind me, 450 people of all ages praying, all bound mysteriously to the words I uttered and to the ritual actions I haltingly and clumsily performed. Following the consecration, I fell into a paradoxical experience of intense solitude as I gazed at the Sacrament and an inexplicable feeling of solidarity with the multitude behind me.

Even as I cherish this experience, I must confess that I felt awkward, stiff and not myself. Some of the rubrical requirements, like not using ones thumbs and index fingers after the consecration except to touch the host, paralyzed me. As a style, it doesnt really fit me (I also cant imagine wearing lace). But as a priest, I must adapt to many styles and perform many onerous tasks. Why should this be any different? Perhaps we have here a new form of priestly asceticism: pastoral adaptation for the sake of a few.

My reluctant engagement with the Latin Mass has not undermined my own priestly spirituality, born of Vatican II. Rather, it has complemented and reinforced the councils teaching that the priest is an instrument of Christ called to serve everyone, regardless of theological or liturgical style. Ultimately it means little whether Mass is in Latin or in the vernacular, whether I see the people praying or hear their silence behind. For sure, I have my preference, but service must always trump that.

Rev. Michael Kerper is a priest of the Diocese of Manchester and pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Portsmouth, N.H.

Comments

Mitchell | 2/22/2009 - 2:54pm
Now that is a fair and also inspiring account of how liturgy can transcend the polemics of the choice. The Priest got something from it as well as the Congregation. Well done Father, there should be more like you. It was appreciated more than any comments here can express. Please talk with your fellow colleagues about your experience. The truth behind the bitterness of many traditional faithful is exactly what you stated. We know we are marginalized, thought of as not faithful to the sign of the times. It is the unsaid word with which we are aware and defensive. Stated out in the open and put to rest as you did will help heal that bitterness and open a new door to many souls. With much gratitude I pray, may you continue to inspire and be open to us.
Richard Salvucci | 12/10/2007 - 11:09am
I counted 25 people at midmorning Mass one day last week. That "horizontal" form of worship really speaks to the needs of the faithful, doesn't it? If you can find them.
John Feehily | 12/4/2007 - 2:12pm
I identified with Fr. Kerper's openness to serve the needs of a small group of his parishioners. While I can't invalidate his personal experience at this second "First Mass", I really don't know how he managed to reconcile his Vatican II priestly spirituality with that required by the "extraordinary form" of the Roman Rite. That rite emerged at a time when the understanding of worship and priesthood was conditioned by the overwhelming illiteracy of the day. The rite is essentially a-cognitive because of that illiteracy. The literate clergy responsible for its prayers and gestures had limited access to all the antecedents of the Christian Eucharist. The rite's almost exclusive focus on the consecration of the elements reflects the piety of the middle ages. Where are the elements that acknowledge that the Risen Christ who is truly present in the Holy Sacrament is also truly present in the word of God proclaimed and in the faithful who have gathered to worship God in spirit and truth? Sure enough, the truly present Christ is reflected in the priest in his lofty position high above the people. As early as the fourth century when public buildings were accomodated for the liturgy, the people stood around the altar as the priest offered thanks and praise. In some places, the people gathered in one part of the building for the lessons and then processed to the altar for the Eucharist. They ate and drank the Body and Blood of Christ. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy did not mandate tossing out Latin altogether, nor may it be cited to justify the oft referred to "abuses" which have occurred in various places and times over the last 40 years. But it did call for a revision of the Roman Rite so that it might more clearly communicate what it symbolizes, and so that the faithful might be able to participate in it--exteriorally and interiorally--more fully, actively, and consciously. The Pope has written extensively about his concern for the loss of the "vertical" dimension of sacred worship. He asserts that there has been too much emphasis on "fellowship" and on the effect of worship on the worshippers. Why can't he and others who are aware of the critical importance of the Eucharist see that it is both and, not either or. Where is the "horizontal" dimension of worship in the extraordinary form? It seems to me that worshippers in this form more resemble an aggregation of individual pray-ers, than an assembly of priestly people who with the priest and other ministers is offering the sacrifice of the Mass. I am perfectly willing to see people who appear to be uninterested in being engaged by the challenge of God's word, or in being shaped into a community of faith called to make Christ's mission their own, take up this older form of worship where it may be available. As a priest of 34 years with a still vivid memory of "the good ol' days", I shall continue to celebrate the ordinary form of the Mass with whatever limitations it may have.
Thomas Mackay | 11/29/2007 - 1:49pm
After visiting my son Kevin at Georgetown for four years, I think often of the words, "By serving others, you best serve yourself". I understand the benefits of Vatican II but I do think the Latin Mass could play a role in society. I grew up in a Philadelphia parish and studied latin and served the local priests at mass. For me it was a marvelous experience. I often describe it as high drama, especially on special times, the smell of incense, the ringing of the bells, the bright colors of the vestments, the voices of the choir and of course the latin verse, knowing that this celebration was truly global. We were a long way from Lincoln center but to us, our pastor served us well.
MARK HALLINAN SJ | 11/28/2007 - 2:38pm
As a priest and pastor, you are called to lead the people of God to an understanding of what the celebration of the Eucharist is supposed to signify. In the Latin Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist signifies an individual piety that emphasizes one's personal relationship with God. In the reformed liturgy of Vatican II, the Eucharist emphasizes the ways in which Christ is made present in the assembly that is gathered, in the Word proclaimed and in the bread and wine transformed. It is not an individual form of piety but a communal celebration of our common reality - the Body of Christ here present. I don't think a priest or pastor should feel obliged to celebrate the Latin liturgy when it represents a real repudiation of what we understand the significance of the celebration of the Eucharist to be.
Carolyn Disco | 1/23/2013 - 11:29pm

Thank you and Amen, Fr. Hallinan!

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