Latin Lovers

A convoy of diverse phenomena has been thundering past my kennel for the last few days, and, alas, I have not been able to raise my snout from my dish to muster even the most half-hearted of barks.

One of the things I had planned on writing about in more detail was the decision of the Pope to allow masses to be celebrated in Latin. Not because I have any particular interest in Latin masses, but because I find it diverting that people should exhibit a preference for a religious celebration in a language they do not speak. It is as though religious devotion were intensified by incomprehension. A glorious mystery, perhaps.

On the one hand, the Latin Mass nowadays might seem like trenchant traditionalism, but on the other, there are parallels with the sort of thing popularised by people like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, where transcendental meditators use an incomprehensible ‘mantra’ -but one which is supposed to have a personal significance- to achieve a sense of transcendence.

But, as this letter writer to the Irish Independent avers, in what I imagine is a fairly typical position, this is not the only reason:

I go to the Tridentine Mass when I can – not because I think it is correct or better in itself, but because it is more obviously directed towards God, not inwards to the priest and the congregation, and because I want to pray in my own head along with the priest. He is not turning his back on us; he is speaking to God for us all and we are able to concentrate on our collective worship without distractions.

i.e. I would prefer not to see stragglers making their way through the front door via their reflection on the priest’s shiny forehead. Maybe.

More interesting here is the conviction that God has a particular location (‘more obviously directed towards God’), and therefore a corporeality, which, for the most part, he has been rather coy about revealing, provided we choose to ignore his occasional appearances on pizza slices and oily rags.

5 Responses to “Latin Lovers”

  1. 1 Kevin July 22, 2007 at 9:29 am

    You don’t have to be conversant in Latin to understand the prayers of the ‘Tridentine’ service. We have heard much about people preferring to worship in a language they don’t speak. I cannot speak Latin either, but I understand enough to follow through the service.

    Most people who attend what the Pope has now named the Extraordinary form of the Mass (the one service, two forms) really do understand, and if they don’t they carry a little book called a Missal that presents the Mass in both Latin and the vernacular language of the region. The services I have attended actually have these books in handout, so you don’t have to carry you own.

    Attending this service is not a subject of being a ‘Latin lover’. It’s more about attending a service that has characterised worship in the Church for more than ten centuries.

  2. 2 Hugh Green July 22, 2007 at 4:24 pm

    Hi Kevin,

    First of all, I wouldn’t get too hung up on the title, since I had been listening to Ricky Martin whilst I was typing the piece.

    Second, I don’t think worshippers can get off the hook so easily by saying that they understand what is going on, even if they don’t speak the language. Here’s an apposite para from Marx:

    the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

    Applying this to worship in the Latin Mass, ‘Agnus Dei’, for example, doesn’t hold any specific meaning in terms of its relationship to the rest of the Latin language: it just means ‘Lamb of God’ in English, or whatever the mother tongue of the person is, but perhaps with a hint of exoticism, or additional gravitas because of the fact that it is in Latin.

    So what you have nowadays when you celebrate the Latin Mass, as opposed perhaps to ten centuries ago, is the introduction of a layer of empty symbolism.

  3. 3 GerryOS July 23, 2007 at 10:45 am

    Back in the day when I was an altarboy, I was always perplexed by the old women who used to sit in the front pews, rosary beads in hand, whispering the rosary to themselves.

    I asked the priest why they did this, and not join in the responses to the mass like everyone else, and he told me that it was because people used to recite the rosary to themsleves during the Latin mass. They just carried on doing it after the vernacular mass was introduced by Vatican II.

  4. 4 Kate July 23, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    Perhaps the church has been inspired by the great Il Divo who have achieved much success by warbling the likes of “a mi manera” (my way) and “Regresa a mi” (un-break my heart – originally Toni Braxton I think). Katherine Jenkins is also a culprit – I understand “Quello que faro” is a popular request at weddings…

  5. 5 Hugh Green July 24, 2007 at 11:43 am


    Happy days. I remember my own encounter with this whilst serving mass. At communion time, the altar boy would have to hold the paten (sp?) under the mouth -or hands, for the hellbound who planned to conduct black masses- of the communicant in order to prevent the host accidentally falling to the ground.

    In the deserted masses of early morning, the few old people who approached the altar would be whispering pishawishawishawishawish noises ring up to the moment when they had to say ‘amen’. Then, a brief gulp, and back to pishawishawishawishawish.


    No doubt Il Divo has been an influence. They demonstrate that Latin is such a romantic and passionate language.

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