Latin Liturgy and Tradition

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Photo by Chris Karidis on Unsplash

The Gospel reading from today’s Mass (Tuesday of the fifth week in Ordinary Time) comes from Mark 7:1–13. In it, Jesus’ disciples (and him by extension) are accused of breaking tradition by not washing their hands before eating. It would appear that the purpose of the ancient tradition might be designed to ensure that people do not accidentally ingest anything prohibited that may have touched their hands.

Jesus pushes back. How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition!” He goes on to ask his accusers why they violate the command of honoring father and mother by donating money to the temple instead of using it to help their elders. This is kind of like a tax shelter. “Sorry, I can’t help the elderly because I already promised to give this money to my religious organization.”

Jesus makes a complex argument. First, he calls his accusers hypocrites because they accuse his followers of disrespecting a tradition while they themselves are violating a command. That’s a kind of duplicity.

Next he implies that violating on of the Ten Commandments is a greater offense than not following a tradition. The tradition might be important, but it does not overrule the command. The consequences of the accusers’ actions was far greater than not washing hands before eating. By sheltering their resources in the house of religious performance, the elderly would not be taken care of. That’s an immense human cost.

Then Jesus teaches that taking care of people exceeds the acts of worship. Serving is the highest ethic that cannot be superseded by religious deeds. Houses of worship and all that goes along with them are important, and they should instill in the worshipers to serve the broader needs of the community. Worship and its house are not ends unto themselves.

Jesus makes a similar point in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The clergy passed by an injured man, while the Samaritan gave his time and resources to serving a person in need.

The Catholic Church is undergoing several crises these days. One has been brewing since the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. A new order of the Mass replaced the one that had been in use since the Council of Trent. Mass in the vernacular replaced Latin. Contemporary music became more popular than Gregorian chant. Modern architecture supplanted classic church designs.

More than fifty years later, many people feel upset about all of this and want to go back to the old ways. Magazines, websites and social media accounts call daily for a return to the traditional Latin Mass and all that accompanies it. Ironically, a large number of these dissenters were born after the close of the council. They want to return to a past that they imagine in order to right all of the wrongs happening in the church today.

The council never abolished the Tridentine Mass, but it placed certain restrictions on its celebration. In 2007 Pope Benedict issued a motu proprio that made provisions for a wider celebration of the older form of the Mass.

Since then, a large number of so-called “rad trads” (radical traditionalists) have been pushing for a rollback of the Vatican II liturgical reforms. Although it’s easy to see this on wild social media debates, these advocates are not simply social media trolls.

Archbishop Sample of Portland, Oregon recently release a pastoral letter to his diocese called Sing to the Lord. He sets guidelines for sacred music in the liturgy in his diocese. Much of the Mass must be sung, Latin chants should be used, and hymns should be avoided.

I love the chants, and I listen to recordings of monks chanting every day. The architecture of places like Notre Dame de Paris is inspiring, and Latin has a certain rhythm that has blessed people through the centuries.

Nevertheless, these forms are precisely that. They are forms. Latin, rather than Greek, slowly became the preferred liturgical language in western Europe and North Africa because it was the vernacular. Chants became the style of music because they were contemporary. Christopher Page documents the early liturgical developments in his book The Christian West and Its Singers.

There seems to be a persistent sense in Catholic circles that the older liturgical forms are inherently better, holier, and somehow more correct. And people feel very passionately about this, even to the extent of mocking the current form and those who adhere to it.

I wonder, though, if today’s Gospel might speak to the Catholic liturgical debates, especially when Jesus quotes Isaiah, This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.”

Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann (of blessed memory) is famous for analyzing liturgy as theology. His “deep liturgy” illustrates that the work and worship of the church are wide experiences that embrace more than acts of worship. It’s not that how we pray shapes how we believe, but how we pray shapes how we live. (I highly recommend a lecture entitled “The Anchor of Schmemann’s Liturgical Theology” by Dr. David Fagerberg on Ancient Faith Radio to explore this further.)

And this “how” transcends forms. Liturgy is not an end unto itself. Likewise, advocating for a specific type of liturgy as a way to attest to superior holiness desecrates the entire liturgical practice. Furthermore, fighting over liturgy and looking down on others who are themselves made in the divine image is on the verge of blasphemy.

I can almost hear Jesus say, “These people honor me with their Latin Mass, but their hearts are far from me.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Latin, Gregorian chant, or Gothic architecture. Neither is there anything intrinsically holy about them. The same is true for the vernacular, contemporary music, and current building styles. And all the while people fight over which liturgical form is best, they become like Jesus’ opponents in today’s Gospel. People are accusing one another of not washing hands while they are not taking care of those in need. If your tradition is more important than serving people, you’re not doing it right.

This Gospel reading is sharp and cuts to the heart of the matter. May it cut to the depth of our conscience. Love for liturgy should never overshadow love for God.

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