Question: In a pre-Vatican II Catholic school we were taught that "Mass is offered in Latin, and in exactly the same way, throughout the entire Catholic Church." A traditional priest recently told me that even before Vatican II Mass had been offered in a variety of different languages and rituals. He kept saying "Eastern Rite Catholics," but I think he meant "Eastern Orthodox." Can you please shed some light on this?
Answer: The priest is correct. Since the time of Christ there have been parts of the Catholic Church which do not use the language, ritual, or canon law of the Roman Rite. Presumably, the nuns knew better, but were giving you a simplified answer -- just as the Baltimore Catechism gives only simple, generalized information about Catholic doctrine. That is why it is so important for Catholics to continue their religious education beyond the parochial school level. It is a very dangerous thing to have a high school diploma or college degree, and only a sixth or eighth grade religious education.
When our Lord instituted the Mass and Sacraments, He gave us only their basic essentials. The Apostles and their successors embellished these essentials according to their own talents and the tastes of the people where their missions were conducted. In practice, the big cities of the ancient world exercised a decisive influence on Catholic worship. Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople became "patriarchal" cities, the sees of bishops second in importance only to the pope in Rome. The ritual and language used in these cities was formed by local talents and customs. For the most part, priests and bishops used the Rite proper to their patriarchate. Thus, Catholics have attended Mass in languages like Greek, Arabic, and Syriac since apostolic times. Other languages were added over the years as missionary needs dictated. For some Catholics these languages were the spoken language of the people. In other cases they were liturgical languages; "dead" in the sense of not developing or changing.
In the West, with minor exceptions, the use of Latin was fairly standard, but there was considerable variation in ritual from one city to another, and between the religious orders. Only after the Council of Trent did Pope Pius V, in 1570, require most Western priests to use the Rite of Rome. Even Pius V allowed some exceptions, so their remained a few Latin, but non-Roman Rites employed by religious orders like the Carmelites and Dominicans, and by cities like Milan and Toledo.
The non-Latin rites of the Catholic Church are usually called "Eastern" Rites. Some use leavened bread for Holy Communion, which some distribute under both species (bread and wine). Some of their priests are married, some wear beards. Yet, despite these superficial differences, they recognize and are recognized by the Pope of Rome. Note that none of this is of modern creation, but has been this way since the beginning of the Church.
Those who belong to the Eastern Orthodox church were, for the most part, members of Eastern Catholic Rites, who somewhere along the line repudiated the Pope. There are even a few Latin Rite Orthodox. But the fact that some Easterners and a few Westerners have disavowed the Pope does not reflect on the substantial numbers who remain loyal Catholics. They are not "second class citizens," and have the right to have all Catholics respect their laws and traditions.
Booklets are available in English for the ordinary parts of the Masses of the various Eastern Rites. In South Florida, interested Catholics can attend Mass in four or five different Rites without great inconvenience. Roman Rite Catholics may satisfy their obligation to hear Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, make their Confession, and receive Holy Communion in any Catholic Rite (c.1249, c.905, c.866). Normally, the "Easter Duty" to Confess and receive Holy Communion during Paschaltide should be fulfilled by Roman Rite Catholics in their own traditional Latin Rite church.
Many Catholics, unable to attend the traditional Mass, are thankful that they can attend Mass and receive the Sacraments in the churches of the Eastern Rites. Because many of them have suffered Communist persecution, the Eastern clergy are frequently theological and political conservatives. In general, they have been much less influenced by Vatican II's "autodemolition" than their Roman counterparts.