Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

From the May AD 2000
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

    From the earliest times the simple chants which graced the sacred prayers and liturgy gave a wonderful impulse to the piety of the people. History tells us how in the ancient basilicas, where bishop, clergy, and people alternately sang the divine praises, the liturgical chant played no small part in converting many barbarians to Christianity and civilization.... It was in the churches, finally, where practically the whole city formed a great joint choir, that the workers, builders, artists, sculptors, and writers gained from the liturgy that deep knowledge of theology, which is now so apparent in the monuments of the middle ages.

--- Pope Pius XI (1)

    Question: I've been to other traditional Catholic churches where the people (apart from a designated choir) never take part in the Mass. They also seemed to kneel almost continuously. Isn't the Latin "dialog" Mass a spin-off of the Novus Ordo?

    Answer: The congregation responding to the priest, singing the Psalms, and joining him in the parts appropriate to them is a custom that greatly diminished in the Latin Rites somewhere around the year 1000 A.D. Other practices of the early Church were suppressed because they didn't work well to foster piety and respect for the Sacred Mysteries; Communion in the hand, for example, or the general Kiss of Peace. But, popular participation in the Mass, even though it greatly fostered devotion to the Holy Sacrifice, fell into relative disuse because it became impossible for many of the faithful in the centuries following the breakup of the Carolingian Empire.

    The first Mass, the Last Supper, was most likely celebrated in Hebrew, the liturgical tongue of Aramaic speaking Jews. Very quickly, though, Mass began to be said in Greek, which was the common language of literate people in the then known world. Even at Rome, Greek remained the language of the Mass until some vernacular Latin was introduced by a Pope from North Africa, Victor I (190-202). By the fourth century, the Roman Mass was entirely in Latin, with the only Greek being the Kyrie eleison (daily) and the Agios o Theos on Good Friday. From the earliest accounts, the Mass involved the people with hymns and prayers proper to them.(2) Even when the custom of reciting the Canon in a low voice developed, somewhere between the sixth and tenth centuries, the other parts of the Mass were spoken or sung clearly by the clergy and people.(3)

    As early as the third century, and well into the eighth, Rome and the Empire began to be invaded by Germanic, Scandinavian, and Mongol peoples whom the Romans called "barbarians." (4) Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Huns, Vandals, Franks, Lombards, and Avars: the invaders were eventually absorbed into Roman society, but only after fragmenting it culturally and linguistically.

    Charlemagne, himself a Frank, crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas day, A.D. 800, did much more than bring back a sense of order to Western Europe following the barbarian invasions -- he encouraged cathedrals and monasteries to follow the lead of his "palace school" to establish centers of Catholic learning throughout the Empire. Sacred Scripture, Liturgy and music, Latin grammar and speech, astronomy and mathematics (with an eye toward the liturgical calendar) were fostered in what later historians were to call the "Carolingian Renaissance."

    Charlemagne's legacy survived a generation or so of his heirs before Frankish law succeeded in dividing his political holdings among his progeny. Viking, Moslem, and Magyar invasions accompanied the political division. Literacy, education, and Latin as a vernacular language suffered immensely. Popular Latin declined and participation in the Mass became less and less possible, especially in the north where non-romance languages predominated. On the feudal estates of the middle ages, the pastor of the "proprietary" church established by the lord of the manor was often a newly freed man whose own difficulties with Latin, chant, and ritual precluded any instruction of his parishioners. Even the rise of the universities a few centuries later would not restore Latin as the language of everyday life.

    Simultaneously with the decline of vernacular Latin came an increase in the proportion of priests to laymen in the monasteries, an increase everywhere in the number of occasions on which Mass was said, and an increase in the number of Masses said by each priest. In monasteries, cathedrals, and colleges this brought about the celebration of "low" Masses, much simpler than the "high" Mass celebrated daily by the entire membership of the community or chapter. The "low" Mass was offered without deacon, subdeacon and other ministers, and without choir or congregation. The priest took the parts previously belonging to most of these, while a minor cleric preserved the public character of the Mass, representing a congregation by making their simple responses. Of necessity, Masses came to be offered quietly, so that priests at adjacent altars would not disturb one another, and because additional ministers, congregation, and choir were not available for each Mass.(5)

    When the Canon came to be said in a subdued voice even in Masses with a congregation, and when the reception of Holy Communion became less frequent, the desire of the faithful to remain "connected" to their Mass gave rise to the ringing of bells, the elevation of the Host (~12th century), and later the Chalice (~14th).(6)

    Nonetheless, popular participation continued in some places. Monasteries and cathedrals continued to celebrate their conventual and chapter Masses; some amid great splendor, as at Cluny, or the Papal court. Failure to make the responses was listed as a bread and water offense in the penitential of Burckhard, who became bishop of the German diocese of Worms in 1000 A.D.(7) In the 1502 Ordo of John Burchard, papal Master of Ceremonies, the people were expected to sing or respond -- even to the previously private prayers now said at the foot of the altar. Burchard's Ordo, of course, formed the rubrical basis for the Tridentine missal of 1570, which is silent on the matter.(8)

    Unfortunately, the Protestant Reformation caused a backlash of what we might call "clericalism" -- the attitude that Catholicism is the work of the clergy, with the laity standing by as spectators. When Martin Luther insisted that the Mass "could not be" celebrated without a congregation, and the Council of Trent reaffirmed that it "could be," the overzealous began to think that it "should be." When Luther said that Mass must "always" be spoken in the language of the people, and Trent said "not always," mistranslations of the Council pronouncements appeared that said "never."(9) Perhaps typical of this "clericalism" is the attitude of no less a personage than Pope Alexander VII, who "heard with great sorrow that in France certain sons of perdition seeking to corrupt souls with novelties and condemning the Church's sanctions and practice have madly dared to translate the Roman missal, written for so many centuries in Latin, and approved by long use, into the vulgar French and to publish and distribute it to people of any order and sex, thus casting down and trampling down the majesty of the most holy rites conserved in Latin and exposing their dignity to the crowd."(10) Imagine that -- exposing the Mass to common laborers and women -- maybe even to carpenters and fishermen! No doubt Pope Alexander VII is quoted by detractors who accuse the Church of practicing "secret priestcraft."

    But the Popes of the modern era refused to define the Faith as a reaction to Protestantism, and set out to renew the participation of the people at Holy Mass. In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV instructed the bishops of the Papal States that "In ecclesiastical chant care must be taken to insure that the words are perfectly and easily understood...." He quoted the 1565 Synod of Cambrai: "What is sung in choir is destined to instruct the faithful..." and the 1536 Council of Cologne: "the most important part is made up precisely of the recital of the words of the prophets, the apostles, the Epistle, the Creed, the Preface or the act of thanksgiving, and the Our Father. On account of their importance these texts like all the others must be sung clearly and intelligibly."(11)

    In clear contrast to the idea that the Mass is a private dialog between priest and clergy, the Popes of this century have ordered that It be made intelligible to the faithful:

    In 1903, Pope St. Pius X wrote: "[Sacred music] enhances the beauty and splendor of the ceremonies of the Church. Since its chief function is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text presented for the understanding of the faithful, its own proper end is to make the text more meaningful for them." (12)

    He was followed by Pope Pius XI in 1928: "It is most important that when the faithful assist at the sacred ceremonies, or when pious sodalities take part with the clergy in a procession, they should not be merely detached and silent spectators, but, filled with a deep sense of the beauty of the liturgy, they should sing alternately with the clergy or the choir as it is prescribed. If this be done, then it will no longer happen that the people either make no answer at all to the public prayers -- whether in the language of the liturgy or in the vernacular -- or at best utter the responses in a low and subdued murmur."(13)

    A hand missal published the previous year had this account: "The allusions to the practice of the answers at Holy Mass being said aloud by all those present at it will perhaps surprise many Catholics who are unaccustomed to it. It is to be noticed that we do not suggest that the prayers intended for the priest alone should be said by the laity; nor do we attempt to suggest that every low Mass should be responded to by all. It is a form of religious service that may, however, when practiced outwardly, help the faithful to appreciate inwardly in the offering of the holy Sacrifice. It was a custom which existed in the time of St. Pius V, and we find rubrics of that date evidently taking it for granted that the server is replying not only in the name of those present, but in their place or together with them.

    "As this practice might be in some circumstances be unsuitable, it is ordered by a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites in [August 4th] 1922 that it should not be introduced in all times and places without discretion, and in all cases rests with the Ordinary, as the sole judge of local conditions, to decide upon its introduction into each diocese. This judicious restriction, however, as we learn from a report presented in 1923 at the Eucharistic Congress held at Rome, was in no sense a condemnation. On the contrary, this method of celebrating, already recommended by his Eminence the Cardinal Vicar Pompii for the diocese of Rome, was practiced by His Holiness Pope Pius XI, himself in the course of the General Congress of 1922." (14)

    By 1947, Pope Pius XII would write: "They are to be commended who strive to make the Liturgy, even in an external way, a sacred act in which all who are present may share. This can be done in more than one way, when, for instance, the whole congregation in accordance with the rules of the Liturgy, either answers the priest in an orderly and fitting manner, or sing hymns suitable to the different parts of the Mass, or do both, or finally in High Masses when they answer the prayers of the priest of Jesus Christ and also sing the liturgical chant."(15)

    In A.D. 2000 America, it might be objected that we are even further away from our Latin roots than the Catholics of post- Carolingian 1000 A.D. Europe, making intelligent participation impossible. In many cities, Latin-I isn't taught anywhere! On the other hand, there has never before been a period of almost universal literacy such as we now enjoy. Computers and Xerox machines have made the printed word available so much more easily and economically than it has ever been since Gutenberg. The vast majority of people can read some primary language, and a fair number of them have been exposed to the workings of a second or third. They can read a Latin text set parallel to one in their own language, and join immediately in the prayers of the parish. Their pronunciation and their understanding will grow painlessly if they have participating people around them for support and guidance. All of the languages used officially on the American continents are rich in Latin cognates,(16) so most of our people are not terribly far from having an embryonic Latin vocabulary to support what they hear and speak at Mass. Like everything else, Latin fluency grows with practice.

    Like it or not, we live in an information rich culture, in which people are accustomed to knowing what is going on through sight and sound. They loose interest quickly when deprived of this sensory input. Catholic tradition is so rich in sight, sound, and even smell that we would be foolish to pass up such an opportunity for drawing people to holy things.

    Additionally, the recited or sung Mass is a reminder to priests to pay attention to their parishioners' need to worship God in the Holy Sacrifice. No priest should have the temerity to think of the Mass as his own private possession, to the exclusion of his congregation. And the Mass is not and should not be a "prayer wheel," a burst of pure *ex opere operato like a video played at high speed, with the sound turned off until the beginning of the Leonine Prayers. Or as St. Robert Bellarmine put it less technologically: "Think then, what a matter for tears it is, to see one so placed, cold and inattentive, and in such a hurry that it looks as if he thought he had a band of robbers on his track." 

*"Ex opere operato" is the theological truth that God works effectively through the Sacraments even if the priest is deficient in his devotion, understanding or presentation of them. This truth is no excuse for liturgical negligence.

    Finally, it ought to be recognized that the Modernists came very close to taking the Mass away from us -- at least in part, because so few of us really knew the Mass. We must not let that happen ever again.

    Question: Why is there less kneeling in the dialogue Mass than at low Mass?

    Answer: Church choirs have recognized for centuries that people are better able to sing (or speak) when standing, rather than sitting or kneeling. When the congregation recites or sings its parts of the Mass, it is more practical for them to be standing. It also helps relieve some of the physical distraction caused by prolonged kneeling. Kneeling remains throughout the prayers at the foot of the altar, the Canon, for Holy Communion, and the Leonine prayers.

    Question: Won't allowing everyone to sing decrease the quality of the music?

    Answer: In some cases it will. While each congregation ought to want the finest of everything in worshipping God, a church is first of all a house of prayer. Only in a secondary way is it a place for the talented to display their musical abilities. The papal directives on church music envision a trained choir to sing the more difficult pieces alone, and to lead the efforts of the congregation in singing the rest. Usually, the people who should not be singing along with the choir are aware of their limitations -- when they are not it is the job of the choir director or the pastor to make them aware -- privately and tactfully, of course. It goes without saying that no one ought to be compelled to sing.

    At Our Lady of the Rosary, we have been blessed with a choir director who is capable of fine artistic work, while simultaneously understanding the Church's desire to involve all of Her people in at least some of the singing. It takes work on his part, and probably some forbearance, but certainly our Lord appreciates hearing the additional voices who sing His praises. To his credit, he has not suggested that high Mass should take place without the tone deaf priest. One learns to sing by singing!

    Question: Doesn't the verbal participation and increased sitting and standing keep people from contemplation and meditating on the Mass

    Answer: Even cloistered contemplatives -- monks and nuns like the Carthusians, Carmelites, and Trappists -- devote several hours a day to vocal public prayer. Together with the Divine Office, the Mass is the official public prayer of the Church -- even if offered by a priest in absolute solitude. The Mass is the offering of the perfect gift of Jesus Christ to God the Father. Uniting with the priest in offering that gift -- the holiest of human actions -- is most perfectly accomplished by reciting (at least mentally) the prayers assigned to us, listening to or reading what is assigned to the priest, and receiving our Lord in Holy Communion. Remember that we generally meditate on things only because we cannot experience them -- the reality is usually more beneficial than thinking about the reality or reading a commentary on the reality. In any event, there is always some quiet time in virtually every Roman rite Mass.

    On the other hand, we must recognize, together with Pope Pius XII, that: "Many of the faithful are unable to use the Roman Missal even though it is written in the vernacular, nor are all capable of understanding correctly the liturgical rites and formulas. So varied and diverse are men's talents and characters that it is impossible for all to be moved and attracted to the same extent by community prayers, hymns, and liturgical services.... They can adopt some other method which proves easier for certain people, for instance, they can lovingly meditate on the mysteries of Jesus Christ, or perform other exercise of piety or recite prayers which, though they differ from the sacred rites, are still essentially in harmony with them."(17) Such alternate prayers are also useful when participation is impossible because of noise, or the inability to read or to see the altar. Those who find such alternatives more spiritually profitable ought not purposefully make their non- participation conspicuous.

    Question: If Latin is as important as you said last month, why would we ever use English [the vernacular, be it English, Spanish, or whatever] at Mass?

    Answer: The Council of Trent wisely advised that, concerning the Mass, "it has not seemed expedient to the Fathers, that it should be everywhere celebrated in the vulgar tongue" (Session 22, Ch. VIII) and that "If anyone saith ... that the Mass ought to be celebrated in the vulgar tongue only ... let him be anathema" (Session 22, Canon IX). At Our Lady of the Rosary the Mass is always in Latin, with the people reciting or singing the parts appropriate to them in Latin. Yet, implicit in the Council's decree is the possibility that in some times and places it may be expedient to use the vernacular.

    To be clear, when we speak of "the vernacular," we mean an accurate translation of the traditional Latin texts -- not one of the new rites created since Vatican II.

    Our schedule includes Masses at a rest home where the patients are often close to senility. The Mass is generally attended by a good percentage of non-Catholics (and Catholics who have not heard Mass in Latin for 35 years). At St. Peter's Mission in Miami, most of the parishioners are Bahamins who have always worshipped in English. The vernacular Mass is extremely useful in such situations.

    It is also expedient to read in English the longer lessons and Gospels that come occasionally throughout the year. The Easter Vigil, for example, or the Gospel of Palm Sunday -- which we are then free to read in its "uncut" version, linking the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.(18)

    Finally, the vernacular has been very well received for the Sacramentals and the Divine Office. Ceremonies like the blessing of holy water, or of first-fruits on the Assumption become quite meaningful. We are also able pray a few elements of the Office as a congregation (Terce following morning Mass, Vespers and Compline on First Friday evenings), which we could not manage otherwise.

    Latin is the irreplaceable standard of Western Catholic theology and prayer, but there are times when the vernacular is "expedient."

    Just in case anyone missed it, we will conclude with an important paragraph written above:

    It ought to be recognized that the Modernists came very close to taking the Mass away from us -- at least in part, because so few of us really knew the Mass. We must not let that happen ever again. 


(1) Pope Pius XI, "Divini cultus," December 20, 1928.

(2) St. Justin, Martyr, First Apology, 65-67 In Joseph A. Jungmann, S.J., The Mass of the Roman Rite, (NY: Benzinger, 1951), Vol. I, pp. 22-23; Hippolytus (perhaps pseudo Hippolytus) of Rome, The Apostolic Tradition, Pt. 1, 4. (Historians are divided about the authorship. The text may be a later work falsely attributed to Hippolytus); St. Ambrose (perhaps, pseudo-Ambrose), De Sacramentis, IV; St. Augustine, The Confessions, Book IX.

(3) Adrian Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (Longmans, Green & Co., 1912; reprinted Albany NY: Preserving Christian Publications, 1997) p. 323-328.

(4) A comprehensive account is found in J.B. Bury, The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians, (New York: Norton, 1967).

(5) Fortescue, ibid., p. 184-190.

(6) Fortescue, ibid., p. 337-345.

(7) Burckhard of Worms, Corrector et medicus, 145 in John T. McNeil and Helena M. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance (New York: Columbia, 1938, 1990).

(8) J.B. O'Connell, The Celebration of Mass (Milwaukee: Bruce 5th printing 1959) p. 10; Jungmann, ibid., p. 237.

(9) Cf. Denzinger 1749/946 with H.J. Schroeder, OP, The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford: TAN, 1978 reprint), p. 148.

(10) Pope Alexander VII, 12 January 1661, University of Notre Dame Cawley Archives, at 10 Apr 2000 00:48:56 GMT.

(11) Pope Benedict XIV, "Annus qui" (1749).

(12) Pope Saint Pius X, "Tra le sollecitudini," November 22, 1903.

(13) Pope Pius XI, "Divini cultus," December 20, 1928.

(14) Dom Gaspar Lefebvre, OSB, Daily Missal (1927) pp. xxxiii-xxxiv

(15) Pope Pius XII, "Mediator Dei," #105, November 20, 1947.

(16) Except, perhaps, Dutch -- if it has survived in Surinam.

(17) Pope Pius XII, "Mediator Dei," #108, November 20, 1947.

(18) Matthew 26 & 27, and the parallel Gospels read during Holy Week: Tuesday, Mark 14 & 15; Wednesday, Luke 22 & 23