Sunday, May 13, 2018

Liturgy of the Traditional Mass, Part 1: Introduction to the Traditional Latin Mass

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the centerpiece of the Catholic religion. It is both the greatest prayer that we offer to God and the greatest gift that he gives to us.

Under the Old Covenant, the Jews were obligated to make burnt offerings of animals in order to atone for their sins. The most important of these offerings was that of Passover, in which a male lamb without blemish was to be offered to God and unleavened bread was to be eaten. When our Lord celebrated Passover with his disciples at the Last Supper, he took the unleavened bread and said, “This is my Body,” and then took the chalice of wine and said, “This is my Blood.” He then commanded them, “Do this in remembrance of me.” He commanded them to continue the observance of Passover, but in remembrance of him.

This perfect Passover in remembrance of Jesus Christ is the Mass. Our Passover lamb is Jesus himself, who is perfectly without blemish and who willingly offered himself to suffer and die on the Cross. In the Mass, the bread and wine are offered to God by the priest, acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), and are transformed into the actual Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. God himself is both priest and victim.

In this series, I will be describing a Solemn Mass, which is the original and complete form of the Mass. In a Solemn Mass, nearly everything is chanted/sung, the priest is assisted by a deacon and a subdeacon, and incense is used. Most often for weekday Masses (or for Sunday Masses at smaller parishes), a Low Mass is instead offered, in which nothing is sung, the priest is only assisted by one or two servers, and incense is not used. Although this is the most basic form, it is in reality just a reduced form of the Solemn Mass, and, although it is a perfectly fine Mass, the simplicity compromises some of the beauty and theological depth that the Solemn Mass has.

In addition, the liturgy I am describing is the Traditional Latin Mass, which has remained mostly unchanged for more than a thousand years and is now in use as the “Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.” It is different from the Novus Ordo Mass or “Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite,” which is what most Catholics today attend. The differences between the two forms of the Mass or which one is better are beyond the scope of this series. When I refer to the Mass at any point, I am referring to the Traditional Latin Mass. Unless otherwise specified, I am using the 1962 Roman Missal. Also, references to Judaism are referring to the religion of the Old Covenant, not modern Judaism. Finally, biblical references are from the Douay-Rheims Bible, which means, among other things, that Psalms follow the Catholic (Greek) numbering system, not the Protestant (Hebrew) system, and that the final book of the Bible is called “Apocalypse” instead of “Revelation.”

Why Latin?

The traditional Mass is always said/sung in Latin, never in the vernacular. Thus, whether you go to Mass in Seattle, New York, Germany, Russia, China, or anywhere else in the world, the Holy Sacrifice is offered using the exact same words in the exact same language. Furthermore, Latin was the language of old Rome, which was the see of St. Peter, the first pope. Thus, throughout all the centuries, Latin has been (and still is) the official language of the Church. This is not because it was originally the vernacular (it never was), but rather to provide continuity from the earliest of times. This universality in space and time of the Mass in Latin is part of what makes the Catholic Church “catholic,” which means “universal.” As Pope Pius XI wrote, "A universal Church must have a universal language."

Another reason for saying the Mass in Latin is that, since it is not normally used anymore for common speech (it is not a “dead language”), words and phrases maintain the full gravity of their meaning, whereas vernacular languages change meanings over time. Also, having different texts for the Mass in all the different languages presents major translation issues. This issue came into public eye very blatantly in November 2011, when new English translations of the Novus Ordo Mass were put into use. This fixed hundreds of bad translations that had been present for nearly 40 years. Even with the best possible translations, it is still impossible to fully convey the true meaning of the Latin text. For something as critically important as the Mass, it is important that the text be pure and not ambiguous or compromised by translation. Thus, having Mass in Latin is the only solution.

Finally, St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:2, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.” To say Mass in the vernacular would represent too familiar of a position with God. Latin represents the veil that exists between God and man and separates our liturgy from day to day life. We are not supposed to understand God, only to experience him. It is for this reason also that there is little “active participation” by the congregation in the Mass, as many people today would see it. We participate in the Mass in spirit by praying with the priest and offering ourselves to God alongside the oblations.

The Atmosphere of the Traditional Latin Mass

People coming to the Traditional Latin Mass for the first time are often surprised by the large amounts of silence. (Or at least it would be silent if there were fewer babies crying.) At all times in the church, a peaceful, prayerful atmosphere must be maintained and greatest respect must be given to Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament, under the appearance of bread and wine. In the Mass especially, what is occurring is so sacred that saying anything aloud would be merely a distraction to the spiritual experience of the Mass. It is for this reason that the words of institution – the part of the Mass where the priest quotes Christ's words and the bread and wine are transformed into his Body and Blood – are said no louder than a soft whisper.

Additionally, the priest faces away from the congregation when offering the Mass. The priest is offering this sacrifice to God, so he ought to face God: traditionally east, but always toward the crucifix. The people are praying with the priest to the same God and offering with him the same sacrifice, so the people should face the same direction as the priest. For the priest to face the people across the altar would make sense only if the congregation were the focus of the Mass, which it is not, or if the Mass were supposed to be primarily a meal, which it is not. Thus, for the priest to turn his back to the crucifix in order to face the people would not reflect the true nature of the Mass. Historically, in the great Basilicas of Rome, the priest would face the people across the altar, but during the consecrations, the most sacred part of the Mass, the people would turn around and face the same direction as the priest. For many centuries, however, the tradition of the Roman Rite has been for the priest and people to face the same direction for the whole Mass.

The Altar

The altar, the table on which the Mass is offered, is made of stone and consecrated by a bishop. It must contain relics of two martyrs, because when Christianity was persecuted in the Roman Empire, the Mass was offered in the catacombs atop tombs of martyrs. The altar is always erected on steps and is covered with three cloths of white linen: two of heavy linen the size of the top of the altar, and one lighter "fair linen" that hangs down on the sides and may be trimmed with lace. They represent the devotion of the faithful, the members of the Body of Christ, who is represented by the altar (Apocalypse 19:8). They also represent the linen shroud in which our Lord was buried (Matthew 27:59). Between the lower two, there may also be a frontal, a richly decorated cloth in the color of the day that covers the front of the altar.

Behind the altar, there may be a slightly raised ledge. The tabernacle, containing the Blessed Sacrament, is usually at the center of this ledge. There is always a crucifix in the center above and/or behind the tabernacle, as well as six large candlesticks, three on each side. Relics of saints are also often placed on the altar. Some liturgists suggest or even require that the altar be further adorned with vases of flowers, as is customary in many places. However, no mention of flowers is made in any official document, and they are not used in Rome.


The crucifix reminds us that the Mass is, after all, the same sacrifice offered on the Cross, and the faithful assisting at Mass are like St. Mary and St. John at the foot of Calvary. As for the candlesticks, a principle furnishing of the Jewish Temple was the seven-branched candlestick (Exodus 25:31-40, 37:17-24). At a typical High Mass, six candles are to be lit. In the center of the altar is the tabernacle, which contains Christ, who is mystically the center candle. All of the altar candles represent the light of Christ. At a Pontifical Mass, the more ancient custom of having seven altar candles is preserved, so the Blessed Sacrament is to be relocated if it is reserved at that altar. In the Jewish Temple, all seven candles were kept burning all night (Leviticus 24:3) and were lit for great feasts, but for daily sacrifices, only three candles were lit. Thus, at a Low Mass, only two altar candles are lit. The altar candles are not kept burning constantly, but only the sanctuary lamps to illuminate the tabernacle.

The Ministers of Mass and Their Vestments

The Mass is offered up by a priest assisted by a deacon and a subdeacon. These Holy Orders closely resemble the hierarchy of the Jewish Temple. Daily sacrificial duties were performed by Kohanim (priests), who were the patrilineal descendants of Aaron, assisted by Levites (Numbers 3:5-13). The highest in the Jewish Temple hierarchy was the High Priest. This threefold ministry corresponds directly to the three Holy Orders established by Christ in the New Testament—High Priests prefigure bishops, Kohanim prefigure priests, and Levites prefigure deacons. The order of subdeacon was not instituted by God and is not mentioned at all in the Bible. Instead, it was instituted by the Church in the third century to perform some of the lesser duties formerly performed by deacons. Thus, the priest in the Mass is assisted by a deacon and a subdeacon just as a Jewish priest would be assisted by Levites.

Before Mass, the three sacred ministers – priest, deacon, and subdeacon – put on the vestments proper to their order. Several of the vestments are in the proper liturgical color of the day, which depends on what the Mass is celebrating.
  • White is used for joyful feasts of our Lord, our Lady, and some saints, and is sometimes substituted with gold.
  • Red is used for feasts of martyrs, our Lord's Passion, and the Holy Spirit.
  • Violet is used for the penitential seasons of Advent, Septuagesima, and Lent, which prepare us for the great feasts of Christmas and Easter.
  • Rose is used instead of violet on the third Sunday of Advent and the fourth Sunday of Lent, both of which have a slightly more joyful character.
  • Green is used for the Sundays after Epiphany and after Pentecost, in which there is no special observance.
  • Finally, black is used for Good Friday, All Souls' Day, and Masses for the Dead.

All three ministers wear the amice, a piece of white linen briefly put upon the head and then wrapped around the shoulders and tied in front with ribbons. The prayer they say while putting on the amice asks God to clothe them with the “helmet of salvation.” All three of the sacred ministers also wear the alb, a long white robe, which is the symbol of purity, and the cincture, a rope tied around the waist, which is the symbol of chastity.

All three sacred ministers also wear the maniple, a short band of cloth in the proper liturgical color of the day, worn over the left arm, representing the sorrows of our earthly life, particularly the tears our Lord shed before he was crucified.

The stole is a band of cloth in the color of the day that is the symbol of the sacrificial priesthood. The priest, being the one who actually offers up the sacrifice, wears the stole around his neck and crossed over his breast, forming an X (also the Greek letter chi). Since the deacon is only one step away from the priesthood, he also wears the stole, but since he is not a priest, he wears it differently. The deacon wears the stole over his left shoulder, across his body, and crossed under the right arm, like a sash. In either case, the cincture is used to secure the stole in place. The subdeacon, who does not have the Holy Orders, does not wear any stole. Illustrated below are the three sacred ministers wearing amice, alb, cincture, maniple, and stole:


The subdeacon puts on the tunicle, a tunic in the color of the day that represents the office of subdeacon. The deacon wears the dalmatic, the symbol of the office of deacon, which in modern times is often indistinguishable from the tunicle, though the dalmatic is sometimes more elaborately decorated. Often, the dalmatic has two large stripes on it, whereas the tunicle has only one. The priest, meanwhile, wears the chasuble, a large square or conical garment in the color of the day, which represents the order of priest and is also the symbol of charity. Illustrated here are the three sacred ministers vested for Mass.

Image credit: Tom Lemmens

If it is a Sunday, the priest does not put on the chasuble quite yet, and the ministers do not yet put on their maniples. These vestments will be put on later. Instead, the priest at this time puts on the cope, a long mantle, open in front, in the color of the day. The cope has no special symbolism; it is the vestment worn for processions, greater blessings, and other functions, but never when offering the Mass—thus the priest will remove it before beginning the Mass. The three sacred ministers cover their heads with the biretta, a four-cornered black hat. With that, the liturgy is ready to begin. The ministers' heads are covered, the missal is closed, and the chalice is veiled. For now, everything is covered and closed.

New terms
  • Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, or simply Mass – The sacrifice of the New Covenant and the cornerstone of the Catholic religion, an unbloody re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross, in which bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.
  • in persona Christi – Latin for “in the person of Christ,” which is the character that the priest takes on in the Mass.
  • Solemn Mass – The complete ceremonial form of the Mass, including music, incense, and the assistance of a deacon and subdeacon.
  • Low Mass – A simpler form of the Mass without music, incense, or deacon or subdeacon.
  • Traditional Latin Mass – The traditional form of the Mass for more than 1000 years before the reforms of the 1960s, always offered in Latin, which is what I am describing in this series.
  • Novus Ordo Mass – “New Order of the Mass,” promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969, usually offered in the vernacular language.
  • Blessed Sacrament – The Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ under the outward appearance of bread and wine.
  • Altar – The stone table on which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered.
  • Tabernacle – The metal or wooden box on or behind the altar that contains the Blessed Sacrament.
  • Priest – The man who offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
  • Deacon – The man who assists the priest and has the first degree of the priesthood.
  • Subdeacon – The man who assists the priest and deacon.
  • Liturgical color of the day – A color that depends on the occasion being celebrated. Some of the vestments are in the liturgical color of the day.
  • Amice – A piece of white linen wrapped around the shoulders and tied in the front with ribbons, worn by the priest, deacon, and subdeacon.
  • Alb – A floor-length white robe worn by the priest, deacon, and subdeacon.
  • Cincture – A rope tied around the waist, worn by the priest, deacon, and subdeacon.
  • Maniple – A band of cloth in the liturgical color of the day worn over the left arm by the priest, deacon, and subdeacon.
  • Stole – A band of cloth in the liturgical color of the day, representing the priesthood. The priest wears it around his neck and crossed over his breast, forming an X. The deacon wears it over his left shoulder and across his body like a sash. The subdeacon does not wear a stole.
  • Tunicle – A tunic in the color of the day worn only by the subdeacon.
  • Dalmatic – A tunic in the color of the day, sometimes more elaborately decorated than the tunicle, worn only by the deacon.
  • Chasuble – A large square or conical garment with a hole in the middle for the head, worn only by the priest.
  • Cope – A large mantle open in front worn by the priest for ceremonies outside of the Mass.
  • Biretta – A four-cornered black hat worn by the priest, deacon, and subdeacon while arriving at and leaving the sanctuary.

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