Over the last twelve posts, I have described the liturgy of the traditional Latin Mass. I went into detail on all of its text, ceremony, symbolism, beauty, and antiquity. Hopefully I have helped people to understand the Mass more fully and better unite themselves to the Holy Sacrifice.
However, I would now like to offer some more practical information on how to assist at the traditional Latin Mass. This is intended especially for anyone who is going to the traditional Mass for the first time. I recognize that the traditional Mass can be confusing and intimidating. The website Fisheaters, linked in the sidebar, has a lot of great information as well. Keep in mind that a lot of things are dependent on local custom, but hopefully this gives you a better idea of what to expect.
Before you go to the traditional Latin Mass, realize that you will be participating in something truly extraordinary. We speak of “assisting” in the Mass rather than merely “attending” Mass because, when we unite ourselves to the Mass, we offer the sacrifice with the priest and offer ourselves to God along with the bread and wine (Romans 12:1). Thus, we are not mere observers, but are actually assisting in the offering of the Holy Sacrifice.
There seems to be a movement lately in a lot of Protestant churches (and sadly even in some Catholic churches) of making worship too casual. They want to make people feel completely comfortable at church and make it as casual and ordinary as meeting with friends for coffee. Similar are the efforts by well-intentioned but severely misguided individuals to make worship more relevant for young people by including vulgar, happy-clappy music at the expense of traditional ceremonies. These ideas essentially come down to making worship a reflection of the world instead of a reflection of God.
The traditional Latin Mass, on the other hand, is far from casual. When we assist in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in its traditional form, we step out of the busy world and into a glimpse of eternity. We participate in the perfect sacrifice of the New Covenant. We come into the very real presence of God. We receive God's indescribable grace. We participate in a divine tradition that has its origins at the beginning of time. We worship God the way that Catholics have for more than one thousand years. We participate in the same Mass that nourished the faith of countless saints, thousands of whom willingly died as holy martyrs to defend this Mass. We participate in the Mass that, from its inception, Satan and his army of demons have tried persistently and unsuccessfully to destroy.
Finally, we receive the gift that God promised to Simeon before his death, to see our Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 2:25-26). The traditional Latin Mass – the Mass of All Ages and the most beautiful thing this side of heaven – is not a reflection of the world (John 17:16). Rather, it the closest that we can get to almighty God while still on earth. We must strive to present ourselves to God in his Church as a pure offering, just as Jesus himself was presented in the Temple of Jerusalem (Luke 2:22). Before we go to Mass, we should be sure to spiritually prepare ourselves for what we are about to do.
If you are a practicing Catholic and you plan to receive Holy Communion, canon law requires that you fast from food or drink for at least one hour before receiving Holy Communion. Water and necessary medicine do not break the fast. The traditional practice is to fast from midnight, so that our Lord Jesus Christ is our first food of the day. The requirement was changed to three hours in the 1950s and then later to just one hour. However, if you are able to fast for three hours or from midnight, it is an excellent personal devotion. Fasting is commanded by God throughout the Old and New Testaments (Exodus 34:28, Joel 2:12-13, Acts 13:2). Our Lord himself fasted for forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2). By fasting, we become closer to God by denying ourselves physical pleasures, and by fasting before Communion, we are able to be truly hungry for our Lord. If, due to some medical condition, you are unable to fast even one hour, then the obligation is dispensed.
Because the Mass is not a casual event, one should not dress casually. If you were going to the White House to meet the President of the United States, you would probably dress nicely. At Mass, you are going to meet God, who is infinitely greater than any human. Thus, one should dress nicely and modestly for Mass. As a general rule, men should wear slacks, a dress shirt, and perhaps a suit or tie. Women should wear a modest skirt or dress that covers the knees when standing or sitting. Shoulders and cleavage should also be covered. It is very important for everyone that clothing be modest. Shorts, short skirts, tank tops, yoga pants, flip flops, etc. are not appropriate.
Please do not construe this to mean that one must have fancy or expensive clothes in order to go to Mass! God welcomes everyone, and Jesus especially focused on welcoming the poor. Simply dress as nicely as you can. Give God your best, and that will be enough. If all you have is jeans, then wear jeans. People will not think any less of you because of it.
It is customary for women and girls to cover their heads with a veil, scarf or appropriate hat. Men and boys, on the other hand, must always have their heads uncovered in the church. St. Paul commanded this in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (11:1-17). Although men and women are both created in the image and likeness of God and both have crucial roles in God's plan for mankind, this does not imply that their roles are the same. The theology of the different roles of men and women is a story for another time, but it is because of these roles that men have their heads uncovered and women have their heads covered at church.
As another perspective, veiling is a sign of sanctity. In the Mass, the chalice is veiled until the Offertory. The tabernacle, which contains our Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, is veiled. Under the Old Covenant, the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, was veiled (Hebrews 9:3). Finally, every time the Blessed Virgin Mary is portrayed in art, she is always veiled. Thus, the Church calls upon women to cover their heads at Mass. This used to be required by canon law, but now it is simply preserved by custom. If you have no suitable head covering, there is no need to worry. Some parishes have veils for women to borrow, or you can go without one.
Arriving at the church
Aim to arrive at the church a little early, maybe 10-15 minutes before Mass is scheduled to start, so that you have time to pray and collect yourself before Mass. If you do not have a traditional missal, many parishes have missals or booklets for people to borrow. Alternatively, the website Divinum Officium, linked in the sidebar, has the full text of the Mass of each day, which you can print out and bring with you. If you are using a missal, before Mass, you should locate the Ordinary of the Mass, the propers for the day, and the Preface for the day, and place ribbons in these places.
Children of any age are welcome at Mass! Jesus himself said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). Catholics love children. If your children are old enough to understand what is going on, explain to them before Mass what is going to happen, and maybe sit near the front so that they can see what is happening. If you have infants or toddlers, you might want to sit near the back so that you can leave discreetly if necessary. In any case, please make sure that your kids behave themselves and are not disruptive to other people at Mass.
Turn off your cell phone before you enter the church. If you are a police officer or medical professional who must be on call, you can have your phone on vibrate. Otherwise, turn it off. Nothing is more annoying and disruptive than a cell phone ringing during Mass. Texting or checking Facebook during Mass is not appropriate. Similarly, food, drink, and chewing gum are not appropriate in the church.
When you enter the church, dip your finger in the font of holy water, always located near the entrance, and bless yourself with the Sign of the Cross. You may genuflect on your right knee toward the altar as you do so. Blessing ourselves with holy water is a reminder of our baptism and helps us direct our minds and hearts to God as we enter his sacred place. Find a pew to sit in, and genuflect toward the altar before sitting down. If for some reason the tabernacle is not located behind the main altar, genuflect first toward the tabernacle and then again toward the altar. Any time we enter or exit our pew (except to receive Communion) and any time we pass before the altar, we genuflect as a sign of reverence to God. If the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, kneel on both knees and make a profound bow.
Sacred silence should be maintained in the church at all times. Always remember that God is present in the tabernacle. In addition, the church is solemnly consecrated to be a sacred space where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered. Take some time to pray silently and spiritually prepare yourself to assist in the Mass. In some parishes, devotions such as the Rosary may be led publicly before Mass. If it is necessary to talk to someone, keep it to a soft whisper. Personal conversations are not appropriate in the church.
Look up at the crucifix and see our Lord, suffering and dying on the Cross for our redemption. Meditate on the sacrifice that you are about to assist in. Tell God sincerely that you are sorry for ever having offended him and that you will strive to never sin again. At many parishes, confessions are heard before Mass. Finally, greet our Blessed Mother, Mary, and ask for her intercession as you prepare to assist in the Holy Sacrifice. A server will ring a bell to signal the beginning of Mass.