When the first mass was said by Portuguese missionaries as they arrived in Brazil, a group of native indigenous men thoughtfully observed what was happening. After a while, another group of natives arrived at the place surrounded by priests and lay and were asking the others what was happening. To explain what they had understood, the first group of natives pointed to the altar and then to the sky. There was a clear understanding that what was taking place was not merely some theatrical animation or some mere dialogue. Those who did not understand the Latin language of the mass, nor had any knowledge of the Catholic faith already had a right intuition of what had happened in front of their eyes. This should be of great interest for us Catholics today.
Our Holy Catholic faith contains without a doubt the most intellectual tradition of any of the religions in the west. I do not say this out of any normalcy bias but rather out of the sheer evidence that is laid out every century where the Church is allowed to flourish. Think of the 12th and 13th centuries with the beginning of the university system where laity had finally the hope of receiving a higher form of education despite the barbarian invasions which had threatened the very foundations of civilisation and sought to destroy the classical literature which had once again begun to be read through the minds of many. It was the men of the Church that had embraced the Socratic Method, the Histories of Herodotus, the Euclidean geometry, the Roman law, the Aristotelian metaphysics and the Homeric poetry. All of this was included in the greatest system of education known to the west which was known as the quadrivium.
It was in the First Vatican Council which condemned the notion that the truths of the Catholic Church cannot be known by the light of human reason and the positive sciences. It anathematises he who claims that God cannot be known by the power of human reason. This was to oppose the errors of agnosticism which claimed that there was no rational argument for the existence of God. Faith rather was merely an article that cannot be explained through reason. This position came to be known as fideism and had as its defenders the German thinker Heinrich Jacobi and the Danish Søren Kierkegaard. We know by faith that the truths which the Church proclaims can be shown to be either rational or beyond the scope of reason, but never irrational. This helps us engage in the wide range of philosophical and theological arguments with others whilst having confidence in the infallible truth that our faith is reasonable.
However it does not simply stop there. In our engagement with arguments and debates with others, we can also demonstrate the faith in action. The highest form of contemplation as St Vincent Ferrer tells us, is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The mass is indeed the centre of our Faith. It is at the altar after the consecration that Our Lord is truly present. Moreover, we receive Him! What a moment of supreme dignity that is! Even for the unbeliever, the concept of having a being of infinite superiority to all things in the universe made present in front of us should inspire wonder and atleast some awe. How much more should we Catholics be in bliss knowing that divine truth! The same who shed His blood for us on the Cross is now at the altar and offering himself for us. No one can ever express entirely the mystery of this truth. This is why many saints and mystics entered into ecstasy during Holy Mass. But for the non-believer how on earth, can we convey that the entirety of a solemn mass does not focus merely on getting together to express a public act of worship but rather on the Word Incarnate Himself? How can the liturgy convey the divine truths which lie at the foundation of our understanding of everything?
Thankfully, these questions are not unanswered in our Catholic tradition. When we walk in to what is believed to be the House of God, do we expect it to look like a friend’s house or like any other random commercial building? Indeed in the very Old Testament, for the holiest site regarded by the Israelites – the Holy of Holies – was solemnly ornamented and offered with incense. This was the ritual involved in the sacrifice of the lamb for the expiation of the sins of the jews. The Mass is equally the sacrifice of the unblemished lamb, of Christ on calvary. The Holy Council of Trent declares with regard to the particular liturgical celebration:
And whereas such is the nature of man, that, without external helps, he cannot easily be raised to the meditation of divine things; therefore has holy Mother Church instituted certain rites, to wit that certain things be pronounced in the mass in a low, and others in a louder, tone. She has likewise employed ceremonies, such as mystic benedictions, lights, incense, vestments, and many other things of this kind, derived from an apostolical discipline and tradition, whereby both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be recommended, and the minds of the faithful be excited, by those visible signs of religion and piety, to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice.
The statement “and the minds of the faithful [are to] be excited, by those visible signs” catches my attention in this particular article of the Council of Trent. It should be therefore through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that we can best demonstrate to others the solemnity of the Faith, for it is the very heart and life of it. If the liturgy is transformed into anything else that does not convey the divine presence, it has ultimately become banalised and serves not to glorify God but to worship man. This is why symbology in the liturgy is extremely important. The proper manner of celebrating mass in the Roman Rite is by using the Latin language, which is of the Church and ad orientem, which is the direction which we all await the coming of Our Lord. It was in the protestant service that ministers began to face the congregations, transforming the ritual into an assembly, the focus of the celebrated onto the celebrant and above all, replacing God by man. Sadly as well with the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae under the Papacy of Pope Paul VI in 1969, much of the spirit of Protestantism was introduced into the liturgy. Thankfully however, the immemorial mass, the old rite, which was a Latin translation of the Greek liturgy in the year 210 AD, is still celebrated and even encouraged by many groups in the Church.
If our intellectual life is still to be consistent with our prayerful life, then we ought therefore to seek the recovery of the mysterious and be open to that which is beyond our grasp of reason. Whether it is in the silence of the old mass during the most sacred moment – the consecration – or whether it is the Gregorian chant which elevates the spirit to the contemplation of the divine or the eastern direction which we all face awaiting the true presence of Our Lord on the altar, all of these liturgical traditions vitalise our mind and strengthen our conviction of the truths which we believe in. Our faith therefore does not merely end with conversations and dialogues with those outside of the Church, but is rather lived through the Holy Mass. When we talk of the Alpha and the Omega making Himself present at the altar, how do we expect Him to be treated? According to the same solemnity the Lord God commanded to the Israelites during the temple sacrifice or in a spirit of naturalism and human emotions? The liturgy ought to convey the presence of Jesus reigning supreme over all on that Cross rather than become merely an event which we go to feel better or fulfil some obligation which bears no truth or meaning. Let us seek therefore the restoration of the solemnity of the Mass which has sadly become banalised in the world in perhaps the greatest liturgical crisis the Church has ever faced.
This video offers perhaps a small comparison between the Old Mass (Tridentine) and the Novus Ordo being celebrated. Have a look for yourself here.