Latin mass was banned at Catholic churches globally in 1963. The Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican Two, put an end to the centuries-long practice, established by Pope Pius V in 1570, as an effort toward modernization, so that parishioners could understand the word of God.
The idea seems noble at first glance, something like the Gutenberg Bible, a way to bring faith and fellowship to the hearts and minds of Catholics so that they could have an understanding, in their own vernacular, of the sacred mass. But in practice, now more than 50 years on, has this practice brought Catholics closer to God or merely pushed them farther from each other?
At my church in Brooklyn, there are two Sunday masses. There is one mass given in English, and there’s one given in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, so I attend the mass for English speakers, along with my son. And I have to admit, it’s been a minute since we’ve gone. There’s the usual reasons: Sunday morning is a great time to sleep late after a long week, or wanting to get out into nature or whatever.
But the truth is, a large part of the reason I don’t go is that I find little draw in sitting at a mass full of very old people. The homily is geared toward the aged, the Deacon speaks about his empty nest, and I sit with my 11-year-old who looks around and sees no fellowship, no community, no peers.
As we leave mass, we see the Spanish speakers gathering outside ready for the next service. They have more in common than their vernacular—they are young! They are families! Their kids know each other, and there are so many kids! I find myself helping an old lady get her walker down the ramp while essentially longing to be part of that community, and even more, wanting that for my son.
We don’t speak Spanish. Like many Americans, we only speak English. We don’t speak the languages of our ancestors; we only speak this one, and we find, when seeking faith and fellowship, this English is not enough.
Around my neighborhood, there are masses in countless languages. There are Korean masses, and Chinese, there are masses in Tagalog, and masses in languages I’ve likely never heard of. There are mosques from which emanate the sounds of Friday prayers in Arabic; there are Buddhist temples and synagogues.
The departure from Latin has unintentionally created a divide among the faithful. How much I would rather have no idea what the priest is saying but know the goodness of God in the hearts of the families around me. How much I would love to feel the fellowship and grace of our Lord and Saviour in community, not in catechism.
If mass were in Latin, it’s likely that none of us would know what was being said, but the traditions would come through, the traditions we know by rote. We would still know when to kneel, we would still bow our heads in silent prayer, we would still take the Eucharist on our tongues and our eyes would still water with the smoke of the burning incense.
God is not in the word. God is in our hearts. God is in the love we share as a community of the faithful, of children playing despite language or cultural differences, of families coming together to help one another, to kibitz about the week’s trials, in babysitting clubs and coffee klatches.
The groups barely mingle, the oldster English speakers and the young Spanish speakers. With the mass divided, the church is divided, and it is nothing less than a sin against the parishioners. It is a stain on the future of the church.
In an effort to open up the church to all comers, Vatican Two has taken community from us, and has split the church not only into two but into countless factions. We are segregated by language when there is no need to be—we could share one common language, and we barely even need to know its meaning. God’s grace is here for all of us, and we can find it more readily in each other’s hearts and smiling eyes than in the stale words of an old priest.
Bring back Latin mass. Make the church whole again.