Saturday, July 07, 2007

Is the Roman Empire Making a Comeback?

Just read an article this morning in the Saturday edition of The Lima News, focusing on the resurgence of people who want to hear the Mass in Latin. Apparently the Pope has relaxed rules on when such a Mass can be used, and there is much rejoicing in the Roman Catholic world.

What gives? Speaking as a former Latin student (in college, one year, which was long enough to convince me to not do a second and switch my major to something not requiring a foreign language) I have a hard time believing that there has been an upsurge in the number of folks learning and speaking Latin. Outside of Vatican City, people only use Latin if they are a Marine ("Semper Fi"), a lawyer, a scientist, a viewer of Wile E. Coyote cartoons (Road Runner: Delecticus Fastus), or when a person tells another person they got ripped off (How many of us only know the phrase "Caveat Emptor" because we heard Mr. Brady utter it on that episode of The Brady Bunch where Greg buys the car that turns out to be a lemon?). What's more, the priest doing this Mass not once turns and faces the congregation, instead chanting it toward the alter. So why are people so excited about worship they can't understand led by a priest who doesn't appear to care whether or not they are there?

Well, I have a little insight to this, thanks to our trip to the Trappist Monastery last summer. There, a group of monks, who worship multiple times a day, recite Psalms, sing hymns to Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and pray, unceasingly and to the same schedule that has been used in that order since 900AD. Now, they do all of this in English, as is the custom of that particular order to use the language spoken in that particular part of the world (for they are an international order) where they are located, but still, the monks sing chants that have remained unchanged for over 1100 years. What's more, they pay no attention to those non-monks who come to the service and sit in the specially designated area for spectators...

and yet, on Sunday morning, each Mass is packed with people from the community and beyond.
And I understand why this is. There's something oddly comforting about their ritual and devotion to their order. The fact that they are more concerned with being in the presence of God, than with any parishioners, is deeply different than what we have become accustomed to in our Protestant worship experience - which is largely becoming more and more consumer oriented. In other words, in my world the worship service is designed to engage the worshiper. Musicians are recruited so the music is appealing. Worship themes (as per my last post) are developed so that music, visuals, and drama can be developed to drill home the "point" of the service. And the preacher sweats out a new sermon each week, hoping and praying that what they say will be entertaining enough to those looking for such a thing, while also being educational enough for those who suspect and despise the idea that all preachers want to do now is entertain people. It's a consumer-driven model where the stakes are being pushed so high that churches are converting their worship spaces into virtual beaches, firehouses, corn fields, or some other space designed with the same attention to detail as a stage for an elaborate musical in order to envelop the worshiper in the experience. A kind of a "Rainforest Cafe" kind of experience, only with praise music.

In a Latin Mass, the focus for those conducting the service isn't on those attending the service. Instead, the attention is focused on doing the Mass right in the presence of a God who, it is believed, is present. The worshiper is taken in by the aire of mystery that comes with hearing music and language that's thousands of years old - mystery which bellies the presence of God in their midst.

Now I'm not so naive as to believe that somehow this push for a Latin Mass is in the end, any less consumer-driven than the seeker-sensitive worship services that churches like Granger Community Church conduct each and every week. In both instances, the main reason people go is because of what they experience and how that which they've participated in has moved them. But one does wonder whether or not people are growing weary of churches trying to keep up with cable TV, Broadway, movie theaters, pop radio, and amusement parks by becoming increasingly driven to manufacture largely emotional experiences, when really all they want is to be in the Lord's presence. In an age where worship has been shaped mainly by the idea that people need to be educated to be illuminated, we probably have much to learn from an earlier age where people maintained a sense of fear, respect, awe, and admiration for the spiritual realm. An earlier age where the presence of the Living God was sought in community, ritual, prayer, and worship conducted in such a way as to invite God into their midst by praising God with all they were.

It's that transcendence people are looking for as the priest speaks a strange language that only God and a relative few people in the world can understand, hoping that He who is largely mysterious and unknown, will grace them with His presence, bringing peace in a difficult world.

So, I say, "Welcome back Latin Mass", while wondering about my place in helping people encounter God in worship.
Semper Fi.


Kathy said...

...the attention is focused on doing the Mass right in the presence of a God who, it is believed, is present.

I think you've hit on the most important point. We've lost that dimension by over-focusing on the social aspects of the Mass.

Thanks for the interesting post!

Tina Dietsch said...

I took Latin for four years. I got really good at translating the incantations used to defeat vampires in old school vampire movies. That's about all I can say for Latin...