By Father "SJ"
As a relatively new priest ordained four and half years after the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, I have had the opportunity to experience the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite not only as religious seminarian in formation but also as a celebrant since the beginning of ordained ministry. I feel very blessed indeed to be able to help put into effect one of the things that Pope Benedict XVI hoped with his motu proprio: the mutual enriching of both forms of the Roman Rite. Very early on, however, I realized that this enrichment would not be limited to just the liturgical and ceremonial aspect; this enrichment could also extend into one’s own spirituality and my way of living life as a vowed religious. Perhaps it is here, in the way that our ancient and traditional worship can communicate the cumulative theological and spiritual patrimony of the Church, is where my religious and priestly life have grown by being able to relate more closely to the spirituality of the founder of my order and that of the Church throughout the ages.
My first experience with the Extraordinary Form was in New York City, where I spent the summer taking an intensive course in Latin to supplement eventual further studies in Church History. As part of my summer immersion in Latin, and perhaps a side effect of one of the most demanding language courses that I have taken, I opted to include Latin in my prayer life as well. I would pray the breviary in Latin, learn basic prayers in Latin, and attend Mass in Latin whenever I could find it. I was fortunate enough to find a missa cantata offered every Sunday at St. Agnes Parish in Manhattan, which is where the vault of the treasury of our Western liturgical tradition was first opened to me.
Before entering religious life—and much more during my religious formation—I had started to develop an interest in liturgy, especially as I continued to delve more into history and the role of the Church in the development of civilization throughout the ages. I became familiar with the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as my historical curiosity began to turn toward the Byzantine Empire, an interest that led me to appreciate Byzantine art and chant, and to learn more about the rites of the Eastern Church. On the other hand, almost everything that I had read—or rather, was given to read—about the Roman Rite was post-conciliar and made only dismissive references to the Mass “with the priest’s back to the people” where the faithful “could not participate.” This seemed to me a strange lapse in scholarship that only served to open a greater curiosity about the history of my own rite. The only other historical sources that I had at my disposal regarding the Roman Rite were the lives of the saints of my order and the great artistic patrimony that still adorns many of our churches. These, however, painted a much different picture of the Mass from what I was reading in modern sources and presented something dissimilar to what I was experiencing in many places where I found myself. I had grown accustomed to some of the staple goods of modern liturgical space and usage: brand new chapels with nice flooring, impressive lighting, and state-of-the-art furnishings, but with a notable absence of sacred art; improvisation and informality were the rule, which left the orations, readings, and music (if any) as things to be made up on the spot. This environment obviously did not relate to many of the spiritual testimonies that I was reading, especially when it came to the topic of the Mass, where one would read about reverence, mystery, piety and devotion. It was not until I finally experienced the Mass that those saints had experienced that I was able to understand and tap in a more authentic way into the testimony they had left behind.
I have been celebrating the EF since being ordained to the priesthood, now for almost two years. Because I was missioned to graduate studies not too long after ordination and live in a large community of priests, I usually celebrate daily Mass privately in a small chapel of my religious house. Although I have been able to offer Solemn High Mass on two very grateful occasions, along with some other opportunities to offer a missa cantata in my hometown, I rarely have the opportunity to celebrate the EF publicly where I am currently posted. Yet, it has been in the silence and simplicity of the low Mass where I feel that I am following in the footsteps of my forebears in religious life. In his spiritual diary, the founder of my order often mentioned being struck by certain parts of the Mass, which caused him to pause and reflect—at times even bringing him to tears—while he was offering his Mass. The Mass that this saintly founder offered each day was not a sung Mass, nor a High Mass, nor even a public Mass, but a simple low Mass in very austere settings. Just as the founder of my order and other notable saints of this same order did some 473 years ago, I too find myself often pausing at certain parts, particularly when they bear a special significance to a feast day or to the day as it has gone by for me. I have even been moved to tears at times by some of the prayers, especially those that remind me that I am sinner, yet called to serve the Lord in such a privileged way. Each time that I pray the offertory, I reminded that what I am doing alone in a seemingly insignificant and tiny chapel is not only for my own salvation but for that of all Christians, living and dead. Perhaps that is why so many before me have said that the Mass is the most important thing that a priest can do each day and why I look forward each day to offer the sacrifice of the Mass once again.
This story forms the fourth installment in the Faith and Tradition series on the NLM. See the series introduction for the commenting policy.
Part 1, part 2, and part 3.
Please write me at email@example.com if you are interested in contributing your own story to this series.