I’ve shared before on this blog my love for the ancient Roman Rite, also known as the Latin Mass, the Tridentine Mass, or the Extraordinary Form. But whenever I write about this topic, I inevitably get emails from readers who were inspired to visit a Mass in the Extraordinary Form, only to be confused and disoriented the entire time. The messages usually go something like, “It was very beautiful, and I loved the music, but I didn’t get much out of it because I had no idea what the priest was doing.”
The truth is, the Extraordinary Form can be intimidating the first time you visit, because it is so, well, different than the form of the Mass most Catholics are used to. It has an ethos all its own, and its rhythms and patterns can take time to absorb.
But, while there is a learning curve, the Latin Mass is by no means impossible to learn. Only a few decades ago, your typical Catholic grade schooler had a solid understanding of what was happening at the altar, even if he couldn’t understand every word the priest was saying. While it might take some time, I would argue that it is worth the effort as it will enrich your spiritual life and form you, just as it did for countless saints.
Here, then, are ten tips for newcomers to the Latin Mass.
1. Embrace the Mystery
The first point I’d like to emphasize is that there’s nothing wrong with a little mystery. In our post-Enlightenment, science-obsessed society, we place a premium on understanding everything. We don’t like feeling ignorant or left in the dark. We moderns mistakenly believe that knowing how something works is that same as knowing what it means. I believe this is one reason poetry has grown less popular–by nature, it is metaphorically dense, and the modern mind, which likes to deal in linear, empirical data, is often frustrated by this.
Yet, the human soul needs mystery to thrive. Deep down, sometimes very deep down, we crave an experience that is disorienting in its wonder, something so marvelous we forget ourselves in the face of it. We want something that is at once knowable and unknowable, within our grasp and beyond our reach.
Good and true liturgy is like that. It draws us upward and out of ourselves. It is disorienting and uncomfortable in a healthy and joyful way. Holiness, if it is real, should feel disorienting. So give yourself permission to not know and understand everything that is going on in the Mass. Some priestly gestures and prayers are meant to be beyond your reach, and you aren’t meant to grasp their every meaning. That is just how it is. Embrace it. Let the mystery wash over you and transform you.
2. Get a Missal
Alright, even with that very important point being made, you probably still want to know at least some of what’s going on! Fair enough, and to help in that regard, I recommend getting a missal to help.
Missals are helpful because they provide at minimum the Ordinary of the Mass (the parts that don’t change) and the Propers (the changeable readings and prayers) for Sundays, and many also include readings for daily Masses and special feasts. Every one I’ve seen also includes helpful catechesis on the Mass, instructions on how to pray along, and prayers and devotions for before and after Mass. They are usually treasure troves of Catholic devotion and incredibly helpful in understanding the Mass in a deeper way.
You can find used Latin Mass missals in many places: Antique shops, Etsy, Ebay, Amazon, grandma’s bookshelf, etc. I like used ones personally because there is a sense of history to them. It’s cool finding old holy cards tucked inside them or seeing a name of a Catholic forebear written inside the cover, and many of them have gorgeous illustrations and ornate pages.
If you aren’t into vintage stuff, though, don’t worry. There are many beautiful modern missals being made, including the Edmund Campion Missal and Hymnal, the Roman Catholic Daily Missal, and the Baronius Press Missal. I personally recommend the Edmund Campion Missal. While its dimensions are larger than most, it has some of the most beautifully illuminated pages, photography, and illustrations of any missal I’ve found. It is a work of art.
3. Go to a Low Mass First
If you’re new to the Latin Mass, I highly recommend starting with a Low Mass. If you aren’t familiar with the distinction between a High and Low Mass, low Masses usually have minimal or no music and are not sung. They are much simpler in their form and do not include things like incense, the sprinkling rite (the Asperges), or a choir.
I recommend the low Mass because less is happening. In a high Mass, the priest is often praying one thing while the choir is singing another, meaning it can be hard to follow along. The simplicity of the low Mass is conducive to learning what’s happening when.
While it’s true that High Masses are much more beautiful and rich for the senses, the Low Mass is beautiful in its own way, with the silence drawing one’s heart to prayer. It is an oasis of quiet in a world that is filled with noise.
4. Learn the Parts
When I first went to a Latin Mass, I was confused. It seemed much more complex than the Novus Ordo, with many new prayers and actions to learn. But while it is true there are extra prayers and actions, the basic structure is always the same, and similar to that of the Novus Ordo: The Mass of the Catechumens (the beginning of Mass to the Creed) and the Mass of the Faithful (from the Offertory to the end of Mass). Learning the visual cues of the priest and a few words of the prayers is immensely helpful in following along.
5. Watch Videos
While it is highly unlikely that anyone is paying attention, we can sometimes feel self-conscious in a new environment. Am I doing the right thing? Did I miss something? If you are nervous about looking silly, I recommend watching videos of the Mass on YouTube to learn the parts. There are many awesomely beautiful videos out there, many of them narrated so you know what’s happening. For example, here’s an Easter Sunday Mass from 1941 narrated by Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
Another cool video is this reenactment of a Medieval Mass from the 15th century. Of course, it looks laregly identical to a Tridentine Mass you would attend now, showing the continuty of tradition. A medival peasant could attend my parish and feel at home, and vice versa. Cool, huh?
6. Learn Some Latin
Believe it or not, while it is no longer part of the piety of most Catholics, Latin is still the official language of the Church. Normatively, Church documents are issued in Latin and then translated into other languages. That includes the vernacular Mass.
When approaching the Latin Mass, it is really helpful to learn a few words or prayers in Latin. You don’t have to become an expert in the language, but historically, Catholics were familiar with at least a few basic Latin prayers, like the Our Father (Pater Noster) or the Hail Mary (Ave Maria). It couldn’t hurt to learn some key words. Knowing that “Dominus vobiscum” means “the Lord be with you,” can be helpful, or that “Sursum corda” means “Lift up your hearts,” means that the canon is coming soon.
7. Adjust Your Thinking
The traditional Mass can be disorienting. Yet, I would argue that this disorientation is a healthy thing. It helps draw us up and out of ourselves. And in a sense, holiness should be disorienting, for it means cut off from the ordinary, something Other. When Peter, James, and John were on Mount Tabor with Jesus, they didn’t feel comfortable, welcomed, and at ease. They were confused and afraid in the presence of Jesus’ Divinity. Likewise with Moses and all other men who encountered God’s presence.
Old churches would sometime have this inscription above the door: “Terribilis est locus iste: hic domus Dei est, et porta caeli:” Translated, it means, “This place is terrible, it is the house of God, and the gate of heaven.” In other words, the house of God should be awe inspiring. It should feel out of the ordinary, a place set apart for the worship of the Almighty.
Yet, our worship is too often not awesome, it is banal and commonplace. And so one of the easiest traps to fall into is thinking that the Mass is for and about us. We begin to think that we are the audience and judge the Mass accordingly. What did I get out of it? Could I see and understand? Was the music to my taste? Really, though, the Mass isn’t for you. It’s for God—he is the audience. All of the prayers and actions are oriented toward offering a sacrifice of praise to him. We have the privilege of participating in this great worship, and we assist the priest in his offering. But the Mass is not for us and our entertainment. Keep that in mind and I believe you will find Mass much more profitable.
8. Get a Good Instructional Book
Missals can be helpful in understanding the Mass, but sometimes you need even more instruction. Not to worry—many beautiful books have been written about the significance of the Mass, complete with pictures, charts, and explanatory texts. If you can find a vintage copy of Archbishop Sheen’s “This is the Mass”, I recommend you do so.
But the one book I recommend more than any other is the gorgeous book “Treasure and Tradition: The ultimate guide to the Latin Mass.” This book is stunning. If you read it, you will appreciate the Mass more. It has many beautiful incredible illustrations, historical notes, explanations of vestments, sacred objects, and much, much more. Even if you never attend a Latin Mass, get this book. It will change the way you see the Mass and enrich your worship. Here is a review.
9. Be Patient
It is tempting to want to understand the ancient Mass immediately. Yet, this isn’t really possible. It will take time and a little bit of effort, so give it a chance and be patient.
I would recommend going to at least four to six Masses. For the first few, just take everything in. Don’t bother trying to follow along or figure out what’s happening. Just pray quietly, watch what’s happening at the altar, and imitate what you see others doing. Then, after you’ve oriented yourself, get a Missal and begin try to listen for key words and gestures (many missals have pictures of what the priest does at different parts). The longer you attend, the more you will adjust to its unique ethos.
10. Pray with the Priest
The most profitable way to pray at Mass is to pray the Mass. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to pray each and every prayer at the exact moment that the priest does (though this couldn’t hurt!). But it does mean that you recognize that the Mass is a sacrifice of petition, adoration, reparation, and thanksgiving, and pray accordingly.
I have an old prayer book that doesn’t contain any of the actual Mass prayers. Yet, for each part of the Mass (from the beginning to the Gospel, etc.) has prayers specifically for one of the four ends of Mass. Praying the Mass in this way is perfectly legitimate. Some Sundays, I bring my Missal and follow along with what the priest is praying. Other Sundays, I pray the four intentions of Mass either in my own words or using the prayer book I mentioned. And still other Sundays, I do both. There is a beautiful freedom to pray in your own way at the Latin Mass, to spend time in God’s presence and speak to him from your heart.
This post has been rather long, but I hope it has given you a better understanding of how to approach the ancient Mass. As I said at the beginning, it will take some effort to learn, and yet I sincerely believe nothing is more profitable or enriching to your faith. This is the Mass of the saints and martyrs, the Mass that can be traced all the way back to the catacombs of ancient Rome. When you hear the words of the priest and pray them yourself, you are hearing the exact same words that centuries of Catholics before you have heard and prayed.
Immersing yourself in the traditional Mass is not about nostalgia or pining for the past. It is about being transformed by the beauty of holiness. Far from being dead and archaic, you will find that this ancient way of praying is very much alive and powerful, a way of encountering God that is vital in its freshness.
So go to a Tridentine Mass if there is one near you. Experience it, pray it, and let its timeless rhythms transform your heart and soul.
PS: Check out my video chat with Matt Fradd about the Extraordinary Form, and why men are drawn to it.