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Gary Borders: Latin Mass is making a comeback

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The last time I heard a Catholic Mass in Latin was at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Allenstown, N.H. I received my First Communion there, and later took my confirmation vows. That last Latin Mass took place in late 1964, after which an English-language liturgy was introduced to parishes in the U.S. I was 9 and had attended Latin Masses since a toddler. A few phrases have stuck with me: “Dòminus vobìscum,” and “Kyrie eleison” come to mind. The former means “The Lord be with you,” the latter, “Lord have mercy.” But that is about it.

Recently, our family was present at a joyous occasion — my nephew Matt’s wedding to Elise Hernandez, a lovely young woman. We Borders males always try to marry above ourselves. Matt is the son of Gregg, my youngest brother. The wedding was held at Mater Dei Latin Mass Paris in Irving, Texas. As the parish’s title indicates, Masses there are held in Latin.

Latin Masses, officially called the Tridentine Mass, are making a comeback. For nearly 1,400 years that is how Mass was celebrated, the priest reciting in Latin as he faces east, his back to the congregation. That is symbolic of the risen Christ. So it is not surprising, especially with the world seemingly in intractable tumult, that more Catholics wish to return to the traditional Mass. At this wedding, at the bride and groom’s request, men wore suits, and women wore modest dresses and covered their heads. I don’t normally wear a tie to church, but am uncomfortable with the growing informality in dress, folks showing up for church in shorts and flip-flops. No doubt that stems from having been raised Catholic.

Luckily, the wedding ceremony preceded the Mass and was held in English. After it concluded, the Latin Mass got underway, the newly married couple alternating between kneeling or sitting just past the communion rail. We received side-by-side Latin-English pages in a 52-page missal. After a few minutes, the priest — a youngish man with a flowing brown beard — stopped and stepped up to the podium to explain what was occurring. Clearly, most of the people there had never sat through a Latin Mass.

As he put it (in English, of course), during the Traditional Latin Mass, the priest is speaking to God in the official language that the Catholic Church has used since its inception during the Roman Empire. Congregants are free to meditate, silently pray, follow along in the missal, or just sit silently.

He smiled and said most likely we would not be able to hear him, since he had his back turned and wore no microphone.

“If you don’t understand me, that’s OK. I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to God,” the priest said.

In 2007, Pope Benedict decreed that all priests of the Latin Rite — essentially those who have been trained in Latin, which is not all priests — were free to offer a Latin Mass. Since then, the number offered has grown enormously. An online directory counted 256 in the U.S. — 10 in Texas.

I tried to follow along in Latin, if nothing else just to figure out how far along we were in the Mass. This proved next to impossible.

I found the ceremony fascinating and a reminder of my youth, sitting in Catechism taught by stern nuns bearing clackers and rulers to slap unruly hands. I remember Father Crosby, a genial Irish priest who assured me I would not go to hell if some of my friends were Protestants. That was a silly threat a rather sour nun made to me. I recall the beauty of that church, which really was the heart of Allenstown — then and now.

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.
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