For hundreds of years, the Latin Mass was a potent symbol of the Church Universal, which transcended nationality, ethnicity, culture, and language.
The Latin Mass familiar to Catholics old enough to remember how worship was conducted before Vatican II was known as the Tridentine Rite because it had been codified by the Council of Trent. From 1570, when Pope Pius V's Quo Primum bull authorized the use of that rite, "without scruple of conscience or fear of penalty," until the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, the Tridentine Mass was the distinguishing characteristic of the Roman Church.
The Vatican II reformers pressed a broad liturgical modernization program, at the core of which was a move towards conducting the Mass in the local vernacular. Granted, there was a case to be made for de-emphasizing Latin. First, Christ's Great Commission commands Christians to "make disciples of all nations." The arcane elements of the Tridentine Mass and the use of a strange tongue supposedly made evangelism by Catholics nearly impossible. Second, many uneducated Catholics had only a limited understanding of the Mass and, as a result, lacked a meaningful worship experience. Indeed, among the least educated, the Tridentine Mass had magical and superstitious connotations. Third, even as to Catholics who fully understood what was happening in the Tridentine Rite and possessed a reasonable command of the Latin liturgy, the structure of the Tridentine Mass precluded the full and active participation of the laity in the ritual.
The Sacrosanctum Concilium (i.e., Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) issued by the Second Vatican Council began a process of reform that culminated in the 1970 Missal and, to some extent, continues even today. Contrary to popular belief, Vatican II did not ban the use of Latin or the Tridentine Rite. Instead, the choice of whether to permit the use of the Tridentine Rite and/or Latin was left to the discretion of each diocesan bishop.
In the United States, the vast majority of diocesan bishops have sharply restricted the use of the Tridentine Rite. This remains the case even though Pope John Paul II's 1988 Ecclesia Dei declaration stated that "respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition" and urged diocesan bishops to make "wide and generous application" of their power to authorize the use of that tradition. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for example, Cardinal Mahoney reportedly insists that the Tridentine Mass should be available only to those were alive and actively attending Mass pre-1965. Those of us born into the Church (or, as in my case, who converted) after 1965 are denied access to the Tridentine Mass. (Fortunately, Mahoney's opposition to the Tridentine Rite does not preclude the use of Latin entirely. My parish, St. Victor Church in West Hollywood, has a lovely Sunday Vigil Mass in which extensive use is made of Gregorian chant.)
Almost since the beginning of Pope Benedict XVI's papacy, there has been rampant speculation that he will issue a universal indult that will bypass recalcitrant diocesan bishops like Cardinal Mahoney. The Times of London reported recently on the latest rumors out of the Vatican, which sound as though it is a done deal:
"Pope Benedict XVI is understood to have signed a universal indult — or permission — for priests to celebrate again the Mass used throughout the Church for nearly 1,500 years. The indult could be published in the next few weeks, sources told The Times. ... The new indult would permit any priest to introduce the Tridentine Mass to his church, anywhere in the world, unless his bishop has explicitly forbidden it in writing."
In other words, although the new indult will not ensure that the Tridentine Mass is universally available, it would reverse the presumption against the Tridentine Rite by requiring local bishops proactively to proscribe that Rite. It remains to be seen whether Vatican II diehards like Mahoney will accept the change with good grace or actively resist it with written proscriptions.
There is no guarantee that the rumors are true, of course. The Vatican remains very much a black box in this area, as in many others. Yet, we may nevertheless ponder the merits of the rumored indult.
The arguments for the vernacular mass are undoubtedly strong. In theory, at least, the Mass has become more accessible both to cradle Catholics and prospective converts. In practice, however, the post-Vatican II liturgy all too often has been trite or even embarrassing. As "liberal" Archbishop Rembert Weakland observed back in 1999, many priests "adopted a kind of colloquial style that was and is unbefitting the liturgical movement." And, of course, the music has been even worse. To again quote Weakland, "most of the new music created for the liturgy has been and continues to be trite in both musical form and text, more fit for the theatre and the pub than for church."
Archbishop Weakland argued that the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms have created serious theological shortcomings in Catholic practice by promoting "a diminution of respect for and belief in the real presence in the Eucharist". Among the problems Weakland identified are "the tendency to stand, not kneel," "the placement of the tabernacle in the church away from the central axis," and the demise of genuflections. Taken together, he argued, the reforms "have reduced the sense of the transcendent and an appreciation for God's presence and role in the liturgy."
Weakland's critique, of course, was a call for more and better liturgical reform rather than for a restoration of the Latin Tridentine Mass. Yet, given the repeated failures of the reform movement, and with the Tridentine Rite lying to hand as a long-proven alternative, why not at least make it widely available as an option?
Making the Tridentine Rite widely available in Latin would be an important signal to Catholics and all Christians that we are members of a universal Church. The Catholic Church is universal across both time and space. In temporal terms, it is a partnership between the living, those who have gone before us, and those who will come after us. Christians throughout history used the Latin Mass. When we use it today, we reaffirm our place in that history. It reminds us of the traditions of our faith and, as St. Paul put it, of the great cloud of witnesses before whom we run our race.
In spatial terms, the Church transcends national boundaries and linguistic barriers. The Latin Mass reminds us that we are just Americans but also Catholic Christians. Indeed, it reminds us that we are Christians first and Americans second. There is something very profound and moving in knowing that millions of people around the world, in dozens of countries, are saying precisely the same words that you are speaking.
Catholics around the world hunger for the return of the Latin Mass, not just quasi-schismatic traditionalists and sedevacantists. In Atlanta, for example, it is reported that the regularized Latin Mass mainly by "younger people who want to pass on the faith and its true expression." One hopes Pope Benedict will not disappoint them.