Life & Soul Life and Soul

What happened when I learned the Old Mass

The Mass unfolds by way of loss and sacrifice; the key to it is through effacement

I recently learned how to offer Mass in the Extraordinary Form. Often referred to as the Latin Mass, it uses the Missal of 1962, which in the period after the Second Vatican Council was on the verge of extinction. Then, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum, an apostolic letter granting permission to all priests of the Latin Rite to say the Mass in the older form. He referred to it as the Extraordinary Form and the newer form as the Ordinary Form. Both, he said clearly, are part of the same Rite.

I decided to take up the Holy Father on his challenge. I purchased my 1962 Missal, brushed up on my Latin, watched all sorts of training videos, unlearned some bad habits and began to muddle my way towards competency.

It took a long time because I’m a slow learner, and I must admit it was a humbling experience, but in the process I learned a valuable lesson about myself as a priest and came to a profound spiritual realisation.

I’ve never been the most charismatic speaker. I don’t have a gift for homiletics or making small talk during Mass. While I love interacting with my parishioners, I don’t particularly relish being the focus of attention. Even so, there is a tendency as a priest to worry that, if I don’t preach well enough, if I don’t say the prayers with enough liveliness and empathy, I have somehow failed to mediate Christ. For a priest, leading public prayers can easily devolve into an exercise in self-consciousness.

After offering my first Extraordinary Form Mass, I realised that my typical self-consciousness was markedly absent. The formal, disciplined nature of the Mass had removed my own personality from the equation. It felt like stepping into the coolness of a sacred shadow.

The Extraordinary Form Mass requires the priest to turn east and face Our Risen Lord as he prays. The parishioners behind me looked to Jesus with me and prayed in solidarity. I didn’t feel the need to entertain them. Instead, feeling their prayers hold my hands aloft like Moses at the precipice of a great spiritual battle, I interceded for them. I followed the instructions in the Missal for what to say, how loud to say it, how to hold my hands and even where to focus my eyes. Many of the prayers were uttered with quiet contemplation, from my lips to God’s ears. The Mass had an inner life of its own, and I quickly came to understand that it didn’t need me. It needs a priest, yes, but it didn’t have to be me. I had become an instrument in the hand of God.

If the Extraordinary Form shades over the priest, it does so by placing him at the foot of the Cross, and the shadow is the bright wing of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless the Mass unfolds by way of loss and sacrifice. The key to interpreting it both as a celebrant and a participating lay person is through effacement. During the Mass, I forgot myself.

Effacement is the path to true knowledge, which is why the poet WS Merwin notes, “There were faces I knew for years / and the nearness of them began only / when they were missing.” In his 2002 lecture “Contemplation of Beauty”, the future Benedict XVI references the pain of forgetting when he elaborates on nostalgia. Nostalgia, he says, impels us to a heroic quest, and beauty causes man to lift up his eyes to heaven. But it also “causes him to suffer”. When we draw near to God, our hearts are pierced and wounded by love. There is a great beauty overlapping with our world and drawing us home, but we are not there yet, not until we leave our old selves behind to be united with Christ, not until we are drawn into a great forgetting.

The act of placing ourselves upon the altar is an effacement, a self-sacrifice through which we paradoxically find gain. It’s a death and resurrection. Learning the Extraordinary Form of the Mass made this painfully clear to me, and I experienced it both as challenge and comfort, like taking in a deep breath and slowly letting it back out.

Now, when I offer the Ordinary Form Mass, the lessons of the Extraordinary Form support me so that I draw back and there, too, forget myself. For a priest to step up to the altar is a spiritual death, which is why on the way to his martyrdom, St Polycarp said: “A priest must stand at the altar in such a way that the people do not see him but they see Christ.” I am lesser so that He might become greater. We stand in the shadow. He is the light.

Fr Michael Rennier is associate editor of Dappled Things, a quarterly of ideas, art and faith (dappledthings.org)