Beliefnet
Early one Sunday morning, my son, age 3, asked whether we were going to the "quiet Mass" or the "fun Mass." The choice was between the 100-mile drive our family makes once a month to Atlanta to attend a church that offers the Tridentine Rite--the old Latin liturgy that prevailed in the Catholic Church until 1969, when Second Vatican Council reforms were implemented--and the quick hop down the road we make on other Sundays to our local parish church in Auburn, Alabama. There, we can see friends and neighbors, sing along to bouncy liturgical music, feast on donuts afterward (the Latin Mass in Atlanta offers onlyhard cookies), and be home in no time. My son was relieved--but also disappointed--to learn that this wasn't the Sunday of the "quiet Mass," when we make our monthly trek to be part of what every Catholic in theworld experienced 30 years ago.

Yes, the new Mass ("Novus Ordo Missae" is its Latin name) is "fun." It's accessible and community-minded. Our local parish isn't one of those where abuses thrive, such as making up our own liturgy or letting lay people preach their own theologies in sermons. Our priests love the faith and adhere strictly to the rubrics that the Church has set forth for the Mass's celebration. Their homilies are not overly politicized. And they do their best to invest the English liturgical text (a victim of a tone-deaf translation committee) with profundity.

Nonetheless, the overall effect of our parish Mass is not so much scandalous as spiritually and aesthetically prosaic. Despite the new liturgy's attempt to reach us where we are, its effect is oddly abstract and distant compared with that of the old. It's great to be with the community and hear a nice homily, but the whole point of the Mass is something very different: that in the sacrifice on the altar, the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Our Lord. In the multitude of readings, greetings, and songs in our parish church, that point tends to fade into the distance.

Even my toddler son and my older daughter, age 6 (my youngest is a baby), understand that something is missing at the "fun Mass." I make a point of never disparaging the new rite in my children's presence. That's because I recall a conversation I once had with a fallen-away Catholic. She said, "Oh yes, my father loved the Latin Mass. After Vatican II, he refused to go to church at all." I wondered at the time if her father's stubbornness position inadvertently played a role in his daughter's loss of faith. I didn't want that to happen to my children, so I swore that I would always keep my complaining to myself. I want my children to grow up as faithful Catholics, regardless of which rite they attend.

But can the new rite ensure this as well as the old? The old rite provides theological depth, transcendental complexity, the right mix of exterior and interior textures, and a historical link to the whole of Catholic liturgical tradition. Can a rite designed in 1969 do the same? I'm not taking any chances by denying them exposure to the old rite as well as the new.

I've tried to put myself in their place and deduce why they are attracted to this old-fashioned ritual, which is not inherently child-friendly. Maybe it's the smell of incense and the strange sights and sounds: the clanking chain of the thurible, in which the incense burns; the complicated altar choreography; the high-pitched Sanctus bells. Maybe it's the Gregorian chant, a form of music so intrinsic to the Faith, it seems to evangelize all by itself. Or the silence in the church before and after Mass. Even the very unfamiliarity of the Latin language that challenges their ears.

Most likely, my children treat the old Latin Mass with respect and deference for the same reason my wife and I do: the entire liturgy takes us far away from everyday life, envelops us in a sense of mystery and spiritual solemnity, transports us out of time and place, and feeds our souls. It is not one thing in particular but the whole package, so integrated and thick with meaning, so radically unfamiliar and yet deeply penetrating, that causes us to hope that the Church will no longer treat this Mass as a bone thrown to quirky people willing to drive long distances to attend it, but as a mainstream part of everyday Catholic life, as it once was.

Catholic writers such as Michael Davies have gone to great lengths to demonstrate the theological superiority of the old Mass and its continuity with the practices of the early Church. Philosophers such as Catherine Pickstock of Cambridge University have contended that the old Roman Rite is so significant as a distinct language form that it solves the very riddle of linguistic meaning that the French deconstructionists have raised. She argues that the old liturgy, developed over 10 centuries, emerged as neither pure "text" nor pure revelation from God, but a "middle voice" between time and eternity, one that takes us to truth. But in the end, such arguments are not as important as the simple fact that the Latin Mass calls me personally and intimately to communion with God, and that everything that happens during that hour is directed toward that goal.

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