More and more Catholics are longing for Latin, the language of scholars, Gregorian chant and the Mass.
Some say it’s all part of the general trend back to the classics of Western civilization. All the Rev. Franklyn McAfee knows is that when he announced earlier this month he was starting up free Latin classes on Saturday mornings at St. John the Beloved Catholic Church in McLean, more than 70 parishioners packed the first session.
One parishioner, former federal Judge Robert Bork, a recent convert to Catholicism, got there early to ensure himself a seat in front of Marion Smedberg, a Latin instructor from Reston.
The others, fingering Latin binders with one hand and clutching coffee or a doughnut in the other, crammed their way into a small classroom to learn “Et cum spiritu tuo” (“And with your spirit”) as a response to “Dominus vobiscum” (“The Lord be with you”).
By the second Saturday, the class had moved to the parish hall for the more than 80 people who wanted to learn the ancient language. Their assignment: learn the basic prayers by March 1, the beginning of Lent. Starting March 5, the church’s popular 10:45 a.m. Sunday Mass will be in Latin.
“I want to sell it,” says Father McAfee, pastor of St. John’s. “I want them to love it as [Pope Benedict XVI] has said they should because it’s their tradition, their roots.”
Fans of the rite, who include film star Mel Gibson, say the Latin Mass lifts the human spirit, evokes a sense of eternity and draws worshippers’ attention to Christ.
The Latin Mass, whose use has only recently blossomed after two decades of being squelched by many church officials, was front and center last April during burial rites for Pope John Paul II.
“People who saw the funeral and installation [of Pope Benedict XVI] heard a language not in common usage today,” says the Rev. Paul DeLadurantaye, who teaches an introductory Latin course for the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College in Alexandria. “They said it was different and unique.
“People want to connect with the richness of the tradition of the church. But many priests are not well-versed enough to celebrate a Mass in Latin, and it takes a lot of work to introduce Latin to people.”
But it can be done, especially since the new pope enjoys chanting the Latin Mass and preaching in the language.
Language for the Eucharist first appeared in Greek, the earliest language of the church, but by the third century, North African Christians were using Latin in their liturgy. The Western church, comprising what would become Europe, adopted the Latin Mass.
In the 16th century, the Catholic Church established the Tridentine Mass, named after the Council of Trent, as the official version. It has since been set to music by Faure, Mozart, Bach, Schubert and Palestrina, and many of its terms — such as “mea culpa,” meaning “It’s my fault” — have become part of the fabric of Western culture.
This Mass remained the normative rite until after the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, which allowed the Mass to be translated into the language of each country. The Tridentine Mass, although never forbidden by the Vatican, was squelched by many bishops until 1988, when Pope John Paul II ordered the rite revived.
Pope Benedict has said “great harm” came out of the speed in which the Mass went from one language to another in less than a decade, along with other changes in the rite.
“I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it,” he said in his 1997 book “Salt of the Earth.”
A newer Latin liturgy, the “Novus Ordo,” also came out of the Vatican. That is the Mass St. John’s parishioners are learning.
Father McAfee says one parishioner sent him a $10,000 check and another contributed $5,000 upon hearing Latin Masses are starting up.
“The younger people want to do it more than the older people,” he says. “Converts are very open to it. Again, they want the whole thing. At St. Catherine’s [his former parish in Great Falls], I converted two Jews because of that Mass.”
St. John’s will try the Latin Mass starting alternate Sundays. Other Latin Masses around the Arlington diocese include the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Catherine of Siena in Reston, first Sundays at St. Mary’s in Alexandria, Wednesday nights at St. Andrew the Apostle in Clifton and first Fridays at St. Anthony mission in King George.
Moreover, first-graders and kindergarteners at two Catholic schools — Our Lady of Hope in Potomac Falls and St. Veronica’s in Herndon — take mandatory Latin classes.
“When you worship God, you don’t want to use something as common as street language, so you need to dress the language up,” Father McAfee said. “It’s like glossolalia — speaking in tongues — or it’s like poetry and prose. The English Mass is prose, the Latin Mass is poetry. You need time to enter the words to understand their meaning.
“If a person’s in love, and they have a choice between prose and a poem, they choose a poem. The liturgy is a love song between Christ and His church.”
Now-deceased Arlington Bishop John R. Keating wrote a pastoral letter on reverence for the church that also encouraged the use of Latin, Father McAfee says.
“The younger priests are more apt to say it,” he says. “They feel they’ve been cheated, and someone’s taken away their heritage. But they’re not teaching Latin in seminaries these days as much as they should be.”