Can we still have Mass in Latin?

Sadly, since the aftermath of the second Vatican Council, the use of Latin has virtually disappeared from parishes and dioceses throughout the world, especially the United States.  However, in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Vatican II decreed, “The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites.  But since the use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use may be made of it, especially in readings, directives, and in some prayers and chants” (#36).  Moreover, the council emphasized that the faithful be able to speak or sing in Latin the congregational parts of the Mass (#55).  While the council saw the benefit of allowing the usage of the vernacular, it never meant for the vernacular to completely replace the usage of Latin.  However, sometimes the “new thing” does completely replace what is “old” and perhaps viewed as “out of date.”  I think that is what happened to a great extent in the years following the council.

Perceiving this problem just two years after the close of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI himself emphasized the importance of preserving the tradition of Latin.  In the Instruction on Music in the Liturgy (1967), the Sacred Congregation of Rites (later Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship), repeating these precepts of Vatican II, stated that “the local Ordinaries will judge whether it may be opportune to preserve one or more Masses celebrated in Latin.”  Actually, we are seeing the fulfillment of the vision of Vatican II with the availability of worship in both the vernacular and the traditional Latin.

Retaining the practice of offering Mass in Latin and the congregation knowing the Latin Mass parts has great value.  First, we must preserve part of our Catholic heritage.  Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, and other great composers wrote beautiful Masses in Latin.  Gregorian chant is a venerable liturgical art form.  How tragic it would be if these works were lost or just confined to concert halls!  I do not say this because of nostalgia because I barely remember the “old Latin Mass.”  Unfortunately, I can say I remember some of those ’60s tunes like Ray Repp’s “Sons of God,” which have faded away.  Rather, I come from the perspective of aesthetics as well as an appreciation of our Catholic heritage.  I think every Catholic ought to have such an appreciation for the richness of our Roman Rite throughout the ages.

Second, the usage of Latin is a way of expressing our unity throughout the Church.  I remember once I was travelling with a priest friend in Salzburg, Austria.  There we had hoped to concelebrate the Sunday High Mass at the Cathedral which would have the music of one of Franz Liszt’s Masses.  Unfortunately, for us, the rest of the Mass was in German.  Since neither of us spoke German, we sat in the choir stalls, participated as best we could without concelebrating, and later offered Mass in English.  If the Mass had been entirely in Latin, we could have effectively concelebrated.  In the “old days,” Catholics could travel anywhere in the world and truly participated in the Mass following their Missals.

In all, the challenge here is to preserve our Catholic tradition and heritage, rejoice in its richness, and broaden the vision of liturgical music for the present and the future generations.  Should non-Catholics or Catholics who are not practicing their faith receive Holy Communion?

One of the great fruits of Holy Communion, according to the Catechism, is that the Holy Eucharist makes the Church:  “Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ.  Through it, Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body– the Church.  Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens this incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism” (#1396).  Therefore, the reception of Holy Communion truly unites in communion the Catholic faithful who share the same faith, doctrinal teachings, traditions, sacraments, and leadership.

A Catholic must be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion, and anyone aware of being in a state of mortal sin must first receive absolution in the Sacrament of Penance (Catechism, #1415).  Therefore, a non-practicing Catholic who has negligently not attended Mass or who has abandoned the teachings of the Church is not in a state of grace and cannot receive Holy Communion.  A non-practicing Catholic who receives Holy Communion commits the sin of sacrilege– the abuse of a sacrament– and causes scandal among the faithful.  St. Paul reminded the Corinthians:  “Every time, then, you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes!  This means that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the Body and Blood of the Lord.  A man should examine himself first; only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (I Corinthians 11:26-28).

What then about non-Catholics?  Sadly, since the time our Lord founded the Church upon the apostles, we have witnessed divisions, the first major one being with the Orthodox Churches in 1054 and then followed by the Protestant Churches beginning in 1517.  While all Christians share many beliefs– for instance in Jesus Christ, in Baptism, and in the Bible as the Word of God– and can work and pray together in serving the mission of our Lord, major differences in beliefs still do exist, including the primacy of the Pope, the sacrificial priesthood, and the nature of sacraments, including what the Holy Eucharist is.  Indeed, much progress has been made since the Second Vatican Council to discuss these differences with various Christian groups.  Nevertheless, these differences still “break the common participation in the table of the Lord” (Catechism, #1398).

Here we find some distinction.  Concerning the Orthodox Churches, who primarily disagree with Catholics over the authority of the Pope, Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism stated, “These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments, above all– by apostolic succession– the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy.”  A certain communion in sacris including the Holy Eucharist, “given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely possible but is encouraged” (#15).  Along these lines, the Code of Canon Law stipulates that the Sacraments of Penance, Eucharist, and Anointing of the Sick may be administered to members of the Orthodox Churches if they ask on their own for these sacraments and are properly disposed (Canon 844, #3).

Besides rejecting papal authority, Vatican II recognized that the Protestant Churches “have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic Mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the Sacrament of Holy Orders” (Decree on Ecumenism, #22).  For this very reason, the sharing of Holy Communion between Protestants and Catholics is not possible (Catechism, #1400).  This statement does not suggest that Protestant Churches do not commemorate the Lord’s death and resurrection in their communion service or believe that it signifies a communion with Christ.  However, Protestant theology differs with Catholic theology concerning the Holy Eucharist over the real presence of Christ, transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the Mass, and the nature of the priesthood.  Nevertheless, the Code of Canon Law makes an exception in emergency cases:  “If the danger of death is present or other grave necessity, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or the conference of bishops, Catholic ministers may licitly administer these sacraments [Penance, Eucharist, and Anointing of the Sick] to other Christians… who cannot approach a minister of their own community and on their own ask for it, provided they manifest the Catholic faith in these sacraments and are properly disposed” (Canon 844, #4).

In regard to those who are not baptized, e.g. a member of the Jewish or Moslem faith, Catholics welcome them to share in prayer, but cannot extend to them an invitation to receive the sacraments.  This restriction is obvious since the sacraments are intrinsically linked to the fundamental belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior.

We must continue to pray that the divisions which separate Christians will be healed.  Until those differences are healed and out of respect for each other’s beliefs, a real “intercommunion” cannot take place.  I remember once I participated at the funeral of a Protestant friend, which included a communion service.  The minister did indeed invite everyone to receive communion.  However, I refrained out of respect for their beliefs and my own:  I did not fully accept all the beliefs or practices of their particular denomination, nor did those members accept all that the Roman Catholic Church believed.  Therefore, to receive communion would be to state “I am in communion with them,” when in fact I was not.  Worse yet, had I partaken, I would have received something sacred which should bind me as part of their communion– at least from a Catholic perspective– when in fact I have never participated in one of their services since then.  We must remember that to receive communion does not depend simply on what a person individually believes; to receive communion aligns a person to a church and binds him to what that church teaches.

We must be careful not to let our hearts simply get the best of us and make blanket statements like, “Jesus loves everyone.  Everyone is welcome to receive Communion.”  Yes, our Lord indeed loves everyone; however, we in turn must appreciate and respect the gift of the Holy Eucharist in order to receive our Lord with genuine love and devotion.  I think those individuals who disregard the Church’s regulations, if they are Catholic especially, have a lack of appreciation not only for Catholic theology but also for Church history.  They forget the great examples of St. Edmund Campion or St. Margaret Clitherow and many others who were tortured and put to death under the reign of Elizabeth I of England because they celebrated or attended Mass, believed in transubstantiation, and were loyal to the Holy Father.  They forget the examples of great saints, like St. John Neumann or St. John Vianney, who implored their congregations to use regularly the Sacrament of Penance so as to be in a state of grace when receiving the Lord.  By observing these regulations concerning receiving Holy Communion we will better appreciate the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, respect each other’s beliefs, and work towards unity. Ignoring these regulations will only build a false sense of communion and a shallow expression of love.