When I saw the notice of this book’s publication, I did a double-take as I mistook the author’s surname for “Spadaro,” with a “d” rather than a “t”! Had the infamous Jesuit Antonio Spadaro had a conversion? Or, was this book going to be a hatchet job on both the extraordinary form of the Mass and the Latin language? I breathed a sigh of relief upon discovering my error: Father Spataro is the secretary of the Pontifical Academy for Latin. Whew!
Now, in the interests of full disclosure: First, I have taught Latin since I was a sophomore college seminarian and have had a love affair with the language since I first learned the altar boy’s parts of the Mass at the age of eight. Second, although I am not a committed aficionado of the so-called extraordinary form, I do celebrate it when asked to do so – and, further, I firmly believe that the so-called ordinary form of the Mass as we have it was not what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council envisioned.
The work has a hefty introduction (24 pages) on the history of Latin and its “many-sided reality” by Patrick Owens, an accomplished Latinist who sat at the feet of the premier Latinist of our age, Father Reginald Foster. Owens does not merely sing the praises of the language, he also offers “causes of [its] diminishment” and highlights the negative influence of the self-declared Enlightenment. This section is a kind of “mini-version” of Nicholas Ostler’s Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin and alone is worth the price of the book.
The rest of the volume is a compilation of lectures by Father Spataro, originally delivered in Italian but presented here in a very fine translation. Thus, as one might expect, there is much repetition, which is in the very nature of such a work. One of the most irritating repetitions is the author’s almost incessant drum-beat either praising Pope Francis or calling him to his side as an ally for the Tridentine Mass and Latin. To be sure, Cardinal Bergoglio was exceedingly generous to the Society of St. Pius X in Buenos Aires – and continues to be such as Pope. However, Francis’ affability toward “traditionalists” in full communion with the Church has been noted in the breach more than in the observance. Need one mention his frequent dalliances with extremely problematic theological positions? Spataro refers approvingly to the “magisterium of the current pope” (38) and asserts that Francis “seems to stir up enthusiasm” (47) – amazingly said, in light of the fact that even the Vatican-released statistics show a massive downturn in those who show up for papal events over the past six years. At the same time, he can write:
Unfortunately in the past few years, with a rapidity that should raise serious questions and concern, the Church has become engrossed with issues of a sociological nature, all affecting more or less the Church’s moral teaching. Many dubious proposals have been made by pastors, even those who bear serious ecclesial responsibilities, that are frankly incompatible with the Gospel. (118f)
The “dubia cardinals” would know about “dubious proposals.” Who would come to mind as the principal actor in the scenario Spataro decries to any objective reader, other than Pope Francis? So, the constant paeans to Francis are certainly irritating and suggest no small degree of disingenuousness. Indeed, he “doth protest too much.”
Spataro does not use the official terminology of “extraordinary form” very often, preferring “Tridentine Mass” or “usus antiquior” (older usage) or “vetus ordo” (old order); quite happily, he does not call it “the traditional Mass,” which expression suggests that the ordinary form is not “traditional.” Indeed, every validly celebrated Mass is “traditional” by its very intent and execution.
Chapters 4 and 5 are the most helpful. Spataro informs us that there is an organized effort “to encourage the United Nations to declare the Latin and ancient Greek languages ‘an immaterial patrimony of humanity’” (63) – which was most welcome news to me. He explains that “if these languages are lost or neglected, everyone is culturally impoverished, which is equivalent to saying that the humanity of everyone is impoverished.” He goes on to ask what should be a rhetorical question: “Who could deny that the historical roots and the inexhaustible treasure of the common memory of Europe reside principally in the Greek and Latin civilizations?” (64). Wasn’t this one of the points constantly made by Pope John Paul II in the lead-up to the formation of the European Union, closely linked to his fundamental stress on the Christian roots of Europe – one studiously omitted from the foundational documents of the EU? Isn’t this likewise at the heart of the discussion about what the restored Notre Dame Cathedral ought to look like?
Our author brings forth another interesting factoid: “The earliest examples of Latin’s literary use, the extremely ancient carmina, were ritual texts” (66). Hence, a wonderful connection to the preservation of the language through the Sacred Liturgy. He cites with approval the position of Father Michael Lang that one reason that Latin is “sacred” is because “it is immutable” (67). Indeed, this was one of the arguments of Pope John XXIII in his 1961 “dead-on-arrival” apostolic constitution, Veterum Sapientia: “The Latin language is set and unchanging. It has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use.” Pressing for recourse to a “sacral” language, Spataro brings to his side the former secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who notes that in Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam recourse is had to ancient forms of languages no longer in common use, concluding that “the use of a sacred language helps us to live the sense of the transcendent” (71). Or, as a charismatic Catholic replied to me when I asked why he prays in tongues, “It’s important for me to speak to God in a language in which I have never cursed another man.”
Under the rubric of “universality” or “supranationalism,” Father Spataro is both practical and academic. Thus we read that “Latin possesses the character of synchronic universality,” by which he means its accessibility across linguistic boundaries at the present moment. However, he notes that “this property derives from its diachronic universality.” He explains: “I mean to say that within and outside of the Church Latin has been employed for centuries as the lingua franca par excellence of educated persons and in contexts calling for a communication unfettered by national linguistic forms” (77). Quite a mouthful but very true nonetheless.
When the push for the vernacularization of the liturgy beyond the limits staked out by Sacrosanctum Concilium was in full swing, wags of the left snidely remarked that the great thing about Latin in the Mass was that “you could go anywhere in the world and not know what it means.” In the highly mobile world we currently inhabit, a universal language for prayer is more relevant than ever. Further, what are we to make of the balkanization of parish communities, some of which have five weekend Masses in four or five different languages – with the result that those distinct language groups become islands unto themselves and whereby common celebrations of the Sacred Liturgy is well-nigh impossible?
The nineteenth-century Jesuit sociologist, Luigi Taparelli, uttered what he thought a truism when he said, “a Church that embraces all peoples of the world needs a universal language.” He continued: “On the human level, the Church needs a universal language, unchanging and intellectual, that rescues her from a choice detrimental to her unity” (78). With the banishment of Latin from ecclesiastical academia, for instance, the pontifical universities in Rome effectively force students from around the globe to use Italian – a language they will be most unlikely ever to use once their studies are finished. When Latin was in place, all comers were at an equal advantage or disadvantage.
Our author seals his apologia for Latin by pointing out its beauty: “It is full of majesty and nobility. The Latin language is artistic” (84). Anticipating a “who cares” challenge, he raises the question himself: “Why did I bring up this property of the Latin language? Because the truth, to which the texts of the Magisterium intend to lead us and which they desire to demonstrate, is intrinsically tied to the mystery of beauty” (85). The theologian of beauty, Hans Urs von Balthasar, would declare without fear of contradiction:
We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.
In the sixth chapter, we encounter the figure of Benedict XVI, whom Spataro dubs a “doctor of the Church,” in “anticipation,” as he says. His enthusiasm for Benedict as a liturgical reformer does not resonate with me. I would argue that as Joseph Ratzinger the theologian, he did more for “the reform of the reform.” While as pope, he showed by example how he thought Holy Mass ought to be celebrated, apart from the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, he did nothing to enshrine his liturgical vision in law – although he had nearly seven years to do it.
Unlike some devotees of the Tridentine Mass, Spataro does not feel compelled to blame Vatican II for the liturgical mess we have endured for half a century. On the contrary, he observes: “Several practices and orientations that followed the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council – but not caused by the Council – have obeyed this anthropocentric logic” (94, emphasis added).
Taking up the vision of Pope Benedict, expressed in Summorum Pontificum, he writes:
. . . the Vetus Ordo is a schola liturgica that, when placed side by side with the Novus Ordo, becomes a sensitive educator that draws out all the positive potential contained in Paul VI’s Missal. In the same way, the Novus Ordo can improve the celebration of the Vetus Ordo by enriching it with some sensibilities typical to the ordinary form of the Roman rite. (94)
I should warn Father Spataro that when I expressed a similar hope to his second suggestion (see my January 31, 2017 CWR essay “How the ordinary form of the Mass can ‘enrich’ the extraordinary form”), I was roundly castigated on numerous “traditional” websites! While on this topic of what Benedict called “mutual enrichment,” it is worth reminding priests and liturgists that it is not within our province to do that “mutual enrichment,” which is to say that we cannot lawfully import rubrics from one rite to another. In other words, it would be just as wrong for a priest to insert multiple genuflections into the ordinary form of the Mass as it would for another priest to impose the contemporary lectionary on the extraordinary form of the Mass.
Under the heading of “the miserable failure of Christian initiation,” the author brings to our attention some shocking statistics of Italian ignorance of basic Catholic doctrine. Although Italians self-identifying as Catholic still make up the vast majority of the nation, we learn that a sociological study in 2014 revealed that “50% of the population cannot distinguish between Jesus and Moses and that 60% know almost none of the commandments besides the seventh, ‘Thou shalt not steal’”! (98). I suspect that even the United States would not be that bad.
He uses that datum to argue that if the extraordinary form of the liturgy were in place, things would be different. Calling the Tridentine Mass “a catechism for our times,” so as to suggest that it would or could provide a full catechesis, is naive at best. One need only look to the abysmal state of Catholicism in Latin America where, for five centuries, the Tridentine Mass was in full force to behold the phenomenon of a people who, for the most part, were “sacramentalized” but poorly evangelized and catechized. Hence, the prevalent superstitions making them ready prey for the incursions of the fundamentalist sects. And now the promoters of the upcoming Amazon Synod want to spread the ignorance by having an equally ignorant priesthood, drawn from so-called “viri probati” who will never attend a seminary! Historically, many of the Eastern churches claimed that the liturgy taught the Faith, tout court. However, having been a pastor of a Byzantine parish, I can assure all that, although the liturgy is a locus theologicus, it is not a replacement for a full, all-encompassing catechesis. That is why the Fathers of Trent taught that the first responsibility of a priest was not celebration of the rites of the Church but preaching and teaching.
Spataro correctly comments that secular journalism is “sadly the only source from which the ordinary Catholic receives news about the Church” (103). Again, this is not a failure of liturgy; it is a failure of catechesis.
The many fine points of the work are marred by several errors or over-statements, usually made apodictically, which might cause one to respond, “Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur” (for those not attuned to the lingua franca, “What is asserted gratuitously may be denied gratuitously”). So, for a few examples:
• “. . . it is an objective fact that the lay faithful who love the Tridentine Mass find, in a most evident way, abundant spiritual resources for being faithful spouses, fertile parents, responsible educators, honest citizens, obedient believers, charitable neighbors, and penitents who confess frequently” (31f). Says who? Whence comes the “objective fact”? Having heard the confessions of such persons for years, the only difference I find in the confessions of ordinary form Catholics and extraordinary form Catholics is the frequency of their confessions.
• “The Tridentine Mass ensures that the priest recites beautiful prayers as he vests, before leaving the sacristy and when standing before the altar. He enters a dimension of time where there is no more reason to move hastily” (33f). If that were so, one would have to ask why St. Alphonsus Liguori had to list offering Mass in less than fifteen minutes within his catalogue of mortal sins.
• “Pope Leo XIII ordered [the Archangel Michael] to be invoked at the end of every Mass” (35). Not true. The “Leonine Prayers” are recited only after a Low Mass.
• He regrets the elimination of the Indulgentiam prayer as part of the Penitential Act, perhaps unaware that one reason given for its deletion was a concern that not a few of the faithful had come to see it as absolution for all sins, not just venial sins. Spataro then makes a quantum leap by suggesting that Pope Francis would be a supporter of that prayer since he “has repeatedly told us that God is good, indulgent, merciful!” (41). Ugh!
• He rightly condemns the “chatty Cathy” type of celebrant who makes comments throughout the Mass (42). However, he does not seem to know that with the Roman Missal of 2002, the possibilities to proclaim something “in these or similar words” are eliminated. Of course, that does not mean celebrants don’t still do it, unfortunately. At the same time, Spataro likewise does not seem to know that the Council of Trent actually encouraged priests to offer a running commentary throughout the Mass as a means of liturgical catechesis. Thankfully, that never really took off – at least not until the post-Vatican II era.
• Very helpfully, he makes a statement from which “Rad-Trads” would recoil: “I don’t intend to affirm that the Vetus Ordo Missae has an exclusive claim on grace and that the ordinary form is not an abundant dispenser of it” (46). However, he goes on to contend that the ordinary form “interprets participatio actuosa in terms of a plurality of gestures, and thus expresses in its ritual a certain human agency.” Where does that come from? What document? What rubric? In point of fact, numerous statements of the Holy See categorically reject such an interpretation; regrettably, praxis may deviate from theology and law, but that is a problem of enforcement.
• Oddly, he defends the recitation of the Rosary during Mass (56) and apparently thinks that the corporal is no longer required in the ordinary form (57).
• Carelessly, he credits the writing of the Vulgate to St. Jerome (68) when, as we know, Jerome was its translator.
This very slim volume has much to offer. However, I think Father Spataro has done the cause some injustice by linking too closely the Tridentine Mass and the Latin tongue. What I mean is this: There are supporters of the Tridentine Mass who want it celebrated in the vernacular, while there are devotees of Latin who do not desire the Tridentine Mass and prefer a Latin Mass in the ordinary form. A case can be made for both the Tridentine Mass and Latin, without making an unnecessary and artificial joinder of the two.
Very early on in John Paul’s pontificate, he issued his apostolic letter, Dominicae Cenae (it, too, was a DOA document, sadly). However, in a succinct sentence, he sums up what I believe lies at the heart of the work under consideration: “The Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin, the splendid language of ancient Rome, and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself” (n. 10).
In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Church
By Fr. Roberto Spataro
Translated by Zachary Thomas
Foreword by Raymond Cardinal Burke
Introduction by Patrick M. Owens
Angelico Press, 2019
Paperback, 123 pages
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