Mass in Latin unified the world Church: the vernacular has Balkanised it

I have just returned from Spain (this is why I have not been writing in my usual space over the last few weeks), where my wife and I spent two weeks in the province of Aragon, in the wine and olive oil producing region of Somontano, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and close to the Marian shrine of Torreciudad, which was rebuilt massively by St Josemaría Escrivá near the ruins of the ancient shrine (of which only the tower – and the very beautiful medieval statue of Our Lady – survive). Aragon is depopulated and very beautiful, and we soon abandoned our original plan, which was to spend the first week in Spain, and then cross the Pyrenees into France. We were only 45 minutes from the French border and about one and a half hours from Lourdes: but the tunnel was closed on the most direct road. So we stayed where we were.

My only regret about my absence from England was that I missed the reception at Archbishop’s House, Westminster, organised for the Ordinariate. I don’t need by now to convince my usual readers of my support for the Ordinariate and especially of the way in which it is repatriating into the Catholic Church a patrimony much of which is of Catholic origin, but with which the mainstream Church has lost touch. As I wrote a month or two ago, after a celebration of Evensong and Benediction at Blackfriars, Oxford: “What the Pope, God bless him, has actually done is to re-appropriate a liturgy whose origins were in the first place entirely Catholic. As the Anglo-Catholic liturgist and divine Percy Dearmer (a friend of G K Chesterton) pointed out, the first Anglican Prayer Book ‘was not created in a vacuum, but derives from several sources. First and foremost was the Sarum Rite, or the Latin liturgy developed in Salisbury in the 13th century, and widely used in England. Two other influences were a reformed Roman Breviary of the Spanish Cardinal Quiñones, and a book on doctrine and liturgy by Hermann von Wied, Archbishop of Cologne’.”

Cardinal Quiñones’s attempt at streamlining the Breviary was adopted virtually in its totality. The Morning Office – a conflation of Lauds and Matins, and the Evening Office, Evensong – a conflation of Vespers and Compline (thus containing both the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, both of course in wonderful Tudor English) – were thus irreproachably Catholic in their origins and content.” And except of course from the Eucharistic liturgy, which was written expressly to exclude a Catholic interpretation of its meaning, it was all perfectly consistent with a Catholic understanding of what was taking place.


The difference, of course, was that unlike its sources, the Anglican liturgical tradition was a vernacular one. And though I have been calling for nearly a decade for something like what has now emerged in the Ordinariate (sometimes bringing down on my head the extreme displeasure of the powers that be for doing so) that is ultimately why, though I shall continue enthusiastically supporting the Ordinariate, I shall continue to attend the liturgy wherever possible in Latin, either in the Ordinary or the Extraordinary Form, and calling for the Mass in Latin to be much more widely available.

My Spanish journey has redoubled my feeling that a Church which is global and not national in its character should celebrate the Mass in Latin as a customary and habitual, rather than in an exceptional, way. We attended Mass regularly, of course, at the nearby shrine of Torreciudad, which is run by Opus Dei priests. I remember, when there was much more hostility to Opus Dei here than there is now, that one attack on it alleged that it always celebrated Mass in Latin: this showed how utterly reactionary the organisation was. If only! Mass at Torreciudad tended to be mumbled as well as being in Spanish. Mumbled but in Latin would have been fine. Maybe I ought to have learned enough Spanish at least to follow the Mass more closely. All the same, it does occur to me that just at the time when we were, in the 1970s, more and more moving towards what is now illiterately described as a “globalised world”, it is very odd that the Catholic Church – by its precipitate lunge into the vernacular (a move which was in English-speaking countries made considerably more problematic by the incompetence and mediocrity of the lunge’s original execution) – should have liturgically abandoned its transnational character.

Well, there you have my usual returning-from-foreign-parts pro-Latin-Mass gripe. At least most of those attending Mass at the shrine were Spanish. I once attended a sung Mass at St Mark’s, Venice, at which at least 90 per cent of the congregation were not Italian-speaking, but which was nevertheless celebrated sloppily in Italian: a clear case of the usual vernacularist obduracy. Of course, one knows what’s going on in the liturgy whatever the language; and the Mass is the Mass. But that’s not quite the point, is it. To pray the Mass together with those attending it, it is a huge help to be praying the same words. So why, in such circumstances, don’t we?