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Latin & Me, part 4

Today we continue my journey toward an appreciation of Latin and Mass in the Extraordinary Form. To read about the other parts check out one and two and three. Just a reminder that this is my personal journey, not a comprehensive discussion of the theology.

The progression of my thoughts is following the pattern of change that happened at my parish here in Charlotte as well as my own personal experiences and thoughts. The next big thing that happened after changing the way we distribute communion (see part three) was an incorporation of Latin responses into the Liturgy accompanied with an overall shift in the style of music that accompanies our Liturgy.

To begin my appreciation for music in Latin I have to travel all the way back to when I was in choir during Elementary School with Ms. Kronenwetter and Mrs. Herzing (my distant cousin). Fr. Ananias came to our parish when I was in 3rd or 4th grade and he wanted us to sing in Latin. So during the season of Lent we sang all of the Mass parts (Holy, Holy & Agnus Dei) in Latin. The ones that most people know - which are actually the funeral tunes in the MEF, an interesting fact! Since we had Mass every Friday, we got these down pretty good and now they are permanently fixed into my memory. We also learned the prayers of exposition as we had Eucharistic Adoration every First Friday following the weekly school Mass we sang at. So we learned them pretty well - the O Salutaris better than the Tantum Ergo - but both became part of my Latin repertoire.

Throughout the rest of grammar school (I went to the same school from pre-k through 8th grade) and high school, we continued to do those Mass parts during Lent.

Then when I went to school at Saint Vincent, my roommate and I started going to Compline (night prayer) on a regular basis. Fr. Brian introduced us to the Marian Songs that are sung at the end of the evening. So he took time to teach us all of the songs. The one most frequently sung is the Salve Regina which is the one I know most well and sing most often still today. This is the Hail Holy Queen in latin. We also learned the Ave Regina Caelorum, the Regina Coeli (the one of these three I know the best), and Alma Redemptoris Mater (this one I know the least well since it's sung from Advent through the Presentation - and we are out of school for most of that time). After we mastered the Marian Hymns, we set out to learn the Te Deum, which I can still only do about 2 lines, maybe, if pressed, and someone begins it.

I loved singing these hymns, I also loved participating in Vespers with the monks on a regular basis and did so many, many times. The second half of my Junior year and my entire Senior year I went almost every day at 5pm before joining my friends for dinner.

Also during college the music at our student chapel was very traditional - always being sure to sing hymns of praise to God rather than songs of praise about what we are doing. I fought this tooth and nail, a lot - mostly because up until just a few years ago my preferred music was the more modern praise and worship music. Even through my twenties - and still now if I need some encouragement in prayer, P&W is what brings me solace, but it's not what I prefer at Mass.

How did I get there? Slowly, more slowly than I'd like to admit - and really not even only my own. We were thrown into the deep end at our parish and to be honest it wasn't pretty. But I would keep this phrase I would repeat over and over in prayer, "I don't come for the music, I don't come for the priest. I come for the kingdom, I come for the feast." Reminding myself that it's not about me, not about what I want - really not about what our music director wants, or even what the priest wants. It's about giving Glory to God whether I love the music or can't stand it because it's not about me.

We have this pretty secular and honestly, very protestant notion in America that everything is about us. We do something at Mass and if we don't contribute in some way (see: active participation defined wrongly) then somehow that was a "bad Mass." But is that really true? NO. There might be things done as "bad liturgy" - ie: norms not followed, the priest inserting himself too much to make it his own, lay ministers taking over roles, etc... However, it takes a lot to make it "not mass" anymore. There are two standards: Valid and Licit. Ideally, every Mass would be both Valid and Licit - the truth is that many Masses are just Valid and the things that clergy or laity do make it illicit.

But anyway - back to use of Latin Music. It took a while for me to move out of my P&W bubble into more traditional hymn appreciation. After our contemporary group was removed from the evening Mass I usually attend, I was at St. Mark (my former parish) for their evening Mass with their contemporary group. I though, "after all these weeks of dryness, maybe this mass with this music will give me the 'pick me up' I've been seeking." But it didn't. For me it was worse than the music I supposedly didn't like over at my parish. So I came to this conclusion about music for Mass - I want music that is done well. I want to experience the beauty of the church - for me, this is mostly when it's just the human voice. I can deal with the organ, I like it just fine - but typically on it's own or when we have a very large choir and the human voice and can stand up to it rather than be drowned out by it.

So that wasn't really about Latin Music, was it? Two more thoughts about Latin responses in Mass (and this time they really are about them).

First, when I was in the Congo I attended Mass in all different languages (see this post for info about how I didn't hear a homily for 3 1/2 weeks in English). I found myself at one Sunday Mass where we had the Archbishop and Mass was in french. The creed was in Latin - and it was the only part of the Mass that I was able to speak during! I was so excited that I could actually participate in a language I could pronounce fairly well! This is one of the reasons why we are encouraged to learn the Latin responses, so when we are in any country with other Catholics we all have something in common - not just a common faith, but a common language. Yes the Mass was the same throughout and I could follow along with my Magnificat, but it's wasn't the same as when I could actually speak the words along with him!

Second, when we began learning the Missa de Angelis at our parish (a video if you've never experienced it), many people were taken aback - and still are 6 months later. It began as a summer project to learn more Mass parts and also to learn Latin responses. This was a new one for me, I had never sung the Gloria in Latin (and that's the only part we do as of today). We learned it over the course of five weeks two or three lines at a time before Mass. I find that it is the most beautiful Gloria I can now sing.

Many people's concern with singing or saying the responses in Latin is that they don't know that language. And yes, that is correct - you might not be able to form sentences in that language, but you do know what you are singing when you sing the gloria in latin because you know the entire gloria in english. It's not a switch-a-roo with words - the gloria in english is just the translation of the Latin!

It takes some time and effort to get to know the other version, just like learning new songs, new Mass settings, and everything new. For weeks I would listen to this video over and over again to get the tune in my mind, and pay special attention to the cantor and rhythm of the music at Mass to make a point to be able to sing it. I want to know it without looking at the book like I do for the other prayers at Mass.

Participating in small ways with the universal church in the universal language of the Church helps me to see the vastness that our faith is - the centuries that it spans - the family that it involves. We might not understand each other's languages, but we can pray the Mass together because we know one language!

Next week the Requiem Mass and the plans for my funeral - which is hopefully many, many years away since I have a novena's time (9 days including today) until I'm even out of my 20s and into the 30th year of my life!

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6


  1. I first fell in love with using the Latin responses in Mass when I was 19 and attended my first Mass in Europe. I went to the "Universal Mass" at Notre Dame Cathedral, and soon found out it was called that because it was said in Latin. For the first time, I really understood how universal the Catholic church is, since I was surrounded my people from all different countries, but we could still pray together.

    Every year our parish sings the Sanctus and Angus Dei in Latin for Lent, and I've had enough exposure to the Gloria that I can get through it. However, last year in London they did the Creed in Latin and that completely stumped me. I should spend some time practicing the pronunciation of the words so that I can pray it if I ever have another chance. :)

    Over the past few years, I have reluctantly been dragged into church music. The #1 reason I wanted to avoid it, was because I knew enough to know how controversial church music can be, and I am one of those people that avoids conflict. However, God had different plans, and this year I even started directing our small church choir. This means I have had to form my own opinions about music, and make decisions on how to carry them out. Our pastor has been leading us towards implementing more chant...specifically the Entrance and Communion Antiphons. We've listened to more than just a few complaints! And I will freely admit, I used to hate chant too. However, the more I hear it, sing it, etc., I am increasingly drawn to its beauty. With chants focus on the text, and that text is always scriptural, I find that even hymns I used to love just don't have the power over me they used to.

    I have found that you can't force people to love it though, that has to take a change of the heart. This week I just had to set through a meeting of musicians in preparation for Holy Week, and boy, were there some angry organists there! I wanted to run screaming from the church! However, I praised God they were from a different parish, I quietly listened to the info and came home and planned the music for the Holy Week liturgies.

    Sorry this comment got so long. It's just such a big topic, and one that I've been studying and growing into, so reading this post has made me ask myself what I really think of church music and how I got here. :)

    1. I'm glad you wrote (even thought it was long). This is such a controversial topic because everyone has what they like and don't like (or even their preconceived notions of what they will and won't like). It required a slow change of heart - I think because a lot of it is changing your tastes and preferences, at least for me that's how it worked.


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