Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith discovers that priests need much more than a knowledge of Latin to celebrate the older Mass authentically Learning the Extraordinary Form is both quite easy and far more difficult that I ever expected. It is quite easy because I am familiar with Latin, and have long been familiar with the Latin Mass in the ordinary form, which I celebrate regularly; I have also in the past been to many Masses in the extraordinary form; however, once the step is made from the congregation to the altar, one realises that the extraordinary form contains many challenges. Luckily I have had a lay liturgical expert to steer me through these.
The first challenge is that everything is regulated in the extraordinary form, down to the tiniest detail. The hands must be held joined together, with the right thumb over the left thumb; this is the normal position when "at rest". The position of the right thumb feels rather counter-intuitive to me (and I am righthanded) and one's thumbs ache after adopting this posture for any length of time. There are also rubrics about how to put on the vestments; there is a prayer that goes with each article as it is put on, and each article is to be put on in a very particular way. For example. the right arm must be put through the sleeve of the alb before the left one. Moreover, none of this is to be neglected — everything has to be done just right.
Presumably following all these minute directions will one day become second nature to me, as easy as riding a bicycle, something once learned and never to be forgotten. But what is the point of this formality? My conclusion is that the extraordinary form of the Mass is a holy banquet, a serious and important occasion; the family is most emphatically not slumming it in the kitchen. but rather doing what Abraham did when the three strangers arrived at his tent, namely doing everything to the very highest standard possible.
The second challenge to the extraordinary form is that it is clearly a historical form of the Mass, indeed a Mass frozen in one moment of time (as too is the ordinary form). After the offering of the Host, the priest slips the Host off the paten and on to the corporal, placing the paten half way under the corporal to the right. The paten stays there until it is taken out to be used again just after the Our Father. There seem's to be no real present reason for this, but only a historical one, dating back to the fillies when the bread for the Mass was not the modem altar bread of today but a large loaf. One can well imagine that some might find all this incomprehensible — certainly when I was in the congregation at usus antiquior Masses in the past, these were things that escaped my notice. However, and this is another insight gained, the past is not to be discarded. Tradition is an essential category in theology, and we cannot understand today without some idea of yesterday. In celebrating the extraordinary form, we are discovering how we got here, and we are the better understanding the nature of the "hem" at which we have arrived. Theology and liturgy cannot be done in a historical vacuum — that is one lesson. Another lesson is in the content of the theology itself. But it is important to note first of all (and people have not paid enough attention to this) that the extraordinary form and the ordinary form are essentially the same, as the Pope's letter accompanying the Motu Proprio makes clear. There is a hermeneutic of continuity between the two. This means that the usus antiquior can tell us something about the usus recentior. What I have learned is the emphasis on the unworthiness of the priest to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. This is found in the Missal of Paul VI, in, for example the two prayers before the priest's communion, which are also found in the Missal of the Blessed John XXIII. But the usus antiquior also has the following phrase in the offertory prayers: "Ego indignus fdrnulus tuus Offer° tibi Deo meo vivo et vero, pro innumerabilibus peccatis". This is Englished as follows: "I. Your unworthy servant, offer to You, my living and true God, to atone for my numberless sins, offences, and negligences." To be able to offer the sacrifice of the Mass, in whatever form. is the greatest privilege and grace a human being can receive. By emphasising that the priest is unworthy, the words tell us that the Mass is an exalted moment in human life, and a vocation to the priesthood a great gift. This is a theme about which, I think, we could all hear more.
There are two other great lessons. The prayers at the foot of the altar remind us that we need to prepare adequately for Mass, and that by going to the altar of the Lord we are somehow entering "sacred space". The final part of the Mass, the proclamation of the Last Gospel, is a great reminder that the scriptures in Mass are not merely the prelude to the Eucharist, but important in themselves. We hear the readings before receiving Communion, but we need to hear the scriptures in the light of Communion as well. And we need to have the words "ET VERBUM CARO FACTUM EST' (always so aptly in capitals) constantly ringing in our ears when we leave the liturgical assembly.
Finally, I have come to see that it is not "either/or" but "both/and". The two forms are not in competition with each other, and there is no battle to be fought between partisans of either. Such battles would be misguided. Benedict XVI puts it rather well: "There is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal. In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too..." By learning the 14SUS antiquior, I think my appreciation of the Missal of Paul V1-has grown, not diminished, for one sees for a start the context out of which the Missal of Paul VI came to be, and what it was that its framers wished to achieve.
Fr Lucie-Smith lives at Fisher House, Cambridge