Pope Benedict XVI has shown a penchant for reviving (or restoring) long lost Roman Catholic practices. In his investiture last year, he revived the use of the early Roman pallium, the symbol of papal primacy and jurisdiction over the Church. The pallium is a wool vestment worn on the shoulders by all metropolitan archbishops in the Latin Rite as a sign of their communion with the Roman See. But over the centuries, like all vestments such as the chausable, this piece of cloth became smaller.
In Christmas last year, the pope wore a red cap with an ermine lining or camauro. The camauro which dates back to the medieval period, fell out of use after the death of John XXIII, who also discontinued wearing the shoes of the fisherman. Benedict revived it last Christmas and the post-Vatican II congregation thought he dressed up like Santa!
But Papal fashion revivals aside, this Pope is now thinking of giving a wider indult for priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass in Latin. We can recall that Pope John Paul II gave an indult for priests to celebrate this Mass if their bishops approve it and if the faithful request it. Very few bishops gave their permission since some bishops thought this was divisive and more likely a majority of the Catholic faithful did not request for it.
Why did the bishops find it divisive? John Paul's papacy witnessed the only significant schism after Vatican II. Archbishop Lefebvre opposed the decress of Vatican II. He founded a religious group (Society of St Pius X or SSPX) that preserved the pre-Vatican II rites and vision of the church. In 1988 he consecrated four bishops without Vatican approval and thus incurred excommunication.
But the SSPX is not the only group that believes that the Pre-Vatican II rites are the only valid way of celebrating Mass. Other groups contend that the popes beginning with John XXIII to Benedict XVI are impostors. These are the "sede vacantists". The SSPX holds that the papal line of succession is valid.
It is in this context that Benedict's plan to give a wider indult for the celebration of the Tridentine Mass in Latin has met controversy especially in France. French bishops and priests are opposed to the Pope's plan because the Traditionalist movement is strong in France.
But for a Catholic layman like me will ask "What is really the value of reviving the Tridentine Mass in Latin?"
Vatican II did not do away with Latin at all. It allowed for the vernacular. The Mass can still be heard in Latin in the Novus Ordo. However 40 years after Vatican II, you would be hard pressed to find a Latinate priest. That was Mel Gibson's major problem. Even in Rome, he couldn't find a priest that can say the Mass in Latin!
I am a post-Vatican II Catholic and a "returnee" at best. I attended Anglican services conducted using the Book of Common Prayer. My love for the English language stems partly from hearing the BCP. So when I heard the Roman Mass in English, it was a major letdown.
Why? The Catholic Church jumped from the Latin to Modern English almost overnight. And this modern English had no lilt in the language. Contrast this with the Anglicans. Cranmer modified and translated the Latin Missal into the English BCP and this BCP reached its most beautiful language beginning with Elizabeth I's reign. Roman Catholics probably do not realize that when they say the Hail Mary in English, they are actually reciting Cranmer's translation. Also I would rather say Cranmer's BCP version (Protestant!) of the Lord's Prayer rather than the post Vatican II English version.
My point is that Anglicanism managed to preserve Englishness in the BCP even though the English used in the BCP is no longer spoken on the street. Roman Catholicism almost threw away everything that made it Roman when the vernacular was adopted.
So it was not surprising that the only time I heard the Mass in Latin was in England! In London's Westminster Cathedral, I heard a priest say the Mass in Latin. And this was spiritually memorable for me since it was on the feast day of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales. These men and women died for the right to hear the Latin Mass and here I was assisting at a Latin Mass. Many of these martyrs were commanded to pray in English by the executioner but they went on praying in Latin.
The mass propers were all in Latin. Only the readings and the Gospel were in English. But the congregation came from all over the world. Were were Catholic and we did not speak Latin but still we prayed.
A few years later, when I was doing my PhD I had to learn some Latin in order to read original taxonomic descriptions. I then realized that Latin was really an exact language. The priest who tutored me suggested I read the Latin Missal and the Vulgate to get a feel of the language. I did. And so when I saw Mel Gibson's "Passion" I did not bother to read the subtitles. My appreciation of Latin has made me a more effective science teacher. (On a sidenote, when I was reading Josef Kamel's Latin descriptions of Philippine biodiversity, there were some Latin constructions I can't figure out. An old Jesuit priest who still remebered his Latin helped me.)
I am not advocating a complete return to the Latin Mass. My Catholic life has been shaped by the vernacular languages. When abroad, I feel rather homesick at Mass since I can't sing the Ama Namin loudly. But even then perhaps Catholics should be reacquainted with their past through an appreciation of the original prayers in Latin. And I believe that this is the Pope's original intention for his plan to give a wider indult.