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Tridentine Mass (latin rite)

Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, Eusebius and Jerome. Tridentine Mass.

Rev. Rama Coomaraswamy


In tracing the history of the Tridentine Mass one can follow two possible courses. One can either follow events from the time of the Last Supper - not a development as many claim, but rather a 'fleshing out' of the divine outline, or one can look to the 'pre-Christian' period and see how the Traditional Mass - the central rite of our faith, incorporates within it, and brings to fruition, all the sacrificial rites of the old dispensation, and indeed, of the entire world.

While attempting to do both within the confines of a short essay, it is the latter aspect that will be emphasized. Finally I shall attempt to show how our participation in the traditional Mass is in fact our participation in the whole life of Christ - how through participation in the Mass we are baptized with Christ, die with Christ and are resurrected with Christ. Let it be clear from the outset that I am saying nothing original in what follows, unless of course there be errors in the exposition.

The topic is, as Father Marmion says, 'an ineffable subject... Even the priest, who makes the Eucharistic Sacrifice the center and sun of his life, is powerless to put into words the marvels that the love of Christ Jesus has there gathered up. All that man, a mere creature, can say of this mystery come forth from the Heart of God, remains so far beneath the reality that, when we have said all that we know of it, it is as if we had said nothing. There is no subject the priest loves more and at the same time dreads more to speak of, so high and holy is this mystery.'1

Let us begin with the traditional Mass as we know it. I say, as we know it, because it is essentially unchanged from the time of its establishment to the present day. As Father Barry said, should a Christian from the first century return to life, and walk into a Church where the Tridentine Mass was being said, he would recognize it as the Mass he was familiar with. This is why we call it the 'traditional Mass' - the Mass which was literally 'handed down' and again 'The Mass of all times.' I avoid the use of the phrase 'Latin Mass,' because this can refer to a variety of different rites including the Novus Ordo Missae.

I would like you to imagine the situation in Palestine following the Pentecost. Shortly after St. Peter said the first Mass in the same room where Christ established the rite, the twelve Apostles dispersed throughout the world, carrying with them, not the Bible, but rather that most precious of all precious things, our traditional Mass. They went to different parts of the world - St. James to Spain, Joseph of Arimathea - even though not an Apostle - to England, St. Thomas to India, Peter and Paul to Rome and the others throughout the Middle East. And each of them brought with them the central and essential rite which we know as the Mass. Each of the Apostles adapted the Mass to the nations in which they found themselves. Of course, it was within the prerogatives of the Apostles to do this, for, as the Church teaches, Revelation ceased, not with the death of Christ, but with the death of the last Apostle. What is remarkable is, that despite the diversity of rites recognized by the Church as valid, all of them retain the same essential core.

We hear a lot about the need to adapt the faith to our times. But let us remember that the Apostles were not a brood of modernists intent on compromising with the world. On the contrary, they were men dedicated to bringing the world into conformity with the Church which is to say, bringing souls into conformity with Christ. The Church, the Body of Christ, is Christ's presence in the world. They knew that they could not serve both God and Mammon - that it was not for the Father of the Prodigal Son to join his offspring in a life of dissipation that ended up in feeding pigs, but for the Son to return to the bosom of the Father. The world of course also knows its own. The refusal to conform to the syncretism of ancient Rome and the entrenched ideologies and power structures of the world led to the inevitable. So much was this the case that all but one of the Apostles were martyred - and the only reason St. John wasn't martyred is because, despite all their efforts such as boiling him in oil, they couldn't kill him. And so it is that the Apostles, while preserving the essentials, adapted the rites of the Church to the various lands in which they found themselves. In this they provided the Church with a pattern to follow.

Adaptation is of course appropriate under certain circumstances. More precisely, one must not so much consider adaptation as such, but just what one is adapting to. As an example of legitimate adaptation, consider Baptism. In the time of the Apostles Baptism was by immersion patterned on Christ's Baptism in the river Jordan. We have descriptions of how these rites were carried out and one can see the baptismal fonts such as still exist in some of the churches of the Middle East into which a person had to walk. But when the Church found itself in northern Europe, baptism by immersion was no longer advisable - one didn't have to be a member of the polar bear club to enter the Church. The essentials were recognized and as long as flowing water was used, the baptizing individual had the proper intention, and the proper words said, the rite was effective. And so it is with the Apostolic adaptations of the Mass. There are some 83 forms of the Mass used throughout the world - the Traditional Mass which we are familiar with is but one of them. There are Eastern rite Masses, Coptic Masses, Arabic Masses, Ambrosian Masses. There used to be a special rite used in England called the Saram rite. These are all true Masses.


1 Some claim that the word priest is not used in the New Testament. This is true. So long, namely as the bloody sacrifices of the Mosaic rites, together with the Aaronic priesthood, the temple of Jerusalem and the various Jewish ceremonies were in evidence, the Apostles discreetly refrained from the use of such words as priest, sacrifice, altar, or church, so that by this contrast they might impress the faithful with the difference between the Jewish religion and the Church of Christ. It was done that no one might think the Apostles were imitating the Mosaic priesthood, abolished by Christ, when the new priesthood had been instituted in its place. But as soon as the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, and the priesthood which could not sacrifice elsewhere but in Jerusalem ceased, the disciples began immediately to use such words as priest, altar, sacrifice. St. Ignatius, the disciple of St. John, was one of the first to use these words. After him, the early Fathers of the Church such as Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, Eusebius and Jerome, use the words in all their epistles.

Tridentine Mass. Eastern rite Masses, Coptic Masses, Arabic Masses, Ambrosian Masses. Saram rite. Latin Rite. Preconciliar.

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