Recently, a friend
told me that he saw a priest at a Latin Mass who was careless about his movements.
Sometimes the priest held his hands wrong or didn’t use the proper movements specified in
the missal. Also, my friend said that the priest’s pronunciation of Latin was
pathetic. My friend insisted that the Mass was invalid. What is your interpretation of the
psychology of all this?
n order to address the psychological meaning
behind this issue of the validity of the Mass, we must first distinguish the concept of
correctness from the concept of invalidity.
What is the Correct Way to
Celebrate the Mass?
In general, the correct way to celebrate Mass
is to celebrate it according to the ecclesiastical procedures in place in a particular region
at a particular time. To many persons, that statement does not sound at all satisfying. But
that statement is the truth.
Hence, Saint Ambrose told
Saint Augustine, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Today, both the traditional Latin Mass and the Novus
Ordo Mass are celebrated in various places. The Novus Ordo Mass is celebrated according
to current adaptations from its inception at Vatican II. Before Vatican II, the traditional Latin
Mass was the sole form of the Roman Mass. But even then, the Latin Mass of 1962, for example,
was not exactly the same as the Mass of 1950. Moreover, we can wonder whether the Mass of 1950
was identical with the Mass of 1500. Scrutiny of historical documents may be able to deduce how
the Mass was celebrated at some places and times in the Middle Ages, but what about the Mass of
1000 or the Mass of 500? Were those Masses celebrated in the same manner in all places at all
times? Or, for that matter, who else but Christ Himself and the Apostles knows how He taught the
Apostles to celebrate the Mass?
This all points to the fact that we have no
absolute rules pertaining to all places and all times to define the correctness of liturgy.
All we have are fluid procedures relative to time and region.
Notice that even though the
rubrics for a particular tradition may specify the actions to be taken by the priest,
there can still be variations in how a priest carries out those actions. When the rubrics
say, “With his hands held apart...”, exactly how far apart should the priest hold
his hands? When the rubrics say, “He elevates a little the chalice...”, how much is
a little? Thus if one priest, although following the rubrics, does something
different from another priest who also follows the rubrics, it would be ridiculous to
claim that one of those priests is doing something that is universally
What is the Correct Way to
Latin, like all languages, was pronounced in
different ways in different regions and different times. Although it can be said that
Classical Latin was the most elegant use of Latin, and that it set a high standard for
literature, it’s unlikely that it was a universal standard for ordinary communication. In a
similar way, it can be said that although BBC English sets a high standard for the modern
English language, few people today actually speak English with that purity. But could anyone
say, with any psychological seriousness, that American English, compared to BBC English, is
“incorrect” English? Or could it be said that any dialect of American English, compared to
another dialect, is “incorrect”? Variations of language may not all be elegant, and some
variations may even be inelegant, but there are no absolute rules of language
So, here again, we have to face the reality that
there are no absolute rules pertaining to all places and to all times that can define the
correctness of language. All we have are fluid procedures relative to time and region.
Nevertheless, it can be said that Latin is the
language of the Roman Church and that when a Latin Mass is celebrated the priest should
pronounce Latin with the purity of Classical Latin. Well, that’s a noble idea. Yet in all
probability it’s a standard that was not often met in the past and that certainly is rarely
met today. Remember: it’s a noble standard, but not an absolute rule that must be attained—or
that ever was attained—and so if a priest’s pronunciation of Latin is less than noble it does
not mean that the Mass he celebrates is not correct.
What is Invalidity?
Considering the fluidity of correctness in regard
to liturgical procedures and language, then where does that leave us in regard to the invalidity
of a Mass? Does this mean that “anything goes” and that we should not have any standards of
excellence? No, that is not what I am saying.
Actually, when your friend spoke about the Mass being
invalid, he was not speaking about validity per se. The validity of a Mass depends on
practical ecclesiastical issues; for example, if a person has not been ordained a priest, no
words or actions can result in a valid Mass. Thus a statement about invalidity goes beyond
practical ecclesiastical matters and opens up a psychological matter.
Psychologically, invalidity really means
lacking in efficacy. That is, assuming that a Mass is celebrated in conformity with the
ecclesiastical procedures in place in its particular region at its particular time, the Mass
could be invalid in so far as the reception of the Eucharist would not be efficacious in
producing the growth of spiritual fruits in the person who
receives the Eucharist. Note carefully that spiritual growth is a matter of the heart. Spiritual
growth psychologically depends not on the priest but upon the holiness of the life of the
person who receives the Eucharist. Although the Eucharist is the epitome of divine grace in the
physical world, the impure life of a communicant will obstruct the working of divine grace—and
so it can be said that the impure life of a communicant will make the Mass invalid for that
person. The matter of invalidity, then, is a matter of truth relative to each person in his or
her relationship with God.
Therefore, to say that the invalidity of any Mass is
relative does not mean that “anything goes”; instead it means that we should all approach the
Eucharist with fear and trembling.
Thus, if you go to Mass at an
unfamiliar place and you see something done that contradicts the
traditions  you
prefer, then do not receive the Eucharist—not because you believe it is invalid because of
the circumstances of the Mass but because of your sadness over the circumstances of the Mass.
Moreover, if you know of places where things are done in a manner that contradicts the
traditions your prefer, then avoid those places and go to Mass where things are done in a
manner that you do prefer. Do all of this, then, in humility, so that your reverence for the
Eucharist with your personal fear and trembling before the Lord becomes efficacious in
producing spiritual growth in you.
Thus, psychologically, your friend has missed the
point about the Mass. Instead of focusing on the faults of a priest, it would be more efficacious
for him to focus on correcting his own faults, such as intellectualism.
1. As with other issues described on this webpage,
Tradition, too, does not have an absolute universal meaning. In a loose sense,
it could be said that Tradition stands in contrast to modern innovations and refers to
something that was more-or-less done in many places for the last hundred or so years,
or maybe even longer. Thus a reverence for various traditional practices is certainly
reasonable, even though it may not be possible to prove that those practices have
literally persisted through “the ages of ages.”