Latin Mass FAQ

I’ve been asked several questions about the Latin Mass (which I should really call the Extraordinary Form, since it is technically possible to say the Novus Ordo Mass in Latin) since I started going, and some come up repeatedly, so I thought I’d answer them here. These are not official, just according to my understanding. I’ve touched on some in other posts, but I think I can answer them better now.

Do I have to know Latin?

Not at all. When you enter the church on Sunday, look for a folded piece of paper in a holder on the wall near the door, titled “Saint Rose Latin Mass Propers.” This has all the prayers and readings that change from week to week, in both Latin and English. In your pew you’ll find a red booklet. This is the missal, which has everything which is the same at every Mass, also in Latin and English, plus instructions and explanations for what’s going on. It may be confusing at first, especially if you’re at High Mass with all the singing and incensing, but once you get the hang of it, you can see the English translations of everything that’s being said. Ask an usher for help if you’re confused. Also, on Sundays and Holy Days, the priest will re-read the English versions of the Epistle and Gospel before his sermon.

If you follow along in the missal and watch what’s happening around the altar, it’s not hard to keep track of where you are after a while, even if you can’t follow the Latin. The priest reads certain prayers from certain places, bells ring at certain times, and so on. There are lots of cues to help people keep track.

I’d guess that at least 90% of the congregation couldn’t translate a paragraph of Latin, although they’ve probably picked up a few whole phrases, like “Et cum spiritu tuo”—“and with your spirit.” There may be no one in the pews who knows Latin well enough to translate at speaking speed. (I sure can’t.) Don’t worry about it.

Do I have to wear a head covering (if I’m a woman)?

Many women choose to wear a veil or hat, but it’s not required. I’d guess that about 50% do at Sunday Mass, and more like 80% at daily Masses. Women actually have more freedom in this area than men, since we aren’t allowed to cover our heads at all. :)

The reasoning, as I understand it, is that the Church has a long tradition of veiling “holy vessels.” The tabernacle is often veiled, as are the Communion vessels when the priest is carrying them in and out of Mass. Women are also considered holy vessels, since they carry and nurture new life. Mary, being the holiest vessel of them all, is never pictured without a veil, as far as I know.

I’ve also heard women refer to the veil as a sort of symbolic shield that blocks out the outside world and helps focus their attention on God. Sort of like a football player pulling his helmet down tight and snapping his chin strap, maybe—he’s preparing himself for what’s coming.

Do I have to take Communion on the tongue?

Yes. This is part of the respect we show to the Eucharist that’s more overt at the Latin Mass. A priest’s hands are consecrated when he receives Holy Orders, partly for this very purpose. If you read the missal, you’ll see there are several prayers where he cleanses himself and his hands to prepare for handling the Body and Blood. He holds his fingers and moves his hands in a certain way to ensure as far as possible that not the smallest crumb from a consecrated host is dropped or treated without the greatest respect.

It wouldn’t make much sense to go through all that, and then drop the Eucharist into everyone’s grubby hands, would it? When the priest is finished, he goes back and carefully brushes any particles from his fingers and the patens into the cup to make sure they’re consumed. If you receive the host in your hands, what happens to any particles that might come loose? Whether they end up in your pockets or on the floor, that’s not the way they’re supposed to be treated. Receiving on the tongue eliminates that whole issue.

What’s that business at the end of the Low Mass about the conversion of Russia?

In the mid-19th Century, the Church in Rome was surrounded by enemies: hostile neighboring city states, Masonic societies, and revolutionary groups were all pressing in on Church property and things didn’t look good. Pope Piux IX decreed that a set of prayers be said after each Mass within the Papal States for the intention of defeating these enemies. By the mid 1880s, Rome had fallen and the Church was under direct attack by both physical means and confiscatory laws, so Pope Leo XIII updated these prayers and ordered that they be said around the world. This version was very similar to what we pray today, which is why they’re sometimes called the “Leonine Prayers.”

Apparently it worked—the Church survived these enemies, and by 1929 was able to establish a treaty with the Italian state and regain some of the property that had been stolen. At that time, the Communist government in Russia was really ramping up its persecution of Catholics, so Pope Pius XI decided to redirect these prayers for the freedom of the Church in Russia.

Again, it appears to have worked, or to be working. I don’t know whether Catholics in Russia today are completely free to worship without fear of persecution, but they’re certainly freer than they were under Soviet rule. There seems to be an honest argument at this point about whether the prayers have been answered, and if so, should we still be saying them? Should they perhaps be directed to another intention? Or should we keep them as they are until we’re very sure? Unless the Pope says otherwise, I guess we’ll keep saying them. Surely it couldn’t hurt.