Rummaging through a box of memorabilia from my youth that my mother collected and kept, I came upon the missal I used as a boy: the St. Joseph Daily Missal, the missal especially recommended for children and young adults.  I remember being endlessly fascinated with the contents of the gilt-edged pages that lay between the faux-leather covers, using the ribboned bookmarks to ease my way to the liturgical calendar, the table of feasts, the mysteries of the rosary, the holy days of obligation, the rogation days set aside to mitigate God's anger at our waywardness and solicit His intervention in a troubled world, the stations of the cross, and various novenas, litanies, and common prayers.  Most particularly, however, my fascination focused on the common, or unchanging part, of the mass, for on facing pages it was printed in Latin and English.

Prior to 1963, when the Second Vatican Council allowed the vernacular mass, the priest said the mass in Latin, and I recall eagerly listening to the priest's words, then quickly shifting my eyes to the English translation right-hand page.  I liked the sound of Latin, the roll-off-the-tongue rhythm and echoed lyricism in such phrases as "per Omnia saecula saeculorum," and "et cum spiritu tuo," and "sit semper vobis," and "qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis."  And I learned a good deal of Latin, too, so much so that when I became an altar boy--a Knight of the Altar, as we were called--I already knew the responses and, thus, was spared the anxious chore of memorization that beleaguered the other Knights-to-be.  Indeed, when I was tracked in the Academic Latin college-prep sequence in high school, I pretty much found the four years of required Latin a meadowed stroll, though I did slip occasionally on the cowpies of the ablative case of nouns and the pluperfect verb forms in the subjunctive mood.

After 1963, however, the Latin, or Tridentine, mass gave way to English, and, for me, something was lost in the translation, something having to do with mystery, with moments unfastened from the ordinary and veneered with reverential allure, with gestures of awe, and a quickening pulse of wonder, and a deep-down tug toward some fundamental urge for transcendence.

As a boy I was especially receptive to the mysterious eventfulness of Church ceremonies.  I felt a kind of embodied microdrama of holiness was unfolding, some kind of palpable presence, a fullness, some unseen, swarming, immanent meaning.  I was transfixed by the Good Friday Stations of the Cross, the twilit luminescence inside the Church, the spiced pungency of vaporing incense, the priest and altar boys stopping at each of the fourteen stations, the priest beginning each with "We adore Thee O Christ and we bless Thee" and the congregation responding "Because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world, Christ falling three times, the imprint of Christ's bloodied face on Veronica's veil, the pain of the Blessed Virgin Mary upon seeing her suffering son, the nails driven through the hands and feet, the hapless Simon of Cyrene, an anonymous Lybian Greek, plucked from the onlookers and forced to bear the cross when an exhausted Christ staggered and fell in his progress toward execution.

And then there was the pomp and spectacle of my Confirmation, the music and flowers and brightly lit apse, at the center of which stood the bishop himself, who, I thought, when the scapular was hung upon my neck, blessed me by saying, to my considerable confusion, "fox take 'em."  Dad later explained His Excellency had said "Pax tecum," peace be with you.  Much as the Plains Indians considered the ghost shirt, I considered that scapular a means of invulnerability, creating a kind of force-field carapace around me to repel even the most wily of Satan's seductions.

And there was the radiant energy of the miraculous itself, the central mystery of every mass, the transubstantiation, those uttered words "Hoc est enim corpus meum"--This is my body--and "Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei"--This is the chalice of my blood--changing, right before my awestruck eyes, bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, propelling me, as I thought, back through history, into deep time, and setting me in attendance at the Last Supper--an inexhaustible vein of wonder, words drenched in astonishment and trimmed in purple velvet, beckoning words, words dazzled in beyondness, words conjured elsewhere, rhapsodic words, mood-saturated words, words that promised a veil lifted and a curtain undrawn, words that unpinned me from the minute-and hour-handed radius of my experience, words whose seizing impulse pushed me beyond the circumference of the moment and myself.

So it was to me as a boy, before I was ambushed by doubt; before my capacity for receptivity gave way to interrogation; before I developed other allegiances and other forms of discernment; before the mystery of Church rituals and ceremonies unraveled, deglinted, and lost their embodied allure, their piercing provocation; before their rich allusiveness, their vein of immanence, played out, and I fell away, without an afterword, without a second thought, until I discovered my old missal.

Note: A tweaked version of an Our Salon post, March 2011.


Views: 213

Comment by koshersalaami on June 9, 2015 at 3:02pm

Resonances like that don't go away easily. 

There's another thing about Latin, like about Hebrew: The sounds you are hearing are ancient. Some of what you heard was said in churches over 1,500 years ago, and that feeling of continuous connection is worth something. 

This is really well written. 

Comment by Rosigami on June 9, 2015 at 4:04pm

I agree with what koshersalaami says above.
I love how you write about this topic, that piece of your past when you were deeply involved and committed to an ancient belief system. Your descriptions are beyond poignant. Letting go of that unquestioned world is hard. Even as an adult, the familiar words and rituals tug at the psyche. 
I never heard a Latin mass. But I remember my Italian grandmother fretting about the change to English. She didn't like it one bit. When I was a child my family belonged to the Greek Orthodox church, my mother's heritage, so I heard the mass in Greek. Understood not a word of it. But I will never forget incredible ornate iconic imagery that decorated the church, the smell of the incense or the taste of the wine-soaked bread, and the deep-voiced singing of the cantor. 

Comment by nerd cred on June 9, 2015 at 7:48pm

I share a lot of your history and your engagement in it. Except I had a St. Andrews missal which was far more sophisticated and less childish than the St. Joseph.

I had completely forgotten about the scapular and the thing about confirmation that most impressed me was that the same bishop had confirmed my father.

After latin I found a similarly mystical reaction when I attended a Corpus Christi Mass in Poland where they did things in a much bigger and more traditional way than I had ever experienced in the US, even before 1963. Plus it was all in Polish which made it seem to me like the old Latin version - without the vulgarity of the vernacular. Things seem more mystical when you can't understand, I think.

Comment by L in the Southeast on June 9, 2015 at 8:02pm
You eloquently captured my similar fascination with the Church rituals. One of my ear worms comes up more often than the others. It's the hymn we sang for the May Crowning of the Blessed Virgin : Bring flowers of the fairest, bring flowers of the rarest, from garland and woodlands and hillsides and vale... I have also come to a different conclusion about all that, but the ceremonies were magical to a little girl's eyes.
Comment by marilyn sands on June 9, 2015 at 9:55pm

You made something so universally righteous & pure; so intimately yours. 

Comment by JMac1949 Memories on June 9, 2015 at 10:05pm

I had two years of Latin in high school in preparation for a premed major at the University of Texas.  I read, write and pronounce that dead language.  Fifty years later I've forgotten the meanings of the words but I remember the pronunciation and a lot of the grammar. Always enjoyed the Mass in Latin.  R&L ;-)

Comment by Jerry DeNuccio on June 10, 2015 at 5:35am

kosh:  You're right--I still feel those resonances and have felt an inclination to follow through on them.  It's interesting that, though a "dead" language, Latin is one of the more popular languages on college campuses that offer it.  When we offered Latin as a Winter Term course at Graceland University, the course filled to capacity (40) in two days. 

Rosigami:  The Church recently made some changes in the mass in an effort to bring its manner of saying more in line with the original language.  Cards containing the changes were available in each pew.  But, much as with the change from Latin to English, this change caused a great deal of congregational grumbling.  We really are creatures of habit, I guess.

nerd cred:  85% of the population of the town I grew up in, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, had Polish ancestry, and one of the Churches held a "polka mass": the mass was said in English, but the music was Polish. 

L:  I like your word "magical":  from a youngster's perspective, the ambience and ceremony would indeed seem magical, a concept more familiar, I suspect, than "miraculous" or "mystery of the faith."

Marilyn:  I still tell people, without even a hint of irony, that I took myself out of Catholicism, but Catholicism did not take itself out of me.

JMac:  Like you, I remember quite a bit of Latin, more than would seem likely after all these years.  The funny thing is, I've taken coursework in both Spanish and French, and remember far less of them than of Latin--maybe because Spanish and French are easier (I remember drilling on verb tenses with my dad, using notecards I created), or maybe because they do not have the religious association.

Comment by Lois Wickstrom on June 10, 2015 at 11:57am

I too enjoy a sense of mystery -- and ever-newness. Well written. And I love "fox take'em" because that is what happens. But then we leave our shirt in those drooling jaws and are free again, if slightly embarrassed for our nakedness.  Then again, we were born naked.

Comment by Poor Woman on June 10, 2015 at 1:10pm

Very well written, Jerry.


Comment by Jerry DeNuccio on June 10, 2015 at 2:06pm

Lois and Poor Woman:  Thank you for reading and commenting.


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