ROME (Reuters) - A decree this month by Pope Benedict allowing wider use of the old Latin mass has spawned a veritable cottage industry in helping Roman Catholic priests learn how to celebrate the centuries-old rite.
A Web site, helpline, DVDs and a training course at Oxford are among resources springing up for priests who want to celebrate the old-style mass but aren’t sure which vestments to wear or where to get them, when to genuflect, how deep to bow, or how to clasp their hands in prayer.
“There will be priests who will say: ‘Oh my God, I want to celebrate the old rite but I’m not sure of one or two things’,” said Pietro Siffi, a 37-old Italian devotee of the old Latin rite who plans to offer free online and phone support.
“We will help them find the answer.”
Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholic mass was an elaborate ritual led in Latin by a priest who faced east with the rest of the congregation, meaning they faced his back.
Vatican II reduced the formality and had the priest face the faithful to pray in their local language.
The old rite also includes hair-splitting specifics on which vestments can be used, what material they must be made of, where the candles should be placed on the altar, and the precise position of the priest’s hands at various points in the liturgy.
The Latin Mass Society of England and Wales (LMSEW) is planning a three-day “major training conference” at Merton College at Oxford University in late August: “There has been an explosion of interest,” its general manager John Medlin said.
“The aim is to give a firmly grounded taster in how to celebrate the traditional mass and the background information you need to do it with knowledge and devotion,” he said by phone.
For those unable to travel, the Society of Saint Pius X, the traditionalist group whose leaders excommunicated themselves from the church after they disobeyed the late Pope John Paul II, has a self-teach option.
It has produced a slick DVD in eight languages showing a priest celebrating the old rite with a running commentary on everything including the precise position — down to centimeters — of the priest’s hands, altar cloths, chalices and candles.
It tells the priests the exact order in which to don the several layers of vestments. An X for “no” suddenly appears on the screen when the priest makes a false move.
And Siffi plans to expand his Web site, www.tridentinum.com, to help priests find the right equipment. He may also offer courses, which will be charged at cost. “I’m not in this to make money,” he said. “This is a labor of love.”
Indeed, Siffi recently took on the task of updating the so-called “Trimelloni Guide,” an 850-page compendium of liturgical rules and regulations governing all aspects of the old rite.
Medlin, Soffi and others say there is today a growing interest in the old rite from young people disaffected with a superficial, consumerist world and looking for something sacred.
After the old rite was phased out to be replaced in some churches by sing-along hymns and guitar music, many people missed the Latin rite’s sense of mystery and awe and the centuries-old Gregorian chant that went with it.
“It’s because young people no longer buy the claim that the supernatural is dead. They have discovered the opposite is true, that the supernatural is alive and the existential was a mere time-bound way of looking at the world that was in its heyday in the 1960s and is now well past its ‘sell by’ date,” Medlin said.
Those who favor the old rite Latin mass realize they will always be a minority in the church, but they are content that now there is a choice for young and old.
“We must understand that most people are happy with the new rite and it’s not for us to make them feel like second-class citizens in the way that we were made to feel for so many years,” Medlin said.
But finding equipment remains a challenge. Some is so specific to the traditional rite it is out of production.
Both Siffi and Medlin are involved in de facto traditionalist “matchmaking”, linking people who have old vestments or other paraphernalia with those seeking them.
After the changes in the 1960s and 1970s much of the material was thrown out, sold to antiquarians or stashed away in dusty cupboards of rectories or church attics.
“Gradually, these objects are being made available for use again,” said Medlin.
One hard-to-find item is the “burse”: a stiff, cardboard pocket between nine and twelve inches square. It must be covered in silk and of a color to match the mass vestments.
The burse, which fell out of use after the Second Vatican Council, is effectively a pouch which holds the “corporal”, a square piece of white linen cloth on which the chalice is placed during the mass.
Another piece of paraphernalia now being sought is the “maniple”, a napkin-like vestment which hangs from the priest’s left forearm during mass.
The black biretta, a square cap worn by the priest celebrating the old rite as he approaches the altar before mass and on leaving at the end, also fell into disuse.
If the problem is not so much the equipment as the language, the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales also publishes a “teach yourself Latin” course based on Church Latin used in the traditional rite.
“You don’t need to be able to converse about the weather in Latin in order to be able to say the Latin mass,” Medlin said.