A Protestant’s Take on the Traditional Latin Mass

On entering St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, the stately edifice at the corner of State and Elizabeth Streets in Ann Arbor, I was immediately met with the unmistakable smell of incense. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Here, I felt like a stranger in a strange land: a Protestant in a traditional Catholic parish.

Fortunately, fire and brimstone didn’t rain down on me as soon as I entered. After all, the most infamous time a Lutheran engaged with the Catholic Church, there were 95 theses involved.

Instead, I was greeted by an amiable old gentleman who handed me the parish bulletin and a Latin-to-English translation of the Mass. I found a pew near the back and settled in for what I expected to be a unique experience.

Not only was I there to experience a Latin Mass for the first time, but I was bent on understanding it. For the Latin Mass is the subject of rampant debate in the Catholic Church, which I (as a near outsider) wanted to understand more. How could this older form of the Mass, said for more than four centuries on every continent, be the subject of such disunity? I had to find out.

What makes the Latin Mass just shy of being a feast of all senses is the conspicuous quiet that marks the Devil’s share of it. Singing and audible prayer is limited, as are the moments when the priest speaks directly to the congregation in any language. 

The priest prays, his back facing the people, and his face toward Christ in the tabernacle. There’s nothing in Protestantism that approaches this. In a Lutheran service (which even some Lutherans call a “Mass”) the celebrant faces the congregation for all but a few moments, when he is faced toward the altar. The same audience-focused orientation (versus populum, for the Latin-inclined among us) is the same way the new form of the Mass is delivered.

This didn’t make me feel unwelcome or othered though. I appreciate how the priest’s reverential posture toward the Divine acts as a model by which the congregants should hold themselves. I’ve witnessed many Protestant services in which performative preaching and “rock band” styles of worship detract from my focus on what that service is for. To be sure, these styles of worship work for millions of people, and the energy that these worship styles provide can be positively palpable. But it’s not for everyone, and I can get why hundreds of Catholics at St. Thomas, and countless across the country, prefer a different posture of worship.

In terms of those worship postures, the Latin Mass is chock full of ’em. As a Protestant, I always say that the Catholic Mass is a bit like going to a dance recital without having ever been to practice. Sometimes we sit, and then kneel, and then stand, and then kneel again. This untrained dancer could hardly follow along. But even I can realize that these motions aren’t arbitrary. Each posture has a unique attitude, of prayer, reverence, or reflection. Having to stand and sit at various parts of the service was not foreign to me as a Lutheran. The posture of kneeling during a service, however, was. I’m pleased to report that the padded kneelers at St. Thomas were comfortable enough for this Protty to escape without knee pain.

The focal point of the Latin Mass is, like the contemporary Mass and like my native Lutheran services, the Eucharist. Here, the sacrifice at Calvary is repeated: The body and blood of Christ are sacrificed and made real in place of the bread and wine at the altar. This is one part of the Mass that I didn’t participate in, as the consumption of the host is reserved for Catholics in a state of grace (those who aren’t in a state of mortal sin). I did receive a blessing from the priest, which is offered to nearly anyone who proceeds to the altar at that time in the Mass.

Still, I found it sufficient to have seen, smelled, felt, and listened to the Latin Mass, even though I didn’t taste the Eucharist. It was a setting of absolute reverence that seemed out of step with the increasingly self-centered world outside of its doors. I think it’s the attitude of worship for a God who deserves obedience is the distinguishing characteristic here. Instead of extolling themselves, those at the Mass confess their sins and are reminded of God’s great power, His sacrifice on the cross, and His commission for those who follow Him:   

Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him!

(Psalm 34:8)

Man is not responsible for his own salvation, according to the congregants at St. Thomas. God is.

And I agree with them wholeheartedly.

As a Protestant who hopes to someday return to the Latin Mass, I found that collective attitude of worshipful obedience to be welcoming, and an experience that deepened my faith and connection to God. For anyone curious, who comes from a tradition far flung from Catholicism, know that you won’t be laughed out of the pews at St. Thomas. In fact, you may even find 95 reasons why you want to return.

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About Tyler Watt

Tyler Watt is a student at the Law School. He previously studied political science and history at LSA. Tyler is student general counsel in Central Student Government and previously served as president of LSA Student Government and resident advisor in Alice Lloyd Hall. A native of Saginaw, Michigan, he enjoys writing about theology, politics, and campus affairs.