10 Things to Know Before Attending a Traditional Latin Mass

How to Feel at Home in the Extraordinary Form

Paris, France, Mass on place Vauban at the end of a traditionalist catholic pilgrimage organised by Saint Pie X fraternity
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In July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI restored the Traditional Latin Mass as one of the two forms of the Mass in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. In Summorum Pontificum, the Pope Emeritus declared that the Traditional Latin Mass, in use in the Western Church for 1,500 years in one form or another and the preeminent Western liturgy from the time of the Council of Trent in the 16th century until 1970, would henceforth be known as the "Extraordinary Form" of the Mass. (The Mass that replaced the Traditional Latin Mass in 1970, commonly known as the Novus Ordo, would now be called the "Ordinary Form" of the Mass.) Also known as the Tridentine Mass (after the Council of Trent) or the Mass of Pope Pius V (the pope who standardized the Traditional Latin Mass and declared it the normative Mass for the Western Church), the Traditional Latin Mass was officially "back."

While the use of the Traditional Latin Mass had never completely died out, Pope Benedict's  gave the older liturgy a much-needed shot in the arm. Since September 2007, when Summorum Pontificum took effect and any priest who wished to do so could celebrate the Extraordinary Form as well as the Ordinary Form of the Mass, the Traditional Latin Mass has begun once again to spread. And while most Catholics born after 1969 have yet to attend a Traditional Latin Mass, more and more are expressing an interest in doing so.

Yet, as with any "new" experience—even of a very old liturgy!—some people are hesitant to take the plunge ​since they're not quite sure what to expect. And while, on the surface, the Extraordinary Form of the Mass can seem quite different from the Ordinary Form, the reality is that the differences mask a fundamental similarity. With a little preparation, any Catholic who regularly attends the Novus Ordo will find himself equally at home with the Traditional Latin Mass. These ten things you should know about the Traditional Latin Mass will help prepare you to attend this ancient and yet—thanks to Pope Benedict XVI—modern liturgy for the first time.

It's in Latin

Latin missal at a traditionalist catholic pilgrimage
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This probably seems like the silliest thing to point out—it's in the name, after all!—but the Traditional Latin Mass is conducted entirely in Latin. And that's the single thing most likely to confuse people who are used to the Ordinary Form of the Mass, which is normally conducted in the vernacular—the common language of the people attending the Mass.

On the other hand, in recent years, more and more parishes have begun to reincorporate the use of some Latin in their celebrations of the Novus Ordo, especially on important holy days such as Easter and Christmas, and during the two liturgical seasons of preparation—Lent and Advent. The Gloria ("Glory to God") and the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God") are probably already familiar to the average Mass-goer, as is the Kyrie Eleison ("Lord, Have Mercy"), which is actually in Greek, not Latin, in both the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form. And one may even occasionally hear the Pater Noster ("Our Father") in Latin in the Novus Ordo.

By the way, if you're wondering what Novus Ordo means, it's a Latin phrase that is short for Novus Ordo Missae—the "New Order of the Mass." It's in Latin because the normative text of the Ordinary Form of the Mass—just like the Extraordinary Form—is Latin! The use of the vernacular is allowed, and even encouraged, in the Ordinary Form, but Latin is still today the official language not only of Church documents of the current Mass.

But back to the Traditional Latin Mass: While the Extraordinary Form is conducted entirely in Latin, that doesn't mean that you will never hear English (or whatever your daily language is) while the Mass is going on. The sermon or homily is delivered in the vernacular ​and is usually preceded by a reading of the epistle and gospel for the day in the vernacular. Any necessary announcements will also be made in the vernacular. And finally, if the Mass is a "low Mass" (a Mass normally conducted without music, incense, or other "smells and bells"), there will be prayers at the end of Mass recited in the vernacular. (More on those prayers below.)

How are you supposed to follow along with the Mass, though, if you don't know Latin? Pretty much the same way as you would if you were attending the Novus Ordo in Spanish or French or Italian for the first time. Most churches will provide missals in the pews with the text of the Mass in Latin and the local vernacular; and parts of the Mass like the Kyrie, Gloria, epistle, gospel, Credo (the Nicene Creed), Pater Noster, and Agnus Dei will act as signposts should you use your place. There are no significant structural differences between the Extraordinary Form and the Ordinary Form; once you realize that, you should have no trouble following along in the missal.

There Are No Altar Girls

Good Friday Processions
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Since John Paul II officially allowed the use of female altar servers in 1994 (after many parishes and dioceses, especially in the United States, had unofficially allowed the practice years earlier), altar girls have become as common in the Novus Ordo as altar boys (and in some areas, even more common). In the celebration of the Extraordinary Form, however, the traditional practice is maintained: All servers at the altar are male. 

The Priest Celebrates "Ad Orientem"

Mass on place Vauban at the end of a traditionalist catholic pilgrimage organised by Saint Pie X fraternity
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It is commonly said that, in the Traditional Latin Mass, the priest "faces away from the people," while in the Novus Ordo, he "faces the people." The formulation is misleading: Traditionally, in all of the liturgies of the Church, both East and West, the priest has celebrated "facing east"—that is, the direction of the rising sun, from which, as the Bible tells us, Christ will come when He returns. Throughout most of Christian history, where possible, churches were built to allow celebration ad orientem—"to the east."

In practice, that meant that the priest and the congregation were facing in the same direction—east—throughout most of the Mass. The exceptions were when the priest was addressing the congregation (as in the sermon or during a blessing) or bringing something from God to the congregation (at Holy Communion). The text of the Mass, in both the Extraordinary and the Ordinary forms, is largely directed toward God; the Traditional Latin Mass (like the liturgies of the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, and the other traditional liturgies of the Western Church, such as the Ambrosian Rite of Milan, the Mozarabic Rite of Spain, and the Sarum Rite of England) provides a visual signal of this reality by having the priest face east, with the altar between him and the risen and returning Christ.

The "Our Father" Is Said Only by the Priest

Pope Benedict XVI Conducts Vatican Ordination
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The Pater Noster—the Our Father or Lord's Prayer—is a pivotal point in both the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. It comes right after the canon of the Mass, in which the consecration of the bread and wine, which become the Body and Blood of Christ, occurs. In the Novus Ordo, the entire congregation rises and recites the prayer together; but in the Traditional Latin Mass, the priest, acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) recites the prayer as Christ Himself did when teaching it to His disciples.

There Is No Sign of Peace

Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras Greeting
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Immediately after the Our Father in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, the priest recalls Christ's words to His apostles: "Peace I leave you, my peace I give you." He then instructs the congregation to offer one another the "Sign of Peace," which in practice usually means shaking hands with those around you.

Most of the time in the Extraordinary Form, you will see nothing similar; the Mass advances from the Pater Noster to the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God"). Because the Sign of Peace has become such a prominent part of the Novus Ordo (with priests often even leaving the altar to shake hands with members of the congregation, even though the rubrics of the Mass do not allow that), the absence of the Sign of Peace in the Traditional Latin Mass is one of the most noticeable differences—right up there with the use of Latin and the fact that the congregation doesn't say the Our Father.

The Sign of Peace, though, does have a counterpart in the Extraordinary Form—the traditional Kiss of Peace, which occurs only in a solemn high Mass, when multiple clergy members are present. The Kiss of Peace is offered by the priest to the deacon, who offers it to the subdeacon (if one is present), who offers it to any other clergy who are present. The Kiss of Peace is not a handshake or even an actual kiss but a stylized embrace similar to that offered by Pope Paul VI and the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras at their historic meeting in Jerusalem in 1964 (pictured alongside this text).

Communion Is Received on the Tongue While Kneeling

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In any church that is still set up to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass properly (as opposed to a church in which the Ordinary Form is normally celebrated, and the Extraordinary Form is celebrated occasionally), the altar will be set off by an altar rail—a low wall with a two-part gate in the center. Much like the iconostasis (icon screen) in Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, the altar rail serves a dual purpose. First, it sets off the sanctuary—the sacred place where the altar is—from the nave, the area in which the congregation sits or stands. Second, it is where the congregation gathers to receive Holy Communion, which is why the altar rail is often referred to as the "communion rail."

When it is time for Communion, those who will receive the Eucharist come forward and kneel down at the altar rail, while the priest moves back and forth on the inside of the altar rail, offering the Host to each communicant. While the practice of receiving Communion in the hand was allowed by Pope John Paul II in the Novus Ordo after it (like the use of altar girls) had become common (especially in the United States), in the Traditional Latin Mass the traditional practice of the Church, both East and West, is maintained, and the Host is placed directly by the priest on the communicant's tongue.

You Don't Say "Amen" When Offered Communion

Loggers and their families receive Holy Communion at Midnight Mass c. 1955.
Loggers and their families receive Holy Communion at Midnight Mass c. 1955. Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images

In both the Ordinary Form of the Mass and the Extraordinary Form, the priest briefly presents the Host to the communicant before offering it to you. While he does so in the Novus Ordo, the priest says, "The Body of Christ," and the communicant responds, "Amen."

In the Extraordinary Form, the priest presents the Host while uttering a prayer for the communicant, saying (in Latin), "May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul unto everlasting life. Amen." Because the priest has ended the prayer with "Amen," the communicant does not need to makes a reply to the priest; he simply opens his mouth and extends his tongue to receive the Host.

Communion Is Offered Under Only One Kind

France, Yvelines, Villepreux, Mgr Bernard Fellay, head of Saint Pie X fraternity, celebrating mass during a traditionalist catholic pilgrimage
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By now, you have probably noticed that I keep referring to the Host at Communion, but never to the chalice or the Precious Blood. That's because Communion n the Traditional Latin Mass is only offered under one kind. The priest, of course, consecrates both bread and wine, and receives the Body and Blood of Christ, just as a priest in the Novus Ordo does; and when either priest does so, he receives both the Host and the Precious Blood on behalf not only of himself but of all those present.

While it has become increasingly common to offer Communion under both kinds in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, there is no requirement that a priest do so, or that a layman must receive both the Body and the Blood whenever he receives Communion. Likewise, a communicant at the Extraordinary Form of the Mass receives the fullness of Christ—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—when he receives just the Host.

There's a Last Gospel After the Final Blessing

The Gospels on the coffin of Pope John Paul II, May 1, 2011. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
The Gospels are displayed on the coffin of Pope John Paul II, May 1, 2011. Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Up until now, with the exception of the Sign of Peace, the differences that you will find in the Extraordinary Form have been fairly minimal, even though they may not seem that way. If you put the Latin text of the Ordinary Form next to the Latin text of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, you will find that the former is somewhat shorter and simpler, but the parts line up, pretty much one for one.

At the end of the Traditional Latin Mass, however, you will find two major things that were removed from the Mass altogether when the Novus Ordo was promulgated. The first is the Last Gospel, which is read by the priest immediately after declaring, "Ite, Missa est" ("The Mass is ended"), and offering the final blessing. Except under special circumstances, the Last Gospel is always the beginning of the Gospel of John (John 1:1-14), "In the beginning was the Word . . . "—a reminder of the great act of salvation that we have just celebrated in the Mass.

In a Low Mass, There Are Prayers After the End of Mass

Saint Michael
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The second major thing that was removed from the Mass are a series of prayers that are offered at the very end of every Low Mass in the Extraordinary Form. These consist of three Hail Marys, a Hail Holy Queen, a prayer for the Church, and the Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel. (Local practices may include further prayers.)

Perhaps in part because the Traditional Latin Mass has begun to spread again in the wake of Summorum Pontificum, some Novus Ordo parishes have begun to include some or all of these prayers (especially the three Hail Marys and the Saint Michael prayer) at the end of their Masses. Like the increasingly use of Latin in the Ordinary Form, the revival of the prayers at the end of Mass is a concrete example of the hope expressed by Pope Benedict at the time of his revival of the Traditional Latin Mass that the two forms of the Mass—Extraordinary and Ordinary—would begin to influence one another.