10 Things to Know Before Attending a Traditional Latin Mass

Elevation of the Host during Mass

Scott P. Richert

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, would henceforth be known as the "Extraordinary Form" of the Mass. Consequently, the Mass commonly known as the Novus Ordo—short for Novus Ordo Missae, the "New Order of the Mass."—would now be called the "Ordinary Form" of the Mass. 

While the use of the Traditional Latin Mass had never completely died out, Pope Benedict's Mass gave the older liturgy a much-needed shot in the arm. Since September 2007, when Summorum Pontificum took effect, the Traditional Latin Mass has begun 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.

However, some people are hesitant to take the plunge since they're not quite sure what to expect. With a little preparation, any Catholic who regularly attends the Novus Ordo will find themselves equally at home with the Traditional Latin Mass. This ist of ten things to know about the Traditional Latin Mass will help prepare you to attend this ancient liturgy for the first time.

It's in Latin

Latin missal at a traditionalist Catholic pilgrimage

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It's in the name, after all! In recent years, more and more parishes have begun to reincorporate the use of some Latin, especially on important holy days such as Easter and Christmas, and during the two liturgical seasons of preparation—Lent and Advent.

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.

How are you supposed to follow along with the Mass, though, if you don't know Latin? 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 Procession

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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'

Celebrant and attendants at the altar during a traditional Mass

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It is said that, in the Traditional Latin Mass, the priest "faces away from the people," while in the Novus Ordo, he "faces the people." This is because, in all of the liturgies of the Church, 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 is largely directed toward God; the Traditional Latin Mass 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 provides Holy Communion
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The Pater Noster—the ​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 give the Ceremonial 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 that the absence of the Sign of Peace in the Traditional Latin Mass is one of the most noticeable differences.

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—actually a stylized embrace—is offered by the priest to the deacon, who offers it to the subdeacon, who offers it to any other clergy who are present.

Communion Is Received on the Tongue While Kneeling

Pope Benedict XVI gives Polish President Holy Communion

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In any church that is still set up to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass properly, 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 separates 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 offers the Host to each communicant. While the practice of receiving Communion in the hand was allowed by Pope John Paul II, in the Traditional Latin Mass, the Host is placed directly by the priest on the communicant's tongue.

You Don't Say 'Amen' When Offered Communion

Historic image of the rites of Holy Communion

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in the Novus Ordo, the priest briefly presents the Host to the communicant before offering it to the communicant, saying, "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; they simply open their mouth and extend their tongue to receive the Host.

Communion Is Offered Under Only One Kind

Celebration of Mass during a traditionalist catholic pilgrimage

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Communion in the Traditional Latin Mass is only offered under one kind. The priest consecrates both bread and wine​ and receives the Body and Blood of Christ on behalf of himself and all those present. However, while it has become increasingly common to offer Communion under both kinds, there is no requirement that a priest to do so. 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

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At the end of the Traditional Latin Mass, the Last Gospel 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) as 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

Depiction of Saint Michael

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Finally, the last difference you should be aware of when attending Traditional Latin Mass for the first time is the 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.)

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.