Dorothy Cummings McLean

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Cardinal Raymond Burke distributes Holy Communion at a traditional Latin Mass in Rome after a LifeSiteNews and Voice of the Family conference (October 2018). Voice of the Family / Flickr

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A laywoman’s guide to thriving at the Traditional Latin Mass

Dorothy Cummings McLean Dorothy Cummings McLean Follow Dorothy

EDINBURGH, Scotland, November 7, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) ― The Traditional Latin Mass, also known as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, is back in the news, thanks to an unfortunate article in the National Catholic Reporter.

It occurs to me that the abuse heaped on the ancient Catholic rite might inspire others to investigate it for themselves, and thus it would be helpful if an ordinary laywoman supplemented the excellent commentary on the TLM by such experts as Dr. Joseph Shaw and Dr. Peter Kwasniewski with a little homely advice. I am, after all, currently in charge of my TLM community’s After-Mass Coffee Hour. It’s my self-appointed job to make people feel welcome at the TLM.

1. The TLM is about reverent worship of God, not the community. If you go to a TLM, you don’t go to make friends―although you might make friends―or to have your existence acknowledged by the priest―although he certainly prays for you during the Mass―but to worship God through the prayers and profound silence of traditional Catholic worship.

If you have been going to the Ordinary Form all your life, as I did until 11 years ago, you may not realize how strong a role community, and community involvement, has played in your devotional life. Sometimes Mass is like a conversation between the priest and the congregation with funny jokes from the sanctuary when, for example, a child’s cry breaks a solemn silence. It’s warm, it’s friendly―but sometimes it’s not what we need in order to worship God profoundly.  

At a TLM, “community” is a distant second to God. The time to socialize is before Mass, outside the church, and after Mass, perhaps in the parish hall. But the church itself is considered sacred space in which holy silence is kept, so that worshippers can pray with a minimum of distraction. 

2. That said, infants wail. Although the TLM is the same wherever you go in the world, the communities are different. Some TLM congregations have many children. Some do not. In the past 11 years, my own small congregation has gone from no children to 10 children on the average Sunday. We’ve had to learn to adjust to the reality of non-monastic liturgical life. 

That said, the parents of proven weepers tend to sit near the back of our church, so they can whisk the disconsolate ankle-biters outside when mere grizzling escalates to full-throated wailing. This may not be a practical solution for congregations made up chiefly of young families, but if you come to Mass without infants, it would be kind if you left the back pews free for people who do. Meanwhile, make the most of the unbroken silences God grants. 

3. The definition of modest dress changes from place to place. If in doubt, it’s a good idea to err on the side of the conservative when you attend your first Traditional Latin Mass. In some communities, men wear suits and ties and women wear chapel veils and dresses with sleeves. In other TLM communities, especially in France, women go to Mass bare-headed and wear trousers. 

The interest some American Catholics seem to take in women’s Sunday clothing is not shared by the rest of the world of Catholic tradition. In Scotland, the unspoken rule is just to dress in a way that indicates respect and does not distract others from their prayers. To raise an eyebrow at my own TLM, you’d have to wear leggings, a miniskirt, sweatpants, a rock band T-shirt, or a tank top revealing an exercise bra with “SEXY” written on the back in rhinestones. I saw such a bra at Mass about nine years ago, and it is permanently tattooed on my brain. 

4. The TLM is much, much different from the Ordinary Form. It took me three Sundays before I felt comfortable with the Traditional Latin Mass because it was so different from the Mass I grew up with. On Sundays the liturgy usually begins with the Asperges, a rite of purification rarely used at the Ordinary Form, and the Mass itself begins in silence, except for the choir singing the Introit. This takes the place of the good old Entrance Hymn. 

I spent months flipping confusedly from the red pamphlet showing the Latin and English translations for the unchanging parts of the Mass (the “ordinary”)  to the white handout showing the day’s prayers and readings (the “propers”). I figured it all out eventually, and it’s a big plus that the TLM is the same wherever I am in the world. I take my veil and missal, and I’m good to go.    

5. Every Catholic who goes to the TLM is different from the others. I know I have to stress that going to the Traditional Latin Mass is about the worship of God through the ancient rite. It is not about finding like-minded community, let alone a substitute family―although it is possible you will make friends, depending on your age and personality. 

The friendliness or reserve, the political opinions or lack thereof, will be influenced by the wider society in which the church is situated. In Edinburgh, a more reserved city than, for example, Glasgow, old-timers assume that people who go to the TLM want to be left alone unless they come to the After-Mass Coffee Hour. Meanwhile, we currently range in age from one to 90+ and have political opinions from all over the British spectrum. We are all different people, but our differences don’t matter as much as the Mass we attend on Sundays. 

Some Catholics fear that TLM old-timers will sneer at them because they have small families. For what it’s worth, my husband and I have no children, and no one at Mass has ever been so rude as to ask us why not. Occasionally someone very timidly asks if we’ve considered adopting, and most recently I’ve explained that my husband’s health prevents it. 

6. The “priesthood of the laity” is not emphasized at the TLM. Here is a story to illustrate this reality. Some years ago a young man converted to the Catholic faith in part because of blog posts I wrote about the TLM. A TLM priest asked me, therefore, if I would prepare something for the convert’s reception into the faith. 

Now, I do have an M.Div. degree from a Catholic theologate, but I was a little confused at this very untraditional-sounding request from a traditional priest.

“Do you mean a reflection?” I asked. 

“No,” said the priest. “I mean sandwiches.”

I made the sandwiches and later admitted to myself that the partygoers probably enjoyed my sandwiches more than they would have enjoyed my reflection. If you are used to taking on tasks once reserved to the priesthood, you do some dying to self when you join a TLM community. Meanwhile, some of the greatest women saints, including Doctors of the Church, scrubbed convent floors for years.

And as much as I admire St. Edith Stein for her writing, it's the fact she cared for children in a Nazi concentration camp that makes me love her. 

7. That said, the laity do have an important part to play. The Traditional Latin Mass does not need you, but you may need the Traditional Latin Mass, and there are many ways in which laypeople can help priests continue to offer it. 

Perhaps the most important is to raise children to love and respect both the Traditional Latin Mass and the traditional understanding of the ordained priesthood. Sadly, the sex-abuse scandals of the past 30 years have made it clear not all priests can be trusted. However, we can raise our own sons to be good men and to help the ones who feel a call to the priesthood find the seminaries that will help them become good priests. We can also emphasize to our daughters the role the great female saints have played in the history of the Church and explain to them why both physical motherhood and spiritual motherhood are so important to the world. 

Depending on the TLM community in your area, there may be a need for altar servers, who are always male, new choir members, and people to help out with a variety of ancillary tasks, including setting up After-Mass Coffee Hour. The best course of action is to ask one of the priests associated with the community what help is needed. However, I would recommend becoming thoroughly acquainted with the Traditional Latin Mass before taking on any responsibility that may inhibit your ability to worship. My husband sings in our choir, and he always welcomes opportunities to worship in the same manner as the rest of a TLM congregation. This is usually when we are away on holiday – see here for a partial list of TLMs around the world.   

Naturally, you should not stint when the offertory basket comes around. 

I find it very rewarding to be a woman in a TLM community. Paradoxically, only the women of the congregation don liturgical garb: our mantillas. Our local tradition is that married women wear black mantillas, and mine proclaims my spiritually maternal role. I enjoy presiding over the After-Mass tea pot and keeping an eye out for people standing around with no one to talk to. I am also happy to be of service to mothers of children, whether that is assisting with homeschooling or keeping an eye on the Guides. Most of all, though, I am delighted to be married to a man who takes the worship of God so seriously.

8. Take and read. After struggling with the question for years, St. Augustine converted to Christianity after hearing a child-like voice say “Tolle, lege” (Take and read). Opening the Bible, his eye fell on Romans 13:13-14, which instructs us all to choose Christ Jesus instead of sinful desires of the flesh. 

To plumb the vast deeps of the Traditional Latin Mass, you too will have to do some reading. A good primer is Treasure and Tradition: The Ultimate Guide to the Latin Mass by Lisa Bergman for St. Augustine Academy Press. The publishing company has also brought many Catholic classics for children back into print, so if you are a parent interested in traditional Catholic worship and catechesis, you may enjoy browsing its catalogue. 

I hope this little guide to the TLM will be helpful to you. I cannot stress enough that the whole point of this Mass is reverent worship of God, but at the same time I have to admit that I did find community―including friends and even a husband―there. Perhaps if you put God first, everything merely created eventually falls into place.  

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Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian journalist, essayist, and novelist. She earned an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and an M.Div./S.T.B. from Toronto’s Regis College. She was a columnist for the Toronto Catholic Register for nine years and regularly contributes to Catholic World Report. Her first book, Seraphic Singles,  was published by Novalis (2010) in Canada, Liguori in the USA, and Homo Dei in Poland. Her second, Ceremony of Innocence, was published by Ignatius Press (2013). Dorothy lives near Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband.