Re-connecting to the Lord (re: incense, chant, & Latin)

In just a couple of days we will leave Ordinary Time, as briefly as we were in it!, and enter into the season of Lent in preparation for the season of Easter.

One of the things that marks the changing of the seasons are the changes of how we celebrate the Mass. While it is still the Mass in it’s substance, some of the elements are changed or omitted – the ‘alleluia’ just before the Gospel is replaced with a more subdued acclamation. Similarly, the Gloria is omitted throughout the season as we take on a more quiet and reflective tenor or tone to our prayer and worship.

There are three other elements that we are adding into the liturgies in our parishes, and I’d like to speak about them because they often bring with them frustration, consternation, or simply confusion. Why are we adding these in, what do they mean, what purpose do they serve?

These three things are: incense, chant, and Latin.

While I would discourage you from taking your understanding of the faith from Hollywood, I think you’ll find that if there is ever a scene involving the Catholic Church (funeral, wedding, whatnot), there will always be copious amounts of incense, someone will be chanting something at some point, and Latin will inevitably be included. The director may get everything wrong about what we believe, but these are clear signs to the viewer that this is a Catholic moment.

Now we’re more accustomed to these things, but even we might not know what they are all about, so I’d like to spend some time on them today.

To start, I’d like to start with the word ‘religion’, which can help us understand the purpose of these elements and all the elements of the Mass. I have to go back to Latin, so bear with me. The word ‘religion’ comes from two Latin words re and ligare. Ligare means ‘to connect’, which you might recognize as the foundation of the word ‘ligament’, which holds the members of our body together. So religion means to re-connect.

And what are we re-connecting? Well, we are re-connecting with ourselves and we are re-connecting with God. I don’t think it takes much for us to recognize the divisions that exist in our lives – within our communities, our families, and most especially with the world. There is brokenness all around us. Some of those divisions are ideological, some simple distance, some by choice, some by accident. We see this in Scriptures today in the division of those who are healthy (and presumed holy) and those who are ill (and presumed sinful).

We also need to re-connect, as one Body, with God. We need not go into much detail, but a faithful examination of conscience will quickly reveal how we are separated, divided, from God.

May I take this opportunity to also point out that one of the additions to our life of prayer are extra opportunities in Lent for confession. And if you haven’t been for a while, the invitation is open: come to confession.

So here we are, at Mass, as part of the Catholic religion, looking to re-connect with each other and God. What do incense, Latin, and chant have to do with that? They’re clearly not necessary for faithful prayer: I’m confident that very few, if any, use incense to pray in private, nor Latin, and probably not chant for the most part either.

But why does the Church put emphasize on these things?

Well, let’s start with incense – not the least because I am biased: I love incense! I think it’s the coolest thing in the world and in fact, I just purchased a sampler pack that we’ll be trying out at my parishes.

Incense comes from our practice in the Scriptures. If you read the book of Revelations, if you get past the trials & tribulations, you get to the vision of John the Evangelist’s vision of heaven. God the Father is sitting on his throne, surrounded by the multitude of saints dressed in white.

Saints are simply people like you and I who have been purified by the Blood of the Lamb and are at last in heaven. They’ve lived our life, suffered through sorrows like ours, and have died our death before receiving the eternal life they enjoy. St. John sees them before God, praising Him without end and interceding on our behalf. And he envisions those prayers being lifted up on incense before the glory of God.

If we look in the Old Testament, we see incense being used as well. And there especially we see an element of purification. As we smoke meat to cook it – or as in olden days smoke was thought to bring healing to sick persons – so we use incense to bless, to sanctify places, objects, and people. This is why incense is often perfumed, so that we both our sense of sight and smell are engaged.

So now to chant. What is that all about? Well, chant is just the spoken word put to music – but not just any words! We wouldn’t just enter into conversation and chant that at someone, possible though that may be. We would probably lose conversation partners at an amazing rate.

That said, we put to chant words, prayers, that we want to elevate, that we want to emphasize as having a holy character and purpose. We are essentially saying ‘this is an important thing’, as with the antiphons, the prayers of the Mass, the dialogue between the priest and the people. We’re not talking normally in these moments, we’re doing something extra-ordinary and so we elevate it by formalizing it in this special singing that is chant.

Finally, there is the use of Latin, and I know that this one is at times controversial – not least because most peoples around the world don’t speak Latin in any kind of day-to-day conversation. And yet, the Church has chosen Latin as Her official language, as the language of Catholics. This doesn’t mean you have to learn Latin wholesale, but it is the language that is meant to unify us in prayer.

There’s a practical aspect too, right? In our communities here in Lewis county we have at least two language-speaking communities at any given time – Spanish and English – to say nothing of other languages that may be spoken by others present. The result is that while language can be a source of pride, but also a source of division – not because we are against each other, but because we don’t have one common, worldwide language.

So, the Church responded by settling on one common language so that at for our prayer we can speak with one voice, a language for our faith. We may not have an extensive of grammar or vocabulary, but we know what the prayers mean. Take the Sanctus, offered before the Preface and Eucharistic Prayer. We know that ‘Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus’ means ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’.

Neat fact: Jesus probably spoke at least a little Latin because that was one of the languages of the time. He was Jewish, so He certainly spoke Hebrew. The culture of the time most likely spoke Aramaic, and the civil government spoken Latin – which most citizens would have had some reasonable grasp of in order to interact in secular society. We don’t use Latin solely for that reason, but it is neat to think that we have that connection.

Latin has endured throughout the years specifically it is a dead language, which admittedly sounds awful. I’m reminded of a ditty that someone taught me in seminary: “Latin is a dead language, as dead as it can be; it killed off all the Latins, and now it’s killing me.”

But what that means is that it is stable – the meaning of words is no longer evolving. I suspect we’ve all had words that meant one thing in one decade and have since changed to mean another now, sometimes even an opposing meaning. But Latin doesn’t have that pitfall and so the Church uses it as our common language of faith.

So why are these three things worth bringing up? If nothing else, it’s worth acknowledging that these particular elements often bring consternation, misunderstanding, or are simply difficult to integrate into our regular practice of prayer. We might even think ‘I want to do what the Church tells me, but this is hard!’. And that alone is worthy of attention – no one should feel as if they must shoulder that difficulty alone, without support.

So, we delve into these elements to see how they all serve a purpose – they assist in the function of religion, of re-connecting our diverse membership to each other, and us to the Lord. And the hope of the Church is that these common elements will bring us together. This is why we do the same thing at every Mass, following the command of Christ: “Do this in memory of Me”.

What held the disciples together? At first, it was Christ Himself, present bodily to them. And now, after His death, resurrection, and ascension, He has left us this memorial of His sacrifice – which is also His very Self, His Body & Blood offered in the Eucharistic celebration.

We have this common practice, this common action, that re-connects individuals, and individuals with Christ.

In a couple of days we will enter into Lent, and the liturgy will look different – we know this, having gone through this each year. And I very much want to encourage you: even if you struggle with the various elements, these or others, look at what the Church intends in our worship.

And what is it that She wants for us? The same thing that Christ wants for the leper. And while the leper who is divided from the community due to his visible infirmity, our divisions are not always so obvious. While the leper calls out ‘unclean, unclean!’, we have no practice of calling out our infirmities or divisions – just imagine what that’d look like! ‘I’m struggling with anger!’ or ‘I’m battling with lust’ or ‘I’ve fallen into despair’. No, we don’t do that.

But that is what Mass is for, that is what Christ and His Church wants for us: the unity of the Body of Christ and the unification with the Body to Christ.

As we enter into this season, may we ask the Lord to heal us, to cure us, to unite us. That He may to use these elements, even ones that are alien, foreign or uncomfortable for our benefit. That they might serve us to achieve that re-connection, that we might one day be saints too, joining those gathered before the throne of God, to intercede for those yet separated from the Lord, that we may even now participate in that unending, eternal praise of Christ.

[February 20, 2018 – additional references]

For anyone who is interested in learning about the liturgy, the documents below are invaluable resources. After all of the Masses I preached this homily, these were mentioned and included in the pastor’s notes – I’m sorry I didn’t initially include them in my post here online. They’re not especially long (20-30 pages) and do not require a theological background to read & understand. They’re both both for teaching and reflection and I highly recommend them:

Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) – the first document of Vatican II and a defining teaching on what the liturgy means for the Church

Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy) – the music document commission after Vatican II to follow up on Sacrosanctum Concilium, specifically addressing how to implement its directions in the area of liturgical music

General Instruction of the Roman Missal – this contains the directions of the ‘how’ to offer the Mass. It addresses almost every ordinary celebration of the Mass (pontifical Mass, for example, are not addressed here) and is a wonderful reference for the ‘how’ of the Mass.

I would highlight #24 of the General Instruction, which binds a priests – who have made a public promise of obedience to the Church and its laws – to follow the rubrics of the Mass: “The priest must remember that he is the servant of the sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery” (1066 and onwards) – The section covers all of the sacraments and then some, so it may be wise to pick where your focus will be, but the opening paragraphs are especially useful in laying out our understanding of what liturgical prayer is and means.

Author: Father Jacob Maurer

I'm a Latin rite priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle, enjoy most things nerdy, love reading and occasionally have the wherewithal to actually write something around here.

10 thoughts on “Re-connecting to the Lord (re: incense, chant, & Latin)”

  1. Imagine for a moment that your way of worship has been stripped from you:
    That there is no more incense to carry your praise.
    No more antiphons to raise your spirits.
    No more Latin to offer you peace.
    What would that feel like deep in your soul?
    Would you feel the loss of something valuable to you?
    Would you wonder how to praise in an authentic way?

    Now imagine for a moment that you are us.
    That your hymnal has been “elevated” but gives no joy.
    That your language is gone and your tongue of praise tied.
    That your very way of worship has been stolen away and wrapped up in a package that isn’t *yours*.

    How would you feel if our places were reversed?

    If you’d lost your ability to worship as *you*?

    We here in the pews don’t want to take what’s yours—
    Not your Latin, not your incense, not even your chants—
    But we do want to be able to worship as us, and when you take that from us, where is your love?
    How can a heart so one-sided speak to us of God?

    Do not give up on the ways you personally praise—but don’t silence ours.

    Even the stones will cry out.

    1. Hello Mary, and thank you for your comment. You raise a wonderful distinction and an important consideration in how our faith looks at prayer: as private (personal) or public. The Church rarely infringes on private prayer, which an individual and groups offer in the course of their lives of faith.

      Public prayer is that prayer that is the liturgical prayer of the Church. As one person put it, a thousand Catholics praying the rosary in a stadium is private prayer while one person praying the Liturgy of the Hours or a single priest offering Mass is public prayer, even if done in private. Not the context but the form of the prayer determines whether it is private or public.

      As public prayer, the Church orders the form liturgies may take. The Mass is the pre-eminent liturgy, where we encounter Christ in the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ. It is here that we’re most especially following Christ’s teaching on how to prayer: “Do this in memory of Me”. As a result, we carefully follow what liturgical laws that have been given to us by the Church to ensure that our public prayer remains faithful to what has been given to us by Jesus and passed down by His Apostles and their successors over the centuries.

      So where does that leave us? Ultimately, it is to allow the Mass, the movement of the Holy Spirit and the Real Presence of Christ, to guide us to a closer relationship to our Heavenly Father. Rather than being conformed to individual preferences or manners, the liturgy helps us be transformed as God intends. If the Mass is alien or uncomfortable, we engage it as it is so that we can understand it and enter into it – and be changed by it.

      I’ll include these references in the main blog post, but I would refer anyone who is interested in learning about the liturgy to these sources. At all of the Masses I preached this homily, these were mentioned and included in the pastor’s notes. I’m sorry I didn’t initially include them in my post here online. They’re not especially long (20-30 pages) and do not require a theological background to read & understand. They’re both both for teaching and reflection and I highly recommend them:

      Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) – the first document of Vatican II and a defining teaching on what the liturgy means for the Church

      Musicam Sacram> (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy) – the music document commission after Vatican II to follow up on Sacrosanctum Concilium, specifically addressing how to implement its directions in the area of liturgical music

      General Instruction of the Roman Missal – this contains the directions of the ‘how’ to offer the Mass. It addresses almost every ordinary celebration of the Mass (pontifical Mass, for example, are not addressed here) and is a wonderful reference for the ‘how’ of the Mass.

      I would highlight #24 of the General Instruction, which binds a priests – who have made a public promise of obedience to the Church and its laws – to follow the rubrics of the Mass: “The priest must remember that he is the servant of the sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.”

      Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery” (1066 and onwards) – The section covers all of the sacraments and then some, so it may be wise to pick where your focus will be, but the opening paragraphs are especially useful in laying out our understanding of what liturgical prayer is and means.

      1. Just a quick question on where you’re coming from with your response. Could you outline the process that explains how our current order of Mass and public style of prayer is directly succeeded from Jesus’ words?

        To my knowledge, the “Do this in memory of me” portion of the Mass is in regards to the Eucharist, which developed into what it is today through separate channels in Catholic theology and Greek to Latin translation. As far as I know, when Jesus gave instruction on how to pray, He gave the “Our Father” (which actually favors simple prayer, even in public, over elaborate ritual), but if you’re looking for how He outlined the way(s) to praise and worship you’ll get something far more flexible than what you’ve described above.

        In Luke 19:36-40, for instance, you see Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for trying to box praise into what they considered a proper public order.

        And in John 4:23-24 Jesus discusses how we are to worship in “spirit” and in “truth.” This occurs in a situation in which someone has tried to justify to Jesus that public worship should happen in a particular area according to the particular rules and traditions set down by the religious leaders over the years. And Jesus counters this thoroughly, juxtaposing the “proper style” with the concept of “spirit and truth”, which supersedes the former even in situations of public prayer.

        Mark 7:1-14 contains a similar explication in which Jesus chides the Pharisees for putting aside God’s commandments in favor of their own traditions: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) then they are no longer allowed to use such things as aid. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition… And you do many things like that.” This seems a very similar parallel to the style of worship you are describing above, namely that because the Church, at some point over a thousand years into its journey, mandated Latin, chanting, etc. that said Latin, chanting, etc. is now devoted to God and other forms of public worship (that could have been of benefit to the church body) are no longer allowed because of the tradition that’s been handed down to you.

        I guess what I’m asking is, what process are you using to justify your order of Mass and public worship since Sacrosanctum Concilium, Musicam Sacram, and the missal you’ve mentioned are all newer to very new creations, separated from the words of Jesus by thousand(s) of years?

        And what passages from the Gospels are you using to justify the idea that the style of Mass you’re proposing “ensure[s] that our public prayer remains faithful to what has been given to us by Jesus”? Please note: you can’t use the later writings of Catholic theologians or papal bulls as explanations here because if you can’t justify the style of public prayer you’re describing with Jesus’ words, you can’t say that He passed that style down to us.

        1. Jesus established His Church and gave His authority to the Apostles – whose successors are today’s bishops. According to the authority they’ve inherited, we have the form of the Mass that we use to carry out Jesus’ instructions at the Last Supper.

          The process from then to now is laid out first in the New Testament accounts of the Apostles and then in the history of the Church after them. There’s a lot there, but it developed organically over the centuries to what we have today. We trust that the Holy Spirit has and will guide that development, basing our trust on Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His Church.

          If we believe in the authority of the Church, then we have to follow Her guidance faithfully. If we don’t believe in it, then why argue about it’s practices?

        2. Additionally, it’s very misleading that when you quote from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal you cite only half of #24, making it sound like you are “bound” to use Latin and antiphons, which obviously isn’t the case since the first half of #24 is actually about adapting the liturgy to fit the needs of your parish making the part you cite just the reminder to not adapt too far.

          I’d recommend reading #15, which is an excellent reminder of the value of “new things” and how the missal can be used to accommodate your particular parish’s needs.

          The previous #s are informative as well; they speak of the validity of the vernacular and the need for comprehension by and enthusiasm from your parishioners (see #12).

          1. #24 of the General Instruction reminds us that we are bound to follow the rubrics faithfully. It is the documents of the Church – specifically Musicam Sacram – that give binding directions on Latin & the antiphons. This is especially important to priests, who make a public promise of obedience to the authority of the Church.

            I appreciate your help in demonstrating how important it is to read the whole of documents and all of the relevant documents in concert with each other. The General Instruction references both Musicam Sacram and Sacrosanctum Concilium (among many others) to help explain the directions that it lays out.

            Look, you don’t seem to like Latin or chant. I’m sorry for that and I hope that someday that changes. If you’re interested in learning about the how or why of these things, I’m happy and eager to keep this discussion going. But that doesn’t seem to be the goal here and if it isn’t, we should part ways amicably instead of arguing.

  2. Sadly, I agree with the last part, at least — though there was a goal: the goal of getting you to listen to, hear, and care about the concerns of your parishioners. Parting ways amicably with you is a viable option, but for me (your parishioner) the only way to accomplish this is, unhappily enough, to leave St. Joseph and head north to St. Michael.

  3. I’m sorry, one last thing and then I’m signing off. Could you try reading Musicam sacram one more time? The overwhelming point of it is to inspire joyful participation — in worship, in song, in praise, in prayer — and the word antiphon is only mentioned once, buried deep inside a list of other ways to praise, pray, and sing that are just as valid and shouldn’t be neglected. The prescription of Latin is a similar thing, to be offered, where appropriate, in Masses that don’t supplant the peoples’ vernacular, especially in smaller parishes like ours where we may have only a handful of services a week and a greater need for more of the Mass to be sung, prayed, led in the vernacular tongue.

    The text of Musicam sacram, then, is not about how all parishes should follow the style of public worship you laid out above, but how the Church gives priests enough flexibility to personalize the liturgy to the needs of their parish.

    This means that we, the parishioners, wanting less antiphons and less Latin doesn’t undermine Musicam sacram, and you listening to us on that point in no way undermines your promise of obedience to the Church because the Church has already made ample opportunity for both your style of public worship and for the less antiphon-filled/less Latin style of public worship that had existed at St. Joseph and the other Lewis County parishes before your time.

    In other words, you don’t have to get rid of all the antiphons/Latin if you don’t want to — St. Joseph Parish used some Latin responses, especially during Lent and Advent, before your time and it was never a problem when done in moderation because done in moderation it added reverence and helped mark off special times in the Church year — but failing to see that Musicam sacram is ultimately about the joyful participation of all parish members is failing to see the entire point. With Mass as you have it, do you see the members of St. Joseph Parish joyfully participating?

    1. If there’s one thing I do often – and especially given the parish developments & conversations around them – it is re-read liturgical documents, and often. I am delighted to have another parishioner reading them faithfully too. I’m confident that knowing them better will continue to improve our liturgical practice and our understanding of how to enter into the prayer of the Church.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *