The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Latin Hymn

I didn't expect to be moved today at mass. I went to St. Michael's in Worthington, mostly because at 12:30, it was the last morning mass in town. Besides, it is right up the road (there are some after-dinner masses, but I didn't want to put it off until then). I dressed in long pants and a double shirt, since the last time I was there I almost died from the air conditioning. I was in a "practical" mode.

The service was alright. Lots of families, people coming in late, parents taking kids to the bathroom. Its a wealthy parish, and the church building is very cathedral-like. The sermon was hard to hear and ramble-y, but the priest talked about Augustine's Divine Providence and some snippets from the life of St Therese of Lisieux. I am always pleased when people are exposed to the tradition of saints and theologians, so he gets points for that. [This was the associate pastor Fr. Coleman. The pastor is Fr. Pendolphi, who is some kind of fanatic when it comes to military board games, which doesn't relate to this post at all but I just read it this morning, so how could I not include that?]

Communion started with a so-so rendition of a folksy tune. The song ended, but people were still streaming in for communion. For a moment, it sounded like the organist didn't know what to do next. Within a couple bars, they dropped to something minor-ish and began this song in Latin (or maybe Italian?). It absolutely floored me. I have no idea what song it was, but if you think Ave Maria you would have the right idea. The singer was a woman who was expertly navigating the high registers in this chant-like melody--not so much technical precision as to be showy, but just enough to sculpt a piece of beauty to match the shiny marble fixtures. Walking up to communion with the music echoing off the bright marble I was immersed in beauty and in something more. You could have peeled me off the floor.

I've never been a proponent of the Latin mass. It never made sense to have a service in an unfamiliar language, beautiful and historic though it may be (you may find it astonishing that there remains a strong movement with the Catholic Church to re-instate the Tridentine Latin mass). I've never even attended a Latin mass, and have only heard a few hymns in Latin at all ever. Despite all the talk, its not much of a part of modern Catholic culture.

But somewhere in this communion procession, I heard the voice of the ages saying something. It wasn't just beautiful, and it wasn't just spiritual. It was as if this church--this marble--this architecture--this mass--were built with this in mind. And that's something to consider. It was like the whole building was singing in tune and the resonance--both audible and spiritual--was deeper.

I agree with Pope Benedict that we should dip our toes in the Latin tradition--not to go into the past, but to carry some of it forward. Whether or not he supports a full return to the Latin mass, I don't know, but I can't argue with the idea that we should have some feel for it.


  1. YES!!!!!

    Frank, this is the experience I had when I wandered into the Duomo in the middle of a mass (Florence, Italy). I think they were speaking Latin, but my friend Holly insists it was Italian. I guess it could have been Italian, for this language has its roots in Latin. But whatever, it was, it was BEAUTIFUL. I totally and completely moved something inside me that had been dead all these years. I felt connected with my history, with the history of the world, in some sort of very weird way. I cant even describe to me what happened...

    Here I was in this very old building built with all the love of people who loved their faith. It was very ornate and gargantuan and just beautiful. And the great hall was dimly lit with candles. And here was this priest, chanting in a tongue that sounded ancient. Goosebumps rose onto my arms. I really felt drawn in, connected.

    I look back at that moment as when my spirituality woke back up. It's what led me back in a spiritual quest when I came back to the states. Italy with all its huge buildings built in praise of a god they believed so strongly in (some of the old churches, however, were former places of worship to pagans, but I have a whole theory about how there are power places on the planet and people are naturally drawn to them and that's why they erect their places of worship... but that's for another time).

    The Vatican's treasures stirred me as well. WAlking in St. Peter's Cathedral... I dont know. Something ancient brought me back. I guess, in a way, I've been trying to find that feeling again... There was something there for me and I felt it after that time in the Duomo in just about every church we walked into after.

    But my mind always wonders back to that moment in the Duomo when I walked in, slightly embarrassed cuz I hadnt realized I'd been in line for a mass, and feeling out of place about what to do. Yet, the candles and that priest's voice echoing off the walls in a language I didnt understand... It was breath-taking... Magical. God called me back. I think.

  2. Mars Girl,

    I'm glad you experienced what I did--I wasn't sure my explanation came across in the post.

    People have told me that there is something magical about the Latin language (such as my college friend James, who was not a Catholic). I took their word for it, but didn't know what to do with that information--but I have to say they may be onto something.

    Stay tuned, I have a follow-up to this post coming...

  3. Have you even been to church with Diane? I would imagine her Byzantine Catholic Church might still have parts of the mass in Slovak and they have some major atmosphere going on in some of those churches.

  4. I enjoy reciting Latin chants in Taize services, but where I have done this the translation is provided in the program so I know what I'm saying even if it isn't English. Still, there is something cool about singing "Dona Nobis Pacem" over and over again.

  5. Frank,

    Actually, the only service at Diane's church that I've attended was her wedding. But I did find that service very interesting and it made me want to attend again some time, we just havent managed to sync that up yet (our business schedules).

    It was really cool--very theatrical with priests and other people going in and out of doors on the alter. (I know I am saying that all wrong, I cant remember what they call those people who help with service who arent priests. And I forget what they call that thing that covers the alter area.)

    Everything was chanted, which was way, way cool.