One of my readers has asked me to consider reflecting here on my recent celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal on April 29, which was also my first public celebration of the Mass according to this form. While the impressions are still fresh in my mind, I thought that fulfilling his request would be a worthwhile endeavor, for me at any rate, even if not for my readers.
I should point out a few things. First of all, I have celebrated, but only privately, the Mass in the extraordinary form a few times. Also, I have also celebrated publicly, indeed starting even two weeks after my ordination, the Mass in the ordinary form in Latin, ad orientem, with chant and some polyphony, etc. I cleave to the text of the Missal, try my best to conform my gestures, posture, and the like to the classic forms, make generous use of opportunities for silent prayer (especially at the Offertory), and so on. In other words, my impressions here truly are based on the public celebration of the classic form of the Mass, and not the result of other sorts of factors.
I also want to say, by way of preface, that I recognize that, musically, I had a superb and likely rarely to be repeated privilege of hearing a choir (with portative and instrumental ensemble) sing a setting of the Mass, both Ordinary and Proper, along with motets, likely heard together rarely, if ever, since the time and place of the royal courts in Bavaria and Austria in the late sixteenth century. The music was simply sublime, and I admit that my wonderfully positive and uplifting experience was, at least in part, due to the glorious music supplied by students and faculty from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Even so, I intend rather to speak more directly of my own experience of the celebration of the Mass qua celebrant, i.e. as a priest.
From the outset, when the initial jitters quieted in my stomach, I was impressed existentially by what I already grasped notionally, namely how spiritually useful the whole "fore-Mass" was, and most especially, the prayers at the foot of the altar. There was, once the servers and I began, a real spiritual calm, as well as a clear sense of the seriousness of what I was about to do when I finally approached the altar. To be sure, the vesting prayers and my own other recollections before Mass, which I would do anyway, were important, but this splendid antiphony between me and the servers, the mutual (not merely communal) confession of sins, the at once sobering and yet hopeful words of the Aufer a nobis and Oramus te, all the while not needing to worry whether I was "holding up" the celebration of the Mass, gave me a sense of purpose and intention from the start unlike I have had often before at Mass.
At the same time (this was a Missa cantata) I found real solace in the quiet recitation waiting on the choir to complete its Kyrie and Gloria. It was a kind of waiting that at one and the same time afforded my a space for private, recollected prayer and kept me attentive of my role as servant to the rite. As crucial as my role was, it was not "my" time to direct the action, but my time to wait.
I should mention here that the distinction of the whole Mass of the Catechumens as more vocal, more choral, more audible, if you well, also became experientially apparent, however I already knew it conceptually. What I, and the whole congregation, experienced from the beginning of the Introit through the conclusion of the Gospel was an extended and continuous act of praise and proclamation. To be sure, I wasn't continuously audible, but whenever someone was not singing or chanting, someone else was. I note this because the contrast with the Mass of the Faithful as more remarkable for its meaningful silences (more on that below) became, in the course of the Mass, all the more clear.
One curious note is the feeling of the homily as, not alien or foreign or even inappropriate, but at least a caesura, a Luftpause in the celebration. As any poet or musician will tell you, these are not inconsequential, and can really and truly "belong" where they are placed. Even so, they are breaks, stops, pauses, all the more obvious here ritually in my removal of the maniple, topographically in my movement away from the altar to the ambo, vocally in the shift from the singing of Latin to the speaking of English, and intentionally in the shift away from the words, movements, and gestures received from the Church to my own words, received from the prayerful encounter with the Scriptures in preparation for preaching. I at least "get" now, as I did not before, what homileticians meant in worrying over the older homily as not "liturgical". For the moment, whether this is or is not a good thing, I will withhold judgment. One thing the homily did evoke was how deeply I had entered into the sancta sanctorum I had prayed to enter in the Aufer a nobis since it was a real pulling away from one mental and spiritual place to another (as it involved a leaving not only my orientation but the space of the altar itself), even in ways that the turning at the Orate fratres or the admonition and preparation of the faithful for Communion was not (the Ecce Agnus Dei and triple Domine non sum dignus).
It is perhaps neither remarkable nor surprising, but nonetheless it is true, that I was most profoundly affected by the silent celebration of the Canon. There was an intensity, a presence, an abundance of content in that silence unlike any I have experienced before. Perhaps it was due in part to the contrast of the nearly continuous and sublime music I had heard up to and including the Sanctus. All the same, when the final Hosanna in excelsis came to an end and all that could be heard was the silence of my prayer ... It is an experience quite difficult to put into words, and all the more so were I to try to evoke what it meant to say the words of consecration without trying to communicate them meaningfully and vocally to a disparate gathering of the faithful, but to say them under the veil of silence so that they might be what they are in plain and profound simplicity ... I can only note here that it was transformative, or better, I hope it will be.
As I said above, I was also struck by the relative increase of silence in the Mass of the Faithful, the several, indeed frequent "interruptions" when nothing is heard. Even so, these were not mere pauses, nor simply my "finishing up" prayers that were too long for the music to cover. They were filled, meaningful silences, and they directed me at least, and I hope the faithful, to Communion in a way the ordinary form does not. I hesitate at this point to make a judgment here, but the experience was certainly different and notable.
One confirmation I had was this: it is infinitely more practical and at the same time more fitting, that the faithful (as they were able) receive the Eucharist on their tongues while kneeling. Mind you, I am delighted that any of the faithful, properly disposed, should come forward to receive our Lord in the Sacrament, and were the other option that they did not come forward, I would rather see them come hopping on their head than draw back in fear. All the same, from the practical point of view, having everyone's head, except the smaller children or taller men, at more or less the same place, not having to guess where or how or even whether this communicant was going to receive (hand or tongue, standing far back or up close, etc), permitted me to be more at ease in communicating them. (I note this from several years of experience helping out at the Cathedral Basilica of St Louis, where, for all of its laudable celebration of the Mass, the people coming to receive Communion can and do present themselves in a curious variety of ways!)
I should also add that, despite the relatively longer ritual surrounding both my own Communion and the ablutions, I did not feel remotely rushed. Again, the strong sense of being in the holy of holies, and the prayers which assisted me in doing so, truly kept me focused on the affairs of the altar more than simply orientation has been able (although, I would not want the best to be the enemy of the good here, and wholly endorse the goods which I also know experientially come from the celebration of the ordinary form of the Mass ad orientem). Likewise, the Placeat (which I pray at the end of Mass even in the ordinary form, but usually on my way back to the sacristy) and the Last Gospel did not feel appended, but wholesome ways to lead me away from the altar and back to the world beyond.
It should be fairly easy to see that this was a powerful and beautiful experience for me. Was every rubric observed perfectly? I doubt it. Did some of the beauty come from the music? Certainly. Was some of the power the result of the "novelty"? Perhaps. Time and experience alone will tell. What I can say for certain is that I now speak existentially what I would have before said rightly, but more notionally, namely, that there are real and great goods that come from the classic celebration of the Mass of the Roman rite, goods which priests and the faithful as a whole would do well to encounter.