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The Secret Of Latin Mass (And Divine Liturgy)

Why ancient Christian forms of prayer speak so powerfully to the modern soul
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Here's a clip making the rounds of Catholic Twitter. It's the actor Shia LeBoeuf, who recently converted, or reverted, to the practice of Catholicism. In this interview with Bishop Robert Barron, LeBoeuf talks about why he fell in love with the Latin mass. He says, "Latin mass affects me deeply. Deeply." Bishop Barron asks why. LeBoeuf says, "Because it feels like they're not selling me a car." Watch:


I was never a Latin massgoer in my thirteen years as a Catholic. Though I did attend a few of them, and though I was ideologically predisposed towards the Latin mass, it never made my heart sing. I have always supported the Latin mass's availability, because my gosh, why would you not? I cannot understand at all why Pope Francis is so bound and determined to crush this venerable rite of the Catholic Church. Anyway, as a Catholic, I understood in my mind why it affected people so strongly, and wanted them to have access to that. But for some reason, it left me cold.

For me, it was attending my first Orthodox Divine Liturgy that made such a difference. Like the actor says later in the interview, it doesn't feel like a performance designed to coax you into belief; it rather feels like you are being let into something special. I can easily recognize that some Catholics feel that way legitimately about the Latin mass (and not the contemporary Novus Ordo mass) because after sixteen years as an Orthodox Christian, I feel the same way about the Divine Liturgy. When I began attending the Divine Liturgy, I realized soon that this feeling of liturgical beauty and spiritual transcendence is what I thought I was going to get when, in my twenties, I converted to Catholicism.

It is something profoundly -- profoundly -- unlike common worship in the modern world. In most Orthodox churches, the Divine Liturgy is said in the local language. You can sometimes find it in Greek or a Slavic language in the US, because those congregations serve immigrant communities, but mostly the Liturgy is in English. But the translations, in my experience, are quite good, and not "flat," as the modern Catholic Novus Ordo mass is. At the first few Liturgies, I had scarcely any idea what was going on. It generally follows the traditional liturgical pattern of the ancient churches: liturgy of the Word, and then the Eucharist. But it's different enough from the Western model to confuse one.

That's fine. It's a strength, actually. The Divine Liturgy has been in its current form for many centuries. It is called "The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom" because it was refined and defined in Constantinople under Chrysostom's patriarchal leadership in the early fifth century. This is a thing of great antiquity. You don't mess with it. It doesn't try to conform itself to you, but calls you out of yourself, calls you to mold yourself around it -- and to therefore allow it to mold you. Why is this a strength? Because we live in a world in which everybody is trying to sell you something, everybody -- including far too many churches -- are trying to make it super-easy for you to sign the contract, so they can make the sale. The Liturgy says: This Christian life is hard, but it is beautiful, and it is a pearl of great price. If you give yourself over to Christ as this community has worshipped him for well over one thousand years, you will go to places you could scarcely have imagined. Join us -- leave yourself, and be raised up to heaven.

Seriously, it does. It's not easy to get used to the Divine Liturgy, but once you "get it," you wonder how anybody could worship in any other way, if this is what Christian worship is. The prayers, the chants, the prostrations, the incense, the candles -- they all work together to bring the soul closer to God's presence. The Liturgy is a thing out of this world. I want to invite everyone I know to come and see for themselves what it's like. Be careful, though: once seen, you can't unsee it, and for many people it will be difficult to go back to their modern worship elsewhere.


Here, in Romanian, an Orthodox bishop chants the epiclesis, the part of the liturgy in which the priest calls down the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and the wine. In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, these are the words the priest prays here:

Again we offer unto Thee this reasonable and bloodless worship, and we ask Thee, and pray Thee, and supplicate Thee: Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered.

And make this bread the precious Body of Thy Christ. (Amen)

And that which is in this cup, the precious Blood of Thy Christ. (Amen)

Making the change by the Holy Spirit. (Amen, Amen, Amen )

That these gifts may be to those who partake for the purification of soul, for remission of sins, for the communion of the Holy Spirit, for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven; for boldness towards Thee, and not for judgment or condemnation.

Here is the Romanian bishop praying these words in his own language:

This is what happens in every Orthodox Church every Sunday. Again, this Romanian bishop has an extraordinarily beautiful voice, and you don't hear that in all churches. But this gives you a real sense of the holiness present in Orthodox worship.

Here is a well-known performance, in Aramaic, of Psalm 53, offered as a gift to Pope Francis when he visited Georgia a few years back. This is not a liturgical moment, but this is the authentic sound of the Eastern Church. What a gift to the universal Church! Know that this choir is made of up Syrian and Iraqi Christians who are war refugees.

Liturgy matters! How we pray matters! God accepts all sincere prayer, but liturgy (meaning: work) is the offering we give to the All-Holy. It must be beautiful. Through it, the Most High not only transforms the bread and the wine, but transforms us.