Brief Introduction to the TLM, Active Participation and Silence in the Mass

In 2007, Pope Benedict gave a great gift to us when he issued Summorum Pontificum and greatly expanded the availability of the Traditional Latin Mass. 

This Mass had been formalized by Pope Saint Pius V in the 1500s, but its essential prayers and structure date, some scholars believe, as far back as the second century! 

This then was the Mass for most Roman Catholics ever to be born. It was the Mass for learned kings and illiterate peasants alike, and helped form so many of our great saints. 

So while the traditional Mass might be new for us, it nourished Catholics for centuries, including during some of history’s most horrific persecutions. And it converted people around the world!

In Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict definitively ruled that not only had the Traditional Mass not been abrogated when the Novus Ordo came into force in 1970, he explained that this Mass, which was sacred for those earlier generations, remains great and sacred for us today.

Benedict established as a matter of Church law that our Latin Rite has two Forms. The first is the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo), which is celebrated according to the Roman Missal which was last updated in 2010. The Ordinary Form may be celebrated in either Latin or a vernacular language like English or Spanish.   

The second is the Extraordinary Form (Traditional Latin Mass), which is celebrated using the 1962 edition of the Missale Romanum. This is the Missal that was in force before changes were begun to be made after Vatican II.  This Mass is only celebrated in Latin.

The Extraordinary Form is our liturgical patrimony, and Catholics who have begun to attend this Mass, even occasionally, are often struck at how rich and beautiful the prayers are.  

Moreover, it is not an uncommon experience for these people to note how participating at Mass in the Extraordinary Form has helped their participation at the Ordinary Form of the Mass.

All of this said, the rhythm, language and gestures of the Extraordinary Form take a little time to get accustomed to. And this website can help you do just that.

The most important difference for you in the Extraordinary Form is that you are unburdened from having to do anything in particular. What this means is that you are free to pray and worship God in different ways at the Extraordinary Form Mass.

In the Ordinary Form, the rubrics of the Mass have specific instructions for what the people are supposed to say and do, and when they are supposed to say and do them.

In the Extraordinary Form, however, the deacon, subdeacon, altar boys, and/or schola make all of the responses on behalf of the congregation. In fact, there are no rubrics for the people at all.

This is a great gift of freedom for us!  Our heart, eyes, ears, and mind are able to give honor and glory to God in different ways, including just silently watching and listening to the mystery that is taking place in the sanctuary, meditating on Christ’s life and sacrifice, imploring God’s mercy, giving thanks for His blessings, and of course using missals or handouts like this one to pray the words of the Mass along with the priest and servers silently to ourselves.

Active Participation in the Mass

This freedom can be uncomfortable for those of us who have only ever experienced an Ordinary Form Mass. We worry that we aren’t actively participating in Mass if we aren’t doing something out loud such as making responses.

But our active participation at this Mass is an interior participation.  

Here is how Pope Saint Pius X described how the laity can best participate in the Mass:

The Holy Mass is a prayer itself, even the highest prayer that exists. It is the Sacrifice, dedicated by our Redeemer at the Cross, and repeated every day on the altar. If you wish to hear Mass as it should be heard, you must follow with eye, heart and mouth all that happens at the altar. 

Further, you must pray with the priest the holy words said by him in the Name of Christ and which Christ says by him. You have to associate your heart with the holy feelings which are contained in these words and in this manner you ought to follow all that happens at the altar. When acting in this way, you have prayed Holy Mass.

The interior participation recommended to us here by this great Saint has been echoed many times by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, because it is the essence of what it means to worship God at Mass in either Form of the Mass.

Before he become pope, Benedict in a 1985 interview lamented: 

“[Some have lost] sight of what is distinctive to the liturgy, which does not come from what we do but from the fact that something is taking place here that all of us together cannot ‘make’.”

But because we have grown accustomed to associating participation with us doing something, this type of interior participation can seem hard and at first. For some people it may almost seem to them like they “haven’t been to Mass.” 

In other words, we have become accustomed to thinking that if we aren’t saying something audibly or physically doing something that we aren’t really participating. 

That’s an understandable misconception and a common source of confusion or even frustration for those discovering the Extraordinary Form for the first time.  

It is this interior participation that we are referring to when we say you are unburdened. 

Understanding interior participation in this way may also help you better actively participate in the Ordinary Form too! 

Silence in the Traditional Mass Forms Our Hearts

One of the things that most Catholics discovering the Extraordinary Form for the first time immediately notice is the amount of silence in the Mass compared to the Ordinary Form. 

During these silent periods, it is a common experience for many of us who have spent a lifetime in the Ordinary Form of the Mass to be unsure of what to do.

But over time as the Traditional Mass becomes more familiar, these times of silence help form the core of an active and deep interior participation in the Mass. And more than that, the extended silences often become one of the features that people cherish the most.

Pope Benedict in his years of service to the Church as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger often wrote on the liturgy as a theologian, including this insight on silence:

If we do not understand the place of silence, we run the risk of by-passing the Word of God also…. If there is no silence by which to enter into their depth, the words themselves become incomprehensible. And the liturgy, the presence of the great mystery of God, must therefore be also the place where we have opportunity to enter into the depths of our souls.

Or put another way by Pope Francis, silence in the liturgy “is not confined to the absence of words but rather to preparing oneself to listen to other voices: the one in our heart and, above all, the voice of the Holy Spirit.”

In his book The Power of Silence, Cardinal Robert Sarah writes: “It seems to me that silence veils the mysteries, not to hide them, but to reveal them.” 

He also notes:

A treasure must be placed out of reach; what is precious always remains veiled…. In the liturgy, the chalice is veiled; the ciborium and the tabernacle are covered with a veil when they contain the Real Presence. Silence is an acoustic veil that protects the mystery. Do we not automatically lower our voice to say the most important things, words of love? In [the Traditional Latin Mass], the very mysterious words of the Canon and of the consecration, pronounced in a low voice [are] draped in a veil of silence.

This silence allows us to enter more deeply into the Mass and to contemplate the mysteries unfolding in the sanctuary. 

A Bridge to Our Past

The Latin root of pontificum (from Summorum Pontificum) means “bridge.” 

At a time of division and confusion in the world and even the Church, Pope Benedict gave us in the Extraordinary Form a bridge to help us discover what our ancestors considered as something “great and sacred.” 

We hope that this website will help you discover the Church’s richly beautiful liturgical patrimony, and assist you on your journey to eternity. May God bless you!