Traditional Latin Mass Explained

The theology of the Catholic Faith is expressed in the rich symbolism of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, commonly known as the Traditional Latin Mass.

Orientation of the Priest and People

Traditional Latin MassEveryone—priest and people—faces East
(Mass celebrated by Cardinal Medina Estevez)

At the Traditional Mass, the priest and people face east, towards the Lord. This orientation was used at the Last Supper and by the early Christians1, and it continues to be used at the Traditional Mass.

This common direction of prayer should not be viewed as the priest having his "back to the people"; rather, this eastward orientation fully expresses the meaning of the Mass—the priest leads the faithful towards the eternal goal of the Heavenly City, and he offers the Sacrifice that is Christ, to God, facing God. For Catholic tradition sees Christ as coming from the East, the direction of the rising sun.

This orientation also makes the priests' personality fade away. He becomes a servant to the sacred act that he performs, controlled by the ancient rubrics.

Ceremonies of the Traditional Mass

Lex orandi, lex credendi: "Law of prayer is the law of belief." This ancient statement exhorts us to pray as we believe, and it explains in simple terms how to worship God.

Traditional Latin MassIncensation of the Altar
(Mass celebrated by Antonio Cardinal Canizares)

For example, in the Classical Liturgy, constant reference is made to the Holy Trinity. But in addition to the vocal part of prayer, the physical part of prayer is expressed through the common use of gestures in groups of three's: three "Domine, non sum dignus" ("Lord, I am not worthy"), three rings of the bells during the consecration, three double swings of the censor, and more. Other gestures in groups of five, such as five signs of the Cross made over the Host and Chalice, represent the five wounds of Christ.

During the Canon, the priest consecrates bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. This summit of the Mass is recited silently by the priest, as God descends upon the earth in silence. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) calls this "silence with content."2 This silence should not be viewed as "shutting the faithful out of the liturgy." On the contrary, prayer needs silence, which demonstrates respect for Christ. Popes such as St. Pius X have encouraged the faithful to actively take part by "Praying the Mass" with priest, which is accomplished through the use of a hand missal.

In Solemn Masses, incense is used, which demonstrates respect for the Holy Sacrifice of Mass. Also at Solemn Masses, three ministers are present, mirroring the Trinity: a priest, a deacon, and a sub-deacon.

Language and Catholic Identity

Latin is the maternal language of the Roman Catholic Church. Most important documents are issued in Latin. The Latin language was introduced into the Mass very early. For a brief period before that, Greek was used, and this Greek is preserved in the Kyrie.

While the Eastern Catholic Churches use their own sacred languages, for the greatest number of Catholics, Latin is the universal language of the Liturgy. Thus, the unity of prayer and faith has been preserved over all national differences for centuries.

Latin has also inspired literature and Gregorian chant, and is the language of the Second Vatican Council.

Sacred Music and Gregorian Chant

Traditional Latin MassSacred music brings the Liturgy to life

The music of the Traditional Latin Mass is timeless. It comes to us from ancient times in the form of chant and, more recently, from great composers such as Bach and Mozart.

As the Second Vatican Council said, "The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, . . . it should be given pride of place in liturgical services." This is certainly so in the Classical Mass. Gregorian chant comes to us from the Jewish traditions that existed before the time of Christ.3 Pope St. Gregory the Great cultivated the art. During medival times, chant became ever more beautiful while keeping true to its tradition.

Musical Elements of Mass

The music of Mass can be separated into two categories: propers (the parts that change) and the ordinary (the parts that don't change).

The proper music includes the Introit, Gradual, Tract or Alleluia, and Communion Verse. The text of these usually comes from the Scriptures, and are particular for each Mass.

The ordinary music includes the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The text of these pieces do not change, but the music that they are sung to can. The church has put together a collection of seventeen "Masses" that may be used for various feasts. For example, Mass IX is often used for feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and is particularly joyful. Others include Mass VIII, which is popular for Sundays, and Mass XI, which has a more monastic character.

Vestments and their Significance

The vestments worn by the priest and ministers at Mass are reminiscent of those worn by the early Christians, and each article of clothing has a particular meaning.

Traditional Latin MassVesting before Holy Mass

The amice represents the hood of humility. It is worn around the back of the shoulders, but when putting it on, the priest rests it on the top of his head and says a prayer.

The alb is put on next. It symbolizes purity. Albis in Latin means "white."

The stole—the sign of the priestly office—is worn over the shoulders. A cincture is worn. The maniple (which look slike a minature stole) is worn over the left arm and is symbolic of the weight that the priest bears in offering the Sacrifice.

Finally, the chasuble—the outer vestment—covers the priest. The color of this vestment, the stole, and maniple are reminiscent of the feast: gold or white on feast days, red for memorials of martyrs, violet on penititial days, black for funerals, rose on Gaudete and Laetare Sundays, and green for days without a particular commemoration; also blue vestments according to local custom, which is universally spreading.


  1. Monsignor Klaus Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, (Roman Catholic Books), 139.
  2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, (Ignatius Press). For excerpt, see
  3. Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, "The Mass of Vatican II,",