In my childhood the Church arched high above everything. I was awed by its ceremonies. Years later I agreed completely with Pauline Kael when she said that the three greatest American directors of the 1970s — Scorsese, Altman and Coppola — had derived much of their artistic richness from having grown up in the pre-Vatican Two era of Latin, incense, mortal sins, indulgences, dire sufferings in hell, Gregorian chant, and so on.
The parish priest was the greatest man in the town. Our priest was Father J.W. McGinn, who was a good and kind man and not given to issuing fiery declarations from the pulpit. Of course, in Catholic grade school, I took the classes for altar boys. We learned by heart all the Latin of the Mass, and I believe I could serve Mass to this day. There was something satisfying about the sound of Latin.
Introibo ad altare Dei.
Ad Deum qui laitificat juventutem meum.
“I will go to the altar of God. The God who gives joy to my youth.” There was a “thunk” to the syllables, measured and confident, said aloud the way they looked …
You could go anywhere in the world and the Mass would sound the same, we were told, and the priests could all speak with one another in Latin. The dissolution of that practice at Vatican Two was the end of something that had survived for nearly two millennia. I loved the idea of Latin. I loved the hymns, especially Tantum Ergo, the solemn song at the Consecration of the Eucharist, which had been written by Thomas Aquinas.