The Endowment and the Traditional Latin Mass: Beauty, Holiness, and Structure

Due to some things I’m involved in, I recently attended a Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). For the uninitiated, after Vatican II the Catholic Mass was changed to be more user-friendly. It was conducted in the vernacular instead of Latin and was shortened. While in the past the priest traditionally faced towards the East as he was blessing the Eucharist, facing towards God and the coming of Christ, gradually it became more standard for priests to face the congregation. 

While some assumed that the Latin Mass would naturally wither away, it soon became clear that some Catholics preferred the Latin Mass, willing to trade accessibility for what they saw as more beauty, tradition, and reverence. At one point even non-Catholics got into the act, with celebrities such as Agatha Christie and Cecil Day Lewis signing a petition to Pope Paul VI to continue to allow the TLM in Britain, arguing that to ban it would be akin to destroying a beautiful cathedral that belongs to the cultural heritage of religious and non-religious alike. Eventually various Popes allowed them to continue practicing the TLM (although Pope Francis has recently imposed restrictions and rumor has it that he is aiming to ban it entirely, so there has been a bit of a kerfuffle in the media around the practice recently). The contrast between the TLM and the standard Mass became especially pointed when the electric guitars came out and some parishes started trying to be more hip. However, in today’s world where everybody is trying to be hip, it is paradoxically the appeal to tradition and sanctity that is becoming more punk rock in its own way, and by all accounts TLM parishes are drawing a much younger crowd.  

Sitting in the back of an elaborately decorated church, even though I wouldn’t have understood what he was saying anyway, I was at first disappointed when the priest was mumbling a little bit, not quite speaking loud enough for those of us in the back. However, I had had enough interactions with TLM Catholics that I could hear their response to my complaint in the back of my head: 

It doesn’t matter if you can’t hear the priest; he’s not talking to you, he’s talking to God. It’s up to you to appreciate the privilege of being able to be in the presence of the priest’s interaction with God as he consecrates the Eucharist. 

Not only in Catholicism but also in the US religious landscape in general, including in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the 20th century saw a general trend in the direction from formality to more informality in worship services, and more ritual to less. For us the analogue to the Mass reforms would undoubtedly be the simplification of the Endowment, both streamlining it and making it more user-friendly. The temple robes, the oaths, removing the Adamic/Hebrew phrases, the length, etc. 

To be absolutely clear, I am not proposing some kind of Traditional Adamic Endowment movement. I fully support the Church’s decision to streamline the Endowment, and I see why they did it. (Although I will admit to being a little disappointed when the option of the live Endowment was done away with). For one, we recognize the right of the President to reveal new doctrine, for Catholics the ability of the Pope to promulgate a new practice is much more fuzzy, so in a way comparing Mass changes with the Endowment changes is apples and oranges. 

Rather, in the spirit of the TLM Catholics, at a very high level, I am pushing back against the idea that simpler and supposedly more appealing to the participants is necessarily always better. There have been changes made to the Endowment in the past, and I assume there will be changes made in the future, but there are tradeoffs when we move in the direction of more simplicity and user-friendliness, it isn’t all upside and no downside. For example, we would lose a lot of the beauty and power of the Endowment if it was, say, ten minutes long, done in simple Sunday clothes in your local relief society room set apart for the purpose. I like the robes, I like the altars, I like the veil and taking the decor of the celestial room seriously as a true-to-life representation of the presence of God. While it would be infeasible to do this at scale with crowded Endowment rooms, taking my covenants while kneeling at an actual altar has a more intentional vibe about it, and I am glad that there is still some of that over-the-altar-based covenant making in posthumous sealings. 

While I doubt anybody will be clamoring for wrist-length garments in the hot sun again, I even like garments (there, I said it). When Ben Kingsley was cast for the role of a Maori character in the movie Ender’s Game, he wrote about how thrilling it was to be wearing the traditional Maori facial tattoo in character and carrying the powerful genealogical and cultural symbolism around with him moment to moment. I kind of feel the same way about garments as an empowering priesthood apparel that I constantly carry with me, and as a marker of my own membership in God’s peculiar chosen people. Again, while I would be obedient to whatever decisions were made on this point, if we were to do away with the garment outside of the temple, which I believe was on the table at one point if I’m recalling my history correctly, I think we would lose something.  

Of course, not all changes were made for the purposes of simplification and efficiency; while it might be fun to take an oath of vengeance again, I am glad that the ceremony has become more egalitarian.

This TLM perspective also has implications for our sacrament meetings. A common complaint is that sacrament meetings are too boring. In a sense this is not a complaint that we can lay at the feet of high Church leadership since sacrament meeting sermons are handled very locally, and there’s a lot more to say about this, but still, it’s a point well taken, and I appreciate attempts to make sacrament meeting more appealing.

Even so, they will simply never be as entertaining as prestige television or a good comedian. If entertainment is the point we will never win, or even come close to competing with the alternatives available today, so for sacrament meeting to be worth our time we need to lean more heavily into its spiritual component. We are privileged to be in the presence of the blessing and partaking of the Lord’s supper. You can accept that or not, but if you don’t it will be your loss. Again, this is not an excuse for rambling talks, rather to point out the point of it all even if the talks happen to be rambling.  

9 comments for “The Endowment and the Traditional Latin Mass: Beauty, Holiness, and Structure

  1. Traditions for just tradition sake is fine IF they are not worshipped or sold as the one true way. Evidently it was just a tradition to have an ordained priest or higher to witness a baptism. Now the responsibility to making sure it is done correctly can be an 8 year old girl that 99% of the time was not told what she is supposed to do as a witness. To be honest, most of the men before her were not really told either…Maybe some here might think God or Jesus told someone to change that. (8 year old’s to witness) I would disagree.

    I like the idea of hearing Mass in the traditional Latin language. What if the endowment was in a language I did not know? I would get maybe zero out of it. So then I ask, what is the point if those attending Mass have no clue what is being said? Tradition? That would be like reading the BoM in a language you dont know. Not sure what anyone would get out of it that does not know the language.

    If we are there to just “witness” the priest perform the ordinance then I am all for going home right after that is done! Having attended several Mass’s, I am grateful I can hear it in English and participate in it.

    How much “worship” is really going on in lds sacrament meetings? Do we even know how to worship? Go to a Christmas Mass and see how that feels. Temple worship I get, sacrament meetings, not so much. My bar is set low for sacrament meeting so I am rarely bored or disappointed. That goes even if I am the speaker. (especially then) I like the fact that an 11 year old can get up there in front of all those people and rip through a talk her mom wrote so she can sit down fast as possible!! Great experience for all of us. I also confess that I would love some professional singing/music and a professional “preacher” to enjoy as well. Music and the Spoken Word would be my idea sacrament meeting. Mingled with an 11 year old speaker or two.

  2. Thanks Jonathan; and great post!

    @ REC911 I agree that you lose something when you can’t understand it. I see why the non-TLM is standard, and don’t think it will ever be replaced completely.

  3. Seems to me that the change in the Mass was much more profound than any of the changes to the endowment. As you point out, parishioners were not expected to understand the Latin mass. It was not intended to teach or remind them of anything. By translating it into the vernacular it picked up a new purpose (without losing its previous purposes).

    The endowment was always meant to teach and remind, and some of the recent changes made it more effective in doing so. Others removed some of its 19th century baggage. I don’t see trade-offs with those. But I agree with you that some of the changes that made the endowment easier to participate in or administer had a cost. I love the ritual aspect of the endowment and miss some of the things that were removed. And I’ll always be glad my own endowment was live, because I think I learned more that way.

    As for sacrament meeting, it comes back to purpose. If the primary purpose of the talks was to edify the congregation, we could handle it like Sunday School: call a few of the best speakers in the ward and have them take turns giving all the talks. That we don’t do that tells me the Lord thinks it’s important that everyone have the experience of giving a talk–of preaching the gospel–on a semi-regular basis. We all need a chance to think hard about a gospel topic, seek the guidance of the Spirit, and then “speak scripture”: the will, mind, word, and voice of the Lord (D&C 68:4).

    If that means the talks are sometimes lacking, we can appreciate the privilege of being in the presence of someone’s growth experience (at least their talk is almost always in a language we can understand). And we can always learn from it, if only because the Spirit can build on what they say to give us the insights we personally need. If I don’t get anything out of a talk, I know that’s a me problem.

  4. Very good post. Personally, I miss the full video endowment presentation of not too long ago. I get that using still frames is more conducive to a presentation in multiple languages, but for me it’s much less engaging. I also miss the personal effective of having the ordinance workers give each token rather than just display the tokens quickly in the video.

  5. RLD,

    I wish the final paragraph of your comment could be declared by the seven thunders.

  6. “What if the endowment was in a language I did not know? I would get maybe zero out of it.”

    And yet, there would be things to get from that experience. Just as going to a ward elsewhere where you don’t speak the language can be an interesting and/or powerful experience. Your focus changes, and in a way it may not be used to.

  7. I know I’m in a minority, but there’s a part of me that misses the old ways, but perhaps I’m harkening back to the “old days” of Nauvoo and Ensign Peak rather than the standardization that came after it, although I fully acknowledge the need for the standardization.

    To me, as I’ve grown older, the rite of passage that the Initiatory specifically is still feels like a missed opportunity to me. I didn’t grow up with brothers, but the idea of having a group of men, that knew me, that knew my life, who knew the ordinances, and were initiating me, under the authority and keys necessary, into the Order of Melchizedek, would have been far more powerful. To have been prepared for that by those same men, and then brought into it, by those same men, would have made it more meaningful, it would have added symbolism to the nakedness of the garden, that I didn’t grasp for years to come. It may have felt to me, much more like a true “coming of age” and weight of responsibility to myself, my God, and my community, then having it done by strangers, no matter how kind or helpful they were.

  8. Thanks for writing this. I have followed Catholic news closely for many years, and I never really appreciated the desire for the TLM until the recent changes in the Endowment. Now I know how my traditional Catholic friends are feeling. I too can understand why some of the changes to the Endowment might be desirable, but it has become an almost completely passive experience, rather than being interactive. I imagine John A. Widtsoe would be very disappointed that the perfect model of pedagogy has been tinkered with so.*

    I miss the old initiatory and endowment presentation very much. I would definitely be in favor of a “traditional” option, although I understand others would prefer the current version.

    *”The wonderful pedagogy of the temple service, especially appealing to me as a professional teacher, carries with it evidence of the truth of temple work. We go to the temple to be informed and directed, to be built up and to be blessed. How is all this accomplished? First by the spoken word, through lectures and conversations, just as we do in the class room, except with more elaborate care, then by the appeal to the eye by representations by living, moving beings; and by pictorial representations in the wonderfully decorated rooms (as any one may see in Dr. Talmage’s book.) Meanwhile the recipients themselves, the candidates for blessings, engage actively in the temple service as they move from room to room, with the progress of the course of instruction. Altogether our temple worship follows a most excellent pedagogical system. I wish instruction were given so well in every school throughout the land, for we would then teach with more effect than we now do.”

    –John A. Widtsoe, “Temple Worship,” The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Vol. XII, 1921, 49, at p. 59.

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