In 1963 I attended the first Mass celebrated in English in the U.S. The occasion was the Catholic Church’s National Liturgical Convention held at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. I heard expressed in my own language the words of the Mass that I had known so well in Latin. The celebrant was Monsignor Martin Hellriegel, a Bavarian immigrant, and pastor of a church in St. Louis. He had been a guiding light for the liturgical movement in the U.S.
As I remember, some fourteen thousand Catholic representatives of the dioceses throughout the U.S. were present. I was a twenty-two-year-old seminarian and one of the members of the huge choir assembled for this event.
We sang English liturgical songs that had been specially composed for the event since there were no other musical compositions suited to a Mass in the vernacular.
That Mass opened the floodgates of liturgical experimentation in the United States. The Latin Mass began to recede in popularity. Plus, the celebrant’s face was no longer turned away from the congregation. The priest faced us and spoke in words we understood. It was in our own language and the words began to resonate with meanings that had never reached my heart before. When I was growing up, I often sat in church and prayed that the priest would say something that I could understand. In those days, the sermons were in English but they might as well have been in Latin, too.
Now, though, somehow the ritual words heard in my own language engaged my heart in a deeper experience of what I had known as a youth.
Here we are, over fifty years later, and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in the vernacular is taken for granted. Latin somehow had made the ritual of the Mass mysterious. English somehow makes the Mass more welcoming while the sacred mystery remains.