I read a comment a short while ago to the effect that someone wanted to attend a Mass in the usus antiquior
, but was afraid that she would make a fool of herself, because she wouldn't know what to do. It occurred to me that more and more people are becoming interested in the traditional liturgy, mostly because of all the information on the blogs, but, unless one happens to be in a parish where the Extraordinary Form of Mass is offered, the thought of seeking out such a Mass could be rather a daunting prospect.
So, I thought I would share some of my thoughts and experiences, and offer some friendly advice.
I do not claim any special knowledge, I'm not a cleric, nor am I a trained liturgist, and I don't have any Latin to speak of (until fairly recently, the only Latin response I knew at Mass was the Kyrie eleison... the rest of it was all Greek to me...) - I can't even claim to have been attending the usus antiquior for that long, being a relative newcomer to the traditional liturgy.
That being said, I have been lucky enough to attend a parish where the usus antiquior is offered on a regular basis, and, while I am familiar with what is going on, I also remember how I reacted when I first encountered the Old Mass.
So, remember that my own experiences may be very different from yours: that doesn't make them any more right, or wrong... and I wouldn't criticise anyone for feeling differently.
I have heard some people say that the best introduction to the Extraordinary Form of Mass is a Solemn High Mass: bells, smells, candles, torches, plainchant, the full works. Mass in all its splendour, giving the greatest and best to God in worship.
In my humble opinion, (see caveats given above) this is probably not the best way to start.
The novus ordo Mass is linear: one thing happens at a time, and events follow on one after another... and participation has come to be interpreted as "following and understanding everything that's said and done" - after all, it's now all in the vernacular for that very reason, and missals, missalettes, booklets or whatever are provided so that you can make all the responses along with everyone else.
If you're not making the responses, there's a suspicion that you're not "taking part" - a key example of this is the sign of peace: this is the point in the Mass where one is supposed to meet and greet as many people in the congregation as possible. Trying to remain recollected in prayer is seen as "being unfriendly." One time, I found myself being profoundly moved by the Mass, and tears were streaming down my face. I didn't want this to be noticed, however, and attempted to bow my head and not look round at the sign of peace... I thought this would be ok, as there wasn't anyone standing anywhere near me. Imagine my discomfort when someone actually walked across the church to my pew, and poked me in the arm to attract my attention and offer me the sign of peace.
At High Mass in the usus antiquior, there are lots of things happening. My very first High Mass (many years ago) was a real shock: I was there because a friend was singing in the choir, and I waited patiently for the singing to stop so that the priest could begin the Mass... I then found that Mass had actually started some time before, and we'd actually reached the Epistle...
Trying to follow what is happening is extremely confusing, because the choir will be singing Mass propers, or the parts of the Mass, while the priest is reading the texts at the altar, and the deacon and subdeacon may be moving around the sanctuary, while the servers are preparing something else... everything is following a precise pattern, everything has its proper place, but, unless you know what you're looking at, it's easy to get totally lost.
Personally, I think that the best way to become acquainted with the Extraordinary Form is by attending a Low Mass. However, it's not an easy thing to do. We have a lot of preconceptions and hang-ups which need to be overcome.
The most disconcerting thing is the silence, and the stillness. At Low Mass, the server is the only one who makes the responses. He makes them on our behalf: some people like to make the responses for themselves, but this should be done in a whisper, so as not to disturb any of the other people present. This is hard to explain: everyone present is praying, but not all in the same way. Some people like to follow the prayers of the Mass word-for-word. Some people want to meditate on a particular aspect of the Mass. Some people like to pray the Rosary (what better way to meditate on the life, death and resurrection of Our Lord?) Older prayer books have different passages to mull over... it doesn't have to be the same way for each person, and it doesn't have to be the same way every time for any one person. The beauty of this Mass is that one can unite one's prayers with the sacrifice being offered in whatever way is most effective at the time.
However, this freedom to worship in whatever way you like does take some getting used to. Modern living has made silence and stillness seem strange, and equates it with wasting time and doing nothing. In reality, this silence and stillness in the presence of God is a way of giving time to Him, a demonstration of our love for Him.
Low Mass has the fewest distractions: kneeling for the majority of the time, sitting (or kneeling if preferred) for the epistle, and standing for the Gospel readings. Of course, as Dr. Laurence Hemming pointed out to me, there are really no rubrics for the congregation, so, if one wants to go and light a candle, then that is perfectly acceptable.
The first time one attends a Low Mass, I would recommend sitting or kneeling near the back and just watching, while offering a prayer from the heart. The readings and prayers can be looked at before or after Mass. After a few times, once the general structure of the Mass is familiar, then one can start to follow the prayers in a missal, if that approach appeals.
The Missa Cantata is one step up from Low Mass: there may be more servers, and the choir (and possibly the congregation) sing various texts. In my experience, the choir sings the "propers" (the texts, such as the Introit and Alleluia, which change according to the day, the season or the feast) and the congregation sings the responses (Et cum spiritu tuo; Amen; etc.) and perhaps the parts of the Mass such as the Kyrie, the Sanctus and so on.
This is the most common form of the usus antiquior offered in a parish setting for a Sunday Mass: getting three clerics together on a Sunday for a full-on High Mass is pretty tricky. If one is familiar with Low Mass, a Missa Cantata will be pretty easy to follow. The only thing to remember is that the choir may be singing one text while the priest is getting on with the next part of the Mass. Don't let this faze you: the choir will stop singing for the most important part of the Mass (the Consecration is totally silent, which can be a spine-tingling experience) and you don't have to sing if you don't want to. There is generally more movement during a Missa Cantata, but it isn't compulsory, and if you want to remain kneeling, you can, though it is customary to stand for the Gospels. If you are unsure of what to do, look at the rest of the congregation.
Of course, everything I said about praying during Low Mass applies for a Missa Cantata (and also for a High Mass) so you can follow the prayers in a missal if you find that helpful, or opt for a different form of prayer.
Solemn High Mass has a priest, deacon, and subdeacon, as well as lots of servers. The priest will often be doing one thing while the deacon or subdeacon is doing something else, and occasionally all the clerics (and servers) will sit down while they wait for the choir to finish singing a particular part of the Mass; the congregation usually sits at this point as well...
Once again, if you are familiar with Low Mass, the basic structure of High Mass will be reasonably easy to follow.
Trying to find all the prayers in a missal can be tricky; the first collect (prayer) is easy enough if you know the calendar being used, but there can be a variety of things being celebrated. Saturday, for example, will usually be a Mass for Our Lady, but if a saint's feast occurs on that day, they may be added in as well: I think it's possible to have as many as seven collects. There are always an odd number, most commonly three.
Communion is generally given on the tongue and kneeling at the Old Mass, though I don't know of anyone who has been refused Communion because they wished to receive in the hand...
Many women prefer to cover their heads when attending a traditional liturgy. It isn't compulsory, but it may be helpful to note that there is a choice of head-covering: scarves, hats and berets are acceptable alternatives to the mantilla.
Most importantly, persevere. The Old Mass can seem very strange, and it takes a while to "tune in" to the different pace and emphasis. It is no longer about what we are doing for God, but is a glimpse of the heavenly liturgy, given to us by God, for our salvation, and in which we are privileged to participate.