The Franciscans, or Order of Friars Minor, were founded to be itinerate beggars, preaching the Gospel by their holy poverty and overflowing charity. As mendicants, they owned no property and belonged to no particular diocese. Many localized liturgies existed at that time in Europe, special to one city or region. This presented some difficulties. How could a Franciscan priest know the worship peculiarities of each city he passed through? The Franciscan movement had already spread as far as the Middle East even within the lifetime of St. Francis, where completely distinct ritual churches abounded. A need arose early on to determine by which rite the priests of the Order would celebrate Mass and the Sacraments.
At the time, use of the Roman rite, known to us now as the traditional Latin Mass, was uncommon outside of the Roman curia. For this reason, it was sometimes called the ‘curial rite.’ Outside of Rome, Charlemagne had implemented it as the common liturgy of the Frankish realm hundreds of years earlier, and it had given birth to many daughter rites and local liturgical uses as the centuries drew on. This liturgy would be chosen for the Franciscans to carry with them wherever they travelled. It was ideal both because of its simplicity and unparalleled antiquity. But, moreover, in an age when the local cathedral presented the standard of liturgical correctness within its jurisdiction, the Franciscans would encounter no patriarch or primate of greater authority than the Holy Father, whose See held universal jurisdiction everywhere in the world.
Even though the native Christian rites in the Holy Land would have been Melkite, Byzantine or some other eastern ritual, most of the holy sites were entrusted to the care of the Franciscans, whose liturgy was Roman. Thus, most of the shrines in the Holy Land were constructed for the traditional Latin Mass even before much of western Europe had readopted it (per the Council of Trent). We were fortunate to be able to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass in the complex surrounding the Basilica of the Nativity on two different days during our stay in Bethlehem. The sacristans were very accommodating, considering we had no appointment. Even a bit teary-eyed, “Like the old times,” said the elderly sacristan as he watched Fr. Slaton vest in the traditional manner concluding with his biretta.
They gave us prime chapels too. The first evening, we were allotted the crusader chapel of St. Helena, walls covered in medieval murals. The second evening, we were given the Chapel of St. Jerome. For small groups, these are highly prized.
St. Jerome is buried under a small side altar just outside the chapel which bears his name. The chapel is part of an ancient set of catacombs beneath the basilica, which lead to one of the entrances to the manger where Christ was born. St. Jerome composed his late-fourth century Vulgate translation of the Bible in the chapel that now bears his name, a stone’s throw from the spot of Our Savior’s birth, which he would often visit for inspiration in his holy opus. The Vulgate has been the official Latin translation of the Bible used by the Catholic Church for over fifteen hundred years. It is the same Latin as you find in your hand-missal today for the traditional Latin Mass. And there we were, listening to Jerome’s translation in the very room in which he had composed it!