In what most Catholics agree is a time of turbulence in the Church, some are finding an anchor in the traditional Latin Mass.
But this is no wave of nostalgia. Although gray-haired grandparents are bound to be found in any traditional Latin Mass congregation, it’s more likely that most worshippers will be middle-aged and young people, including converts, with no previous experience of Mass in Latin. Those seeking out the extraordinary form of the Mass — whether in a parish that offers it exclusively or one that also offers the Novus Ordo Mass — are doing so because, in a time of turmoil marked by mixed messages from Rome and the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, they say it is a constant that better reflects and reinforces the faith they believe.
Prayer and Belief
“‘Lex orandi, lex credendi — the way we worship is the way we believe,’” said Joan Tussing, who converted to the Catholic faith in 1995. “This speaks so clearly about why I prefer and believe in the importance of the traditional Latin Mass.”
Tussing was first exposed to the traditional Mass about eight years ago through a priest in Cleveland, Ohio, who is a family friend. More recently, after doing some reading of Church history as part of her concerns about the synod on the family and the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, she decided to seek out a traditional Mass at a parish in Florida, where she spends the winter.
Tussing said she converted to Catholicism because she was drawn to the truth of the faith and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and that the Latin Mass better connects and unifies her with the fullness of that truth.
Although she does not attend the Latin Mass exclusively, she said when she does, she experiences more fully the embodiment of what Christ instituted at the Last Supper and his offering of himself for the salvation of sins. “It’s not about what we’re doing,” she said. “It’s about what he’s doing for us.”
For many, finding a place where the traditional Mass is celebrated is about more than the rite itself.
Peter Kwasniewski is a scholar and writer whose publications include three books on traditional Catholicism. He told the Register that vestments, ceremonies and music certainly are important in a religion that appeals to the senses and the imagination.
“But no less appealing is the near-guarantee that the homily is going to be no-nonsense Catholic doctrine, served up neat. And since we are social animals, we need to find other serious Catholics, people who are striving to know, live and pass on the teachings of the Church.”
Father John Zuhlsdorf, who writes about liturgy and other topics on “Father Z’s Blog,” said Catholics who are seeking out the traditional Latin Mass are not fleeing to it, but discovering it and making a positive choice.
“They have heard about it and are trying it,” he said. “Once they adjust to the newness of it, to the quite different tone and focus, they begin more and more to resonate with it because it conveys and shapes our Catholic identity. … Yes, that can also serve as a refuge in crisis, but the more they attend to it, the more they benefit from it on every level of their vocations, whatever vocations they are called to live.”
Still, some Catholics clearly are going to the traditional Latin Mass, at least initially, as “a refuge in crisis.”
For Stephen Joseph, it was a sexual scandal involving a priest at his former parish that, he said, pushed him over the edge and into a parish run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which celebrates Mass in the extraordinary form. Before that, he said, he had been going to a traditional Latin Mass once a month and had noticed that, unlike the Novus Ordo Mass in his parish, it never changed. “In a sea of confusion, there was this stability … and I had this overwhelming sense of peace.”
Stability Amid Turmoil
Although the latest clergy abuse scandal has been upsetting to him, Joseph said he hasn’t reacted to it as he might have had he not had the benefit of regular attendance at a traditional Latin Mass. “I have 2,000 years of tradition, and I have this Mass that is so focused on Christ. Before, I realized I was too focused on the priest and bishops and pope. Now, I’m focused on Christ.”
He added, “I’m a regular guy, very much out in the world. … I’m not the quintessential ‘traddy,’ but I think what is happening is that more and more people are coming [to the traditional Mass] so it’s changing that stereotypical ‘traddy’ mindset.”
Joseph said he has observed more new faces at his parish of late and has made it a point to try to speak with the newcomers. Recently, he said, he approached a young couple with two children and learned they had come from another parish. They told him they were there because they wanted a reverent Mass, but also because the clergy abuse scandal had shaken them and they realized they needed to take the faith more seriously.
He said he heard a similar story from a friend who had always been satisfied with the Novus Ordo Mass, but has begun going occasionally to a traditional Latin Mass because she said the abuse scandal has awakened in her the importance of the liturgy in preserving the faith. She now is seriously considering making a bigger commitment by attending a traditional Mass regularly.
“I think it’s the uncertainty that everything seems to be shifting and the [traditional] Mass itself is stable,” Joseph said. “It doesn’t change.”
Father Zuhlsdorf said he thinks there is a reciprocal relationship between what Catholics believe and how they worship God liturgically.
“If you don’t find anything serious in worship, you will yourself become less serious by participating in it. We are our rites. Change the Church’s worship and you change Catholic identity. Adapt it to the world’s ways and the people who participate in it will adapt to the world’s way.”
Michael Price is a 23-year-old former atheist who is taking a Catholic catechism class. He described himself as on the verge of converting and believes the traditional Latin Mass has been helping him in his conversion process.
“It would be slow going otherwise,” he said, adding that the “atmosphere” he experienced at the Novus Ordo Masses has led him to want to leave. He said, “I don’t get that at all with the Latin Mass.”
For Price, there’s something straightforward about the extraordinary form of the Mass.
Price thinks the traditional Latin Mass “really embodies the dogma and teaching of the Catholic Church better than the Novus Ordo does. A reason for that could be that that is the way the Mass has been for over 1,000 years. Being entrenched in that one manner of prayer and sacrifice really enabled that ritual, that Mass, to embody the dogma more effectively than the Novus Ordo, which was more recently instituted.”
Father John Berg is the pastor of St. Mary’s on Broadway in Providence, Rhode Island, and immediate past superior general of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. He said the traditional Mass has a value that catechesis doesn’t provide.
“Liturgy is more formative, and the way you worship is going to affect the way you believe and live,” he said.
For Evan Cornell, who converted to the Catholic faith in 2011 and worships at St. Mary’s on Broadway, the traditional Mass is one element in the life of a parish that has pushed him and his wife, Amanda, a cradle Catholic, out of their spiritual comfort zones, challenging them to grow in virtue and perfection.
But he said, “I absolutely find great solace in the extraordinary form in these days of turmoil within the Church.” The posture of the priest, who celebrates the Mass ad orientem (to the east), facing in the same direction as the congregation, is significant to him because it visually helps remove the focus from the person of the priest and places it on the altar, to Christ, the true High Priest.
“The whole orientation,” Father Berg added, “focuses upon the offering of the sacrifice to God, rather than on the community, as in the new rite.” Also, in the extraordinary form, he said, Catholics are reminded constantly of their kneeling before God and the humility they ought to have in offering sacrifice. “If that relationship with God is understood, we believe that relationship defines all your other relationships.”
By the Numbers
Kwasniewski said the creation of new traditional Mass apostolates, anecdotal evidence and statistics — 20 places in the U.S. in 1988 offered the traditional Mass on Sundays, compared to more than 500 now — point to a steadily growing base of faithful who are attending Masses in the extraordinary form.
“Regardless of external circumstances, the movement will continue to grow because it has an immense internal strength,” he said. “Priests who learn the old rite say that it changes their lives. When laity discover it, they become uneasy with modernized alternatives and are drawn to seek out a fuller expression of their religion.”
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.