What Draws Parishioners to the Traditional Latin Mass?

As someone who has attended the Traditional Latin Mass most of his life, 22-year-old Robert Keller knows well the stereotypes that paint him and his fellow devotees as rigid and stuck in the past.

Tensions over such perceptions have been stirred amid reports that the Vatican may be moving to restrict the Traditional Latin Mass after the 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum allowed it to be more widely celebrated. 

Advocates of the so-called old Mass, known today as the extraordinary form of the mass was celebrated until the New Roman Missal was promulgated in 1969 and implemented following the Second Vatican Council, say that the good fruit coming from the extraordinary liturgical practices more than justifies its continued and even more frequent use. 

For example, research done by Father Donald Kloster, a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, shows higher levels of Sunday Mass attendance, belief in Church teaching and monetary generosity among Latin Mass attendees. Other sources cite the growth of parishes where Mass in the extraordinary form is offered and of institutes dedicated to the traditional Mass. 

Additional research conducted by Father Kloster on U.S. parishes that exclusively offer the traditional Mass showed they were exploding in numbers because their priestly vocations were outpacing by more than 7 to 1 those coming from parishes offering the ordinary form, or Novus Ordo Missae (Latin for the new order of the mass). And, as Byron Smith, secretary/director of the lay group Una Voce America, told the Register, “All you have to do is go to one of these Masses and see how many young people are there.” 

The Pope’s Concerns

Still, for several years, Pope Francis has been speaking out against rigidity in Catholics in general and particularly in young people who are drawn to the Latin Mass. He also has urged Italian seminarians to avoid rigidity, which he says lacks humanity, and observed that the Pharisees and doctors of the law in the time of Christ were rigid people, adding that “always, under or behind rigidity, there are problems, grave problems.” His comments are seemingly addressed not just to those who prefer the extraordinary form of the Mass, but to those who have questioned some liturgical practices and relaxation of moral teachings spawned by the so-called spirit of the Second Vatican Council. 

Keller, who belongs to a parish in Toledo, Ohio, that offers both the extraordinary and ordinary forms of the Mass, said, “Maybe from the outside it looks like we are rigid, but these people are so in love with the faith they don’t want to compromise any of it. … They want to cling fervently not just to the Latin Mass but to the authentic teaching of the Church.” 

Indeed, he said, when as a high school student he questioned his faith, it was the people in his parish who addressed his doubts and clarified for him why he should be going to Mass. “Once I was exposed to the truth, I fell more in love with Mass and the Church. It was just ordinary laypeople well-endowed with the faith. Their lives revolve around faith and now I’m trying to do the same with mine.” 

Keller will be joining the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest in the fall to discern whether he has been called to be a priest of the institute, which celebrates the Traditional Latin Mass.

Drawn by Beauty

Sarah Copeland, a mother of seven from Phoenix, sees Pope Francis’ statement about those who go to the Latin Mass as largely a judgment of external appearances, or one based on limited experiences with those who prefer the extraordinary form.  

“I don’t think he really understands the heart of the faithful who go there and that they truly do love Jesus in the Church,” she said. 

Raised with the ordinary form of the Mass, Copeland went to her first Mass in the extraordinary form as a college student and said, “I was blown away by the beauty of the prayers. I just felt like this was the Mass that really exemplified and gave glory to God in the most beautiful sense.” 

Today, she attends a parish of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which exclusively celebrates Mass in the extraordinary form. 

“Over the years, I’ve come to realize that if you conform yourself to pray at that Mass in union with the priest, there’s more of a freedom in your spirituality,” Copeland said. “While you can follow along with the missal and say beautiful prayers with the priest, there’s also this freedom of your imagination. … You can really engage the imagination and mind and pray at the foot of the cross with Our Lady.” 

By contrast, she said she experiences the ordinary form as more rigid because she feels forced to pray at specified times, leaving her less free to contemplate the mystery of the death of Christ. 

Critics of the Traditional Latin Mass also have alleged that it tends to attract older Catholics or those motivated by a rose-colored nostalgia for Church life of the past. But in a statement issued in response to reports that the extraordinary form of the Mass will be suppressed or restricted, the International Una Voce Federation said the growth of interest in the traditional liturgy is due neither to naïve nostalgia nor scrupulous rigidity. 

“It is rather a matter of opening ourselves to the value of something that for most of us is new, and inspires hope,” offering both a “sense of adoration” and a “living history that welcomes us and pushes us forward,” the statement said. 

Although he is old enough to remember the days before the ordinary form of the Mass, Una Voce America’s Smith said he had accepted and was attending the Novus Ordo Mass when he became involved in efforts to preserve the traditional Mass after learning about abuses of liturgical norms in his parents’ parish. 

Smith said that although Traditional Latin Mass advocates have been called divisive, he believes banning the older form of the Mass actually created division by effectively pushing people like his parents out. In response, he started a petition and formed an Una Voce chapter to work toward an option for people like them.

He favors keeping both the extraordinary and ordinary forms of the Mass. “There should be options for people. … Where [the traditional Mass] is an option, there is peace.” 

A Convert’s Perspective

At 48, Karen Hickey is too young to have experienced the extraordinary form of the Mass prior to Vatican II, but she said she has come to regret  what was tossed “on the cutting room floor” to create the current ordinary form. Hickey, of Front Royal, Virginia, attended her first Traditional Latin Mass — a Solemn High Mass — when she was in her 20s, and later converted from Judaism in 1998. 

Hickey said she finds the Traditional Latin Mass to be imbued with catechesis. 

“Nothing is superfluous,” she said. “Everything is there for a reason — all the movements, rubrics, everything.”

When she later discovered what had been eliminated from it, she said, “It was so offensive to me.” For example, she said, Psalm 42, which is usually recited by the priest at the beginning of the traditional Mass, is significant to her as a Jew, yet it was cut from the new Mass. “It seemed odd that something so beautiful was lost.”

David Whalen, associate vice president for curriculum and professor of English at Hillsdale College in Michigan, drives about one hour each way to attend a traditional Mass each week and has done so for more than 25 years. Born just before the start of Vatican II, he had no personal nostalgic attachment to the older form of the Mass, but when he encountered it as a college student, he said he realized it was something timeless, universal and transcendent. 

Although going to the traditional Mass each week is not especially convenient, he said, “It is worth it for so many reasons — the form and ritual is a catechesis in itself; the reality of the sacrament is palpable; the air of reverence is an aid to prayer (not to mention appropriate to what is happening); the sacred actions, language, movements all pull us into a kind of participation in the life of heaven. Instead of having to remind yourself of the sacramental realities underway, you are immersed in them.” 

He said the older rite also conveys the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which many Catholics no longer believe

“The reverence, genuflections, silence, demotion of the priest and corresponding promotion of the host, the special language, the special ways of handling sacred vessels, Communion on the tongue and while kneeling — these are the kinds of things that betoken, as best weak and fallen beings can, the reality of God with us in the sacrament.”

Years ago, Whalen’s then fifth-grade son told him after going to a Novus Ordo Mass, “You know, it is very strange. I don’t know Latin, but I understand what is going on when we go to the old Mass. I do know English, but I can’t figure out what they are doing in the new Mass.” 

Whalen said the point of what his son experienced was not so much a criticism of one rite as underscoring the power of the Latin Mass to communicate to the faithful what is happening.

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