Next Stop: Trent?

This Sunday, I’m attending a Latin Mass. There, it’s decided. I could hardly call myself a flâneur of Catholic culture otherwise. Never having taken a knee at the Porziuncola or the Holy Sepulchre, never having set so much as a single toe on the Camino — all these omissions, I think, are forgivable, given budgetary constraints. But never having heard a single Latin Mass when it’s offered in my own diocese is just plain laziness.

I’ve always been a bit of an experience junkie. My checkered life has led me into swingers’ clubs, Mexican cantinas, Hong Kong tattoo parlors, Russian gangster hangouts, and subprime mortgage brokerages. In each case, I had to repress a natural revulsion — that was most of the fun. In each case, the awkwardness evaporated within a few minutes, along with the novelty. By contrast, deciding to go Tridentine, even as a one-off, has been a bear, a resolution arrived at only after many evenings of huffing and wall-punching and chain-smoking. Just writing about it makes me seize up — at the rate I’m going, I’ll probably suffer a psychotic collapse when the first drop of salty water hits me.

The ick factor comes from the association I’d formed between the Tridentine Rite and anti-Semitism. Never mind the line in the Good Friday liturgy about praying for the Jews, or even the line in the old Good Friday liturgy about about praying for faithless Jews. You can be a supercessionist without being a hater. But then, minus Nostra Aetate — introduced a few years before the Mass of Paul VI, and rejected by some traditionalists along with it — Jew-hatred gets automatically downgraded from a serious moral failing to an unpleasant quirk, like B.O. The Society of St. Pius X put up with decades of it from Bishop Williamson. Just recently, SSPX head Archbishop Fellay proved Williamson wasn’t a total oddball by going completely Bobby Fischer in his own right. In an address to followers at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Chapel, Fellay asked, “Who, during [negotiations with the Vatican], was the most opposed that the Church would recognize the Society? The enemies of the Church. The Jews, the Masons, the Modernists.”

Forget the bigotry, forget the self-serving intellectual shabbiness. That statement’s most repellent quality is its ungraciousness — ungraciousness to Benedict and Cardinal Castrillon, whose reputations have already taken hits on SSPX’s account; ungraciousness to all the decent trads who look up to Fellay and have pleaded his cause with skeptics; ungraciousness to more or less faithful Catholics like me who’ve gritted our teeth and smothered our doubts and hoped and prayed that the Vatican knew what it was doing. Frenchy cut the cheese right in our faces.

He ought to be ashamed of himself. But he isn’t, and he won’t ever be. To his way of thinking, because he’s got the Latin Mass, he’s got the moral right of way. The Mass, then, is a perfect aegis for assholes.

But of course, that’s not all it is. I used to know a woman who belonged to a sedevacantist sect. (To take her account at face value, her head bishop was a perfectly sane, pastoral, gentlemanly guy with no particular animus against Jews or anyone else.) During her early childhood, she and her family lived far away from any of the sect’s few churches. They took their Latin Mass wherever they could get it — sometimes in a motel room rented for the occasion by an itinerant priest. Now that’s an image to conjure with: two or three families bowing their heads and straining to tune out the crack-smokers in the next room while a fresh-faced kid in a fancy stole recites the confiteor. It speaks to a catacombs level of commitment deserving of respect. If the draw was in the Latin, well…that’s a point in its favor.

The signs of the times seem to say that Latin, along with traddishness in general, is staging a creeping comeback. In April of 2010, Washington D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception featured a Pontifical Mass in the Extraordinary Form. A Paulus Institute press release called it “gloriously reverent,” and, indeed, it must have been a hit with somebody, because the following year Archbishop DiNoia of the Vatican’s Conrgegation for Divine Worship celebrated a Solemn Pontifical High Mass in the very same place. Just last week, in an about-face no less stunning than Christopher Hitchens’ endorsement for the Global War on Terror, Deacon Greg Kandra called for the re-introduction of Communion rails. True, he made no specific reference to Latin, but he must know the camel and the tent too well to suppose that people can go on kneeling in the vernacular forever.

So, it would be nice, then — really comforting — to run with the image of the Best Western conventicle; to write off Fellay and his followers as a million isolated cases; to refute any connection between crankishness and a flair for the fruits of Trent. It’d be nice, but it’d be hard. Too often does one hear the words Novus Ordo used as a weapon, a nifty synedoche for every species of moral degeneracy the speaker wishes to pin on his opponent. In the mouth of a pro, it can sound impressive. Fr. Clement Procopio, formerly a priest in the Diocese of Phoenix, demonstrates as much here, in the letter where he tells his bishop what’s what:

What you should be saddened by, however, as all of us should be, is what has happened to the Catholic Church since Vatican II. That revolution is what brought about changes in doctrine, such as, false ecumenism of a Cosmic Christ that doesn’t exist, universal salvation in which all are automatically saved, distorted notions of religious liberty that eliminated Christ as King of the Universe; changes in morals such as immoral sex education in the Catholic schools, the defense of homosexuality, a sin that cries to Heaven for vengeance, that has resulted in the glaring scandals in the priesthood and in the hierarchy; changes in the liturgy, like substituting the Mass of All Ages, instituted by Christ, with a Masonic Protestantized Novus Ordo Mass, that was concocted precisely with the intention of destroying the True Mass and the whole Catholic Church, by lending itself to all kinds of abuses, sacrileges and circuses at the altar, resulting in disastrous effects, such as the loss of many vocations, the loss of faith, the loss of discipline, etc. etc.

Fr. Procopio was last seen in Malibu, presiding at he Oratory of the Holy Family, Mel Gibson’s private chapel. No doubt it’s a good fit for him, but even Latin-lovers who are less openly defiant tend to define themselves less by what they’re for than what they’re against. Consider the defunct but still mesmerizing trad blog Lair of the Catholic Cavemen. To give contributors due credit, they might have been the last Catholic writers in America who didn’t sound as though their best friends were Hobbits. On the bad, well, they’re mighty quick on the draw. To them, Cardinal George is “a veritable tower of Jell-O.” Archbishop Niederauer and others are guilty of “ingratiating themselves to the Sons of Sodom.” John Paul II’s dialogue with Jews was a “turd bloom,” and John Paul himself “a very ineffective and even weaker pope who allowed abuse upon abuse to be heaped upon The Bride of Christ.” And these guys are in full Communion.

Plenty of reasonable-sounding people have made plenty of reasonable-sounding arguments in favor of the Latin Mass. Many tout the aesthetics — the euphonious qualities of the Latin language itself, and of Gregorian chants. My problem is I’m insensible to all of it. My furniture comes from Ikea; my favorite songs are novelty songs. If it weren’t for bad taste, I’d have no taste at all. What I do have a connoisseur’s eye for — what draws me like the proverbial flame draws the proverbial moth — is disgruntlement, especially the kind that verges on looniedom. If frustration and protest were languages, I could write the grammar. Probably, the only meaning I’m capable for finding in the Latin Mass is one absent from the rubrics, namely, a middle finger hoisted against modern society.

And part of me understands the hand that hoists the finger all too well. I turned 41 yesterday, and the occasion of my birthday brought me face-to-face with the realization that I no longer understand the world I’m living in (and helped to build). Reddit, drone strikes, Twilight, the new generation of Windsors, naked Lena Dunham — all of these have plenty to recommend them, but to me but they look like products of an alien culture, one I’ll never wholly adapt to. My views and expectations were formed in a simpler time, the 1990s. (Bill! Monica! Jerry! Elaine! Bud! Kelly! What happened to you all?) I doubt I’ll ever qualify as a Catholic caveman, but I am, increasingly, surrendering to the laws of human nature by hardening into a fossil.

I suppose what I’m trying to do here — being a liberal and potential candidate for the archepiscopal see of Canterbury — is a little bit of old-fashioned bridge-building. I don’t think I’ll ever find much to say to Fellay, but to the faithful trads whose views on the Jewish people are appreciably softened by the times, I’d like to be able to say, “Yeah, I’ve been to your Mass, and it was okay.” As common ground goes, alienation may be as good as any; I suspect it’ll furnish the vocabulary with which to translate its appeal into my own terms. Trads talk up modesty and reverence; I say, “Aha! Nobody is going to rattle my cage by looking too sexy.” They plug a re-focusing on God; I say, “Aha! I don’t have to pay attention to other people.” With this kind of active, interested listening, you could end a war.

Valentine’s Day: For Some, 50 Shades of Blue
Five Reasons I Despise Listicles
Lent and the Lame Evangelist
Monday Mourning Coming Down
  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Will be interested in your take on the Tridentine Mass, Max. A few years ago I went to one and didn’t much care for it, but a few weeks ago I found myself in a situation where the only mass available to me at the time I needed one, was a Tridentine mass celebrated in the small chapel of a local parish. I went in thinking I was being heroic and self-sacrificing, but must say, it was very well done, not overly-fussy (I really dislike overly-fussy liturgy) and kind of refreshingly reverent. As the mass progressed I found myself descending and descending into depths of prayerful worship that I haven’t experienced in a long time. The smells, bells and small schola chanting all lent themselves to a kind of “totality”. I made me remember that we all learn differently — some learn visually, some aurally, some through physicality — and it seemed to me everything about the liturgy served a “way” of learning in a fashion that made it really “universal.” I came out of the experience feeling much more positive about the Tridentine form than I had been. My preference is still the Novus Ordo, but I can see myself wanting to freshen up perhaps every six weeks or so with a Tridentine…:-)

  • dawnmaria

    Someone has said that you have to attend Latin Mass 4 times before you can make a judgement. I found that to be true in my own life. Now I have a hard time doing without it. Mazeltov!

  • Melody

    It’s not the Tridentine Mass that turns me off. Or receiving at the Communion rail (I read Dcn. Greg’s piece on that). It’s the baggage. As you said, camels and tents go together. I went to tons of Tridentine Masses, prior to 1965. We knelt at the Communion rail well into the 1970′s in my hometown; it’s visible in our wedding pictures in 1972, don’t know when they took it out. If I could just slip into a time warp and attend Mass in, say, 1962, in my hometown; sure, I would go to an EF Mass in a heartbeat. Except it wouldn’t be EF. It would just be Mass, that’s how it was done. People talk about “bells and smells” all being part of the experience. However my time-warp Mass would most likely have been a low Mass. In our small town we had high Mass for big feast days; otherwise the grade school choir sang a couple of hymns, and that was it for special effects. I’m sure a lot of places were more elegant, but a more of them weren’t.
    Maybe the EF Mass and all the accoutrements thereof did engender a more reverent demeanor and disposition; but I definitely don’t remember myself being a holier and more reverent person in my early teens (that would be more related to my level of maturity and place in my spiritual journey rather than the form of Mass I attended).
    It will be interesting to read your reflections on your experience; I wish you could step through the time-warp and experience it without the baggage.

  • Billy

    I’m very curious to see your reaction. I’ve never been, myself. Knowing that 1 Latin Mass can’t reliably be used to generalize, here’s some things I wonder about.

    1. How is dress code enforcement? Or, is it even an issue?

    2. Do they use amplified sound? One of the criticisms used to be about priests mumbling through the Mass, esp. Low Masses. Microphones and speakers would fix that. Part of the problem (other than the fact that the priest faces away from the people) is that priests didn’t necessarily have good Latin. Amplified sound would force that issue as well it would seem.

    3. How does going to Confession during Mass work? Maybe it’s easy – one just gets in line. I guess I’d feel somehow rude in doing it but I’m sure there must be a way to do it reverently.

    4. What about the altar rail? Defenders of it say it ends up making Communion take less time while simultaneously reducing/eliminating the need to EMHCs. Be curious to know what you see.


  • Theresa

    Have a good time!

    I’ve never been to a Tridentine mass. Part of me would like to and part of me is very hesitant- for pretty much the same reasons you pointed out. I think I would be willing to go if I could find one not too far away, but not close enough where I would run the risk of running into anybody I know. I feel like I would need to go incognito. And then, I don’t think I could really let it count for my Sunday obligation because I know I’d be going in the spirit of watching a spectator sport… And then I wonder if I should be going at all if I’m taking the spectator sport approach so I haven’t exactly pursued finding the optimally distanced Latin Mass.

    Happy bridge-building and war-ending! :)

  • rose1929

    Hi Max–I think I can add something here. My parents were both converts. My dad, raised Lutheran, converted right after WWII, saying he saw a priest going down the line of wounded giving last rites, and those guys (the Catholic wounded) had something he wanted. He converted when he married my mom, who was raised in a Southern Baptist tradition. Their conversions cut them off totally from family and friends as often happens, but in 1950, it was a killer. Then lo, Paul VI turned their lives and ours upside down. They yanked us out of the parish school, shaking their fingers at the Notre Dame sisters now wearing short hair and out of their habits and scolded the Pastor when he told them to “shape up and get in line.” Nope. Not going to happen. We went to exactly two Novus Ordo masses and that was it. NO MORE. My parents taught us our catechism from a Baltimore Catechism and we said the rosary every night as a family, but we were separate. They took us a few months to a Maronite Rite, but it was foreign to us, and we left that too. They supported a “circuit priest” I guess a sedevacantist, though we didn’t as kids know the word. As we grew up, one by one we gradually made our way back to Mainline Catholicism which caused great sorrow in my parents. Oh the fights! They refused to get communion at our weddings, saying we were lucky they were there at all since we “had left the church.” When we made the pilgrimage home with our infants in tow, my mom baptized them at the kitchen sink, just in case the Novus Ordo priests had “done it wrong.” They supported a “circuit priest” whom I’m guessing was a sedevacantist, and they even helped build a little suburban chapel for that visiting priest. My little brother even did an turn in a SSPX seminary, but left. Eventually, their diocese had a “chapel” for the indult mass. They were very old, in their 70s, but would make the 40 mile drive to attend when their health allowed. My dad was buried out of that little church, a re-done protestant church, tricked out with nice statues and a rough communion rail, attended by a few aging die-hard traditionalists. When I was caring for my mom when dementia took hold, in her sometimes lucid moments she would exclaim, “God will judge us by what we KNOW!” and I would hold her hand and say, “Mom, He will judge you by how greatly you loved, and you loved greatly.” Her eyes would tear up and she said, “We tried so hard to keep you all Catholic….” In her haze, I think she felt she had failed. When she was buried out of that little church, her elderly friends saw my sisters and sisters-in-law with our obviously new chapel veils and admonished me for “breaking your mother’s heart by leaving the Church.” I smiled and said, “oh, we’re all Catholics.” That didn’t cut it of course. These people, like my parents felt betrayed by Vatican II. My parents had suffered so much in coming to the Church. My mom loved to say that having been raised as a Protestant, she knew what Protestantism looked like, and THAT (the New Mass) was protestantism and no one could convince her otherwise. In reality, just as Martin Luther felt he was still Catholic, and the Church had left orthodoxy, my mom was a die-hard protestant, protesting the New Mass to the very end, even in her dementia. So with all this baggage, a year after her death, I went to the local Tridentine Mass. I liked it after all. I’m lucky to live in a diocese with several Latin Masses, high and low, even daily. What strikes me, as I’m sure it will you, is how many very young people just love the Latin Rite. Jesuits from St. Louis University don’t write good music, you know. I’ve had a life long irritation, my penance in a way, of listening to crummy Novus Ordo guitars and pianos and horrible music in many a parish. My local parish has (thank goodness) abandoned a lot of that junk, but occasionally they do “Amazing Grace” and I can hear my mom’s voice saying, “if Johnny Cash sings it, then it’s not a Catholic Hymn, no matter who’s singing it.” I have to agree. It is like nails on a chalk board for me. But on the whole? I’m okay with the “Novus Ordo” especially with the newest version. I am amused to see a group down in North Carolina has splintered off because of their HORROR at the new translation. It’s not Catholic to THEM, and the Novus Ordo was not Catholic to my parents. What’s the reality? I hate to quote old time Republicans, but to borrow a phrase, the Catholic Church is a big tent. We take all comers. Like G. K. Chesterton said, he felt at home in a Catholic Church because he found his umbrella had been stolen when he came out of one….We’re all sinners. And a Tridentine or jangly Jesuit music doesn’t change that aspect so long as we agree that Benedict 16 is the guy in charge and in fact, sits in the chair. With the Latin, it’s like a gourmet’s Mass. It is transcendent in so many ways, and it is nice to have it back. I feel bad that my parents had to do without it for so long, and suffered so mightily, longing for something they loved so deeply that it make them outcasts to everyone, including their own religion. Now, their children finally have access to what they felt was a basic right, or condition of their beliefs, the Tridentine Mass.
    And now, it’s just like another thing on the Catholic “menu” in a lot of places, but they tried so hard to keep it alive.. Good luck Max. I hope you like it, and like someone said, it takes a few times to get used to it. I hope you’re pleasantly surprised.