There is this old, old, old saying that you will often hear quoted in discussions of worship trends in the modern and postmodern Catholic church. It goes like this.
Question: What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?
Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist.
Now, you either get that joke or you don’t. If you get that joke, then you probably are the kind of person who cares a whole lot about discussions of why Catholics can’t sing anymore, why so few men go to Mass and why it matters whether people are allowed to kneel when receiving Holy Communion. On that latter subject, I once wrote:
While it is hard to explain to outsiders, one of the most fascinating battles in the American Catholic church today is the one that pits the kneelers vs. the non-kneelers. I refer, of course, to the issue of whether bishops should — bowing to the modernization of ancient rites — attempt to prevent the faithful from kneeling before the altar as they receive Holy Communion during the Mass.
Let me explain: If people are allowed to kneel, that would mean that the Latin Mass is coming back and the next thing you know the pope will be seeking draconian student-life codes on Catholic campuses that prevent student funds from being used for activities that directly attack Catholic doctrine. It would be like the reforms of the Second Vatican Council never happened (or the spirit of the council has been quenched or something like that). Horrors.
Yes, note the reference to the Latin Mass.
You see, there are millions of Catholics who really, really, really hate the modern, post-Vatican II rite that is used in the vast majority of Catholic parishes. I am serious about the word “hate.”
At the same time, there are plenty of Catholics wearing Roman collars — some of them professional liturgists in dioceses across America and around the world — who really hate (I think “distrust” is too mild a word) the many Catholics who love very traditional forms of liturgy and, especially, the traditional Tridentine Mass. It also annoys these Catholic professionals that so many of the Latin lovers are older Catholics with checkbooks and a fierce dedication to sacramental life. Period.
With all that in mind, please consider the recent New York Times report — OK, it has been in my guilt file for some time — that ran under this double-decker headline:
Manhattan Parish Draws Attention of Conservative Catholics and the Church
Church of the Holy Innocents, Home of the City’s Only Daily Latin Mass, Might Close
Here is the top of the report:
As the Rev. Justin Wylie took the pulpit at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan last month, anger and anxiety emanated from the pews. Parishioners, who rely on the church to offer a daily traditional Latin Mass, were about to meet to discuss an archdiocesan panel’s recommendation to close their church, and some were talking about schism.
“I worry about the situation of traditional Catholics in the archdiocese,” Father Wylie, a visiting priest, said in his sermon,
articulating their concerns. “No longer, I say, should you think of yourselves as squatters in the mighty edifice of the Holy Church, nor should you find yourselves turned out like squatters.”
It was an unusual moment of open criticism by a Roman Catholic priest of church policy in New York. And the reaction was swift. Within two weeks, Father Wylie was reprimanded by the New York Archdiocese and in short order dismissed from his job as attaché at the Mission of the Holy See at the United Nations, where he negotiated human rights issues on the Vatican’s behalf.
And the kicker:
Yes, this leads to Pope Francis and what the Times team, unfortunately, calls his “less doctrinaire style” of running the church. Look up “doctrinaire” and you will see that this is not the word the editors were looking for, since Francis has made no moves to water down or edit traditional Catholic doctrines. He is, however, not known as a fan of traditional forms of liturgy.
The actions taken against Father Wylie offer a glimpse of how sensitive the New York Archdiocese is to dissent, particularly from inside the church, as it weighs the closing of potentially dozens of churches in a sweeping consolidation of its parishes. But the episode has also taken on broader significance, because the parish involved is Holy Innocents, the only church in New York City to offer the 444-year-old Tridentine, or Latin, Mass daily, making it a beloved institution among a small but vocal community of traditionalist Catholics across the country.
The story also deals with the fact that Pope Benedict XVI became a hero to those who loved the older Latin Mass. Why?
Benedict in 2007 affirmed that all Catholics had the right to celebrate the Latin Mass whenever they wished, lifting restrictions that followed the Second Vatican Council. The next year, the Rev. Thomas Kallumady, then pastor of Holy Innocents, invited a lay group of traditionalists to begin offering one Latin Mass a week at the church, a historic Gothic structure on West 37th Street. The experiment was successful, and by 2010, the church was the only one in the city to offer the Latin Mass daily.
The story does a fine job of noting that these Latin Masses have helped rejuvenate this parish, in terms of increasing attendance 300 percent and in its finances. The church operates at a surplus and has active social ministries.
So why close the parish?
At this point, readers should have been asking: Wait, isn’t Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York one of the American church’s most conservative leaders? Why is he clashing with conservative Catholics?
That would be a very good question: One that is never addressed in this otherwise fine story. That matters.
This is especially true in light of the stunning developments in the life and career of Wylie, after he spoke up and said the archdiocese had a responsibility to take care of those who love the traditional Mass. This is long, but it helps to read the details:
On May 30, Bishop-elect John O’Hara of New York, who is overseeing the parish consolidation process, sent Father Wylie a stern reprimand for criticizing the archdiocese, with copies to Father Wylie’s superior at the Vatican Embassy in New York, Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt; Father Wylie’s archbishop in Johannesburg; and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, said a spokesman for the diocese, Joseph Zwilling. …
The letter also threatened to revoke Father Wylie’s ability to celebrate Mass in New York, a rare punishment, according to a person who had seen the letter but spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from church officials. But Mr. Zwilling said he did not know whether the letter went that far.
Archbishop Chullikatt dismissed Father Wylie after receiving the letter in early June and told him he should immediately cease all public appearances in New York. Archbishop Buti Tlhagale in Johannesburg is now recalling him back to South Africa.
Amazing. And that is that. A decision from Cardinal Dolan on parish closings remains out in the future.
But what is missing from this story? Simply stated, the story tells readers that the Tridentine Mass is controversial and it does some fairly good work dealing with the views of the supporters. That’s good. However, the story never really tells readers anything about the identities and views of those who opposes the Mass. Who are the leaders in the local church structure who would oppose the regular use of this rite in a designated parish? What are their motives?
Well, that’s half the story, isn’t it? I am sure that the Latin Mass lovers have their theories (conspiracies abound on that side of the church aisle) and I am sure that the Times team has legions of progressive Catholic sources and ex-Catholic sources who would be willing to dish — without attribution — on why the Latin Mass is a danger to modern society.
But here is the key question: Why is this such an emotional and symbolic issue on the Catholic left as well as the right? The story offers a sentence of two of vague material on that point. But where are the liberal voices?