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Friday, September 24, 2010

From The Philadelphia Bulletin: Traditional Catholicism

I go to Mass about twice a month. The reason I only go twice a month is because I am a parishioner of Saint Paul’s parish in the heart of the Italian Market. I go to Saint Paul’s because they have the Traditional Latin Mass. If one of the Catholic churches in Fishtown or Port Richmond had a TLM, I’d stick to my neighborhood, but since I can’t transport Saint Paul’s to Allegheny or Lehigh Avenue, I have to make do with the two hour Septa-transportation time twice a month.

To me it’s worth it. Saint Paul’s is incredible. The sung high Latin Mass is a powerful thing minus all the disturbing elements I find in the so called New Mass, such as contemporary hymns (or “praise and worship” songs that have a non-Catholic flavor), the blurring of distinctions between priest and laity, the chronic handshaking and the overall lack of depth and mystery.

In our increasingly casual culture, it’s rare to see a congregation in most Catholic parishes in anything other than jeans and T-shirts, but at Saint Paul’s, the sight is much different.

I still wonder why so few Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese offer the TLM, especially since Pope Benedict issued his motu proprio or indult in 2006 allowing the Latin Mass to be said in any parish without the approval of the local bishop. This means that a group of Catholic parishioners, however small, can request the TLM from the parish priest. The priest can then deny or fulfill that request depending on whether he or one of his assistant priests knows how to celebrate the 1500-year old Mass that was once the staple and center of Catholic life.

I asked a group of my fellow parishioners at Saint Paul’s why Philadelphia lags behind other major U.S. cities in the number of parishes that celebrate the TLM. “That may change in 2011,” one man told me. “Once your average Catholic reads the new English translation of the Roman Missal, they will be struck with the beauty of the original Latin and they will say, ‘What did we throw out?’ This is beautiful! Then there will be a resurgence of interest in the Latin Mass.”

The new Roman Missal, once it’s implemented in all English-speaking Catholic parishes in 2011, will be a vernacular missal faithful to the original Latin text of the traditional Mass. The English Missale Romanum that was approved in 1970 was a mere paraphrase of the original Latin text of the old Mass (or the Extraordinary Form), rather than a translation. The changes in the 2011 Missal will be significant. Regarding the future Missal, even Pope Benedict acknowledged that “many will find it hard to adjust to unfamiliar texts after nearly forty years of continuous use of the previous translation.” Those in the know say that the tone of the new Missal will emphasize the sacredness of the Divine Liturgy.

It’s inevitable, I suppose, that some Catholic modernists are not happy about the coming changes. Since Vatican II, different factions of Catholics have emerged: traditionalists, conservatives, and liberals can barely agree on anything and in many instances they are at war with one another. The coming “return to tradition” Missal has so enraged some liberal Catholics that the National Catholic Reporter, a modernist Catholic newspaper, has initiated an online petition asking that the publication of the new translation of the Missal be “delayed indefinitely.”

Ironically, Vatican II never called for the wholesale reconstruction of the Mass. Instead, Vatican II specifically envisioned Catholics learning to sing the key parts of the so called New Mass in Latin. Clearly, certain unwarranted liberties were taken over the last forty years, and this is what the Pope wants to change.

When I left the Church as a young twenty something I thought it was because I was an agnostic, but the fact is, I was unhappy at the new style of Catholic worship. In those days I felt I was the only one who felt that way but since then I’ve come to see that thousands, even millions of Catholics, are on the same wave length.

With the Latin Mass Indult and the 2011 Missal, the Church is reclaiming her traditions. For forty years Catholics like me have had to wince or hold our breath whenever we went to church. We had to put up with guitars, handshaking hootenanny’s or hymns that sounded like music from Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.

Catholics like me can now worship as the saints in the Church worshiped for almost 2,000 years.
Unfortunately, it’s back to wincing for me when I am forced to attend the Novus Ordo Mass. Usually this occurs when there’s some kind of family event—a baptism, wedding, or funeral.

When I went to my nephew’s big Catholic wedding last year, it was the first time I attended a Novus Ordo Mass since walking out on one while vacationing in Wildwood Crest a couple years ago. At the Wildwood Crest Mass the priest began the service by strolling around the altar table while saying good morning to the congregation. Then he proceeded to make a series of announcements in place of the old prayers at the foot of the altar. The lone altar server was dressed in a white bathrobe of sorts that rode up around his jeans and dirty sneakers. I did not feel like I was attending Mass at all but felt that I had somehow stumbled into a Presbyterian service by accident.

Unfortunately, 40 plus years have gone by since Vatican II, and huge numbers of Catholics don’t even know what the Latin Mass is like. You cannot miss what you never experienced, so it’s no surprise to me that most Catholics seem to be generally happy with the status quo. Most have no idea that the traditional Mass was much more than the use of Latin. In fact, if the Council Fathers had just stuck to changing Latin to the vernacular, and not changed anything else, the Mass would have been okay, but along with Latin many extraordinary rites and traditions were abolished.

While there’s currently a push for return of tradition in the Church, some traditionalists say it is probably too late to restore everything that has been lost. That is tragic.
I got a taste of that at my nephew’s wedding. The big Catholic church where the wedding took place looked more like a gymnasium with glass stained windows than a Catholic church. A minimalist altar table (in place of a high altar), a crucifix the size of a UFO descending from the ceiling, and one lone image of the Virgin Mary on a side altar were the only recognizable traditional images. Spartan, cold bare simplicity seemed odd in a church so large.

An agnostic niece of mine even commented, “I hate modern Catholic churches. They are so cold.”

The Novus Ordo wedding Mass was much like the one I experienced in Wildwood: uninspiring, full of announcements with the priest walking in circles trying to be “cool,” even slapping the bride and groom on the back “good ole boy” style. The altar servers were in bathrobes rather than cassock and surplice. At least they had bells at the consecration, something that some Catholic churches have eliminated, although there was no altar rail in the church. The tabernacle, which for hundreds of years had always been at the high altar, was placed in a cabinet off to the side of “Julia Child’s table.”

I was glad when the talky and hand shaky Mass was over. I told my nephew it was a beautiful service. I lied.

My nieces and nephews, as far as I know, have never attended a traditional Mass. They grew up with the revised “new Coke” liturgy with its Kumbaya song lyrics, altar servers in bathrobes and Eucharistic ministers in secular dress delivering communion in hand like deli meat slicers handing out Lebanon bologna samples.

Not long after my nephew’s wedding I bumped into a group of traditional nuns shopping in my local Thriftway super market. I introduced myself, congratulating them on not throwing away their religious habit. They told me they were Eastern Catholic nuns from the Ukrainian Cathedral in Northern Liberties. They also told me that whenever they shop in Thriftway, scores of people come up to them and thank them for looking like nuns, not corporate CEO’s in pant suits and big hair.

The nuns told me about an English liturgy at the cathedral on Saturday’s, a non Novus Ordo affair where announcements come at the end of the Mass and where reverence and ceremony hasn’t been replaced with…Roman-style Kumbaya.

Another option, in addition to Saint Paul’s!


Dear Editor:

Thank you so much for Thom Nickels' article, "Modern Catholicism Lacking In Traditional Elements" (9/16-25/2010)! Although I am Jewish by religious faith, half my family is Roman Catholic, and most of them left the Church as a result of the changes of Vatican II. As a result, what I learned of Catholicism while growing up in the 1960s and 1970s was from them, and consisted of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Their memories implanted a deep respect for traditional Catholicism within me, and as a child, I wanted to experience a Tridentine Latin Mass but didn't know where to find one.

I later was able to experience "unauthorized" Tridentine Latin Masses conducted by independent Catholic groups, and was astounded at the beauty of this liturgical form, especially the "high" (sung) Mass. I have wanted to see your church bring this Mass back, and have desired this for decades now. As a lover of classical music and classical art forms and as a student of Latin since my junior high school years, the Tridentine Mass, to me, is a true work of art, even apart from the spirituality of it!

And like your writer, I too miss the nuns in full traditional habits that I used to see in my South Philly neighborhood as a child. I wondered where they went! One of them was a great comfort to me as a child after my dog died...she was walking through the neighborhood and saw me on my porch, crying for my dog. What she told me has remained with me to this day. She was a true animal lover!

I do hope your church will return to tradition in every way possible. With the way society is headed since the 1960s, even us non-Catholics need all the security and comfort of tradition that we can find out there!


Annette Ravinsky
Philadelphia, PA

(PS: There is a weekly Tridentine Latin (low) Mass held at Our Lady of Consolation Church in the Tacony section of Philadelphia, too!)

Dear Mr. Nickels:

I enjoyed reading your recently commentary regarding Modern Catholicism and I agree totally with your remarks. As a 67 year old with a Catholic School education, I find my faith is challenged by the goings on at our Churches. We are not alone in our thinking and I believe the Catholic Church is slowly becoming aware of this.Thank you for this well written commentary.

Tony DiStefano
Phila., PA 19129

Hi Thom,

Thanks for the new word "wreck-o-vate", I have seen recovations in my Parish that seem to occur whenever a new Pastor comes. I live in St. Bridget's and am very happy with our Pastor Father Devlin. My wife is very supportive of the Church and has a much higher tolerance for the things that occur. She is very involved in Church ministry volunteering in the many things that happen in a Catholic Church. I have to bite my tongue often so as to not anger her. Something that drives me nuts every Sunday at IHM (early Mass, no singing) is when the extraordinary ministers wash their hands with hand sanitizer. They seem to make a big deal about it that serves only to distract me and take away from the sanctity of the Blessed Sacrament. All in all, these things bother me but are not a big deal, I am not about to change my faith.

Take care,
Tony DiStefanoPhila., PA 19129

Autumn SPORE readings: Port Richmond Books and Big Blue Marble

October 2010 readings from my new novel SPORE



Thursday, September 23, 2010

Shoplifting: Cure Those Recession Blues

I usually hit the local Rite Aid in my neighborhood at least once a day. During my visit one of the clerks there fills me in on the latest shoplifting incident. A few weeks ago, for instance, she told me about a man who brought a box of pampers up to the counter but then bolted—unpaid Pampers in hand-- out the front door. The clerk said that this sort of thing happens all the time. Customers will bring merchandise to the counter and act as if they are going to pay for it but then at the last minute they cut and run with the goods. The episodes happen in a matter of seconds, and often the thief is never caught.

To combat this form of shoplifting, Rite Aid has employed additional security near the front door. Pamper and paper towel thieves still find a way to beat the system, however, since security cannot be everywhere. Still, the situation is much better than it was some months ago when the only security in Rite Aid seemed to be the store manager himself, a hard working individual who I’d often see chasing shoplifters through the parking lot several times a month.

Incidences of local shoplifting seem to be increasing. This is due, I think, to the still ailing economy. It is with alarming regularity that I see someone—usually an unkempt looking male—being escorted out of Thriftway for some shoplifting infraction.

In 2009, The New York Times reported that “As Economy Dips, Arrests for Shoplifting Soar.” The Times also reported that police departments around the country are reporting ten to twenty percent higher incidents of shoplifting in 2010. This means that what is happening in the neighborhood is happening all around the country.

The unpleasant side to the increase in shoplifting is the beefed-up security now in place in stores of every stripe, even those “lowly” but oh-so-necessary dollar discount houses where you wouldn’t think they’d be much to guard. In this new age of “everyone is assumed guilty until proven innocent” even nuns in full religious habits can be made to feel like potential thieves as they wander through retail aisles and shop.

Shopping under a watchful eye (Big Brother) is not the best way to shop, especially when a security person eyes you for no apparent reason and begins the process of indiscreet tracking, meaning that he or she has chosen you for monitoring during your time in the store. Monitoring in this case can mean following you up and down the aisles in a manner that can be quite blatant. When this happens, it’s not easy to remember that security is just doing its job, that it’s not how we look or what we’re wearing at the moment—sunglasses, baggy pockets, etc.,—that’s causing this, it’s the age we live in.

Sadly, the retail world is fast becoming like the world of airport security where everybody’s a suspect until proven innocent.

Recently I had to pick up some items in one of those “oh so valuable” dollar stores in Port Richmond Village. The second I entered the store I encountered two agile looking (read: strong) non-uniformed security guards standing on both sides of the aisle like Feng Shui sculptures. “Wow, I thought, “they’ll be no Pamper escapes here, but this kind of security must cost a fortune!”

Come to think of it, a lot of stores in the area these days seem to have more security than cashiers.

In Pennsylvania a first offense for shoplifting (for goods under $150.00) can net a summary offense with the possibility of 90 days in jail. Many store managers, however, will give warnings to first time offenders, especially if the items are small. A hungry person who steals a peppered turkey and cheese wrap from WAWA, for instance, won’t be treated the same way that a retail cell phone thief will be treated.

The Chinese have an unusual way of dealing with shoplifters. If you’re caught shoplifting items from a Chinese grocery store, the owner will take you to a back room and request payment for the items. If you refuse, the owners photograph you holding the stolen item in question and then post the picture in the market. Then they inform the police.
If, on the other hand, you oblige the owner and pay up, you’re still not home free because you’re subject to a fine. “Steal one, fine 10,” the Chinese say.

This begs the question: How do you collect fines in an ailing economy?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Fad Atheism a la Stephen Hawking

The recent media fixation on physicist Stephen Hawking’s statement that “God did not create the universe,” has set off a firestorm of debate even though there are many famous scientists who are on record as believing in God. Still, this pronouncement from Hawking had something about it that reminded me of a papal announcement from Rome, only here we have it being said by a sort of secular, scientist “pope.”

When Hawking says, “God had no role in the creation of the universe,” he’s really leaving the realm of science and going into an area where he has no expertise. Only a decade or so ago, in “A Brief History of Time,” he stated that his work was “on the borderline between science and religion.” He wrote at that time, “…I stay on the scientific side of the border. It is quite possible that God acts in ways that cannot be described by scientific laws…”

Then was then, and now is now, as they say…

But let us, for the sake of this column, assume that Hawking’s scientific voice is indeed infallible and true. Let us also assume that his latest pronouncement took wing and converted the whole of humankind, including, of course, people in our own neighborhoods.
How would life be different if we all “digested” the Hawking philosophy and put aside all God “superstitions?”

Perhaps there’d be a neighborhood Hawking Greeting Card Committee that would work to eliminate all Rite Aid/CVS greeting cards that mention God. The new Hawking-inspired greeting cards would contain phrases like, “In the name of spontaneous creation, we wish you a speedy recovery.” Or: “We are sorry for your loss, but “it is not necessary to involve God in this [tragedy], because remember—God did not light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going.”

In other words, blame spontaneous combustion, whose origin, of course is a mystery.

In this new Hawking world, mentioning God in connection with the birth of a new baby would only get you a scientific lecture on how God had nothing to do with it. You’d also be advised to shy away from talking about “God blessing you” or saving you from serious injury, possibly your life, after a major accident. The fact that this message comes from someone who has had a huge cross to carry—life in a wheelchair as a paraplegic—does give it an intensified focus, since common logic inclines us to think of people with disabilities as needing God more than the rest of us. But rather than asking God, “Why me?” Hawking just denies God’s existence outright, which is perhaps his way of “getting even” for a lifetime of… disability.
Hawking, of course, if pressed on the issue, would probably agree that Campbell’s chicken noodle soup is more of a concrete reality than an all-knowing but invisible God, and he would undoubtedly discourage bowing our heads in mumbo jumbo prayer mutterings.

No deity then, earthbound or cosmic, cares if you survive or die in a car accident, helicopter crash, or from cancer. When we die we are food for worms, nothing more. “Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist,” says Hawking.

Which means, forget about going to church. Forget silly superstitions such as the Rosary Society or the Sodality of Our Lady of Fatima at St. Adalbert’s church on Allegheny Avenue. Your many prayers in this beautiful church are just gibberish mantras with no meaning, despite the incredible miracle of the sun in Fatima in 1917 where 70,000 people saw-- and where even objective, secular journalists reported-- the sun spinning and hurling towards the earth before resuming its place in the sky.

Forget absurd sounding parish names like Our Lady Help of Christians, or Nativity B.V.M., churches with colored states, Gothic designs and pointed arches. The only Our Lady, in a Hawking world, is The Lady Is a Tramp show tune from the 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical, Babes in Arms. As for those churches with onion domes in Northern Liberties, they are temples to a mythological god with no power except the power to be spontaneous in order to create new and different worlds for Hawking to talk about.

Human beings have no allies on the other side because there is no other side. There is only the bad economy, the inevitability of Monday, taxes, and SEPTA rate increases.
So come up to Stephen Hawking’s level, and put aside all this silly “Have a blessed day,” and “God bless you,” talk.

Look reality in the face, and snarl.