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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

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