Many Catholics who felt lost after Vatican II found comfort in the Latin Mass. Now, they are hurting again.
There were many exorcisms at my baptism. I gasped when the deacon showed me the text. It was several pages thick, packed with stern rebukes for the minions of Satan. Infant baptisms are relatively brief in the extraordinary form, but adult converts get a more thorough cleansing.
“It makes sense,” I laughingly told a friend. “The demons have had more time to work on me.”
This was not 1950. It was in May 2005. I was baptized by a priest from the Fraternity of St. Peter, a personal prelature dedicated exclusively to the old rite. Though I no longer belong to a Fraternity parish, I will forever be grateful for their assistance. In a vulnerable moment, they helped to exorcise my demons. I know many other people who could say the same.
My first experience of the old rite was motivated mostly by idle curiosity. A person I barely knew issued a casual invitation. I do have an affinity for solemn liturgy, and I was properly impressed by the chant choirs, the incense and the sonorous repetition of Dominus vobiscum. What I recall most, though, was the emotional turbulence that I felt on the drive home. My exercise in cultural tourism had triggered an avalanche of self-doubt.
It was suddenly clear to me that I needed a sacramental life. Why had I not understood this before? In many respects, I had been practicing the faith for several years already, attending Mass and fasting or feasting in due season. I held a degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame and was preparing to write a dissertation on St. Bonaventure. Still, I lurked in the back pew. I was satisfied with my life as a not-quite-Catholic.
Part of this stemmed from personal history. Growing up in the Mormon faith, I spent my adolescence agonizing over the tenets of a faith I could not quite believe. I was not eager to repeat that experience. At Notre Dame, I watched classmates shuffle into the Communion line without feeling any sense of missing out. I could dive into an argument about transubstantiation, but it was all intellectual to me. I felt no yearning for the body of Christ.
Everything changed on that day I first experienced the old rite.
Everything changed on that day I first experienced the old rite. The priest raised his arms to heaven. The church was hushed in awe. A switch flipped, and I suddenly saw the gaping void at the center of my spiritual life. Shortly afterward, I wrote the parish office asking about catechesis.
In my early years as a Catholic, I lived a kind of double life. Some weekends, I would meet my new traditionalist friends for the two-hour drive to St Michael’s. On other weekends, I would walk one block to the local parish to sing “On Eagle’s Wings”and get hugged by strangers. I was not despondent about the latter necessity. The Mass was a gift, and both parishes had it. But I felt that the old rite sustained me in ways that I could not fully articulate. It felt as though long-neglected spiritual muscles were finally being worked.
For my left-leaning Catholic friends, my new affinity for “rad trads” was frankly alarming. I could not deny that traditionalist communities had more than their share of reactionaries and oddballs. At community events and on pilgrimages, I met Young Earth creationists, 9/11 truthers and people with far-fetched theories about Freemasons. There was the man with the Jefferson Davis memorabilia and the woman who had spent several years as a sedevacantist nun. Of course, not everyone was so eccentric. People of all backgrounds can be attracted to this ancient liturgy. Still, the reactionary elements were noticeable, and I reflected even then that I might prefer not to raise my own children in such a setting. Despite that, I remember this period of life as a joyful and exciting one.
My traditionalist friends opened doors to verdant pastures that I had never seen. We prayed rosaries and novenas, watched “Life Is Worth Living,”and got together on the feast of St. Edmund Campion for a dramatic reading of “Campion’s Brag.” There were lively arguments about the merits of Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors and whether it would be pleasant to live in Franco’s Spain. Some of it was absurd, some uplifting, but I was fascinated by the way traditionalists seemed to live on the plane of the entire Catholic tradition. Saints and heroes sprang from the grass for them. The Battle of Lepanto was as real in their minds as the ongoing war in Iraq.
The painful exception was the Second Vatican Council. There was a lingering bitterness, and initially that seemed quaint. Then I began listening to the stories. I was astounded by the pain I encountered, especially in older Catholics who remembered the days before the council. In their memories, it seemed that faith-sustaining rituals and prayers had been ripped away from them almost overnight. They watched as beloved statues, beautiful stained glass windows and generations-old baptistries were torn out of their family parishes and carted off. Pastors urged them to embrace the new springtime, as their children were taught liturgical dances instead of TheBaltimore Catechism. They could make no sense of it. Why had their church turned on them?
They could make no sense of it. Why had their church turned on them?
There were personal humiliations as well. Almost everyone, it seemed, had been denied the body of Christ at some point, sometimes with open rebukes from their pastors. The prevalence of this experience was shocking to me. Why had any of this happened? I myself find much to admire in the documents of Vatican II, but I could find no adequate explanation in the trenchant insights of John Courtney Murray, S.J. I do understand why Christian truth must be re-articulated across the ages, so that new generations can hear. I understand why liturgical traditions need to grow and change over time. But why were faithful Catholics publicly chastised by their pastors for wanting to kneel before Jesus, or pray in the ancient language of the church? This I cannot understand.
Even I, in the days before “Summorum Pontificum,”experienced some of that same opprobrium. Non-traditionalist associates had suspicious questions. Was I a schismatic now? What was wrong with my territorial parish? Did I think I was better than “normal” Catholics? I could understand why my sudden conversion was confusing. Why were the rad trads able to coax me across the Tiber when older friends had not been? I really could not answer this question. Who can explain why God’s grace moves us at a particular time? I doubt anyone would have minded, though, if I had been similarly moved by a spectacular production of “A Man for All Seasons.”
Liturgical traditionalists can be prickly, arrogant and stubborn. Some are tempted by schism. They are human. Nevertheless, it always seemed evident to me that the Fraternity of St. Peter was ministering to a unique community of Catholics, with its own strengths and vulnerabilities. Many members were deeply scarred from earlier experiences in the church. Now they are hurting again. I would like to help, but I cannot think how to pronounce the word “unity” without causing further pain. Once again, I struggle to understand.
I do pray for unity in the church. I pray also for the consolation of fellow Catholics, who may now be denied that portion of the church’s tradition that has nourished their faith, as it once did mine.