I was raised Catholic. Long after I became a lapsed Catholic, my mother and an aunt attended a church on the south side of Omaha that offered a Mass said in Latin. I am barely old enough to remember that Masses said in Latin, with the priest’s back to the congregation, were once the standard Mass of the church. Then Vatican II came in and the Latin Mass was quickly abandoned, as the church, to its credit, began opening the service up, through language and music and engagement, to make it a more accessible, welcoming, inclusive experience. The Latin Mass was relegated to fringe or alternative status, but its proponents, though small in number, were fierce in their devotion to it. When a priest friend of mine became pastor at the very church my mom and aunt attended, and he told me about the schism in his own church between the Latin adherents and the mainstream Mass followers, I felt called to do a story. The following story, originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com), is the result.
Devotees Hold Fast to the Latin Rite
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
There is a small band of tradition-minded Roman Catholics whose affection for the largely disbanded Latin Mass is so strong they endure a certain scorn to attend this austere, orthodox ceremony that, as local Latin rite worshiper Steve Mahowald puts it, “more effectively expresses the mysteries of the faith I believe in.”
The fervor that Mahowald and his fellow worshipers — who can be regarded as the fundamentalists of the Catholic church — have for the Latin Mass is what has kept this old sacramental rite alive amid these liberal times and made its followers a thorn in the side of church hierarchy, who view dissent as a threat to unity. While the Latin Mass is not officially disapproved of by the church, which effectively abandoned it in favor of the modern, vernacular rite — the Novus Ordo — in 1969, it has been suppressed in recent decades and its adherents have been made to feel like they stand uneasily on the fringes of mainstream Catholicism.
Starting in 1969, when decrees from the Second Vatican Council held earlier that decade replaced the heavy, somber Tridentine Mass said in Latin with the lighter, more upbeat Novus Ordo said in the vernacular tongue, the traditional Mass not only fell out of disfavor with the church but its celebration became an act of defiance against religious leadership.
Defenders of the Latin Mass and the traditions bound up in it openly questioned church leaders. Splinter groups within the church evolved, notably among followers of renegade French Bishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X, who openly rejected the Novus Ordo, along with the modern trappings accompanying it, and instead continued embracing the Latin Mass and all other things traditionally Catholic. Lefebvre, who defied the Pope by consecrating four bishops to aid him in his crusade, was excommunicated.
Later, the Society of St. Pius X reached an accord with the Vatican that allowed the nearly schismatic group to provide the Latin Mass for those faithful still attached to it. For decades, Society priests have crisscrossed the country on an informal circuit to celebrate the Mass for devotees of the old ways. Often, these Masses are held secretly, in settings other than churches, because many bishops have been slow to recognize indults by the church granting permission for the Latin rite.
Local “Latins” or “Trads,” as they have come to be derisively called, petitioned then-Archbishop Daniel Sheehan during the 1970s and early ‘80s for permission to have the Mass at a local church, but their entreaties were denied. Frustrated by what they considered aberrations or abuses in the new Mass, including altar alterations and displacements, the introduction of non-sacred music and the use of laity as liturgists and extraordinary ministers, Trads solicited the Society of St. Pius X for priests to come and offer the Mass they knew and revered.
In Omaha, the Latins organized under the name St. Michael Chapel. The group furtively attended their outlaw Mass, not unlike the huddled few apostles in the Bible, at various locations around town — ranging from the Sapp Brothers chapel to Lil Willy’s restaurant to a series of motels before finally settling on the Ramada Inn Airport.
The group made regular pilgrimages there, where a large 5th floor party room was turned into a makeshift place of worship. An altar was cobbled together from tables draped in linens. The faithful, whose numbers ranged from 50 to 100, variously sat in folding chairs arranged in front of the altar and knelt on the floor. A closet was used as a confessional and a bar in the back for storing vestments. A member outfitted a suitcase to carry nearly everything visiting priests needed for saying Mass — the ciborium, the chalice, the cruets, et cetera.
Members of St. Michael Chapel faced the odd dilemma of worshiping at what once was and what they still believed to be the one true Mass but having to attend that rite outside the confines of a church and without the permission of their own bishop. Timothy Fangman, a coordinator with the group, said at the time, “It’s very embarrassing and it’s very humiliating to attend Mass in a hotel room. Some officials regard us as renegade dissidents, but when in reality we have been more faithful to our religion than many of them.” A worshiper from that group who requested anonymity because she “doesn’t want to get into trouble” said, “I can’t say I felt embarrassed. We did feel persecuted in some ways. But, to me, it was such a relief to find this Mass and to find the faith still lives. Most of us were ready to put up with anything. Going through what we did made us appreciate it more, too.”
All during the time the local Latin community struggled to be taken seriously by the archdiocese, they had an ally in the Rev. Lucian Astuto, the then-pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in south Omaha. Sympathetic to the group and their convictions, he made his church a forum for the Latins and worked behind-the-scenes to validate their position and their passion. Finally, in 1984, Sheehan allowed the Latin Mass to be said, one day only, at St. Pat’s following a decision by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, which left the rite’s celebration up to the discretion of local bishops. In 1988, the Ecclesia Dei promulgated by Pope John Paul II further legitimatized the Mass and established an order of priests, the Fraternity of St. Peter, with a mission of ministering to the traditional faithful and celebrating sacraments in Latin.
According to Archdiocese of Omaha Chancellor Rev. Michael Gutgsell, the Pope’s action wasn’t done merely to placate “a certain group or devotion of people, it was a public and universal recognition of the legitimacy of the 1962 Roman missal and a matter of the unity of the church. The schism of Lefebvre is, of course, the backdrop for this particular permission of the 1962 missal. Rome devised a means to safeguard the unity of the church by providing this special fraternity with an authorized missal and other sacramental rites to allow priests to exercise their priesthood in union with the Pope.”
An “unauthorized” Latin Mass is offered in Omaha at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church, 7745 Military Ave. Gutgsell said the group sponsoring the rite, the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, “is not in union with Rome. They have sort of created their own community. They do not recognize the Pope. They do not recognize Archbishop (Elden) Curtiss.” Officials with Mary Immaculate Church, however, assert they do heed Papal authority, just not its infallibility.
By the late ‘80s the Latin Mass was a fully-condoned fixture at St. Pat’s, where Astuto, now retired, celebrated the rite. In recent years St. Pat’s has hosted a Fraternity of St. Peter priest to serve the traditional faithful there. Although the Latin Mass is secure for now, Trads still feel marginalized in their own church and fear they may not have their beloved celebration much longer. They point to the fact their Mass is confined to only one church, that services are relegated to inconvenient times and that vigorous promotion of the rite is at least implicitly discouraged by the church’s ruling class. “It is though they’re keeping us in check where we can’t do a lot of damage,” said one worshiper who preferred to remain anonymous. Another worshiper who also requested anonymity, said, “You get the feeling, even if you’re not paranoid, that they don’t like you.”
As confirmation of that, Rev. Eric Flood, the Fraternity of St. Peter priest stationed at St. Pat’s, said, “I’d say at best we’re tolerated. I think we’d fit any sociological analysis done on a minority group. We’re often scared, thinking that we can’t speak our own mind or proffer our own opinion because what we say may take away the good things that have been handed us. I, myself, have been ridiculed when I’ve given talks about the Fraternity. I’ve been scolded by people who say, ‘You’re not with the church — get out of here. You’re the one causing the problems.’ In some churches Latin rite priests hide their missals from the pastor. I do know of some places where we’re not even allowed to advertise in the diocesan newspaper or even put out a sign saying, ‘Latin Mass here.’”
He said such reactions stem from a widely held misconception the Mass is forbidden, “I think it’s fair to say maybe half of all Catholics don’t even know there’s such a thing as a Latin Mass or they think it’s not allowed. There are others who think the Latin Mass is just here temporarily. That in another 10 or 15 years it’ll die out. But, in fact, we see the trend is that won’t occur.” He estimates 100,000 Catholics attend the Mass in the U.S., where more than half of all dioceses have it, and the Fraternity’s seminaries, including a new one just outside Lincoln, Neb., are filled to capacity.
St. Patrick’s, 1404 Castelar Street, continues as home to Omaha’s lone sanctioned Latin Mass. The faithful attending the rite there — 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 8:30 a.m. on Sunday — are drawn by a common set of beliefs and an overriding desire to keep this core sacrament of Catholicism free of what they regard as not only cosmetic changes but fundamental deviations in the way the mainstream Mass is said today. Here, in this tiny brick church, both the profound presence of silence found in long stretches of the Latin Mass and the strange but sublime sounds of Gregorian chant sung during many intervals of the rite set the other-worldly tone for the sacred proceedings.
The priest, garbed in full vestments, is a figure of reverence in the restrained way he moves, in the fact he keeps his back to the congregation and in the quiet way he recites the long litany of prayers that are the foundation of the Mass. The faithful, ranging from silver-haired seniors to a surprising number of families with young children, display a reserved, pious countenance, with much bowing and genuflecting, and little talking. As was customary before Vatican II, women are veiled in head coverings and wear loose-fitting clothes revealing little more than their submission.
Latin rite followers flock to the traditional service because, for them, it retains a sense of sanctity and wonder they find missing from the new Mass. “I guess it comes down to the reverence — the fact that I feel God is here,” Marcia Hardman said after a recent Sunday service. “You go to the others (English Masses) and you get a lot of music, you get a lot of entertainment, you get a lot of whoopdedo, but you don’t get much else. You’re looking for God all the time and you’re just wondering where He is. I think we’re mainstreaming people right out of the church.”
Maurcicio Abascal, a native of Mexico City who moved with his wife and five young children from Texas to Omaha two years ago, said, “I find with this Mass (the Latin) we can worship with more reverence, with more dignity, with more devotion. It is respectful and it leads people to really understand they are present on Mount Calvary.”
For the faithful few that attend, the Mass is a sanctuary from the unending changes they feel have been made to this most solemn expression of their faith. As Hardman said, “I watched the changes come and I didn’t like the changes. I think it was change for change’s sake. That’s not a good idea.” Sharon Cooney, who regularly attends with her husband Tom, said that before the Novus Ordo, the Latin Mass provided a constant source of identification for her faith. “Wherever you would go, all over the world, there used to be a Catholic Mass you could go to and it would always be the same.”
Then, when the new Mass arrived with much of the old rite’s rituals stripped away, she felt the underpinnings of the sacrament undone. “I felt crushed. Church was not a worship place anymore. It was more of a meeting place. The Mass lost its sacredness. I call it a production now. Our church is built on tradition. The tradition started with Abraham when God spoke to him and he built an altar to worship God. Our Mass has developed from Abraham to Jesus at the Last Supper to all down through the line. Well, every church now has their different service. The priest doesn’t even follow the same words. You’re not sure what you’re supposed to say in responses.”
In the aftermath of the reform movement that swept through the Catholic church in the 1960s, heralded by the Second Vatican Council’s call for full active conscious participation by the faithful, the traditional Latin Mass was revamped all around the world. In America, this meant it was no longer said in Latin but in English or Spanish or whatever language predominated each parish. The priest, who out of reverence mainly faced the altar, began facing the congregation.
The altar itself, traditionally an ornate tabernacle at the head of the church, often got scaled-back and moved from its place of awesome prominence to more pedestrian settings in order to be closer to the people. The Gregorian chant sung by the choir was replaced with more contemporary hymns. Many of the prayers said by the priest in the old rite were eliminated and responses only uttered before by the altar servers became the new province of the faithful. Kneelers in some churches were removed. Instead of receiving the Holy Eucharist by kneeling at the altar railing, the congregation began received it while standing. The consecrated host, historically placed on the tongue, was now presented in open hands.
The decorum of the Mass dramatically changed too with the addition of the sign of peace before communion. Where before, no overt interaction occurred between worshipers, handshakes, hugs, kisses and words of peace are exchanged. In later years, the laity have played an ever bigger role in the liturgy — from reading scriptures to distributing communion.
As traditionalists rejected the new order of things, rifts developed — even in families. “When the new Mass was introduced it brought about a lot of confusion and hard feelings…Families were torn apart by it,” Mahowald said. “I‘m the youngest of nine children and my family now thinks I’m crazy for going to the Latin Mass. Some of my own children go to the Novus Ordo. Free choice. But they’re all going to Mass — I’m happy about that.”
Cooney added, “People sort of look down on you” when they hear “you’re a Latin riter.” As change upon change piled up, traditionalists were left feeling out in the cold — that their church was betrayed by “progressivists” and “modernists” in what amounted to “the Second Reformation.” In describing what it’s like to remain rooted, perhaps stubbornly, in tradition while the whole church around them is swept up in change, one believer said, “How did I get so wrong just by standing still?” Allied by their shared rebel status, believers have formed a close community. Many know each other by name and subscribe to publications like The Remnant that champion traditional Catholic practices.
Flood said many faithful feel uneasy with the laxness in the sacraments today, especially when priests go well beyond the intentions of the Novus Ordo to create something altogether new again. “The Mass has changed so dramatically and for reasons that are unexplained to the faithful that people are lost and question how they should worship God. Worshipers here are tired of changes in the English Mass. So many go from church to church and find so many differences that they wonder when it’s going to stop. So often with the new Mass it becomes what the priest wants to do. You don’t see that so much in the Latin Mass, outside the homily, because the priest is really structured. I am told where I have to keep my hands and where I am supposed to stand, and to not sway from that requires humility on my part. It requires an act of obedience to follow all the rubrics. For the faithful, there is a solidity in the Latin Mass in that it doesn’t change.”
According to Rev. “Roc” O’Conner, an instructor in the theology department at Creighton University, “the original idea” of Vatican II reformers was “that only sections of the liturgy would be done in the vernacular and then, what happened was, that goal was just kind of overrun because there was such an initial delight in having the Mass” in the native tongue.
He said those decrying changes made to the Mass ignore the fact this rite has seen many revisions before, albeit not on so encompassing a level as those imposed by Vatican II. “There was great variety probably through the time of Charlemagne in the 9th century. Charlemagne was the first person to mandate a certain way of doing things for the sake of the unity of the empire. Then, with the Council of Trent in 1570, the missal of Pius X came to predominate.”
He said when it comes to the question of which Mass most truly reflects the faith, one must consider the Mass is a reflection of that “living-breathing organism” — the church — that has been in a process of formation for two millennium. “
There’s a battle of history in this whole thing. Is the Latin Mass used today something that’s been celebrated for thousands of years or does it really mainly go back to 1570? Which tradition do you want? It depends on your definition of tradition. Even things like “the Last Gospel” and the prayers to St. Michael the Archangel are accretions that got put in and became traditional. So, do you want to go back to the 4th century or the 9th century or the 16th century? It depends on where you want to land.” As he sees it, the church’s strength lies in the worshipful rituals that have evolved among ethnic groups over time to become standard. The church, he said, is “not just a museum piece. At the local parish level remarkable things come out of the people. It’ll be interesting to see what effect the growing Hispanic community has on mainstream practices.”
Steve Mahowald, whose personal faith journey has ranged from a traditional Catholic upbringing to spiritual estrangement to a reawakening while serving time in prison, said the new Mass has “lost its focus” amid all the change. He echoes the view of other traditionalists who feel the bright, shiny, noisy new Mass impedes reflection. “It’s forced the people into a position where they can no longer contemplate. They can no longer sit back and meditate on the mystery of their redemption, which is their role in the Mass.”
The role of prayer at Mass, O’Conner said, is not just an individual matter but a communal one, too. “Something the Council (Vatican) looked at is some movement towards a corporate sense of worship. We’re still far from that, I think. It seems to me people are still pretty passive in church.” He said the notion of how the church prays can be looked at from different vantage points. “Is it a lot of individual separated units each contemplating and therefore implicitly in community? Or is it people growing in a sense of themselves more explicitly as a community and then offering worship as part of that body? People go to where they’re being touched.”
O’Conner believes people today “are looking for more of an integration” of old and new. He said the problem in discussing the relative merits of the Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo is that “you get an ideological battle. It’s either one or the other. And, to my mind, it’s more of an integration of the sense of the sacred and the community, instead of one or the other. I know a lot of parishes today are employing chant, either in translation or in Latin, at various celebrations. There’s also been a growing use of incense. I think we’ve learned something in the last 33 years, but not everything. It’s part of a development.”
Meanwhile, the Latins intend to remain true to their traditional beliefs. “I’m going to stay right here where I am,” said Sharon Cooney. “There’ll always be a remnant left.”
- Music and the new missal: a joyful noise? (beliefnet.com)
- Five False Myths About the So-Called Vatican II Mass (First in a Series) (catholicanalysis.blogspot.com)
- Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the Tridentine Mass privately, says head of SSPX (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- N.J. Catholic churches to begin using new translation of Roman Missal for Holy Mass (nj.com)
- Roman Catholic Church changes Mass to a more formal version (pennlive.com)
- The Story of My Dissent (opentabernacle.wordpress.com)
- Omaha’s St. Peter Catholic Church Revival Based on Restoring the Sacred (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Vatican Says Latin Mass Shouldn’t Divide Catholics (huffingtonpost.com)
- New guidelines for Tridentine Mass – 10 key facts (catholicnewsagency.com)