Old Latin Mass Makes a Comeback
By Tim Townsend
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Melinda Scanga (left), of Jefferson County, prays during Latin mass at St. Francis De Sales Oratory. (Dawn Majors /P-D)
The church's windows are broken, its beige bricks are sooty, its paint is chipped. The 300-foot steeple, a hallmark of the St. Louis skyline, is pulling away from its foundation. One day it could tumble into traffic on Gravois Avenue.
St. Francis de Sales church, often called the Cathedral of South St. Louis, is an ideal home for a group of Roman Catholic priests devoted to restoration. But restoring this 19th-century neo-Gothic church to its former glory is only one reason St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke assigned the priests to oversee St. Francis de Sales.
The real mission of the group, called the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, is the restoration of the traditional Latin Mass.
The 1,600-year-old Mass isn't used much today, but it's making a comeback.
That effort will get a boost Friday when Burke — one of the most devoted supporters of the old Latin rite among U.S. bishops — will ordain two deacons of the Institute at the Cathedral Basilica. Burke has ordained members several times in Italy, where the institute is based outside Florence. But Friday will mark the first time members of the 17-year-old institute will be ordained in the United States and the first time the traditional Latin liturgy will be used in an ordination here in more than 40 years.
Most of the world's 1 billion Catholics are familiar with the celebration of Mass in their own languages. The traditional Latin Mass, also referred to as the Tridentine Mass, Classical Latin Mass, Old Rite, Classical Roman Rite or Mass of Ages, was largely set aside by the church in the 1960s when the Second Vatican Council approved changes in the liturgy.
The Latin Mass is thick with pageantry, solemnity and symbolism and is often referred to as "smells and bells" for its generous use of incense and music.
A papal decree, which Vatican officials have said should be released soon, is likely to expand the use of the ancient Mass. The decree — called a motu proprio — is expected to allow any priest to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass without the permission of his bishop.
Vatican watchers say the decree could be released July 14, the date, in 1570, when Pope Pius V published the liturgical text that would be used to celebrate Mass for the next 400 years — until the reforms of Vatican II.
In today's church, priests are free to celebrate the post-Vatican II liturgy, or new order Mass, in Latin — though most don't. What a priest cannot do without the permission of his bishop is celebrate the traditional Latin Mass as it was structured, worded, sung and heard in 1962, the last time it was changed before Vatican II.
Audio slideshow of the Latin Mass
Because two generations of American Catholics are accustomed to hearing the Mass celebrated in English, it's unlikely most will want to switch to a liturgy that is longer, more formal and celebrated in a language they don't understand.
But some Catholics would welcome a choice.
Eric Kraenzle, 44, of Webster Groves and a member of St. Pius V parish in St. Louis, said he thought it was a good idea for the Vatican to expand the use of the traditional Latin Mass.
"It would be a nice option," he said. "I'm not sure it's for everyone because of the language barrier, but why not let people experience that tradition if they want to?"
In St. Louis, Catholics who love the traditional Latin Mass have a bishop who shares their feelings. Burke was the first bishop to bring the Institute of Christ the King to the United States when, as bishop of LaCrosse, Wis., he invited its priests into his diocese. He also established another group of religious men dedicated to the old Latin rite, called the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem, while in Wisconsin. He has since moved that group to St. Louis.
Burke declined to be interviewed for this story.
The institute is a "society of apostolic life" within the church. Its priests are not quite part of a religious order, nor are they quite diocesan priests. They live in community as religious order priests do, but they take no vows.
A papal decision reinstituting the wider use of the church's ancient liturgy would be a celebratory moment for the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest.
Monsignor Michael Schmitz, the institute's U.S. superior, has said the motu proprio "will be like seeing your mother all dusty and in rags on the streets; you go up to her and rip off the old dusty clothing and below that you see the golden clothes that she has brought for the most beautiful ball she has ever attended.
"Many of those Catholics who love the traditional Latin Mass are part of a younger generation, people who are seeking a connection with the ancient history of their faith, said the Rev. Karl Lenhardt, St. Francis de Sales rector. For instance, he said, the average institute priest (there are 50 around the world) is in his 30s, and the institute has 70 young men in various states of training.
The Rev. Eugene Morris, a theology professor at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, said younger Catholics who have no memory of the old Latin Mass are attracted to the "traditional symbols and rituals that in some ways communicate more clearly the historicity and mystery of what we are celebrating."
Outside St. Francis de Sales on Sunday, Daniel Frasca, 28, of St. Charles said he attends Mass there "because it feels more like church here than at other Masses.
"Natalie Kummer, 31, a mother of four from Florissant, said she liked to experience the same Mass as Catholics a millennium ago. "It's more reverent," she said, "more beautiful."
St. Agatha Church, also in south St. Louis, hosted the archdiocese's old Latin Mass before it was moved to St. Francis de Sales in 2005. According to Lenhardt, about 300 people came to one traditional Latin Mass each Sunday at St. Agatha. At St. Francis, the number is close to 1,000 for two Masses each Sunday, he said.
On Sunday, about 500 people gathered in St. Francis, for a 10 a.m. Mass that lasted more than two hours. Before Mass, and for about 45 minutes after it began, the line for confessions was 10 deep at three different elaborately carved wooden confessionals inside the church. Most of the women and girls wore black or white lace head coverings. The army of priests, deacons, subdeacons and altar boys in the sanctuary, which is separated from the nave by an altar rail, wore an array of ornate vestments. Six members of the Knights of Columbus, dressed in full regalia and bearing swords, escorted the clergy to the altar before the Mass began.
The pace of the traditional Latin Mass can seem slow and drawn out to those used to the newer liturgy. Long periods go by while the congregation sits still, watching the rituals in the sanctuary, praying and listening to the chanting of the choir. But it is exactly this meditative quality of the Mass that attracts some Catholics.
Mostly, though, it is tradition — as important in Catholicism as Scripture — that draws so many people to the old Latin rite. With the traditional Latin Mass, "we merge into a stream that has its origins in Christ himself, and that goes until the end of time," said Lenhardt.
Before high Mass on Sunday, Kummer stopped her son Joseph outside the church to wipe a smudge of dirt from his forehead. She seemed excited but contemplative as they walked through St. Francis de Sales' large wooden doors into a two-hour ritual that would be the same this Sunday as it was for some of the earliest Christians.
"They used to say Mass was the most beautiful thing this side of heaven," said Kummer. "That's what it's like here."
My comments: All in all, for a secular paper, a very nice story, and largely favorable. The article starts out with some doom and gloom about how the Church building needs restoration (it does, but is presently still gloriously beautiful). You think it will be the typical, "these people are stuck in the past" hatchet job. But it isn't.
Fr. Lenhardt at de Sales is quoted well, noting that many of the people who choose the traditional Mass are young, "people who are seeking a connection with the ancient history of their faith."
Fr. Morris, of the local archdiocesan seminary, states that the traditional Mass "in some ways communicate[s] more clearly the historicity and mystery of what we are celebrating."
A member of the oratory is quoted saying "it feels more like Church here than at other Masses." Amen.
The reporter notes that close to 1,000 people go to Mass at St. Francis de Sales Oratory each Sunday,and that the several confession lines were jammed all day. You don't see that everywhere, do you?
How better to some up the experience than to quote Fr. Lenhardt about the traditional Mass: in it, "we merge into a stream that has its origins in Christ Himself, and that goes until the end of time."
Oh, as an aside, I don't know where the local paper gets the inside info on the next expected date of the motu proprio. We hope, but so far all predictions have left us disappointed.
If you can make the ordination Mass at the Cathedral tomorrow at 1pm, you won't be disappointed.