When the news broke last month regarding Pope Francis’ latest motu propio,“Traditiones Custodes,” regarding the imposition of restrictions upon making the Latin Mass (TLM) available, like many Catholics, I was disappointed in the lack of charity shown to those with an affection for TLM. Pope Francis stated that he made his decision “to promote the concord and unity of the Church,” and, while his methods seem to promote the opposite, like it or not, he has a point. There is little doubt that having two different forms of the Mass available has increased division within the Church. In the past 14 years since Pope Benedict XVI issued his apostolic letter (Summorum Pontificum) acknowledging the right of all priests to say Mass in the Extraordinary Form (EF), which is in Latin, many Catholics have left their local congregations behind and moved to an EF parish, often many miles away. More seriously, I personally know Catholics who refuse to attend Mass at all unless it is offered in the EF form (and vice versa). To me, this seems like choosing to commit mortal sin rather than participating in a form of the Mass that one does not prefer. The popes, neither Francis nor Benedict XVI, I suspect, hoped for that end result. And now that the proverbial horse has escaped the barn, it seems to me that Pope Francis is trying to shut the barn door.
I suppose Pope Francis’ edict could be more sinister than that, and if it is, time will tell. But for now, having two very different forms of the Mass available in dioceses has created less and not more unity among the faithful. This is not to say that there is no fruit coming from TLM, because I know there is. I have witnessed first-hand the return of fallen away Catholics after they experienced the Mass in the Extraordinary Form (EF). I have seen my own son respond to the reverence and rituals of TLM in a way that he never responds to the Mass when he attends the Ordinary Form (OF). It has made me wish on several occasions that we had the opportunity to attend TLM on a regular, weekly basis, and if one was available within our community, we certainly would. But that is not an opportunity that my family has, and I admit that I am very saddened by this latest decision of the pope’s because it makes it less likely that my family will have that opportunity in the future.
And so, while the hierarchy of the Church debates, the rest of us must look forward. I fear that the division already at play will now become even more acute in the Church. Will entire Catholic communities of traditionalists spring up around a central church that offers TLM? Will more families pull up roots and move to the diocese or parish that suits them best? Of course, this is already happening, and as the Church becomes more and more polarized (as our country has), I predict it will continue. I can’t say I blame them, as it is very, very tempting, especially for those of us with children, but I wonder, where do we draw the line? A diocese is only as faithful and true as its bishop, and bishops change. Do we keep uprooting and moving around to follow the bishops we like, or trust? Will we eventually end in schism, as so many predict? If we can’t follow our pope, who do we follow?
I ask these questions because I have been through a similar situation before, albeit to a much lesser degree. For ten years, my parents and I drove two hours every Sunday to attend Mass. Not TLM. We drove two hours every Sunday to attend Mass in the Ordinary Form, even though there was an Ordinary Form of the Mass being offered at the Catholic church located five minutes from our house, a church we had attended for ten years prior to that. What made us leave one parish for the other wasn’t bad homilies or unfriendly parishioners. What made us leave was a lack of reverence and acknowledgement by the priest and the laity in the church of the Divine Presence in the Eucharist. Even though Jesus was present on the altar, nobody acted like He was there, even the priest. In those ten years, my family’s faith faltered until we broke ties and found another church many miles away that put the Blessed Sacrament first and foremost in the Mass. I remember falling in love with the Mass in that newfound church, where they used incense, real gold chalices, genuflected, spoke a few prayers in Latin, and used hymns that dated back to the 1870s and not the 1970s. I suspect I felt a lot like many Catholics feel when they attend their first Mass in the Extraordinary Form. Everything about it fed my senses, and I wanted to learn more about this religion that I’d always had but never fully experienced. The Holy Spirit set me on fire, and I soon found myself signing up for religious pilgrimages, joining RCIA courses, and counting down the days until I could purchase my first catechism when it was finally published in English in 1994. In short, I was experiencing a spiritual renewal in my Catholic faith.
But there were consequences. The Catholic parish in my hometown, the one where they’d watched me get confirmed, where they’d hosted a graduation party just for me when I graduated high school, where we had friends who would call on us and check on us if we didn’t turn up for Mass, that parish felt rejected by our decision to leave them and become part of another parish miles away. In a short time, many of our former parishioners no longer associated with us, nor we them. They were “one kind” of Catholic now, and we were now another. We were becoming “traditionalists” and they were the “liberals”, and none of us wanted to be like the other.
It’s the oldest trick in Satan’s book. Before he destroys, he divides, and we are all pawns in his evil game. Perhaps Pope Francis is as well. Some Catholics certainly think so, even going so far as to refer to him as the “Anti-Christ” and refusing to accept him as our Holy Father. I agree, our Holy Father certainly has led us into confusion, but so many leaders are guilty of the same, yet, their position still requires our respect, even if they do sometimes misuse their authority. Often times, they are just not very good at leadership, and we should pray that the Holy Spirit gives them the gifts necessary to be authoritative and benevolent leaders of those under their authority.
But for our part, we must guard our souls from anything that appears holy but leads us towards disunity. For now, there is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” Church. Let’s not forget that. Whether we find ourselves in the pews of a liberal-leaning parish, or an extremely orthodox Latin Mass parish, or somewhere in between, keep in mind that, for the most part, holiness comes from within us, and by receiving the sacraments, and not from the form of Mass that we attend.
When my parents and I left our little hometown church thirty years ago, I believe we were prompted by the Holy Spirit to do so. I say this because, in hindsight, I can see how the Holy Spirit was leading me to the places where I needed to be in order to truly learn about and appreciate the Catholic faith and all its beauty and teachings. If you are a Catholic who found yourself drawn to TLM during the past decade, I suspect that the Holy Spirit led you there, as well. Perhaps you were like I was, lukewarm in the faith, poorly catechized, uninspired by the humdrum new age music and tired of homilies without substance. Perhaps you left all that and found your true faith in an EF parish, making it worth all the sacrifice it took to be there. And perhaps now, you feel like you are going to lose all of that, and that the rug has been pulled out from under you, and that you (or your children) might lose your faith altogether without it.
I suppose that’s a lot how the disciples felt when the day came that Jesus left their side, and it was their turn to take the Good News to the far corners of the world, as he commanded. At that moment, perhaps they felt weak in their faith because He was not as obviously present as he’d been before. How much easier it must have been to be Jesus’ disciples when He walked beside them, and onlookers could see Him in their midst! Now, not only did it take a true act of faith to believe Jesus was still with them, but the disciples also had to face the lions, and be the seeds of the faith in lands where they were not welcome nor understood. They had to convince people who had never seen this man called Jesus that He was real, He was there, and that He was God. What an overwhelming task this must have been, and I suspect they were not comfortable about this approach Jesus was taking to spread the faith on earth. I wonder if the disciples wanted to rebel instead of just accept that they were now going to have to live and worship among those who didn’t believe nor see what they had seen. A future of persecution and martyrdom awaited them when they chose to take their witness into the temples filled with non-believers. In my mind, it’s not unlike those who have been comforted by the real presence of Jesus in the EF of the Mass now being called to take their experience and wisdom and share it with those who have not had this same, deep encounter with Our Lord, as challenging as that will be.
For my own story, God didn’t allow me to stay in my comfortable little Catholic bubble where I was able to practice my faith surrounded by other Catholics who believed and practiced like me. Twenty-five years after my parents pulled their family out of the parish I’d grown up in, I found myself back in it, this time with my own family. Things had changed there some; there was at last, a tabernacle with a sanctuary lamp lit beside it, and they finally had a crucifix behind the altar, praise God! But the homilies were still fluffy and light, the parishioners friendly yet irreverent, there were still no kneelers, no statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, no mention of saints, no traditional Catholic hymns, and (true story), no confessional. It only marginally felt like a Catholic church.
There was a part of me that wanted to turn and run. How would I be able to maintain my faith in such an environment, let alone catechize my children? But instead of running, we have stayed. We stay and we pray, and we try to be missionaries in our own parish. It has not been easy. We have been ridiculed. We have been marginalized. We have been tested and are still being tested. But through persistent prayer, slowly, ever so slowly, the Holy Spirit has been working, and today, our church has kneelers, statues (albeit very small ones), and we regularly sing traditional hymns. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, we have been sent a very reverent priest. We have First Friday adoration (yes, my family is the only one that attends, but that’s okay!), and we have monthly confessions in a make-shift confessional. Sometimes, we even use Latin prayers. The seeds are growing, ever so slowly. And I realize now, in hindsight, that had my parents and I not left that parish thirty years ago, we wouldn’t have been prepared to return. We needed that time away to grow strong and learn our faith before we could become missionaries in our hometown. Much like Jesus spent three years forming His disciples before sending them out into the world, the Lord gave my family time and led us to the right places and people who prepared us for where we are now. Today, although going to Mass is far from the experience I long for it to be, through the sacraments, answered prayers, and a handful of inspiring holy people, Jesus continues to give my family the grace we need in order to stay in the mission field.
And that is my challenge to anyone who has seen their faith grow and flourish by being part of TLM community but now is at risk of losing the liturgy they love. Perhaps you will have the opportunity to stay where you are and TLM will not be taken away from you, and if so, what a blessing that must be! But if you do not; if circumstances beyond your control take you away from the traditional liturgy that you love, perhaps Jesus is asking more of you. Perhaps it is His way of telling you that you are ready now to go out on your own just as His disciples did. Perhaps it is time to become a missionary in your own hometown. Take what you have found in traditionalism and bring it to the rest of us as best you can without being uncharitable. Trust that if you are the seed, God will water the soil, and his church will grow both in number and in love for the Eucharist. And when you find yourself the only one wearing a veil, or saying the rosary, or at adoration, or kneeling during the consecration, know that you are not really alone, that the angels and saints surround you, and that your example is sorely needed, whether anyone else appreciates it or not. Our world, our church, is divided enough. Be strong, be faithful, and pray. Pray that someday, in God’s good providence, we will all be united by only one form of the Mass, and that it will be “true, good and beautiful," as it should be.