Well, whatever your situation or objective, look no further than religion writer Paul Elie’s recent article for The New Yorker entitled: “What’s Behind the Fight Between Pope Francis and the Latin Mass Movement?”
While the rest of us spent most of last week in church attending the various Holy Week liturgies that lead up to the Easter feast, it looks like Paul Elie’s schedule was equally jam-packed … with probably anything other than learning about the Latin Mass movement.
As I think we would all benefit from Paul’s insights into this very apropos subject, what follows is the full text of this April 9th feature article, with some pertinent commentary peppered throughout to call attention to its more brilliant moments.
We are a simple people, we Trads, who do not ask for much, looking only for a word of acceptance from our father the Pope. A photo-op, perhaps. Or a passing kindly word.
So pull out some of that candy from the Easter bunny and enjoy.
Paul Elie: On January 15, 2022, the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, celebrated Mass at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, at Mott and Prince Streets, in Manhattan. The cathedral, erected in 1815, is the predecessor to the present cathedral on Fifth Avenue, and it puts in mind the Catholicism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Irish, German, Italian, and Polish immigrants settled in great numbers in New York City. The Mass itself also called Catholic history to mind: it was the “Mass for the Americas,” a work for choir and orchestra commissioned by Archbishop Cordileone and incorporating texts in English, Spanish, Latin, and Nahuatl—the Indigenous language spoken by Juan Diego, whose visions of the Virgin Mary in Guadalupe, in 1531, figure into the foundation story of Catholicism in Mexico.
Cordileone, clean-shaven, wearing a white cassock edged with lace, offered the Eucharistic prayers in Latin while facing away from the congregation, as priests did prior to the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965. In doing so, he took a stand in an unlikely pair of controversies. By facing the altar, he affirmed the prerogatives of a movement of Catholics devoted to the Latin Mass—a movement that has met resistance at the Vatican under Pope Francis. Cordileone, who was unvaccinated and did not wear a mask, was also defying a COVID-19 city ordinance compelling venues hosting public gatherings to require masks or proof of vaccination.
Here we must join Paul in acknowledging the holy (and, which is apparently significant, clean-shaven) Bishop’s bravery in incorporating in a small part the language of the Church, along with English, Spanish and Nahuatl, into this commissioned choral/orchestral tour of the languages of the Catholic Americas. We also commend him for defying the COVID-19 ordinance that was no longer in effect in NYC churches in January of 2022.
Paul Elie: Since then, the controversies have hardened into direct conflict. The Traditional Latin Mass, long a source of sustenance for Catholics leery of the reforms of Vatican II, is now a focal point for Catholics who disdain Pope Francis. The death, in December, of Benedict XVI, the Pope emeritus, left Catholic traditionalists without a champion in Rome. Benedict’s views on the Mass were complex, but his preference for Baroque vestments (red slippers, a gold-threaded cope) had made him a figurehead for old-school Catholicism.
It's true, Paul. We traditionalists were devoted to Pope Benedict for his love of flowery vestments. If only all MSM journalists understood us like you do.
Paul Elie: His long efforts to close a breach between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X—a cadre of Latin-reciting priests whose leaders were excommunicated in 1988—had emboldened the T.L.M. movement, and a directive he issued in 2007 had quickened the movement’s spread.
We admire your effort to make this article concise by leaving out trifling details that might bog it down unnecessarily, such as the subsequent lifting of the excommunications of those same leaders or any indication of what that 2007 “directive” might have entailed.
Paul Elie: Then, in early February, the publication of a leaked report from an F.B.I. branch office declaring that Latin Mass enclaves in Virginia harbored antisemites and members of the “far-right white nationalist movement” led traditionalists to claim that a religion- averse deep state was targeting them, and the Bureau’s retraction of the report soon afterward (it did “not meet the exacting standards of the F.B.I.,” the Bureau said in a statement) only sharpened their sense of themselves as a persecuted minority.
Above all, a pair of terse “instructions” issued by Francis have stirred opposition. In July, 2021, the Pope required priests who wish to celebrate the old Mass to seek permission from their bishops, compelled the bishops to get clearance from the Vatican (which Benedict’s directive did not do), and forbade bishops to authorize the founding of Latin Mass groups in individual dioceses, which would serve to build up the movement as an alternative form of weekly worship. In February, he reiterated that position. The instructions were meant to tamp down the T.L.M. movement lest it deepen, as Francis put it, “the peril of division” in the Church. But, by requiring a bishop’s permission, they gave fresh authority to the bishops who cherish T.L.M.—such as Cordileone and Michael F. Burbidge, in Arlington, Virginia—and prompted Latin Mass enthusiasts to decry a Vatican crackdown on true believers.
Again, we thank Cordileone for his work championing his cherished Latin Mass. We further express our deep gratitude to Bishop Burbidge for all the work he has done to defend the Latin Mass in Arlington, Virginia. As the bishop with the honorable distinction of having cancelled the greatest number of Latin Masses in his diocese, he certainly seems to have his eye set on the highly coveted title of “The Remnant’s Man of the Year.”
Paul Elie: They also undermined the image of Francis as a “pastoral” Pope who urges Catholics to go “to the margins” and uses a personal touch to bridge the gaps between doctrine and practice, and they drew the expressly forward-looking Pope deeper into a sustained conflict about the status of the Catholic past.
On the surface, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about.
I know, right?? Thank you!
Paul Elie: Latin Mass adherents are a tiny minority of practicing Catholics, and most Church traditionalists—bishops, priests, and laypeople alike—are content to take part in Masses offered in the language they speak in everyday life. (In the Archdiocese of New York, Mass is offered in more than a dozen languages.)
If I were the nitpicking type, I would question whether our Paul knows what a “traditionalist” is, if he thinks that only a tiny portion of us care whether the Mass is in Latin. But he’s done so well so far, we’ll give him a pass on this one.
Paul Elie: But the T.L.M. conflict has become a stand-in for other conflicts: over the decline in Catholics’ participation in Mass and the quality of the liturgy; over the outward-facing, progressive orientation of Francis’s pontificate; and over Vatican II itself, which traditionalists see not as a thoroughgoing reform but as something between a modest course correction and a betrayal of the Church’s patrimony.
If you’re worried Paul might deviate from his course and delve more into the other issues Latin Mass Catholics are concerned about (the decline in mass attendance seems important, no?), rest assured he does not.
Paul Elie: For many centuries, especially after the Council of Trent concluded in 1563, the Latin Mass, celebrated according to strict rubrics under the supervision of Rome, was the main thing that all Catholics had in common, and a sign of their difference in the eyes of the wider world.
Paul Elie: During the suppression of Roman Catholicism under Queen Elizabeth I, Jesuits in England celebrated Latin Mass [Remnant comment: known to most at the time as “the mass”] in secret— and some who were caught were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Charles Dickens, in “Pictures from Italy,” describes arriving in Modena on a Sunday in 1844 and stepping “into a dim cathedral, where High Mass was performing, feeble tapers were burning, people were kneeling in all directions before all manner of shrines, and officiating priests were crooning the usual chant, in the usual low, dull, drawling, melancholy tone.” In Graham Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter,” Henry Scobie, at Mass with his wife while carrying on an affair with a younger woman, wonders whether he is damned: “Hoc est enim Corpus: the bell rang, and Father Rank raised God in his fingers—this God as light now as a wafer whose coming lay on Scobie’s heart as heavily as lead.” In “The Godfather,” the grisly murders of various dons are intercut with scenes from a baptism during a Latin Mass. The lyrics that Bono sang in U2’s breakthrough video “Gloria”—“Gloria, in te domine / Gloria, exultate”—echo the Latin Mass, and countless other baby-boom Catholics have characterized regular immersion in the old Latin rite as the formative experience of their childhood. “Dominus vobiscum. Et cum spiritu tuo,” Anna Quindlen wrote in the Times, in 1986. “These are my bona fides: a word, a phrase, a sentence in a language no one speaks anymore.”
In one of the most hard-hitting paragraphs in the piece, Paul uses examples from literature and film to remind us that the Mass did in fact exist throughout history.
Paul Elie: By then, the Latin Mass was twenty years out of use. The vast renewal of Catholic life and practice brought about through the Second Vatican Council began with the reform of the liturgy, building on several decades of efforts inspired by historical research or trends in the arts. Moving the altar away from the far wall; turning the priest to face the people; shifting the proceedings from Latin to the vernacular (a Latinate word for the everyday language of a people or region); enjoining people to recite the prayers themselves, rather than just listen to the priest murmur Latin words they barely understood—all these reforms were meant to elicit a “full and active participation” in the liturgy. The new approach began to be instituted in 1965. Plenty of people complained. A 1969 papal document— with the Latin title “Novus Ordo”—reaffirmed the changes. A sense of grievance became a sense of loss, which Garry Wills described in his book “Bare Ruined Choirs” (1972): “Even the Mass, the central and most stable shared act of the church, had become unrecognizable to many—a thing of guitars instead of the organ, of English instead of Latin, of youth-culture fads instead of ancient rites.” The essayist Richard Rodriguez, a decade later, observed: “No longer is the congregation moved to a contemplation of the timeless. Rather, it is the idiomatic one hears. One’s focus is upon this place. This time. The moment. Now.”
Yet the new center held. The folk-Mass trend subsided. Tasteful, historically evocative vernacular Masses emerged, some flecked with Latin here and there. Pope John Paul II, who was deeply traditional in matters of doctrine and morality, led open-air Masses that were profoundly nontraditional: huge crowds, people waving banners and snapping photos, the Pope sporting regional garb (a headdress in Mexico, a staff and shield in Kenya) and reading from scripts in local languages. Two generations of Catholics came of age with no memory of the old ways. The ads in the Saturday Times announcing “Traditional Latin Masses” at a chapel on Long Island seemed like postings of a secret society.
Our man of few words will, again, not bog you down by readdressing the aforementioned issue of a decline in Mass attendance since the introduction of these “tasteful, historically evocative vernacular Masses.”
Paul Elie: In a way, they were, but the T.L.M. movement grew and came in from the cold, stimulated by forces akin to those which had led to the doing away of it in the first place. Some Catholics found the no-longer-new vernacular Mass rote and dispiriting. The thirty-five-year run of John Paul and Benedict tilted the clergy rightward, and many of the most ardent Catholics in those years were the most traditional ones, who sought out the Latin Mass for the qualities celebrated in literature, music, and art, as well as in the vast corpus of Catholic thought prior to 1965.
It was no surprise that many such people would be conservative politically or that they would see the government as hostile to religion —a tendency heightened during the pandemic, when New York and other states imposed stricter restrictions on gatherings at churches than in supermarkets or restaurants.
At face value, to one who knows nothing about the Traditional Catholic movement, it might seem like a jump to suddenly, without precedent, associate those who appreciate the old Mass in Latin with anti-government pandemic-deniers. But Paul has no time baby us by tracing out these connections for us in crayon.
Paul Elie: Nor was it a surprise that the archbishop most prominent in the effort for liturgical restoration, Cordileone …
Again, we really have been slacking in expressing our appreciation for Cordileone! Perhaps I’m living under a rock, but I admit I did not know he was the most prominent personage in the effort for liturgical restoration. I really must invite him to dinner sometime.
Paul Elie: … was the one who tangled most visibly with a progressive Catholic politician, telling Nancy Pelosi, whose congressional district includes San Francisco, that he would withhold Communion from her at any Mass where he was presiding because of her support for legal abortion.
It stands to reason that only Traditionalist Catholics would pay any mind to the murder of innocent children. Careful there, Paul. Mainstream Catholics might misinterpret this as giving the Trads the moral high ground …
Paul Elie: Six months after celebrating the Mass of the Americas, in Manhattan, Cordileone led a simplified “parish version” at the Meritage Resort and Spa, in California’s Napa Valley, during the summer conference of the Napa Institute—a deep-pocketed traditionalist advocacy group that has sponsored and funded a range of T.L.M. initiatives alongside its own efforts to build Catholic support for an unregulated free-market economy and to reshape the Supreme Court along traditionalist Catholic lines.
Again, if I were a nitpicker I would once more question whether Paul knows what Traditional Catholicism actually is. Because Traditionalism in Catholicism and politics are two very different things. But I digress…
Paul Elie: And the T.L.M. movement’s association with antisemitism is not completely a figment of an F.B.I. eld officer’s imagination: shortly after Pope Benedict welcomed the schismatic Society of St. Pius X back into the Catholic fold in January, 2009, an interview from a few days earlier surfaced, in which its leader, Bishop Richard Williamson, denied the reality of the Holocaust. “I believe there were no gas chambers,” he said. (The Vatican suspended him from priestly duties, and he was later ousted from the Society.)
For those of you struggling to follow along, let’s analyze this controversy at face value, equipped only with the information presented to us by Paul: It is obvious that there are issues with antisemitism within the T.L.M. movement as a whole because of the opinion of one man, a member of a schismatic organization not part of the Church at the time, who was later suspended from his priestly duties AND kicked out by his own Latin Mass order for questionable actions. Seems tenuous, but we are not the religion writer of The New Yorker and obviously do not have all the facts. (Although I think we can all agree that Bishop Williamson was never THE leader of the SSPX, no?)
Paul Elie: The broader movement is clearly distinct from the S.S.P.X., but Pope Francis is not wrong to see the movement, even at its most benign, as a challenge to Catholic unity in general and to his pontificate in particular. And yet it’s also true that a range of dynamic movements within Catholicism—for gay rights, for women’s ordination, for more open church governance—could be seen by some as threats to the unity of the Church. That’s not a sound reason to suppress them, and, more than those movements, the T.L.M. has a definite precedent in past Catholic practices.
What, then, should Francis do about it? His three-day stay in the hospital prior to Holy Week (he had bronchitis, a spokesman said) served to focus public attention on the limitations imposed by his age—he is eighty-six—and his precarious health. La Croix’s Vatican correspondent, Robert Mickens, mused that “perhaps it is time for him to start expending his energy more strategically.” In the past year, Francis has deepened ties with Muslim leaders, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the government of China, among other entities. Now he could seek rapprochement with the T.L.M. movement, reaching out to traditionalists in the Church he leads.
There’s no need for Francis to make a journey or appoint a commission; he could do it right from his desk. In his role as the bishop of Rome, he could authorize a Latin Mass celebrated by a bishop who shares his outlook—say, Cardinal Arthur Roche, who leads the dicastery that oversees liturgical matters—thus decoupling the T.L.M. movement from the opposition to his pontificate. He could make sure the T.L.M. gets some attention at the synod in Rome this October, which is meant to be a space for dialogue among Church leaders. Or he could do the kind of things he has done to affirm the value of other movements—invite a Latin-loving bishop for a photo op at his desk, or make a vague but appreciative remark in an interview.
At the moment, the T.L.M. movement is still on the margins of the Church; to keep it there, paradoxically, Francis has to go to the margins and engage with it personally.
Out of the mouths of babes. If only Pope Francis could read these few wise words.
If the Pope would only, in his infinite mercy and kindness, reach out to us on the margins we would be content to lie at rest there. Or maybe just leave us alone.
We are a simple people, we Trads, who do not ask for much. Our previous beloved pontiff Benedict XVI, remember, won us over merely by wearing “red slippers and a gold-threaded cope,” as mentioned in the beginning of this article.
Yes, a simple people, looking only for a word of acceptance from our father the Pope. A photo-op, perhaps. Or a passing kindly word. We would even accept a soft pat on the head. If the Pope would only, in his infinite mercy and kindness, reach out to us on the margins we would be content to lie at rest there.
Or maybe just leave us alone. As the inimitable Henry Higgins might say:
Well after all, Elie, I'm an ordinary Trad,
Who desires nothing more than an ordinary chance,
to pray exactly as he likes, and do precisely what he wants...
An average Trad am I, of no eccentric whim,
Who likes to live his life, free of strife,
doing whatever he thinks is best, for him,
Well … just an ordinary Trad…
Let Pope Francis in your life …
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