More and more, Millennial Catholics are flocking en massé to traditional practices and devotions, to the horror of many. But is such fear necessary?
I awake to the sound of church bells, ringing. It is Sunday morning. Though I worked late the night before, I quickly brush my teeth, shower, and get dressed for the day. After putting on a navy blue blazer and adjusting my tie, I hurriedly dash down the stairs, and head to my car. As I turn my car on, the radio blares. I turn it off, and prepare myself for what is to come. After about 20 minutes of driving in silence, I finally reach my destination: a massive Gothic-revival church, built over 150 years ago, yet still standing tall. As I exit my car and dart up the marble church steps, I open the heavy, church door, and am greeted by the smell of sweet incense and the sound of utter silence — save a baby cooing . An usher hands me a program, and I look around the church, desperately trying to find an empty seat. It is filled to near-capacity. Providentially, a woman wearing a veil, smiling, gestures to me — there is room to sit next to her. As I enter the church pew, I genuflect, and upon entering, pull down the pew kneeler to pray a bit. My personal prayer is interrupted with the single clang of a bell — the Church’s greatest prayer has begun. Everyone who is able rises to their feet, as the pipe organ suddenly begins playing an ornate introduction to our processional hymn. This is the highlight of my week, the source and summit of my existence as a Christian: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Sing a “New” Church
When you think of “Catholicism”, what do you think of? Many movies which depict ‘old’ Catholicism, such as The Bells of St. Mary’s , offer an image of Catholicism probably not found in local parish: the Mass chanted in Latin, smoky incense rising to the ceiling, women dressed in veils, beautiful churches with vibrantly colorful stained glass, altar rails, and other external aesthetics of the Catholic imagination. But if you enter the nearby Catholic church, you probably won’t find much of this remaining. During the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Catholic Church realized it needed a renewal, a way of engaging — and not fleeing — the rapidly changing, modern world. Five months after shocking the world with the announcement that he was calling for an ecumenical council, Pope (now saint) John XXIII outlined his vision for this council in his first encyclical, Ad Petri Cathedram. According to John XXIII, the purpose of the Second Vatican Council was to promote a renewal of Christian life, a defense of Truth, and an “appropriate adaption” to ecclesiastical disciplines. Contrary to popular belief in the Church today, the purpose of Vatican II was not to ‘change’ Church teaching or ‘modernize’ itself to appeal to the secular world. In fact, according to John XXIII, the only thing that can unite humanity is truth. As he wrote,
“Once we have attained the truth in its fullness, integrity, and purity, unity should pervade our minds, hearts, and actions. For there is only one cause of discord, disagreement, and dissension: ignorance of the truth, or what is worse, rejection of the truth once it has been sought and found. It may be that the truth is rejected because of the practical advantages which are expected to result from false views; it may be that it is rejected as a result of that perverted blindness which seeks easy and indulgent excuses for vice and immoral behavior.”
Ad Petri Cathedram, #61 (emphasis mine)
Tragically, John XXIII’s vision for the Second Vatican Council never actualized into reality. While this is not an essay on Vatican II’s implementation and reception, I’ll just say this: if you actually read the documents of Vatican II (especially Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document on the sacred liturgy, the subject of this piece) and look at what happened in the Church during the decades following, you will see a tragic disconnect. Emboldened by Church reforms, certain theologians criticized the Church’s stance on artificial contraception, birth control, gay marriage, euthanasia, and women’s ordination. Theology, far from being “faith seeking understanding”, became an exercise in sleuthy sophistry, a forum which tolerated all sorts of “strange teachings” (Hebrews 13:9). Altar rails were ripped out, sacred art replaced by odd, modern conventions. Gorgeous cathedrals ripped down the high altars, and put a simple table in the front. Guitars, and not organs, took over the music. Chants sung at Mass for over a millennium were replaced by sing-songy tunes more appropriate for a night on Broadway than at the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. All of this (and more, trust me) was supposedly done to promote a more “modern” Catholicism, and nowhere was this modernization more painful and blatant than in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The proceedings of the Second Vatican Council have been a subject of hotly-contested debate. What was the purpose of the Council? How has the Council been implemented? Did certain members of the Council push for inauthentic reforms, or even succumb to the Modernist heresy? I will save that loaded topic for another time, but it would be helpful to read Dom Alcuin Reid, Matthew Levering, and John O’Malley’s writings on Vatican II, its reception, and contemporary challenges to its interpretation.
Regardless of one’s views on Vatican II, the average layperson in the pews faithfully attending mass from 1959 to 1969 was able to realize that something… changed. After all, nowhere has the rupture between the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church been evident as in the Sacred Liturgy. The priest, now facing the people, often fumbles with the microphone. Sometimes, before mass begins (or God forbid, during it), the priest or lay ministers will make announcements. The priest, thinking that he needs to “make people laugh”, will open the Mass with a joke or two, or begin to riff like Jay Leno on various topics of secular interest. Following Communion, after the sacred vessels are being purified, the priest will make an announcement about the youth group’s upcoming bake sale. Some deacons use the homily as a time to make “dad jokes”. Lay ministers walk by the tabernacle, where the Blessed Sacrament is reposed, as if they are in their living room, sometimes not even genuflecting or showing a sign of reverence. While some may claim that we have come a long way since the apocryphal “clown mass” & “puppet mass” (warning: watch those videos at your own peril), have we? Recently, a priest in Brazil decided it was a good idea to incorporate Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s summer hit, Despacito, into the mass. Have we truly rediscovered what it means to be a Roman Catholic, worshiping in the Roman Rite?
Certainly, it’s not like the 1940s were a liturgical paradise — oftentimes, ‘Low Mass’ (that is, mass with little to no chant/music) was the norm on Sundays. Priests would come out of the sacristy while mass was being celebrated, giving Holy Communion to parishioners before their own priest was even done with the Eucharistic Prayer. From the late 19th century in Italy, it became commonplace for the mass to feature opera music instead of Gregorian chant. Liturgical reform was indeed necessary. And yet, if we are honest, that liturgical reform still has not been fully realized. Many scholars have pointed out time and time again that how the average Catholic parish in America celebrates the sacred liturgy is not the way Vatican II envisioned it to be celebrated.
What has been the result? You tell me. I warn you, though; the statistics aren’t pretty. According to the Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), only 22% of baptized Catholics attended mass weekly in 2016, compared to 55% in 1965. Traditionally “Catholic” areas, such as New England, report historic drops in mass attendance and reception of the sacraments. In Boston (where I live), only 12% of Catholics attended mass weekly in 2016. To put this in perspective, that number is down from 70% in 1970. Parishes across New England are merging, if not closing. In Connecticut, the Archdiocese of Hartford announced that 26 of its 212 churches were closing, with 144 merging with others. Statistics point to the sad reality: fewer and fewer people are attending mass, participating in their local parishes, or even see the Catholic faith as an important part of their life.
Blame the culture, blame the Church’s stance on contraception , blame the priest dancing to “Despacito”— whatever you blame it on, the fact is that the Catholic Church in the United States has declined drastically since the 1960s. As mass attendance dropped following the Second Vatican Council, so too did the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession). Traditional devotions and prayers, such as the Rosary and novenas, fell out of common practice. Even seminaries were places of confusion, with seminarians engaging in homosexual actions, disrespect to the Blessed Mother was tolerated, and mentally-unbalanced, predatory men were admitted to Holy Orders. The 1960’s — 1970’s, ripe with the spirit of “revolution”, surely had its effect on religious vocations. From 1966 to 1999 the number of seminarians dropped from 39,638 to 4,826. In 1965, there were 180,000 religious sisters/nuns in the United States. As of 2014, there were only 50,000 — a 72% drop in merely 50 years. As of 2012, the average age of a Roman Catholic nun was 74.
And yet, death does not have the final word. Many Millennials, including myself, entered a Church which was still trying to make sense of its mission and focus in the modern world, while remaining true to Sacred Scripture and Tradition. And it is we, the Millennials, the same Millennials who allegedly “kill” everything from Applebee’s to department stores, who are “at the vanguard of Catholic renewal” (as one author notes). Indeed, hope has dawned. True, Millennials are the least “religious” generation thus far. But while these aforementioned statistics look grave, they simply do not tell the whole story. An extraordinary (no pun intended) phenomenon is happening now, right before the eyes of Church leaders and ministers — the rise of the “traditionalists”. As Matthew Schmitz, senior editor of the journal, First Things, writes:
Who are these terrifying young traditionalists? Step into a quiet chapel in New York and you will find an answer. There, early each Saturday morning, young worshippers gather in secret. They are divided by sex: women on the left, men on the right. Dressed in denim and Birkenstocks, with the occasional nose piercing, they could be a group of loiterers on any downtown sidewalk. But they have come here with a purpose. As a bell rings, they rise in unison. A hooded priest approaches the altar and begins to say Mass in Latin. During Communion, they kneel on the bare floor where an altar rail should be.
Rise of the “Trads”
Yes, it’s actually true. More and more, Millennial Catholics are flocking en masse to more ‘traditional’ practices and devotions. Churches which offer Mass in the Extraordinary Form are being filled by young 20-somethings and 30-somethings. Chapel veils, once considered a sign of women’s oppression, are finding more and more support among the young. Religious orders and communities which use the Latin Mass are bursting at the seams with vocations. Most recently, groups like the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and the Institute of Christ the King had to turn away applicants, because they could not fit any more men into their seminaries. Traditional religious orders for consecrated women religious have seen a surge in growth, as well. For the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, who rocked the Catholic music world with their album of Gregorian chant, the average age of a member is 26! What gives? Is this a sign of retrograde Catholicism?
Some think so. Pope Francis has expressed his confusion at this recent trend of young people seeking out traditional liturgy and devotions. Speaking in an interview this past November 2016, Francis lamented this growth:
“I ask myself about this. For example, I always try to understand what’s behind the people who are too young to have lived the pre-conciliar liturgy but who want it. Sometimes I’ve found myself in front of people who are too strict, who have a rigid attitude. And I wonder: How come such a rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something: insecurity, sometimes even more … Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.”
The claim that Latin Mass attendees are “rigid” is not a new one, by any means. Often, the charges are as such: those who attend the Latin Mass are ultraconservative in their theology, especially on things like sexual morality and Church doctrine. In other words, those who attend the Latin Mass, labeled “rigids”, happen to support Church teaching on matters of faith and morals. And, because these young trads actually agree with Church teaching, they are “rigid”, because they are trying to put God in a box (or something like that). Sometimes, the “rigid” label is applied with political connotation: Those who attend the Latin Mass probably voted for Trump and hate the poor. Many times, the claim is that, by focusing on the Sacred Liturgy, we are somehow neglecting important Christian teachings, like care for the poor and outreach to the marginalized. However, such a claim is made in pure ignorance. This is to say that every saint since the 16th century, including St. Vincent de Paul, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Jean Vianney, St. Peter Claver, among others worshiped in the Tridentine Latin form of the Mass, somehow discouraged social justice. It would take some serious mental gymnastics to ever defend this. If anything, one could argue that the Latin Mass fosters a more wholesome and excellent effort at living out Catholic social teaching.
We who attend the Extraordinary Form are used to such pejorative claims. We get it — we are “rigid”, “ultra-conservative”, and “backwards”. But here’s the thing — we’re not. If the fear is that we hate Vatican II, rest-assured, we don’t. If anything, we are the ones desperately trying to do justice to what the documents actually said. And when it comes to the Sacred Liturgy, the “source and summit of the Christian life” according to a document from the Second Vatican Council (LG #11), we are trying our best to preserve a sense of continuity between pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II. We’re often portrayed as snarky, close-minded, and excluding, but cannot the same be said about “liberal” Catholics ? Interestingly enough, many of us who prefer the Extraordinary Form actually attend the Ordinary Form often and faithfully. In other words, “traditional” Catholics attend mass in both forms… can the same be said in reverse? Is there any effort from opponents of the Latin Mass to actually attend it, without resorting to flippant claims against it?
Another claim made by some is that the Latin Mass promotes clericalism, that is, the belief that the priest is somehow better, holier, or more important than the people assembled. Their basis for this is in the priest’s facing ad orientem, towards the east, as pictured here:
“His back is facing us”. Such claims of clericalism assume a few erroneous things — first, that the Mass is somehow about the people. Hint: it’s not. The Sacred Liturgy is about God’s gift to humanity, which humanity (in the person of Christ, the High Priest) returns back to God. Thus, it is God — not us — who should be the center of all worship. Are Orthodox priests “clericalist” because they face ad orientem? What about Jewish people in their synagogues, or Muslims at the mosque — both religions which stress the importance of bodily, liturgical orientation? Facing a common direction was historically a sign of unity of mind and purpose — not a sign that the principal celebrant was rude or selfish.
If anything, those who consider the Latin Mass to be “clericalist” would do well to spend their energy fighting what I call “reverse clericalism”, such as when the priest decides to ad-lib the liturgy, making up his own words, paraphrasing the words the universal Church prays to God. For example, during the Agnus Dei, what you’re supposed to hear is: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” How many times, however, have we heard something different than the text as written? A few Sundays ago, I attended Mass, and I heard the following: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Jesus, the Gentle Shepherd, Prince of Peace, the One who takes away all of our sins, all of our failings, all of our weaknesses. Happy, how truly happy are we, who are called to partake in His Eucharist.” Priests who treat the Mass like a game of mad-libs are, ironically enough, clericalist in their own right, because they assume that the congregation is too dumb to understand the language of the Mass as it is already written. They take the Mass and make it about them, their personality, their tastes. Such actions are foreign to the nature of true, solemn, Catholic worship.
These are but a few, yet commonly-held objections by those who see the rise of the Trads as a dangerous thing for the Church. Personally, I don’t want to call myself a “traditionalist”, but I can see why some people do. There wouldn’t be a need to call oneself a “traditionalist” if many in the Church were not split on matters of faith and morals, if we didn’t have priests and even bishops acting in a way which scandalizes the faithful, and if there wasn’t a decently (yet aging) contingent within the Church who sees things like Gregorian chant and beautiful churches as a threat. Opponents of Tradition call us “nostalgic”, but if anything, it is they — and not us — who are nostalgic. They are the ones nostalgic for a time when the Mass was seen as an experimental play-thing for our pleasure. They are the ones who continuously try to make the Holy Mass “hip”, “relatable”, and “accessible” to modern man. However, they need to realize that we, the youth, do not want a religion which accommodates the latest fashion and novelties. Generations of younger Catholics feel like they were robbed of their rightful patrimony and heritage. On numerous occasions, I have received messages from people who, after I suggested they attend the Latin Mass, ask me: “Why did they get rid of this?” “Why doesn’t every parish offer it?” “Where has this been all of my life?”Our grandparents and great-grandparents built some of the most beautiful churches in the United States, yet they are closing at a rapid rate, leaving us with churches which look more like a spaceship than a proper temple for God. Many of us are scratching our heads, wondering how someone could ever think that, by ripping down beautiful churches, removing sublime chant, and simplifying the Sacred Liturgy to look like a gentleman’s handshake with a “nice” God, we would somehow be closer to God than the saints of numerous centuries who were nourished by liturgical beauty. However, change is on the way, and more and more people are rediscovering the beautiful traditions of our Church. The Trads are here to stay. And no,that shouldn’t be a cause for fear.
With the exception of a handful of wackos on the Internet, most of us who attend the Latin Mass are actually pretty decent people, if only by God’s grace. We are not liturgical idolaters, nor are we blind to the needs of our marginalized brothers and sisters. We do not hate community — we actually embrace it. After every Latin Mass I have been to in the past 6 months, there has been a coffee hour & social following. One parish I know of cooks meals every week for the homeless and economically disadvantaged. Another parish has mission trips to Appalachia, one of the poorest areas in the United States. Is this the work of individualistic, narcissistic haters of the marginalized? I don’t think so.
Still, that doesn’t mean we do not have work to do. All too often, we “trads” can huddle up in our own self-referential circle. We make the Latin Mass look like a prize for the perfect, a trophy for the “frozen chosen”. We have much room to grow, especially in the area of evangelization. The “Tridentine Option”, that is, the idolization of everything pre-Vatican II, the pejorative calling of our Holy Father Pope Francis “Bergoglio”, the refusal to listen to those who think differently than us — all of these and more contribute to our own self-fulfilling prophecy of being known as the weirdos who fetishize the ‘old’ just because it’s, well… old. All of these things are hindrances to authentic evangelization. This is an area where growth is needed, but such failings should not characterize every young person who veils.
Still, there are those in the Catholic Church, such as Pope Francis, who fear and worry when they see young people flocking to more “traditional orders”. Such fear is unwarranted and simply unnecessary. Young people desire truth, goodness, and beauty. If Instagram tells us anything about the minds of the youth, it shows us that they do not want these things for themselves, but rather have a desire to share these things with others. By defending Church teaching, the youth are saying, “Yes, I believe that this is the Truth worth living — and even dying — for.” By seeking traditional liturgy and devotions, they are manifesting such allegiance to Christ and Christ’s Church by seeking to remain faithful and true to the way Roman Catholics have worshiped for centuries. As Sacred Scripture tells us, “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn 4:8), and “perfect love” is found nowhere else than at the Sacrament of the Altar — the Holy Eucharist, which by sacred silence and altar rails is seen as the sublime, precious gift from God that it is. Still, for whatever reason, irrational fear regarding the rise of traditional practices remains.
Most recently, Father Anthony Ruff, OSB, expressed disbelief at the genuineness of this trend. Fr. Ruff, a renowned liturgical scholar and administrator of the left-leaning Catholic liturgy blog, Pray Tell, expressed the following:
The Catholic Church will have to live with the incongruity of a small but fervent minority at odds with its own liturgical vision, probably for decades. But long term, it can’t last. The arguments don’t hold up. The principles of the Second Vatican Council will not go away and will ultimately prevail.
You mean that the principles of the Second Vatican Council, which stated that:
- Gregorian chant has “pride of place” (SC #116)
- It is forbidden for a “priest [to] add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (SC #22.3)
- “There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (SC #23)
Oh, I sincerely hope so.