This column was written in response to “Millenium Medievalists – Lacking Ingenuity” by Rev. Gerry Lessard, O.P.,<published yesterday.
I was a weird little kid, I loved the Mass. From an early age I found a certainty and security in the traditions of the pre-Vatican II Church. My “I go to Mass” Missalette in my gloved hands and a small mantilla pinned to my hair, I knelt on the cold kneelers to prepare my heart alongside my father who kept a firm hand on my ADD restlessness.
As that weird kid, I had an elephant’s memory (“creepy” by one sister’s account) so the Latin and the hymns were quickly learned, and dutifully said and sung. My mother faithfully catechized me to the best of her ability, and I learned all the ins and outs of a liturgical life. Our family grew and thrived under this umbrella of collective obedience.
Then came Vatican II and with it, changes. Loving my Church, the speedy changes were accepted by me but nagging concerns at even the young age of nine also presented themselves. When folk singing entered the Church, the music minister welcomed it enthusiastically. Gone were the hard-to-reach notes, while clapping and handholding replaced adoration. A happy music minister, she trotted out her open marriage for all to see, often hugging her husband’s live-in “friend” while together they all held hands. With all the hugging and happiness going on to energize the parish, the priest took his cue and split with a woman.
After a steady stream of substitutes (Father Murphy, you were the best-so inspiring and a cheerful evangelist that gave me a hint of what a real relationship with Christ was), the parish got its permanent priest. I still don’t know how many of them functioned amidst the chaos and ever-changing policies of the Church then. I do know that a hemorrhage of good people was occurring and confidence was lost as the sheep scattered. The new priest retreated to his safe framework of liturgy with a circle of committed members and hunkered down. Since that wasn’t good enough for me as a snotty teen, I left. I observed divisions in morals, social issues, and obedience to Christ and His Church, and could not reconcile the rebelliousness to logic and reason that was often replaced with derision and poorly defended changes.
On the other hand, Vatican II dangled a carrot in front of my nose about the possibility of a more vibrant and evangelical Church. But how the Council was brought up and put in my way discouraged me and made my exit. I wanted the fullness of a relationship with my God and to be in Church that understood completely and passionately what it believed and why. The parish priest in what was probably his retirement billet seemed ill-equipped to answer with passion and love those demands I made of my Church.
Fast-forward and by a complete miracle, the Grace and Mercy of Jesus Christ again opened the doors of the Catholic Church to an older and humbler me. After wandering for years in the vast and incredibly diverse world of Protestantism, I came home. And not just to any parish, but one specifically designated (again, miraculously) for me to attend. This parish was by service and appointment, an anchor church in my area. Situated on a hill with the altar facing the East, the church can be seen in almost every direction. Beautiful, traditional, and stately, she is a beacon, and I was irresistibly pulled in and found Christ’s presence was overwhelming.
The traditions of pre-Vatican II and the evangelical purpose of Vatican II have been seamlessly assimilated. Latin Ad-orietum Masses, Regular Masses and extraordinary Masses are held and all are full. Mantilla’d young women holding babies with neat, well-dressed youngsters beside them and shored up on one end of the pew by a suited and groomed, yet hipster tattooed Dad upends any preconceptions about who attends. Those struggling with social issues such as gender identity and sin struggles such as homosexuality and living outside of wedlock, are welcomed openly and energetically. A diverse pile of humanity can be found at any given time praying and attending Mass. Every stereotype is to be found and is in the process of being sacrificed on the Altar every time the Priest lifted high the Host and we all kneel in adoration. A look around the sanctuary at this time reveals tears, humble heads bowed, closed eyes and wondering looks. The reverence for the Holy Eucharist is palpable and should you ever wonder if the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ Jesus is present, come attend Mass with me in this traditional Church. Oh, and we have incense-lots of incense.
Our music in this traditional Church is of course, traditional. My new-to-the-church young adult children poked me to point at the dates of the songs being sung, 1450 AD & 800 AD, dates that sent home to them the power and authority of an unchanging Church. The certainty and security was made beautifully and exquisitely real with the choir chanting and the spectacular pipe organ playing. Do we have contemporary music? Yes, in small groups, at studies and on the radio in offices, in Catechism classes, and wherever it is needed to bring Christ’s love into a gathering.
Our catechism is another case of pure and passionate traditionalism that is presented with such joy and purpose that it becomes contemporary. We do not for a moment minimize or dilute the teachings of the Church, in fact we ratchet up the learning and teaching. We write our own curriculum and implement the new with the old. Living saints visit, virtues are taught with interactive large groups, and then solid catechism straight out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is taught and retained.
We don’t have altar girls, but we have a steady stream of boys who attend “altar boy boot camp,” and go on to become some of the most reverential young men who will ever grow to head a family or serve in a parish. The girls are fine with this. There is no envy, only admiration, and often crushes on the boys. The girls instead serve and love, and do so creatively, joining girl organizations within the Church and helping out with ministries. These defined roles are traditional and in that tradition all are flourishing. They will save society and families.
Prayer is another tradition that in this Parish is as old as the Church and as new as the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. Tantum Ergo, The Pater Noster, Regina Caeli, in English-the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Rosary. Whether it is Latin or English, Spanish, or even Tagalog, prayers go up -and continually. With round-the-clock perpetual adoration, the massive doors are always open for prayer. Latin, though, is the anchor language and every member of the Church needs to know at least some basics. The attraction for many is in the sureness, the continuity, and the power derived from being a part of something bigger — the Body of Christ.
In a world where, as St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4.14, people, like children, are being tossed to and fro by every whim and doctrine, the results can be seen. Protestant churches are having to come to terms with the effects of their muddled waters of divorce, remarriage and contraception. The permission to commit these acts and remain in fellowship is gutting the denominations and in turn weakening society critically. This is enough to create an exodus to greater tradition and firmer boundaries-and it is happening.
People in my area have a track record of staying with one Protestant Church about three years before moving on to greener pastures for a variety of reasons, all due to the instability. While there are several other more progressive Catholic Churches in our area, this more traditional retains and grows its congregation much more dramatically. Grudging liberal Catholics attend because of the depth of service and quality of homilies, and the beauty and purpose of the traditional liturgy wins them over.
It’s often standing room only on Sundays where young men on their knees weeping with hands raised can be seen in the packed foyer, young families who fill the pews, while well-attended faith formation courses and small group meetings, all point to a healthy parish community. In this fertile environment the unyielding traditions are matter-of-factly affirmed as people flock in out of the confusion and weak-hearted compromise that they find so discouraging in other places of worship.
As my grandson said the first time he visited the church, “Grandma, this is real Church!”