An Oasis Takes on Sand

You’re the new pastor over a church that offers a Mass that attracts hundreds of Millennial and Gen Z Catholics. That Mass has inspired lay apostolates for your parish, including one for men to serve at the altar. What do you do? Thank God for this gift that you inherited from your predecessor and do everything you can to see to its continued success? Consider doubling down and expanding it? 

If you’re the pastor at Cincinnati’s Dominican parish, you cancel it. 

Like many dioceses in the U.S., the Archdiocese of Cincinnati suffered through a decades-long silly season. Masses were celebrated sloppily. Religious instruction was vacuous, sacramental life moribund. According to one demographer, the archdiocese lost close to 100,000 Catholics (out of 550,000) during the first decade of the new millennium. That’s roughly the size of the entire neighboring diocese of Covington, Kentucky. 

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Relief came a dozen years ago with Pope Benedict’s appointment of Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr, first as coadjutor and then as ordinary. Though not a stirring orator, His Excellency is an effective administrator, and he quietly and resolutely put the Archdiocese on a sounder footing. 

Before his arrival, serious-minded Catholics would congregate in a handful of parishes that functioned as oases of orthodoxy. Prominent among them was St. Gertrude on Cincinnati’s East side. Long staffed by the Dominicans of the Province of St. Joseph, the parish featured solid preaching, no-nonsense liturgies, and vibrant lay apostolates. Its on-campus priory housed—and still houses—the province’s novices, and scores of young men in formation have been a familiar presence at the parish over the years. Indeed, many of those novices have come from St. Gertrude’s abundance of large families.

In 2019, St. Gertrude’s friars began offering the Dominican Rite Mass (DRM), the order’s pre-conciliar form of worship that dates to the decades after its founding in the 13th century. (It’s actually “pre-conciliar” to the 16th century’s Council of Trent, which exempted rites then more than 200 years old from its codification of the Mass.) The DRM includes many of the same features as the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), with its Latin language, generous use of incense, and inclusion of chant. And like the TLM, it attracts young Catholics; over half the worshippers at any given Mass are Millennials or Gen Z’ers. 

The province installed a new pastor shortly after the DRM began, and his absence from those Masses was hard not to notice. “Perhaps he’s just not a liturgy guy,” some hoped. And then the schedule began to change. From a weekly Sunday afternoon DRM that drew a good crowd despite its 4 o’clock hour, it was reduced to an irregular, quasi-monthly evening Mass. 

Even with that irregular schedule, the DRM for this year’s Solemnity of St. Joseph still attracted around 300 worshippers—and this on a Friday night! The sense of excitement that evening was palpable. The general feeling was, “Things may be crazy out there in the wider Church, but how wonderful it is to have this Mass!” 

Other oddities beyond the schedule crept in. The previous pastor erected a statue of St. Michael to the side of the sanctuary to support his parishioners’ recitation of the Prayer to St. Michael after Mass, a practice growing in popularity and with origins in the pre-conciliar liturgy. The new pastor had the statue removed, citing concerns about “architectural integrity.”

This site has published many pieces on Traditionis Custodes (TC), the current pontiff’s motu proprio that heaps scorn on the Traditional Latin Mass and restricts its celebration, so there’s no need to revisit its terms in detail. It is worth noting, however, that it does not extend beyond the Roman Rite (i.e., the TLM), and the rites of religious orders like the Dominicans fall outside its strictures. 

Yet it was easy to envision in the weeks following the motu proprio that St. Gertrude’s pastor might be tempted to invoke some sort of “Spirit of Traditionis Custodes” and sweep the DRM aside. I was privileged to belong to a group of men who served at the altar for the celebration of those Masses, and when the pastor used to whisk through the sacristy as we prepared for the liturgy, he tellingly did not pause to greet us or introduce himself.

So it came as no surprise when he announced, in a seemingly innocuous Q&A column in the bulletin, that the Dominican Rite Mass would be suppressed. To add insult to injury, the young Dominican who most recently offered the Masses was the decision’s messenger. And instead of a “Spirit of TC,” we were urged to—I’m not making this up—“Feel with the Church.” It was even suggested that Pope Benedict, who liberalized the celebration of older liturgies, would be sympatico with this decision. 

When I reached out to a longtime member of the parish to gauge his reaction, he told me, “Oh, I saw that coming when he started fiddling with the schedule. I go to the TLM parish downtown now.” One hopes that isn’t the goal of the suppression here: to chase away tradition-friendly Catholics. 

Life goes on at St. Gertrude. The Novus Ordo Masses are still reverent and generously offered three times daily. The preaching is still doctrinally sound. And yet one can’t help but feel with this decision that a once happy oasis is taking on a bit of sand. As for those Millennials and Gen Z’ers, they’re probably headed downtown. I may not be far behind them.

There’s an important lesson in this sad tale. Younger Catholics have no interest in liturgy wars or reliving the intra-Church battles of the 1970s. It’s not their fight, and in their minds that’s what old people do. They are proud of their liturgical heritage; and in a world full of profane distractions, they crave an encounter with mystery that comes from a sacred ritual. The Church’s post-Vatican II leadership faces a choice: recognize and respond to that need of the new generation of Catholics, or watch them drift away.

[Photo Credit: Dominican Friars Province of St. Joseph]


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