Rome, We Have a Problem

The traditional Latin Mass held at the U.S. Capitol last week was a Jericho-Walls-crumbling moment.

If ever there were an emergency message to Rome, this is it. It might have been the SOS a year ago as some bishops witnessed large numbers of other bishops using their pastoral canonical privilege to bypass the iron-fisted prescriptions of Traditionis Custodes. But it is certainly the frightened alert in light of the Extraordinary Form Mass held at the U.S. Capitol last Tuesday.

It was a Jericho-Walls-crumbling moment. This time it was not Jewish priests and Israelites circling the city and blowing their horns but Catholics worldwide storming Heaven. Or, a parallel more recent, the cracking of the Berlin Wall by East Germans, but this time by passionate Catholic millennials who will not let the Mass of the Ages become a fossil of past ages. Its significance cannot be overemphasized. This Extraordinary Mass was celebrated at the request of the Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, in an archdiocese that has witnessed the near abrogation of all Traditional Masses. The irony could not have been sweeter.

Mr. Johnson intended the Mass to mark the anniversary of the FBI’s investigation of Traditional Masses as potential nests of domestic terrorism. The House properly investigated this enormity with the interrogation of its Director, Mr. Wray, at an open Congressional hearing. For all his wriggling, he was unable to escape blame for the shocking activity of his agents.  

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The Mass was originally intended for the Speaker’s small dining room—until he discovered that the request for attendance exceeded its capacity. It was then moved to a larger meeting room down the hall from the Speaker’s office. A team of young Catholic men and women from various House and Senate offices eagerly offered their assistance in organizing the event. 

But mere organization is an understatement. They went to work with the excitement and passion of men on a mission. Not so much on account of the anniversary, but because of the Extraordinary Form Mass being celebrated. The organizers enlisted the help of a priest known only to them, to protect him from any punitive action. The whole affair was executed with military precision and attention to detail.

It captured the attention of the world.

No sooner was the makeshift chapel disassembled that the Catholic press roared into action. First, the usual traditional online news organizations, then others. Most intriguing was reportage of America magazine, the Jesuit magazine of record for the avant-garde Catholic Left. Their headline screamed “Illicit Latin Mass held in the U.S. Capitol.” This was rich. 

Interesting that the New and Improved Society of Jesus would employ the dated word illicit. After all, their star theologians long banned that term from the theological language of the bien pensant. This is the same Society which proscribed anachronisms such as moral absolutes ages ago (except, of course, the new moral absolutes of the Woke Left). 

This is the Society whose sprawling university/college apparatus has become the humming factory of anti-Catholic Catholicism. Long ago, this ever-so-modern Society raised the flag of laissez-faire Catholicism. Yet here they were with the fury of Puritans hanging the scarlet letter round the neck of Hester Prynne. What might be next for the terribly au courant Society? A new iteration of the Salem Witch Trials?  

But why would there be alarm in some chanceries? Because this was not the trajectory planned by the foes of the Traditional Mass. After sixty years of the conventional Novus Ordo wisdom, its votaries were certain that the Traditional Mass would, by this time, long be forgotten. They were quite certain their efforts over the past half-century or so would have secured its place on the ash heap of history. It would go the way of meatless Fridays, Sacred Heart devotions, novenas, and mortal sin. 

They did not plan on a Youth Revolution catapulting the Traditional Mass into full view again. 

Two historical accidents contributed to this revolution: a pandemic virus and Traditionis Custodes. When Covid struck and churches closed, Catholics eager for Mass turned to the Internet. As search engines purred, thousands, tens of thousands, stumbled upon this strange Traditional Latin Mass hitherto unknown to them. They found its transcendence, beauty, and palpable mystery infectious. 

They began their own investigation into its origins. Their inquiry opened new horizons, suggested a host of questions, and created an irresistible hunger. Not lost on them was Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum, when he shook the very foundations of conventional liturgical praxis of over a half-century:

What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.

As the pandemic subsided and churches unlocked their doors, the available Traditional Masses swelled. At last, a religion for grown-ups.

Similarly, the promulgation of Traditionis Custodes. Many a curious Catholic wondered what this proscribed rite of Mass could possibly be. What kind of malice did it carry to deserve such a universal condemnation? Its evil must be unprecedented. This banned Mass must embody a fearful danger to souls to earn immediate suppression, like some cancer spreading on the Mystical Body of Christ. 

What other conclusion could be drawn? After all, the papacy rolling out its most brutal sanctions against it boasted its “non-judgmentalism,” going to the “peripheries,” toleration of practices never before countenanced by the Church for the sake of “accompaniment,” and affection for creating “messes.” It was developing new paradigms (like “contextual theology”) that would make condemnations a thing of an embarrassing medieval past. Mustn’t a thousand flowers bloom? For such a papacy to act so out of character had to mean that they were confronting a malignancy beyond words. One could almost hear the wailing of Voltaire, “écrasez l’infâme!”

Otherwise, why such a draconian censure? What was this tantalizing and unparalleled new wickedness?  

Curiosity was piqued. To the internet for answers. As the eyes of millennials fell upon the illicit practice, they were stumped. This outlawed Mass seemed to speak to them of God, His mysteries, and His love. It bespoke a solemnity that fed their starved hearts. It presented an ordered economy of truths whose power they could not resist. This is wickedness? This is deserving of the stamp of illicity? As the eyes of millennials fell upon the illicit practice, they were stumped. This outlawed Mass seemed to speak to them of God, His mysteries, and His love.Tweet This

Young minds vowed to dig more deeply. They saw themselves as twenty-first century Columbuses searching for a new world. Even within the claustrophobic boundaries of Traditionis Custodes they still discovered the treasure and found themselves transformed. This was not wickedness. This was Heaven.

Officialdom grimaced. Theologians penned diatribes. Liturgists growled.  

Rome, we have a problem.  

You could almost hear the frightened chancery apparatchiks and approved knowledge class: something is afoot that should never have been. Decades of settled reformed liturgy appeared at risk. Liturgical terra firma was shaking beneath their feet. More than a half-century of liturgical scholarship was slipping from their hands. 

No worry. After all, the numbers crowding these Masses were minuscule compared to the general Catholic population. Yet this furnished scant consolation. For in these Masses’ seemingly insignificant numbers was a passion, a devotion and commitment that was inexplicable. More vexing was their deference to Church authority, their modesty, their irenic spirit, and their, shall we say it, desire to simply be good Catholics. 

Rome, we have a problem.

To all this, Graham Greene in Brighton Rock; in perfect tones of Catholic orthodoxy, he wrote, “I cannot understand, nor can you, the appalling strangeness of God’s mercy.”

[Photo Credit: Ed Condon/Pillar Media]

Author

  • Fr. John A. Perricone

    Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona University in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies. He can be reached at www.fatherperricone.com.

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