The Traditional Mass is Not a Spectator Sport

“The Traditional Mass is not a spectator sport.”

The statement rings out like a shot in the quiet, muggy, non-descript church. Oscillating fans buzz from various strategic locations. Incense wafts up from the thurible tucked away to the right of the altar. The congregants sit quietly, attentive. The women’s heads are covered, and everyone is dressed modestly. Nobody throws holy water at the rather oddly-garbed priest standing at the pulpit. Nobody gets up and indignantly walks out. It’s only my third time at the Priory of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but I already know that as far as Traditional Latin Mass enclaves go, this place is different.

Don Daniel Augustine Oppenheimer has made the statement confidently, peering intently over his small, frameless glasses at the small group of assembled faithful before him. His tonsure is an anachronism that brings to mind the monks of old. His habit is distinctly Augustinian, although I initially mistake it for Dominican, because how many of us ever see a religious in a habit anymore? (Up close, you can see the wear and tear on the fabric, the quiet but telltale signs of true vows of poverty.) His comfortable-looking cork and leather sandals are, I surmise, probably worn in the cold months of the year as well as the warm.  His face is kind, his manner of speaking academic. Referencing his desire for the faithful to participate in the Offertory chant and instructing them how to do so, he is making a case that I’ve never heard in eight years attending the traditional Latin liturgy of the Roman Rite.

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“Historically, liturgically,” he says, “the people have participated in the Mass. When they stopped participating, the old Mass went away. And by then, it was in such a state that nobody missed it.”

The Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem – Don Oppenheimer’s fledgling clerical institute of consecrated life – were established in 2002 by then-Bishop Raymond Burke in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. What ensued was a nine year search by the Canons for a permanent home. When I discovered them, the CRNJs had recently been received by Bishop Michael Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, WV. They began offering the sacred liturgy at the former St. James’ parish in Charles Town, WV, on Palm Sunday, 2011. One trip to the monastery cemented it as the most edifying place of worship I’ve yet discovered. By the time I was hearing Dom Daniel’s thoughts about the proper role of the faithful in the traditional liturgy, I was hooked. This – this – was what I had been looking for all these years.

The Canons exemplify what a sustainable traditional movement should look like. Although the order is tiny – only one priest and two seminarians – when you’re around them, you can’t help feeling like something big and important is happening.

“We celebrate the traditional liturgy with great joy.” This statement, another part of Dom Daniel’s sermon, helps me put my finger on what is so different. Never known for our collective charisma or charm, those who self-identify as “Traditionalist” can often be about as much fun as a leaky bottle of lemon juice at a paper cut party. This is ironic when you consider that we believe the traditional Catholic experience is a “pearl of great price.” We should, therefore (if there’s any sense in the world) be a pretty happy, personable lot. And to be fair, I’d say that a good many of us are. Nevertheless, it only takes one bad egg to spoil the batch, and we’ve got dozens. Consequently, our bad reputation persists.

This is why seeing this kind of Christian joy in action in a monastic community that opens its doors to public worship is something else entirely. For starters, the monks – Dom Daniel, Frater John, Frater Alban – are so noticeably kind. At the conclusion of Mass, they mingle with the faithful, whom they take the time to get to know by name. They sell produce, and fresh baked breads, employing monastic industry to support their work. And if you forgot your wallet? No worries. They’ll probably spot you a loaf. They remember not only who you are, but what is going on in your life, and when they say they’re praying for your intentions, you get the feeling that they mean that they’re doing so with great specificity.

What this does is create a sense of community – something that I have found to be lacking in many traditional parishes I’ve attended or visited. Often times, the Traditional Latin Mass is attended by people from every far corner of the geographic area, creating a loose federation of individuals that know each other by face or even by name, but have little in the way of a sense of real common bond. It’s a lovely thing to have coffee and donuts in a Church basement as a means of socializing with your fellow parishioners, but it’s a different thing entirely when a priest and his confrères make you feel as though you’re a part of something more cohesive and organic.

This communal aspect is almost familial, and is rooted first and foremost in the liturgical experience. The CRNJs believe in a participatio actuosa that is neither the frenetic, hand-holding around the altar experience of many post-Vatican II parishes, nor the austere, entirely interior participation of those more inclined to chapels of the Society of St. Pius X. It is a human, natural, anthropological form of worship, where one is engaged but not coddled, involved but never given the sense that it’s all about them.

The chants — which are beautiful, in a simple, country monastery kind of way—are sung antiphonally, meaning that the schola and the faithful alternate voices. The faithful are encouraged to join the altar boys in making the responses to the priest, since the reason the altar boys make those responses at all in the first place is to act as representatives of the faithful. These aspects of liturgical participation may not seem groundbreaking to anyone who has been raised on the Novus Ordo Missae, and will not even come as a surprise to those Eastern Rite Catholics nourished on the ancient liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, but to the average traditional Catholic, they are (seeming) innovations that border on scandalous.

Except that they are not innovations at all.

“The low Mass is not normative.” Dom Daniel explains to me. “It was never intended to be used this way. This liturgy we celebrate is designed for parish life.” And the liturgy he celebrates, by the way, isn’t quick – easily running 90 to 120 minutes every Sunday. Every Mass with the Canons is a High Mass, unless there are not enough members of the community physically present to assist in all the Mass parts.

If that sounds long to you, I suppose it is. But when there, one enters a sort of “sacred time” — an almost transcendental experience that feels as though it’s more of an eternal moment than a passage of minutes or hours. I would much rather spend two hours at a liturgy with the Canons than thirty minutes at a poorly said, silent-as-a-tomb low Mass. There’s no other way to explain my preference than to say that in the former, I encounter God; in the latter, I keep looking at my watch.

Dom Daniel likes to remind visitors to the Priory that they do things “by the book.” They are rubrically scrupulous to the 1962 Missal, even if that might cause shudders to anyone who carries around a tattered copy of Pope St. Pius V’s Quo Primum in their back pocket. Among devotees of the Gregorian Rite, there’s some controversy in the notion that the faithful should ever open their mouths, whether in prayer or in song, within the context of a Sunday liturgy.

Theologically, historically, you can brawl this one out to your heart’s content. I’ve seen evidence for both arguments. But common sense tells me that the “be seen and not heard” approach to liturgical participation is madness, invented by people who want Catholics to fall in line, not ask questions, and wear their complete docility on their sleeves. This is the kind of Catholicism that caused many of the faithful to abandon the Church in the mid-twentieth-century. Those fabled ruler-wielding nuns cracking the knuckles of anyone who dared think for themselves or struggled with a doctrine drove Catholics away from the Faith and into the arms of secular rationalism. I should know. My father was one of them. Luckily, he came back. Many didn’t.

People are people, and by their very nature they need to be a part of something to care about it. They need to find themselves invested. We worship God in community because no man in the Christian life is an island. We pray together because none of us were meant to go it alone. Finding a liturgy that is reverent is hard enough. Finding a liturgy that is reverent but also inclusive in a healthy, orthodox way is even more difficult. The Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem model this as part of a comprehensive approach to traditional Catholic spirituality. If the Traditional Latin Mass and sacraments are to not only be sustainable, but continue to grow, it’s the kind of model that more will have to follow.


  • Steve Skojec

    Steve Skojec serves as the Director of Community Relations for a professional association. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he earned a BA in Communications and Theology. His passions include writing, photography, social media, and an avid appreciation of science fiction. Steve lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Jamie and their five children.

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