That Good Old Tridentine Mass

Is Its Attraction Due to Intrinsic Superiority or Its Link With Ancient Tradition?

One of my sisters, a Park Avenue housewife, is not exactly a regular churchgoer, but she has duly had each of her three children baptized, and later, packed off to Saturday morning religion classes. When she brought the youngest to the font three years ago, the priest delivered a lengthy lecture on the meaning of the sacrament. “Yes,” she answered and threw him one that dumbfounded him: “When are you going to bring back the Latin Mass?”

My sister, sleeping in, scrambling family eggs and leafing through the New York Times on Sunday mornings while, two blocks away, an earnest priest lards his sermons with psychobabble in a vain effort to get off-and-on parishioners like her back to regular churchgoing, is hardly atypical. For us, it was eight years at the wrong end of a yard-stick in a Baltimore Catechism-era parochial school, four years of majoring in Lanz dresses and curtsies to the nuns at our snooty Catholic convent school, and then — Vatican II. The rest has been silence for my sister, who used to terrorize us other family members when we were younger for not kneeling up straight enough during the Consecration. It has been silence for many Catholics. Surveys show that Sunday Mass attendance, at about 65 percent in 1968, is now under 50 percent among the baptized.

Others among us stumble dutifully to church, wince at the felt-appliqué altar cloth, daydream politely through the upbeat sermon, and try to give the benefit of the doubt to Father Bob up there and to the nice lady cantor with her substitute-teacher glasses trying her darndest to get us to sing along to Yahweh in the spirit of what was called “liturgical renewal.”

What if they brought back the old Latin Mass. Would my sister be back there, wearing her saddle shoes and her mantilla, turning the strings in her St. Joseph’s Missal, and fixing reproving stares at those of us who weren’t up to her high standards of public piety? Well, they did bring back the old Mass, in a way, when Pope John Paul II issued his indult in October of 1984, allowing the limited resumption of the Tridentine Mass — the version of the liturgy St. Pius V universally mandated in 1570 after the Council of Trent and which Pope Paul VI superseded exactly 400 years later with the Novus Ordo, the Mass that is said in today’s parish churches, mostly in the vernacular. The indult contained certain provisos: The Tridentine Mass cannot be said in regular parish churches except in rare circumstances. But hankering for the old Mass is strong among Catholics who can remember life before Vatican II. A Gallup survey conducted in 1984, some 14 years after the Nov us Ordo became the rule in Catholic churches, revealed that 40 percent of U. S. Catholics wanted the Tridentine Mass back instead. Some 53 percent said they would attend Tridentine Masses if they were offered at convenient times and places.

I counted myself in that crowd in 1984, so I cheered 1when the indult came down and even bravely put myself through a “security clearance” process set up by the nun who ran the liturgical office for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where I lived. The process was designed, of course, to screen out Lefebvrites and others who believe Pope Paul made a mistake when he instituted the Novus Ordo (some, known as “sede vacantes,” do not believe Paul — or John XXIII or John Paul II — is a genuine successor to St. Peter. Lefebvrite churches regularly popped up and withered like mushrooms all over Los Angeles County during the late 1970s. They could usually be identified by their newspaper advertisements alongside the Holy Rollers and Theosophist Society (such ads are not comme it faut for a church aligned with Rome) and their triumphalist names that suggested they would endure until the consummation of the world and beyond. There was the Church of Christ the King, operating briefly out of a YMCA basement in Pasadena and touting its “genuine Latin Mass.” The shadowy Church of the Holy Angels flickered on and off in Arcadia.

As was required, I wrote a letter to the liturgical nun explaining that I belonged to none of these churches and that I considered John Paul II to be indeed a real pope. I told her that I had been president of my high school Latin club and that the main reason for my interest in the Tridentine Mass was my love of Latin. This was true. I was also tired of priests wearing serapes instead of vestments; budding Isadora Duncans posturing about the sanctuary in a Jules Feifferesque art form called “liturgical dance,” left-over hippies from the 1960s strumming sacred songs on consecrated guitars, and the bloodless liturgical translations promoted by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (usually embellished unimaginatively by the celebrant). It was all too much liturgical renewal for me, and I longed for some re-oldal instead. I rejoiced when I got back my letter of Tridentine acceptance, along with a list of places where I could attend a licit version of the Mass.

Tridentine enthusiasts complain that the indult restrictions limit the Mass to out-of-the-way locations. This is not so true in Los Angeles. One of the authorized chapels offering a Tridentine Mass once a month, St. John Vianney, is part of a Catholic boys’ school in the Fairfax district, Los Angeles’s geographical and emotional heart, with the Farmers’ Market, the county art museum, Cantor’s delicatessen, and the CBS television studios all just blocks away. So, I expected a huge crowd of Catholic nostalgists in their late 30s or early 40s. There were, in fact, a mere 75 or so of us that April Sunday. One was an aged but vigorous lady who assailed me on the church steps for not wearing a hat. “Modernism is a heresy,” she boomed. I was weak on my church history then, so I was confused; the only “modernism” I had ever heard of was a turn of-the-century architectural movement of which Gaudi was a leading exponent. (I also thought at the time that The Wanderer referred solely to a rock hit of my youth by Dion and the Belmonts.)

Hatless and somewhat abashed, I proceeded inside. Most of the congregation seemed to be of the same age and sex as the imprecatory lady, although there were a few college-aged men and a handful of men clearly past their college years and just as clearly in pairs. Not many families: The most noticeable was a well-dressed Hispanic-looking pair with a large brood of daughters. He wore the lapel pin of the ultra-conservative Society for Tradition, Property and Family; she, veiled in a white mantilla, cast about soulful glances from huge black eyes. As the Mass progressed, an irreparable rift developed among members of the congregation. One faction wanted to engage in a “dialogue Mass,” a 1950s precursor of today’s vernacular Masses in which the congregation voiced the Latin responses to the priest. Another faction opted for complete silence. Members of the silent crowd shot periodic killer looks at members of the dialogue crowd.

The dialogue crowd had other problems, for the celebrant was evidently of the opinion — widely held among older priests during my childhood — that the Mass, to be said properly, should be said at the speed of a bullet train. I have read that Hilaire Belloc was a proponent of this belief and suspected strains of Modernism (the heretical variety) in priests who could not say the entire Mass, from Introibo ad altare Dei to Last Gospel, in 20 minutes. Those hasty Masses were certainly popular among my parochial school classmates, because they left the entire rest of the Sunday free for learning how to drive and hanging around the Thrifty drugstore. This was more nostalgia than I had bargained for.

After the high-speed Mass, I talked to some of the other worshippers. It appeared that a good portion of them were ex-members of the Church of Christ the King and similar establishments. “We’re going to go back to our private Masses,” threatened the heresy lady, a member of the “silent” school, to a dialoguer. “You can keep your Novus Ordo!” she declared. Her companion, a more tactful aged lady, offered to send me a subscription form for The Remnant, the newsweekly for Catholics who find The Wanderer too liberal. One of the young men explained that he, too, used to frequent underground Tridentine Masses while a student in Berkeley. Had these folks fibbed in their letters to the nun at the liturgy office?

I decided to stick with it, bought a hat (I have since come around to the heresy lady’s position that it is more reverent for women to cover their crowning glory in the house of God), and returned to St. John Vianney several times. The size of the congregation shrank slightly, but its composition remained about the same: the heresy lady and her more sweet-tongued companion, the TPF fellow with his doe-eye wife and gaggle of daughters, the youthful refugees from the Berkeley Mass underground, and the handful of male duos. Many of the regulars, I learned, traveled from chapel to chapel in vast Los Angeles County, driving scores of miles from their homes to attend the old Masses. St. John Vianney acquired a new Tridentine celebrant, and the aesthetic and devotional quality of the liturgy increased geometrically.

ThE next Mass, on the feast of Pentecost, was exquisite: flowers covering the altar, six tall candles aflame, red silk vestments (not polyester, like many of today’s chasubles) on the priest, and a choir of monks from a nearby abbey singing Gregorian chant. This was the real thing. Not everyone in the congregation was completely happy, however. One man complained to the priest afterwards that it was improper for the choir to be positioned inside the sanctuary. These people were hard to please.

Soon afterwards, I moved to Washington, D.C., and, recently, I embarked on a survey of the Tridentine Masses there. The Archdiocese of Washington offers only one licit Tridentine Mass — a twice-monthly liturgy in the chapel of an old-folks home in suburban Maryland. Several other churches advertised Latin Masses in the Washington Post and the telephone book, so I decided to attend these as well. I was not sure whether attending an unauthorized Mass was a sin, but I concluded it might be permissible in the interests of journalism. Each time, I made up my Sunday Mass obligation at my parish church, and I resolved to abstain from both the Communion rail and the collection plate at the illicit Masses.

My first stop was the Triumph of the Holy Cross Monastery, which advertised a “traditional Tridentine Mass” in the Post. The monastery was actually a decrepit brownstone off Washington’s 14th Street, a broad avenue of broken glass and boarded-up shop windows known primarily for the number and tenacity of its prostitutes. The Triumph of the Holy Cross had fallen on very hard times indeed. “We made several errors of judgment,” explained its prior (and, perhaps, pope), Peter Regalado, a tiny bearded and barrel-bellied ex-Capuchin dressed in a Franciscan robe and bedroom slippers. Regalado’s Patriarchate of the Americas, as he called it, split off from Rome about a decade ago and was rocked by its own schism last year. Several priests and bishops, all apparently ordained by Regalado himself, absconded with all the church funds, he explained. Creditors quickly foreclosed on the church condominium and limousine, leaving the operation some $35,000 in debt.

There weren’t many monks about the musty-smelling monastery. In Regalado’ s office, cluttered with unwashed coffee cups, Malachi Martin novels, and computer software, I met only a pallid, Bryl-creamed Father George (“He’s Novus Ordo, but we forgive him,” said Regalado), a tall, silent black fellow introduced as Jimmy, and Jane, a young black woman who seemed to be related to Jimmy. The main impetus behind the Patriarchate’s founding seemed to be a lack of fondness for Pope John Paul II. Regalado, a Cuban, said he thought the Polish-born pontiff was a double agent for the Soviet Union. A computer-generated church newsletter, Peter’s Barque (motto: “Ubi Petrus est, ibi est ecclesial), pronounced anathemas on John Paul and also on the Phillips 66 petroleum company, apparently a church creditor.

Regalado celebrated the Mass in a makeshift chapel that had once been the brownstone’s parlor. It was fitted with castoff pews from some other church that had gone defunct, wrinkled sheets that served as altar cloths, and a variety of crucifixes. The Mass did not draw a large crowd. In attendance were only Jimmy, Jane, me, and a frail and pious-looking young man who seemed also to have been drawn to the place by the Washington Post ad. Nor was the Mass exactly “traditional,” as advertised. Regalado spoke Latin, while Father George assisted him in English, both working from a small, St. Joseph’s-style missal atop the altar. That day was the day known under the old order as Quinquagesima Sunday, but neither priest seemed punctilious about proper liturgical colors. Patriarch Peter wore a wrinkled alb and a brocaded white stole, while Father George wore a surplice and a plaid stole.

I prayed throughout the Mass that no serious blasphemies would occur, but what really made me tremble was when Patriarch Peter announced he had no prepared sermon and would preach ex tempore. He came out nonetheless with a surprisingly coherent homily that compared favorably with many I had heard from parish pulpits, woven around the day’s Gospel about the blind man healed by Jesus because he had enough faith.

My next unauthorized Mass was at the St. Athanasius Roman Catholic Church in Vienna, Virginia, a town about 15 miles southwest of Washington which was once rural but has recently been subdivided into fake farmhouses. St. Athanasius is marked on road maps of the area, but it is not officially recognized by the Diocese of Arlington. Its pastor, the Rev. Ronald Ringrose, who did not respond to requests for a telephone interview, was ordained in Baltimore, from which he is on official or unofficial leave. The “parish” has an estimated 200-300 members, and former White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan often worships there. Dating from the early 1970s, it is highly organized, with a board of directors, a parish center and even coffee after Sunday Mass. The Sunday I attended, the church —actually the converted garage and basement recreation room of a private house — was filled to the last seat. This meant about 90 or 100 worshippers.

The congregation was one of the few I have seen in a Catholic church in recent years that was not predominantly female. The sexes were distributed about evenly, as they are in life. There were representatives of every age group: a tiny baby in mother’s arms, Little League-aged boys (rare as gargoyles in churches nowadays), a pair of Cyndi Lauperesque teenaged girls wearing knee-length tights under their skirts, uniformed midshipmen from the Naval Academy at Annapolis some 50 miles away, middle-aged couples and so forth. All the females wore mantillas or hats. One woman, dressed entirely in green for St. Patrick’s Day, wore a mantilla and a hat.

The church, like the Triumph of the Holy Cross Monastery, had a yard-sale look to its cramped interior. Everything, from confessional to pews, had clearly been made for other churches. A giant plastic statue of the Virgin Mary gazing soulfully heavenward had obviously barely survived some other pastor’s decision that such large-scale concretizations of devotion were outre. But the crisp white alter cloths — once universally required — were starched to within an inch of their lives. Someone clearly cared about this church.

ThE altar cloths echoed the meticulous demeanor of Father Ringrose himself. Preceded by two well-trained altar boys and attired in expensive-looking Lenten-purple silk vestments, Ringrose was clearly a man with an eye for the classy touch. He even wore a biretta, like the priest in Open City. He looked no more than 37 or 38, too young for much of a pre-Vatican II seminary education, yet he had mastered the smallest nuances of traditional sacerdotal gestures, down to the last genuflection and cupping of the fingers. Where had he learned such things? From late-night movies on television?

The modus operandi of Ringrose and his congregation seemed to be to pretend that Vatican II and the chaotic and demoralizing two decades that followed it had never happened. When he and the altar boys were not reciting letter-perfect Latin, a choir of mismatched voices in the rear of the church warbled favorite Catholic hymns of the 1950s, including the fabulously awful “Jesus, Thou Art Coming” before Communion. One could imagine rows of portholed Buick Specials parked outside, mushroom soup-and-macaroni casseroles in the oven. If you joined these schismatics, you could wish away everything you hated about contemporary middlebrow Catholic liturgy — strained hugs during the Kiss of Peace, lady lectors in pantsuits reading the epistle in nasal tones. You would have instead, the middlebrow Catholic liturgy of 30 years ago, not of the highest aesthetic quality, perhaps, but reverent and grounded in the Church’s ancient language. Get thee behind me, Satan.

Towards the official Church, the mood at St. Athanasius seemed more of sorrow than of anger. Prayers for the pope were plentiful during this Mass, prayers for bishops entirely lacking. St. Athanasius disclaims ties with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, but literature about Lefebvre and by his followers abounded on a parish hall rack. One, bearing a drawing of a swinging censer, listed 62 reasons why Pope Paul’s Mass makes unacceptable concessions to Protestant doctrine. Some of the reasons seemed awfully niggling: that the Confiteor isn’t recited twice in the new Mass as it was in the old, for example. The objections to the Novus Ordo expressed by St. Athanasius’s treasurer, Bill McCaughey, seemed more aesthetic than doctrinal: “It too closely resembles a Protestant service.” The woman in green explained that she attended Mass at her parish church in Washington as well as St. Athanasius and had no doctrinal quarrels with the former; she liked the St. Athanasius liturgy better. According to McCaughey, St. Athanasius has been trying to bury the hatchet with the diocese of Arlington, so far without luck. “They’d have to accept the validity of the new Mass, and they won’t,” said a diocesan spokes-man.

The most dispirited Tridentine Mass of all was the twice-monthly legitimate one at the senior citizens’ home, Carroll Manor, in Hyattsville, Maryland. About 40 middle-aged, middle-class Washingtonians scattered themselves politely in a blond-wood chapel built to hold a couple hundred. One man functioned as a self-appointed choir, droning the Credo at a dirge-like pace. I spotted only one worshipper whose advanced age indicated she might be a resident of the home. Other residents chatted and socialized in the hallway outside the chapel while the Mass progressed. St. Athanasius parishioners say they never go to Mass at Carroll Manor because the altar faces the congregation.

Was this, then, the true constituency for the Tridentine Mass? Cranks, nonjurors for the Novus Ordo, and a handful of genuine nostalgists willing to drive a few miles to relive the past? The Tridentine Mass might be like the passenger train, which everyone claims to love and few use. William Robert Opelle, a San Juan Capistrano, California stockbroker who heads the Traditional Mass Society, said the first indult-approved Mass in his Orange County drew an overflow crowd of 1,400. The second such Mass attracted only half that number, and now there are just 250 steady worshippers. Other churches have reported similar falloffs once the nostalgic novelty wore off.

Defenders of the Tridentine Mass insist the low numbers reflect deliberate efforts by bishops to discourage the old Mass. They are partly right. Currently, only about 40 churches and chapels throughout the United States offer Masses under the indult, often at odd hours. “They schedule it at 4 a.m. in a mortuary chapel,” complained Anthony Lo Bello, former chairman of the Latin Liturgy Association. He was exaggerating, but not by much. Indult Masses are characteristically scheduled early in the morning or at noon or afterwards so as not to interfere with regular Mass schedules. And the Mass, with its fixed form, certainly does not fit in with the advanced liturgical thinking that prevails among the hip priests and nuns who staff diocesan bureaucracies. Lo Bello added another factor: “A lot of bishops never really learned Latin very well in the seminary, and they associate Latin with everything they hated about seminary life.”

Some perfectly orthodox Catholics question whether the Tridentine Mass was ever all that it was cracked up to be. “I have no interest in the Tridentine Mass,” the Rev. Peter Stravinskas, a scholar of the Mass and former head of the Latin Liturgy Association’s New York chapter, said in an interview last year. Pius V’s Mass, cobbled out of various versions of the Roman liturgy during the most bitter years of the Reformation, tends to be repetitive and overly didactic, said Stravinskas.

Those two puzzling back-to-back Confiteors, for example, one recited by the priest, the other by the altar boy, were put there by Pius V for a reason: to refute Luther’s theory that the priest was not a special intercessor with God. The Tridentine Mass’s dramatic and ecstatic Roman Canon, preserved in Pope Paul’s Mass as one of four alternate Eucharistic Prayers, is a literary and devotional jewel, but it is far from the oldest canon. It dates only from the eighth century, whereas the short, oft-derided Second Eucharistic Prayer in Paul’s Mass goes back to the fourth century. Furthermore, although Pius V ordered that his Mass never be changed, various Popes tinkered with it down through the centuries, including Pope Pius XII. The new Mass, with its simpler structure and its interweaving of Byzantine and pre-Tridentine Latin elements into the traditional ones, “is theologically and liturgically far superior,” Stravinskas maintained.

All this suggests that the depth and persistency of nostalgia for the Tridentine Mass may not be so much due to its intrinsic superiority as to the fact that it speaks to what Auberon Waugh has called the “atavistic” element of every religion with staying power. “For some reason that I do not understand,” wrote Waugh, “this sense of community with ancestors, of belonging to an ancient tradition, of treading where generations have trod, is an essential part of religion’s survival.” The Tridentine Mass, with its claims to be “immemorial,” to be the Mass of the Catacombs, speaks directly to this sense.

The powerful undercurrent of the atavistic that runs through the Tridentine Mass, no matter how quickly or listlessly said, derives not so much from the carefully prescribed prayers that Pius V ordered included to refute the Lutherans and the Calvinists but bows over the altar, covering the host and chalice with his head and hands, to consecrate the bread and wine. That protective gesture dates from the Church’s earliest years, when the priest had to guard the Body and Blood of Christ from intruding Authorities (the priest faced the wall in the old Mass, not to make a doctrinal point, but because the first Masses were said upon the graves of the martyrs buried in walls). The ancient priestly gesture of bowing over the bread and wine has subsisted through the centuries through numerous rites and schisms. The Armenian Church, separated from Rome for 1,500 years, preserves it; so, until recently, did the Anglicans.

Supporters of the Tridentine Mass are pushing for a broadening of the 1984 indult that would require it to be said at least once every Sunday in every parish church. This, say Opelle and others, would give Catholics a realistic chance to vote with their feet for the rite they prefer. The obstacles to such a step are formidable — retraining a whole generation of priests and altar boys, for starters. And my own unscientific survey indicates that the support among non-Lefebvrites is just not there.

There are less draconian ways to revive that crucial sense of the atavistic, the “immemorial,” in the Western liturgy. One obvious way is to encourage a more widespread use of Latin in the Novus Ordo. Latin was not supposed to disappear like the California condor after Vatican II; indeed, the council fathers specifically directed that it be preserved. This might also encourage a revival of the 1,500 years of beautiful Latin church music that is now heard more often in concert halls, and even make it easier for fallen-away Catholics from the pre-Vatican II era to return. Resumption of the ancient bodily gestures — as is done at the London Oratory, where the priest says the New Mass facing the old high altar — is another simple step. For priests who prefer to say Mass in English, Spanish, or other languages of their flocks, simply speaking slowly and reverently and sticking close to the text can work wonders. That is the Pope’s technique.

This last Holy Saturday, after my forays into the Tridentine world were finished, I attended the Easter Vigil service at a Benedictine abbey in Washington. It was all in the ICEL’s plodding English, but the music was fine, and even secular humanists would have had second thoughts about the divine. The monks cut nothing from the long Easter vigil liturgy, and it lasted a full two-and-a-half hours. We all started by lighting candles in the abbey courtyard from a huge, blazing bonfire — a pre-Christian fire transformed into a symbol of the light of Christ. Then came the lighting of the Paschal candle with its Alpha and Omega, and the seven scripture readings that recapitulated the creation of the world and the history of mankind, putting into an overarching and redemptive context the suffering the death of Christ recalled on Good Friday. He died so that we sinners could put on our baptismal robes and be born again in His resurrection. We sang the ancient antiphon, derived from the Book of Ezechiel, known in Latin as the Vidi aquam: “I saw the water flowing from the right side of the temple, and those to whom that water came are saved and say: ‘Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.’ ”

This was ‘everything a liturgy ought to be.


  • Charlotte Low

    At the time this article was published, Charlotte Low was a senior editor of Insight magazine.

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