Sunday, September 18, 2005

Something old, something new

With my son sick with pneumonia my wife had to stay home from church today, so I took the opportunity to attend Mass at St. Peregrine Church in Westlake, a church associated with the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).
The churches of the SSPX worship according to the "old mass"- the Tridentine Mass, also popularly known as the Latin Mass, although you can have the current Catholic liturgy in Latin too. The SSPX was founded by Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre in 1970 in order to preserve traditional Catholic spirituality and train priests that would maintain the old ways, including the Latin liturgy. The history of the group at this point depends on which person you talk too; the SSPX was suppressed, Archbishop LeFebvre was ordered not to ordain a group of priests in 1976 but did anyway, earning himself a suspension of his priestly faculties; and in 1988 he consecrated four bishops in order to keep the SSPX going after his death. This act brought about his excommunication and that of the four new bishops as well. Once again, those actively involved with the Society might tell you a different story; these are the facts as I remember them.

It has been several years since I attended a Tridentine Mass. I was born a Catholic but by the time I gained the capacity to remember anything we were celebrating Mass in English. I was an altar boy for several years; at one point I even wanted to become a priest. Those dreams faded off into the sunset when I realized that girls were pretty nice to look at. I stayed a Catholic until 1985, when I underwent the born-again experience and this journey began. The point is, I had little desire to attend a Latin Mass. 1990 rolled around and as this blog has faithfully recorded, I returned to the Catholic Church under the influence of Scott Hahn and Karl Keating. I wanted to do it right this time, but the churches around me seemed as dead as when I left in the first place.

Along came a TV program entitled What Catholics Believe. This program was sponsored by churches of the Society of St. Pius V , a splinter group from the SSPX, although I didn't realize it at the time. They promoted a return to the traditional Catholic liturgy as it was celebrated "before the confusion of Vatican II." (Don't ask; I'm not going there.) This sparked my interest. I knew that they weren't on the best of terms with the Cleveland Catholic diocese, but I didn't care about that; I just wanted to experience a style of worship that very few churches were going to provide me. So one Sunday morning I made the drive to Parma to see for myself.

It was a time warp experience. The incense, the priest turned toward the altar, his back to the people, the head coverings on the women, the reverence in which these Catholics approached worship; all of this was foreign to my experience. I enjoyed the experience tremendously, but never committed myself to attending one of these "traditionalist" parishes because I had designs on possibly becoming a monk someday, and the name of St. Therese of the Child Jesus Church on my resume would render my aspirations moot. I chalked it up to something I had to do for the experience of it and moved on.

Until this morning. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom which was celebrated at St. Innocent Orthodox Church put a yearning in my heart for something more than a pep rally, something more than just saying I wanted to worship; I wanted to actually do it. (See Cross One More Off The List for details.) In short, church service as usual was just not going to do. So what were my options. St. Innocent again? Maybe another Orthodox church? Mass? I went with Mass, but not just any Mass; I chose the uber-Mass of St. Peregrine's.

I got there at 10:55, with Mass scheduled to begin at 11:00, and the place looked packed. I found a spot in the last pew on the right hand side and waited for the drama to unfold. St. Peregrine's is different from St. Therese in a couple of aspects- they aren't connected with the same organization and would likely question whether the other was a true Catholic; and St. Peregrine's is more austere than St. Therese, without side altars and a lot of the statuary that St. Therese is decked out with. But the incense still smells the same, and still possesses the power to send my thoughts skyward with the puffs of smoke from the censer. I didn't have a missal with me (although thanks to Ebay I have one coming), so I just watched. And prayed. And felt the acute pain in my knees and legs from all the kneeling. I also observed. There were a lot of young people there. One whole side of the church was composed of young girls (or so it seemed). This traditionalist movement is certainly not hurting for a new generation to carry on its legacy. There were young families, elderly people, overall the same kind of mix you would see at any one of the churches I passed on Detroit Road in my hurry to be there on time.

But why were they there? Was it just a romantic attachment to a dying aesthetic, the same way people dress up as pilgrims and cowboys and attend 1890's themed festivals? Were they simply upset with their parish priest on the outside and wanted to stick it to the man? Were they actively in rebellion against the powers that be in the Catholic Church, ruing the day that the conclave elected a Polish and a German Pope instead of another Italian?
Something told me that it wasn't as simple as the Catholic apologetics geeks on the Internet forums would have me believe. Whatever brought these people here, I didn't really think it had much to do with the desire to be Protestants speaking Latin. I think there is a message here that the Catholic Church of the 21st century would be wise to take heed of. There is a groundswell of people who want to worship God. They don't want the liturgy dumbed down. They don't want a three-ring circus on Sunday mornings- Ringling Brothers is fine, thank you very much, and they do it a lot better. They don't want a rock concert- what was it Hank Hill said? Oh yes- "Can't you see you're not making Christianity better, you're just making rock and roll worse?" There are people (like me) who feel like if the whole point of the Sunday morning service is just to entertain, then we might as well stay home and watch the WWF- the show is better and we can sleep in.
And this is where the Evil Traditionalist and his Manifesto of a Young Catholic enter the picture again, to give this post a proper finale:
"It was ultimately my exposure to the treasures of traditional Catholicism that inspired me, because it finally struck me that Catholicism was a religion that was about something worthwhile. Jesus wasn’t just my brother or my friend, he was my God and my King; he wasn’t my peer, he was Divinity incarnate, and so, worth worshipping. Liturgy could be reverent. Churches and sacred music could be art. Christ wasn’t just my buddy – he was the Savior I so desperately needed. And he was really there in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

"I’m not alone. Young Catholics feel hungry because we’re being fed candy when we want steak. We feel talked down to because the faith has been made juvenile to appeal to our pop-culture interests. We are immersed in pop-culture, every day. We want to know that our religion transcends fashion and trends, that it is unique and worthy of respect, that it is the one religion out of thousands of competing religions that God wants us to belong to. We want a religion that hasn’t been dumbed-down, painstakingly stripped of every shred of mystery and remade in the image and likeness of men. We want the True Faith, not, as one of my theology professors called it, 'a bubble-gum chewing religion of suburban good cheer.'"

Will I attend another Tridentine Mass in the future? I would say that the odds are in favor of that happening. Is the SSPX wrong in what they do? That's not for me to decide. God is perfectly capable of searching their hearts and determing the reasons for their separation from the Catholic "system."

A starving man can't survive on merely a snack. He needs a meal.


Blogger Steve said...

Great post. (And not just because you quoted me. Though that definitely helps... ;)

7:38 PM  

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