Latin Mass retains its hold on the faithful Religion: Some Catholics still want Mass to be in Latin, and some priests are providing the service.


ELMHURST, Pa. -- Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary seems to float at the top of a steep green hill, looking out at the sky from its perch in the high, flowing mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania.

The building went up as an orphanage in the 1940s. Later, it became a retreat house for the Scranton Catholic Diocese. Then it fell into disuse. Now it's been resurrected - to an unlikely fate.

The chanting that filters down its staircase is the ages-old Gregorian chant, and the men walking its halls wear the long black cassocks that Bing Crosby wore in "The Bells of St. Mary's."

They are a peculiar sort of priestly squad, come to learn the old Latin Mass.

"It's a very specialized ministry," said the Rev. Karl Pikus, director of the 60-student seminary.

Specialized, no question. But thriving all the same.

The Latin Mass in the form celebrated for centuries up to the Second Vatican Council - called the Tridentine Mass - is being said again these days all across the country.

Of about 180 dioceses in the United States, 82 host a Tridentine Mass every Sunday, and another 30 do so at least once a month.

In the Philadelphia Archdiocese, Tridentine Masses are celebrated every Sunday at Our Lady of Consolation Church and St. Francis Church. In the Camden Diocese, there is an old Latin Mass every Sunday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

'Fills my heart with awe'

"It's sort of like 'going home,' " explained Sonja Romano, a 58-year-old mother of seven who attends the weekly Tridentine Mass at St. Francis Church. "That makes it more special to me."

"It just fills my heart with awe," she said. "I just makes me feel this is where I belong for my feeding on the Lord and giving him worship."

Romano was speaking of the "old" Mass - the Mass in which the priest stood with his back to the congregation, reciting mostly inaudible Latin prayers. The Mass that contained the Last Gospel, the opening words of the book of John. The Mass in which the prayers consecrating the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ - the core of the Mass - has been celebrated for more than a thousand years.

This is the Mass that was supposed to fade into liturgical history after Pope Paul VI closed the soul-shaking Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, the relic Mass that was supposed to be supplanted by the vernacular Mass - so that everybody who attended could "understand" what was going on.

Instead of dying out, why does it gain new life?

'Superior expression of faith'

"Because it's a superior expression of the faith," the Rev. Arnaud Devillers said, in what might have been a mixture of zealousness and defensiveness. Father Devillers is director of the North American district of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. This international organization, founded in a Capuchin monastery in Switzerland in 1988, now has headquarters in Wigratzbad, Germany, and is the largest order of Tridentine priests remaining under the authority of Pope John Paul II.

The North American division operates out of a sprawling old Victorian mansion in Scranton, long among the most conservative dioceses in the country.

Father Devillers acknowledges the fledgling movement is controversial but contends progressive priests are just as defensive. "When you criticize the present liturgy, many priests take it personally: 'You're criticizing MY liturgy. ...'"

The Rev. Frank Bernard, head of the graduate religion program at La Salle University, says supporters of the Tridentine rite "think the church was fine and everybody was fine back then. "I think it's an idyllic state of mind," Father Bernard said. "And, no - it wasn't [all fine] when you stop and think about it."

"The first time I saw one - a Latin Mass - I said, 'That's what I'm supposed to do,'" Eric Flood said. The apple-cheeked 27-year-old from Canal Winchester, Ohio, switched from a diocesan seminary to the Tridentines last year. "There was the reverence, and there was the glory, and the splendor of the Mass itself."

"We're not a radical group," he added. "We just want to say the Latin Mass for the people who want it."

In fact, when they are ordained, the seminarians at Our Lady of Guadalupe will celebrate all the Catholic sacraments in the sonorous language and rites of the medieval church.

Said the Rev. Michel Berger, the 30-year-old choirmaster: "This a very complex thing ... but what we do, we try to do it in the spirit of the church."

The relationship between the church and the men at the Tridentine seminary - with its exquisite chapel and echoing hallways, statues of saints and crucifixes, donated books and secondhand furniture - is both careful and complex.

It dates to 1988, when Pope John Paul II saw the priests and laity who refused to abandon the archaic Mass in danger of schism.

After Vatican II, Pope Paul VI approved a new version of the old Mass, which could be celebrated in any contemporary language - including Latin, which remains the language of the church. But the prayers of the Mass were altered.

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