Enthusiastic Catholics clamor for Mass of past

Interest grows for rare 16th-century service

February 25, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Dozens of people gather every Sunday morning in the Gothic sanctuary of St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church to pray for the future of a tradition that's deeply rooted in the past.

Before the Latin prayers begin, they seek God's intercession for the future of the Tridentine Mass - a form of liturgy established in the 16th century but now celebrated only in churches with special permission.

If the speculation around the Vatican is right, their prayers might be answered. Rumors have swirled for months that Pope Benedict XVI will formally grant permission to all Catholic churches to perform what's commonly - though incorrectly - known as the Latin Mass.

For Catholics who are dedicated to the handful of local services, such a declaration would be about time. "I don't see the purpose in outlawing a Mass," says Elise Phair, 21, who has attended the Tridentine service at the church on Saratoga Street for about a decade.

The move - if it happens - is seen as a way of reaching out to traditionalists who were alienated after the Second Vatican Council produced a new missal, or prayer book, in the late 1960s that streamlined the Mass.

"Identifying with the Tridentine Mass is a kind of a mild form of protest," says Mathew N. Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross. "A lot of it has to do with a more aggressive assertion of Catholic identity and a feeling that that has been lost."

During Vatican II, the leaders of the council established what is known as the novus ordo - new order in Latin - which is followed in the vast majority of Catholic churches today.

Aesthetic differences between the two services are obvious. The Tridentine Mass, which uses a 1962 missal, is mostly spoken in Latin, with some Greek. The priest faces the tabernacle housing the Eucharist, with his back to the congregation. Much of the Mass is silent, even the High Masses every other Sunday, which feature choirs.

To be sure, the nearby Basilica of the Assumption does offer a Sunday Mass in Latin - but it's merely a translation of the novus ordo, not the full Tridentine Mass.

While the overall structure of both Masses is the same, the Novus Ordo simplifies the service by reducing the number of prayers and ceremonial actions, says Joanne M. Pierce, an associate professor of religious studies at Holy Cross who researches medieval liturgy. The Tridentine rite even specifies the orientation of the priest's thumbs as he elevates the Eucharist during the liturgy.

Parishioners can follow along in a missal, perhaps with a Latin translation, recite the rosary, or engage in their own private devotions during the Tridentine Mass. By contrast, in the Novus Ordo, the congregation participates through responses and reading.

Although the council decrees did not abolish the Tridentine Mass, Pierce says there may have been fear that some Catholics would consider the Tridentine rite as the only true Mass.

The church began giving indults, or special permission, to some parishes to celebrate the Tridentine rite in 1984. Four years later, Pope John Paul II issued a motu proprio allowing more churches to use that version "out of respect ... for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition."

The Catholic Church often faces criticism from those who oppose its conservative views on topics such as abortion and birth control, but some feel it is not conservative enough. Pope John Paul II's 1988 decree began by excommunicating some members of schismatic communities that supported the Tridentine rite.

"It all plays out in internal church politics. The pope is being caught between a rock and a hard place. Trying to balance all these sensibilities is very difficult," Schmalz says.

For John Ambs, 42, the Tridentine Mass made his Catholic faith come alive.

As a teenage altar boy in the Diocese of Scranton in Pennsylvania, he couldn't understand the stories he read of saints crawling on their hands and knees to get to Mass. Then his father gave him a missal from the old rite, and said, "The Mass you know today wasn't always this way," Ambs recalls.

"As soon as I got my license, I and some other like-minded young Catholics ... drove as far as it took to go to an underground Mass, just to see what it was like," he says.

Ambs went on to write the petition to allow for the Tridentine Mass in Washington, then contacted Cardinal William H. Keeler in Baltimore. He became the recording secretary for the Gregorian Society of Baltimore, a lay organization that supports the service.

Ambs later introduced the woman who became his wife, Lucy, to the service. They had to secure special permission in 1996 to be the Archdiocese of Baltimore's first couple married under the Tridentine rite since Vatican II. Now the Westminster residents bring their three children to worship at St. Alphonsus. Some women, like Lucy Ambs, cover their heads with a mantilla, or lace scarf.

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