Mary Ellen Lamantia wept through the entire service the first time she attended a traditional Latin Mass.
"I felt like I had found my home again," she said of the Tridentine rite she heard at Christmastime in 1979 with other members of St. Hilary Roman Catholic Church. "It's the true Mass, the Mass of the Apostles themselves, handed down 2,000 years ago. It should not - and cannot - be changed."
The expected release of a document from Pope Benedict XVI that would allow more churches to celebrate the old Latin Mass has sparked hope among some traditional Catholics for a revival of the quiet and reverent church service that largely faded from use during the 1960s.
While some said the pope's decision would vindicate their desire to celebrate the more traditional Latin Mass, others - like those at St. Hilary's who ended their ties with the Vatican over this issue - say that would not be enough to lure them back.
Vatican officials say the pope has signed the document but the details have not yet been released publicly. As a result, church observers and Tridentine enthusiasts remain uncertain about what effect the pope's decision will have on the religious ceremony described by some as "the most beautiful thing this side of heaven."
"We hope it will help preserve the Tridentine rite so it's viewed as a more valued expression and not shoved to the backlog of history - an anachronism that's something like going to an antique store," said Norman Downs, 53, of Parkville, who performs Gregorian chants with the all-male choir at St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore. "We feel it should be a vibrant and current expression of faith."
The Tridentine rite, named for the 16th-century Council of Trent, is more than just a Latin version of the modern Catholic Mass. It involves a complicated set of rubrics that dictate even the position of the priest's fingers when elevating the Eucharist.
A priest celebrating the Tridentine Mass faces east - like the congregation - toward the tabernacle, where the Eucharist is stored, and says many of the prayers in not much more than a whisper while worshipers follow along in a missal with Latin on one side and an English translation on the other. In addition, Communion at a Tridentine service generally does not include wine, and supporters say the Mass is more God-centered, with no exchanges of peace, for example, among parishioners.
The Tridentine was phased out after the Second Vatican Council, which met from 1962 to 1965 and revised the format of the church's services. The resulting new Mass - or novus ordo - included key differences beyond simply conducting the service in the local language. It was designed to be more accessible, allowing priests to face their congregations and including more lay participation in the service.
In 1984, Pope John Paul II allowed congregations to celebrate the Tridentine rite with permission from the bishops of their dioceses, although some supporters of the Mass say such consent is granted inconsistently.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore has authorized St. Alphonsus Church on Saratoga Street to celebrate a Tridentine rite at 11:30 a.m. Sundays and at 7 p.m. on holy days.
Rita K. Dent, president of the Gregorian Society of Baltimore, a lay organization at St. Alphonsus that supports the service, said she hopes that the pope's impending decision on the Tridentine will allow any parish worldwide to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass without the permission of its diocese.
"We hope he will put some teeth in it," Dent, 79, of Timonium, said after yesterday's Tridentine High Mass at St. Alphonsus, which attracts about 200 worshipers each week to the 162-year-old red brick church with soaring arched ceilings. She said she fell in love with the traditional Latin Mass as a girl and was "heartbroken when it was taken away."
"To me, it's more reverent, more solemn," Dent said. "There are some people who claim it's the most beautiful thing this side of heaven."
Jean Hirsch of Parkville couldn't agree more.
"This is the closest thing to heaven I'll ever get unless I make it there," she said, just moments after leaving yesterday morning's 8 o'clock Tridentine service at St. Hilary's in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Baltimore.
"It is the truth," she said of the quiet service celebrated in the simple, small yellow church that the parish bought in 1987 after years of worshiping in private homes and then rented hotel rooms. "This is the true Mass. Everyone else is at least partly false. They changed everything [with Vatican II], but God's law doesn't change."
Offering the Tridentine Mass on the first, third, fourth and fifth Sundays each month, St. Hilary's uses an even older missal - or prayer book - than St. Alphonsus and other churches granted permission by their dioceses.