Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
Early in 2016, I wrote a column that generated a great deal of controversy among traditional Catholics. Here is a brief summary of that piece:
The Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) has manifested very little growth. Even after a good number of years, less than 1 percent of Catholics are attending the TLM. Merely blaming the clergy or Church hierarchy is not productive. Vigorous evangelization and joyful advocacy for the TLM are required in order to increase the influence of traditional Catholicism. Respect isn’t something received; it is earned. Numbers matter; growth is essential; evangelization matters. The TLM isn’t going to sell itself; we must explain its beauty and advocate for its place and necessity in the liturgical climate of our time.
I was surprised at the anger my post generated. I was particularly sad to see that some people in the traditional movement with whom I had been friends for years were very irritated with me and all but labeled me the enemy. They felt that I was excusing the hostility and indifference of significant numbers in the hierarchy. Others seemed to understand what I was trying to say and took the article as I intended: a call to action to those who love the TLM and want to see it grow. My point was that grumbling and demanding that the hierarchy respect us was not an effective strategy. It is through growth that respect will be commanded—and that is up to us.
Recently, I saw a video produced by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in Los Angeles that beautifully and effectively advocates for the Traditional Latin Mass. It is a great illustration of the kind of liturgical evangelization we must do.
Here are the opening words in the video: “We have something that belongs to you.” What a great line to draw people in! Many Catholics do not know of the rich heritage that has to some degree been denied them by modernity. The TLM is the form of the Mass that most of the saints knew. With only minor variations and additions, this form of the liturgy has existed for well over a thousand years. The, Latin, the chants, the eastward orientation, the often-deep silence—all of these reach across the centuries like treasures. A lot of things come and go, but the TLM has stood the test of time; it is a heritage that belongs to us. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “Tradition … is the democracy of the dead.” Yes, the dead should still have a vote; they should speak even in our times. They have wisdom to convey to us. This is our inheritance, our treasure. Thus, the Church has something that belongs to us.
Notice how the “sacredness” of the Traditional Latin Mass is set forth in the video. The word “sacred” means set apart, different from the ordinary and the world. The TLM powerfully manifests this quality that the Sacred Liturgy should have. In the TLM, we step out of the ordinary and into the “other.” We encounter God, who is holy, who is sacred, who is “Other.”
Consider also the formative and interpersonal dimensions highlighted in the video. The Sacred Liturgy is meant to form the human person and to form the community, which is the Church, the Body of Christ. The video emphasizes not only the traditional liturgy but the authentic human and parochial life that it helps to form. The people interviewed speak of their opportunity to serve in the community and their appreciation for the role of the priests as fathers. One woman talks about her gratitude for the mutual love and respect she experiences among the parishioners. One of the priests speaks of how the liturgy preaches the whole of the faith. Another woman says that the liturgy has helped her family members to love one another more deeply. In all these ways the Traditional Latin Mass is presented as formative through inspiration, instruction, reverence—and of course, grace.
The treasure of the Traditional Latin Mass is rich. It forms us to be more and more configured to the One whom we worship. We see in the video people who say they are enriched and blessed by the ancient, yet ever new Traditional Latin Mass.
I present for your consideration a few principles gleaned from this video as well as some additional insights:
- There is a joyful description of the fruits of the ancient liturgy without any explicit denigration of other liturgical forms. The people featured in the video speak to their experience and what the TLM has offered them. They invite others to see and to consider the riches of “something (a treasure) that belongs to them.” This is in contrast to other discussions (especially on the internet) that focus too much on denigration and ridicule of the Ordinary Form of the Mass. Regardless of any problems with newer liturgical forms, it does not help to say or even imply that those who do not prefer the TLM are among the “great unwashed” or are ignorant. There is a tendency by all sides to dogmatize what are essentially preferences. We ought not to have as a strategy denouncing what are legitimate options for Catholics. There is a longer discussion to be had as to whether certain options should remain into the future, but when speaking to the glory of the TLM we need not scorn other current options. Rather, let us lift up our joy and demonstrate the transformation that comes from the ancient rites.
- Remember that we are talking to fellow Catholics, not enemies of the faith. Those who do not attend the TLM are our brothers and sisters, not our enemies. The newer liturgical forms are not intrinsically evil. Even if we have concerns that they express the faith less adequately than we think they should, we are not the final judges as to what reaches people and prepares them for deeper encounters. People need time to appreciate some of the more ancient forms. Encouraging others, explaining the TLM, and joyfully witnessing to its beauty and that of the traditional forms of the sacraments are better strategies than belittling someone who attends (or even likes) the newer forms of the liturgy or telling them why the form of the Mass they know is a “joke” or worse.
- Patience, persistence and encouragement are the keys. People do not always appreciate or understand things at first. We have to be honest: Mass celebrated in an ancient language (unknown by most), in a largely silent or whispered format, facing toward God, is going to seem very different and challenging as well. People raise legitimate questions about the TLM: Why does it make sense to celebrate Mass in a language almost no one knows? Why is most of the Mass whispered so I can’t hear it? How can I participate under these circumstances? Interpreting such questions as hostile is not be helpful. The questions make sense based on the current liturgical experience of most Catholics, who are used to audible liturgy delivered in the vernacular. Helpful, explanatory answers are preferable to impatient or terse responses that imply that such questions are an attack rather than sincere and understandable.
In raising these points, I imagine that some people may accuse me of implying that angry, impatient, or smug answers are common responses from those who love the TLM. In fact, I believe it is a problem only among a small number. As this video shows, many are able to testify to their love of the TLM without displaying any of these negative qualities.
Experience has taught me that there is too much in the way of harsh criticism in the TLM community. Let’s call it a small but vocal minority that tends to poison the outreach of the rest of us. If the volume of the scorn is too high, then it is even more incumbent upon the rest of us to joyfully speak to our love of tradition. Even if there are liturgical failings in the wider Church, why not rejoice in the TLM and continue to build based on what is good, true and beautiful?
This video does an admirable job in that regard. I hope to see more efforts like this in the future. I love the Traditional Latin Mass. I want to see it grow and have an increasingly salutary effect on the many modern forms, which need the moorings and reference point that the TLM can provide. I write this in that spirit, realizing that some will hear only an accusatory tone in what I say. I hope, however, that most readers will realize that I write out of true love of the TLM. I also walk in the wider Church and have come to realize that simply attacking the Ordinary Form of the Mass is not the way to awaken love for the TLM. We must stand before God’s people as those who have been transformed by the mysteries we celebrate and say, “Come, and go with me to my Father’s house. Come; I have something beautiful and glorious that belongs to you. I can’t wait for you to see it!”