NEW YORK — Every weekday, several traditional Catholics gather for a 6pm traditional Latin Mass at the Church of the Holy Innocents, a Gothic-Revival structure in Manhattan’s Garment District.
On Sundays, a 10:30am sung high Mass in the extraordinary form, which features a talented schola, attracts more than 200 worshippers. The traditional parish community also attends a Sunday Rosary and 2:30pm vespers service that consistently draws more people than the 12:30pm English-language Mass.
“The Masses there are packed. They have sung Latin Masses on all major feast days and processions. What other church does that?” said Richard Janniello, a Bronx, N.Y., resident who has occasionally attended the Sunday traditional Latin Mass at Holy Innocents.
A dedicated group of lay parishioners helped build Holy Innocents’ traditional Catholic community.
However, the past five years of hard work that went into transforming Holy Innocents from a struggling commuter parish into a vibrant spiritual home for traditionalist Catholics could soon be undone.
The Archdiocese of New York is reportedly looking to close Holy Innocents and merge it with St. Francis of Assisi Church, located on West 31st Street, as part of an archdiocesan pastoral planning initiative known as “Making All Things New.”
The June 22 Holy Innocents parish bulletin reported that the Archdiocesan Advisory Group, in late April, recommended merging Holy Innocents and two other churches into St. Francis of Assisi. In a response earlier this month, a group of representatives from the four parishes proposed merging Holy Innocents with St. Michael Church, located on West 34th Street. The Archdiocesan Advisory Group is expected to release its final recommendations soon to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, who will then announce his final decisions on parish mergers and closures this September.
Joseph Zwilling, communications director for the Archdiocese of New York, told the Register that the archdiocese has not commented on any recommended parish closings, and he added that “no decisions” have been made about any parish mergers or closures.
On the one hand, Holy Innocents shows the extraordinary gains that traditionally minded Catholics have enjoyed since Pope Benedict XVI allowed for a wider celebration of the Latin Mass in his 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.
Whereas a priest previously needed his bishop’s permission to celebrate the liturgy according to the 1962 Missal of Pope John XXIII, Summorum Pontificum empowered individual priests to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass wherever groups of the faithful support it.
“Twenty years ago, it was near impossible to find a Latin Mass,” said Janniello, 67, who has been attending the traditional Latin Mass on Sundays since he returned to the Catholic faith 20 years ago.
“It has definitely been better since Summorum Pontificum. There are a number of priests who have no problem [celebrating] the Latin Mass, and I’ve seen an increase, so it has been a good thing, in that sense,” said Dan Marengo, 58, a Bronx resident who often attends the Sunday Latin Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Harlem, N.Y.
The traditional Catholic community’s experience in New York, however, shows those gains can be fleeting. A pastor who is open to the Latin Mass may allow it to be celebrated in his parish, but the next pastor can quickly de-emphasize it. A young priest who celebrates the traditional Latin Mass in one parish can be reassigned to another church, often leaving a void for the traditional faithful he leaves behind.
“We’re really at the mercy of whoever the pastor is,” said Janniello, who also attends a Sunday Latin Mass at St. Anthony Church in the Bronx. Janniello and other lay Catholics moved to St. Anthony’s after following a priest there who had previously celebrated the traditional Latin Mass at another church in the Bronx.
Meeting a Need
Janniello’s experience is not uncommon. Traditional Catholics attend the Latin Mass in one church for a few years until it gets canceled, and then they have to find another parish where a priest is willing to celebrate the Mass in the extraordinary form.
“The community has no stability,” said Samuel Howard, 32, a resident of Southeast Queens who is the publisher and editor of LatinMassNYC.org, which maintains a list of locations where the traditional Latin Mass is celebrated in New York City.
At the Church of Our Saviour, located at East 38th Street and Park Avenue, a traditional Latin Mass community flourished while Father George Rutler was the pastor. But the Latin Mass at Our Saviour ended shortly after Father Rutler’s reassignment last summer to a different church in Manhattan.
Howard, who sings at the Holy Innocents Sunday vespers service and at several other traditional Catholic churches in New York City, told the Register that they receive little institutional support from the archdiocese. “There is no juridical structure, no personal parish. There isn’t even the stability of having a chaplain,” Howard said. And of the preliminary decision to close Holy Innocents, he said, “There’s no acknowledgement that there is this Latin Mass community and no mention about what would happen to this community if that church closes.”
Howard and other Latin Massgoers see the situation as “a real missed opportunity” for the archdiocese to pastorally care for their community.
“It would be wonderful if there were an official apostolate for the traditional Latin Mass in the archdiocese, training priests in the traditional Mass, coordinating between parish communities and assuring that the [traditional Latin Mass] would be offered every day, like it is now at Holy Innocents. This requires some vision and planning, but it is possible,” said Kevin Collins, a Westchester, N.Y., resident who attends the Sunday Latin Mass at St. Eugene Church in Yonkers.
“The archdiocese would find the laity very supportive of an initiative like that,” Collins added.
Zwilling told the Register that the archdiocese is willing to help its traditionalist community.
“If a group of parishioners wishes to have the Mass in the extraordinary form, but cannot do so because there is no priest available who is able to celebrate the Mass in that form, they can contact the archdiocese for assistance. There are a number of priests who have been trained in the Mass who would be available to them,” Zwilling said. “In the overwhelming number of parishes, however, this is not an issue.”
Zwilling said the Archdiocese of New York has always had a “well-deserved” reputation of being “very open” to the Latin Mass prior to the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum. He noted that St. Agnes Church, located in midtown Manhattan, has been celebrating a Sunday Latin Mass for many years, long before Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio.
“The archbishop — both Cardinal [John] O’Connor and Cardinal [Edward] Egan — gave permission for the Mass to be celebrated in various parishes throughout the archdiocese when a request was received,” Zwilling said. “Our chancery office kept track of where the Masses were celebrated and would often refer individuals seeking such a Mass to one of those parishes.”
Since Summorum Pontificum no longer requires priests to obtain the archbishop’s permission to celebrate the Latin Mass, Zwilling said the archdiocese does not keep an active list of parishes that celebrate the traditional liturgy.
“Our clergy are, of course, welcome to be trained in celebrating the Mass in this form, and I know that some have, in order to meet the needs of the faithful who seek it,” Zwilling said. “However, I must say that, in my experience, such a need would not exist in most parishes.”
‘Heaven on Earth’
Collins “discovered” the traditional Latin Mass almost 20 years ago while living in London.
“I was weak in my faith then and not very well-formed, but the more solemn and beautiful liturgy revealed to me the truth of the Catholic faith,” Collins said.
Janniello said his attending the traditional Latin Mass on Sundays does not imply that the Mass in the ordinary form is less valid. Janniello said he attends a daily Novus Ordo Mass during the week.
“It’s still the body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord,” Janniello said, “but there is a degree of sacredness in the traditional Latin Mass. You feel like it is heaven on earth.”
Brian Fraga writes from
Fall River, Massachusetts.