An Urgent Warning About the Future of the Traditional Latin Mass

(photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In this post I want to summon my fellow Catholics who love the Traditional Latin Mass to a greater appreciation of their obligation to evangelize. I sense that the Traditional Latin Mass has reached its peak in terms of numbers attending, though I admit to having only anecdotal evidence. Further, I believe that not only are the numbers attending the Traditional Latin Mass not growing, they may begin to decline if we are not more urgent. I would like to begin with a story from my early priesthood to make a general point, and then apply it to us who love the tradition.

Some years ago when I was assigned to a parish, the archdiocese explained to me that one of my first tasks would be to close the parish school. This school had been part of an inner city consortium of Catholic schools for some 10 years. Despite raising tens of millions of dollars through fundraising, sharing resources, and trying every conceivable way to attract more students, most of the 14 schools in the consortium were more than half empty and the money supply was simply exhausted. A study was conducted and a commission decided that the schools with low enrollment would have to be combined into regional schools, which were no longer parish-based.

Although most of my parishioners understood the problems and realized that only three families in our parish even had children attending the school, there was a small cadre of very angry parishioners who denounced the archdiocese for "closing our school."

In a parish-wide meeting held at our school, I reminded them that the archdiocese had been more than generous, contributing more than $7 million over 10 years to keep the school open. But this did not seem to satisfy the angrier ones and led to other questions: “Why can’t they just keep spending the money?” “Why not close other schools?”

I finally sidestepped all of these questions and simply stated the following:

The archdiocese is not closing our school. We are closing our school. The cost of running the school is $1.7 million per year. We are able to raise only $400,000 in tuition per year from the mostly poor families that we have been serving in our half-empty school. The archdiocese, which must take care of over 200 parishes and 50 schools, is able to offer approximately $200,000 in tuition assistance each year. This brings us to $600,000 in income—a $1.1 million shortfall. Therefore, if we as a congregation are willing and able to raise an additional $1.1 million in the offertory every year going forward, we can keep our school open.

How many of you are willing to do this with me? Do you think that we as a congregation can sustain this? That is what it will cost each year to keep our school open: $1.1 million.

The room was very quiet. The congregation was not poor, but they were already very generous in their financial support of the Church. An additional $1.1 million was simply not possible. Even with a great deal of fundraising it would still be nearly impossible.

I concluded the meeting by saying that we had to accept the fact that we were the ones closing our school—no one else. While it was prestigious to have a school, and while there was much historical pride and many fond memories, most of the congregation prudently recognized that their children had long ago graduated, their grandchildren did not attend our school, and that most had very little involvement with the school other than to salute its admittedly grand history.

At the end of the day, numbers matter; not just in terms of money, but in terms of people as well. Frankly, our problem in the Catholic Church today is not one of money, but of people. When only 30% of Catholics go to Mass and many of those give less than 2% of their income to the Church, many activities, buildings, and institutions can no longer be sustained or maintained.

Evangelization matters. Effectively handing on the faith to the next generation matters. Attending Mass regularly and supporting the work of the Church matters. Vocations matter. Sacrificially offering our time, talent, and treasure matters. These truths matter throughout the Church and in every different setting.

Now go with me to a very different situation—a different scenario and part of the Church altogether—and see that the same basic rules apply.

Some years ago (as far back at the early 1980s) we who love the Traditional Latin Mass often said (or it heard said) that if we would just return to the beautiful Latin Mass our churches would again be filled.

At first this appeared to be happening. As many dioceses (through the various indults of the 1980s and 1990s) began to offer the Traditional Latin Mass, those churches were filled, often to standing room only. Liturgical progressives were horrified and traditionalists were joyfully pleased and felt vindicated.

But as the availability of the Traditional Latin Mass has increased, it seems that a certain ceiling has been reached.

In my own archdiocese, although we offer the Traditional Latin Mass in five different locations, we've never been able to attract more than a total of about a thousand people. That’s only one-half of one percent of the total number of Catholics who attend Mass in this archdiocese each Sunday.

One of our parishes generously offers a Solemn High Mass once a month on Sunday afternoon, a Mass that I myself have celebrated for over 25 years. But we have gone from seeing the church almost full, to two-thirds full, to now only about one-third full.

Explanations abound among the traditional Catholics I speak to about the lack of growth in attendance at the Traditional Latin Mass. Some say that it is because more options are now available. But one of the promises was that if parishes would just offer the Traditional Latin Mass each parish would be filled again. Others say there are parking issues, or that the Mass times are not convenient, or that the Masses are too far away. But these things were all true 20 years ago when the Solemn Mass was thriving.

It seems that a ceiling has been hit. The Traditional Latin Mass appeals to a certain niche group of Catholics, but the number in that group appears to have reached its maximum.

Some traditional Catholics I speak to say, “If only the archdiocese would promote us more,” or “If only the bishop would celebrate it at all or more frequently.” Perhaps, but many other niche groups in the archdiocese say the same thing about their particular interest.

At the end of the day, for any particular movement, prayer form, organization, or even liturgy, the job of promoting it must belong to those who love it most. Shepherds don't have sheep; sheep have sheep.

And once again we are back to the fundamental point: numbers matter. Groups that seek respect, recognition, and promotion in the highest places need to remember that numbers do matter; it's just the way life works. If we who love the Traditional Latin Mass want to be near the top of the bishop’s priority list, we're going to have to be more than one-half of one percent of Catholics in the pews.

All of this is also background to a sad but instructive story that came out of a large archdiocese in this country. I don't wish to mention the diocese or the name of the parish. If you want to read the details, the story is available here: Church to be Demolished. For the purposes of this article, though, simply note that the church in question suffered a rather devastating fire. The particular church was home to the Traditional Latin Mass community and was rented from the diocese. The community was permitted to undertake renovations, but given the fact that the parish had closed there was no insurance on the building. Further, as a general rule, dioceses are “self-insured,” which is a way of saying that it is really the diocese (or a cooperative of dioceses), not some huge insurance company, that must pay the damages. Due to the heavy damage sustained in the fire (the roof collapsed), the cost to restore the building was determined to be prohibitive. The diocese in question has chosen to demolish the structure instead.

It is a tragic loss, both historically (it is a one-hundred-year-old building) and for the community.

This is another situation in which numbers matter. The congregation attending the Traditional Latin Mass in this large urban diocese numbered only about 200. Given the typical pattern of Catholic giving, this is not a number that can sustain any parish, let alone one with an older and larger building.

Nevertheless, many bitter recriminations are being directed against the diocese and its bishop. Because many of the complaints are circulating on the Internet, it is not at all clear that the critics are even among the parishioners or clergy of that parish.

But at the end of the day, it really is about numbers. It just doesn't make sense to plow millions into repairing an old building where only 200 people worship; it is not good stewardship. And ultimately, bishops are not responsible for church maintenance—congregations and people are. Congregations need to pay their insurance and maintain their facilities. Simply having a building is not enough. It must be maintained as well.

Further, simply offering a Traditional Latin Mass is not enough, as I try to show above. People aren’t just going to pile in, relieved that the “silliness” is finally over. Even traditional Catholics have to evangelize.

The stories related in this post are painful. Whether it’s about closing schools in changing inner cities or closing parishes with dwindling congregations, numbers do matter. Numbers don’t matter when it comes to the truth of the faith; but when it comes to institutions, buildings, organizations, liturgical preferences, and so forth, they matter a whole lot.

This is why evangelization and effectively handing on the faith to the next generation is so critical. Simply having a beautiful liturgy, or a historic building, or a school with old roots in the community, is not enough. Attracting, engaging, and evangelizing actual human beings who will support and sustain structures, institutions, and even liturgies is essential. No one in the Church is exempt from this obligation.

If we who love the Traditional Latin Mass thought that it would do its own evangelizing, we were mistaken. It is beautiful and worthy of God in many ways. But in a world of passing pleasures and diversions, we must show others the perennial value of the beautiful liturgy.

The honest truth is that an ancient liturgy, spoken in an ancient language and largely whispered, is not something that most moderns immediately appreciate. It is the same with many of the truths of our faith, which call for sacrifice, dying to self, and rejecting the immediate pleasures of sin for the eternal glories of Heaven. We must often make the case to a skeptical and unrefined world.

Evangelization is hard work, but it is work that matters if we want to maintain a viable presence going forward. The lovers of the Traditional Latin Mass are not exempt.

Evangelize or else close and die. It’s a hard fact, but numbers matter. Too many in the Church today demand respect and support without showing the fruits that earn respect and that make support prudent and reasonable.

If we care, we who love tradition ought to work tirelessly to show forth the fruits of tradition. Surely it will come, by Gods’ grace, but we are not exempt from the work of evangelizing.