How I Learned to Stop Nitpicking at Mass

A priest gives Holy Communion on the Feast of the Holy Family in St. Peter's Basilica on December 27, 2015.
A priest gives Holy Communion on the Feast of the Holy Family in St. Peter's Basilica on December 27, 2015. (photo: Alexey Gotovsky/CNA)

While I was raised Catholic it was not until my sophomore year of college that I went to my first Extraordinary Form Mass (Traditional Latin Mass).* The guy I had a crush on really liked it, and once we started dating I began to attend it with him regularly. At first the EF Mass seemed strange and distant and I had to scramble to follow along I my missal, which happened to be my father’s 50 year old First Communion missal, or even know where the priest was in the Mass, but slowly I fell in love with the ancient liturgy.

As I studied for my Masters degree I took a required class on the Second Vatican Council while at the same time studied the history of the liturgy and the theology of the development of doctrine and tradition. I started working on papers for these classes, trying to find links between what the documents of Vatican II said and how it was actually implemented, especially in the liturgy. I could not discover where in the documents many of the liturgical changes that happened were actually directed. The only reason I could find for these changes was that those who were in charge of the changes decided to change these things because they wanted to and for the sake of “progress”.

I have often compared my discovery of the EF Mass and the Church’s liturgical tradition to the Israelites in the book of Nehemiah when they all hear the law for the first time after the temple is restored. They never knew that these things were part of their tradition. As I discovered more and more traditions that had seemingly been cast aside by the Church of the 1970s I became indignant. I had many critical thoughts throughout most Ordinary Form Masses I attended, but this way of thinking was not good for me or for the Church.

After four years of graduate school, my husband was offered a job in St. Paul, Minnesota. During his interview visit he heard about the Church of St. Agnes, a parish with a rich liturgical tradition. The parish alone was enough reason for us to want to move to the Twin Cities, despite the frigid winters.

St. Agnes has been a haven for beautiful liturgies since the 1970s. Monsignor Richard Schuler was the pastor of St. Agnes from 1969-2001; he had studied sacred music and had followed the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council closely. When the OF Mass came into use, Monsignor Schuler did his best to follow the directives of the council in his implementation of the new liturgy. When everyone else was trying new things in the New Mass, Monsignor Schuler was fitting the New Mass into the traditions on the Church, and he did it beautifully. And when he was no longer pastor, the new pastors continued his traditions.

The summer we moved to St. Paul we were very eager to attend Holy Mass at St. Agnes. IN addition to Sunday Masses, we went almost every day to the daily Mass in the lower chapel. At those daily Masses, for the first time since I had fallen in love with the Church’s liturgical traditions did the OF seem like it followed from those traditions. We had been daily Mass attendees at many other OF Masses, but this one was different.

There was no lay lector, just the priest reading the readings. The Mass was ad orientem, meaning that the priest faced the crucifix and central tabernacle on the altar when he prayed the prayers from the missal. There is no free standing altar at St. Agnes—all masses, EF and OF, are celebrated with the priest and the people facing the same direction, which is ad orientem or liturgical east. We received communion kneeling at an altar rail. It was about as close as you could get to a low EF Mass, but still be a vernacular OF Mass. The final difference was the complete respect and reverence everyone in the church had for the liturgy. The way Mass was celebrated demanded proper worship of God.

St. Agnes has beautiful weekend liturgies as well. Their Saturday evening anticipatory Mass has a choir singing polyphony once a month. There is a nice choir for one of their Sunday morning Masses, but the main Mass of the day has a Gregorian chant schola for the propers of the Mass and an orchestra for the commons. These Masses are all done in the tradition of the Church oriented towards the central tabernacle, with male altar servers, ordinary ministers of communion, and only ordained lectors.

I found as I attended these Masses for almost a year that I was changed. When I would attend an OF Mass at a different parish their differences in liturgical practice did not bother or distract me the way that they had before. I was not focusing on whether or not the rubrics were followed, but I was praying along with the liturgy, as much as I could with my small children in tow.

I think that in going to Masses that were so obedient to the tradition of the Church, I was healed of my resentment at the changes that occurred in most parishes after the Council. I saw how the Council could have been implemented everywhere, if people had interpreted it in light of the Church’s traditions. I had finally witnessed it done well.

Liturgical change is not over; it has been changing since the first Mass on Holy Thursday. That is the beauty of the Church: it develops over time. And I see in the Church how in many places the liturgy is tending back to tradition. For example, in the diocese of Marquette in Michigan, the Bishop John Doerfler is having all of his parishes use chant and help the congregations learn to sing traditional forms of Sacred Music. Last month, blogger Leila Lawler explained three simple changes every parish could make to have a better liturgy.  In my home territorial parish in St. Louis, Missouri, the new young pastor has put in a central tabernacle, and his congregation is learning to chant the Mass parts. The things St. Agnes does are just part of the tradition, and fit with the New Mass. And as Fr. John Zulsdorf, a convert through the Church of St. Agnes, likes to say, “Save the Liturgy, save the World.” 

*In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI promulgated the Motu Proprio Summourum Pontificum in which he referred to the Traditional Latin Mass as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and the New Mass/Novus Ordo as the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. In this article I will refer to them as EF and OF.