What I Saw When I Went to a Traditional Latin Mass

COMMENTARY: I love the Mass at our parish, the ordinary form of the Mass offered in the ordinary way, but I can see why so many people love the extraordinary form.

Photo illustration of a woman attending a Traditional Latin Mass.
Photo illustration of a woman attending a Traditional Latin Mass. (photo: Thoom / Shutterstock)

She had a nose ring with little spikes, a lip ring, a leather collar with steel studs, dark eye shadow and dark maroon lipstick, spiderweb patterned pants, big leather boots and a black leather jacket with lots of studs. She’d joined a conversation while I was away, and as I came back, the woman I’d been talking to — a middle-aged woman looking as normal as you could wish — pointed to the Goth girl and said, brightly, “She’s taking me to the Latin Mass!”

It’s not what you’d expect, the traditional Latin Mass. Rather, it’s not who you expect. That may be one reason some Catholics dislike it so much. Or fear it.


Not Who You’d Expect

A few weeks ago my wife and I were away. St. Mary’s in Hagerstown, Maryland, nearby had an 11:30 Latin Mass, and I thought since I’ve written on the subject I should actually go to one. It would be the third I’d gone to as a Catholic and the first that wasn’t a special occasion.

“Let us pray,” the priest began, and I popped to my feet while still looking down trying to find my place in the Mass book, till I looked up and found everyone else was kneeling. Fortunately, I’d left the kneeler down so I went up and went back down in one continuous and I’d like to think extremely graceful motion.

The congregation was all sorts and conditions of men, as the old Anglican prayer book puts it. Lots of well-dressed women in mantillas, of course, and several families dressed as if they were getting their picture taken for the country club. In front of us was a straw-blonde couple with a straw-haired toddler, looking like an ad for Preppie Today. In front of them was a man in a bow tie and a woman in a mantilla, who (something I didn’t expect at the Latin Mass) searched her phone for a prayer when she didn’t find the prayer card in her pew. 

People you’d expect from the stereotypes. But near me also was a 30-ish man with a man-bun, who wore jeans and an untucked shirt, and came with his three small children. I saw more men with untucked shirts than with suits or jackets. Behind me was another man about the same age, carrying a baby in his arms, with a thick black beard down below his sternum and a ponytail that long in the back.

A couple rows in front of me was an older man with a three-day stubble, dressed for a trip to the hardware store. A few other men like him sat here and there.

There were a number of African-American parishioners, many more than I’ve seen in any other church that wasn’t a Black parish. An African couple shuttled in and out taking care of their children. There were a lot of young people, some college age and more in their 20s. Several wore jeans or otherwise dressed in the casual style. The Mass had a lot more babies and small children than I’ve seen in church in a very long time.


The Mass Itself

The Mass was restful. No fuss or bother to it and no attempt to affect your emotions. No hymns apparently written as Catholic equivalents of Queen’s We Will Rock You. It was meditative in a way that calms your spirit and puts the world in order. I didn’t feel energized in the way I feel after Mass at our parish, but focused, meaning my energies would be well-directed, which is a kind of energizing. 

The homily was quite good. The priest, Father Ernest Cibelli, described Jesus’ restoring speech to the deaf and dumb man as restoring our ability to hear God’s words and respond to him as his children. The homilies I’ve heard on this story tend to treat Jesus’ miracles only as physical healing, as making the person healed like everyone else. They don’t point to any deeper insight. It seemed to me, perhaps unfairly, a homily more likely to be preached at a Mass like this.

The worshippers were mostly traditionalists, I assume, but still Catholic in more cultural ways. Many showed the same attitude to punctuality as the people at a typical parish. People kept coming in for several minutes after Mass started. At least about 20 or 30, most but not all settling in the back three rows. A young woman with still-wet hair came racing in as Mass started and after a slide-genuflection, never actually stopping, scurried into the pew in front of me.

The number of people going forward for Communion after I returned to my pew (I was in the fourth row from the back) suggested that here, too, as at our home parish, the confessionals or the narthex or both must be a tardis that is bigger inside than out. Otherwise I can’t explain where they all came from. 

I knew where we were most of the time, and could sing the parts the people sing, but I did miss the ordinary form’s greater involvement, and I missed the hymns and hearing the priest say the Eucharistic Prayer. I object to not hearing the readings in English, and while I’m at it to the absence of the Old Testament. I think the ordinary form ought to be the ordinary form.


Why Not More of Them?

I love Mass at our parish, which is an ordinary form offered in the ordinary way, with the usual informality and the usual music, but I can see why people love this form. It’s what I call the restful and receptive style, as opposed to the active and engaged. It’s a different liturgical piety than the one I know, but did we live here, we might well wind up at this Mass.

It distresses me that so many people want to restrict it or suppress it entirely. Though I put myself on “Team Francis,” I’m not comfortable with the ruling in Traditionis Custodes, and not happy with the way some bishops have implemented it. The extraordinary form adds something to the gifts the Church gives her people, and to her appeal to the world. It is a gift not just to the traditionalists. I think Pope Benedict (one of my heroes) saw this when he issued Summorum Pontificum.

It’s a gift to people like the man with the man-bun and the man with the ponytail, the college girls in their jeans, the man with the stubble. It is a gift to people — some of them damaged and in pain — who want or often need the quiet, the order, the dramatized mystery, the antiquity and objectivity of the old rite. Many of these people live on the edges of the Church, or even the edges of Christianity. The traditional Latin Mass is not only pastoral but evangelistic.

That may be why so many people dislike it so much, or fear it. It might prove popular. It might not just be a concession to old people and a few odd ducks. A surprisingly wide variety of people find their way to it, not least young people and families with children. If you offer it, they will come.

We need more Latin Masses, like the one at St. Mary’s, Hagerstown. There it’s just one of four Sunday Masses, and the most awkwardly timed one. The ordinary form still dominates the parish’s liturgical life. But they offer it. Would that many more parishes would do this. The Church would grow.