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Have We Reached Peak Latin Mass?

The limited appeal of traditionalism, alas

Monsignor Charles Pope writes that the Traditional Latin Mass (which he supports) is a boutique phenomenon among American Catholics, and looks likely to stay that way:

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.

He challenges the complacency of Latin Mass supporters:

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.

Read the whole thing.  I was not a Latin Massgoer when I was a Catholic, but I considered myself a supporter. I do recall, though, the attitude that Msgr. Pope speaks of: an unspoken belief that the Latin Mass is so obviously superior that if people simply had it around, they would naturally choose it over the Novus Ordo.

Msgr. Pope’s piece makes me think about why I never got the hang of the Latin Mass, though I was ideologically predisposed to like it. The reason was not the “ancient language” part — that was something for which I was eager — but the “largely whispered” part. I very much wanted a more reverent liturgy than what we had in standard Novus Ordo parishes, but the experience of the liturgy as mostly a ghostly silence was hard to embrace.

It’s also true, I’m afraid, that some Latin Massgoers had a way of thinking about the old liturgy and the new mass that framed the contrast in a way that posited Novus Ordo Catholics as deficient in sanctity. There was a pride there, and it was deadly. If you think that the Latin Mass is obviously superior, and those who can’t see it are aesthetically and theologically cloddish — well, it’s hard to evangelize from that stance. Plus, if someone who visits the parish doesn’t sense joy in the congregation, they’re not coming back. I’m not talking about happy-clappiness. You can be very reverent, but also radiating joy.

Here’s the thing: all these criticisms of the Latin Mass crowd could also be made of much Orthodox Christianity in this country. 

We Orthodox very much occupy a boutique niche in American Christianity, and though I hope I’m wrong, I don’t see us breaking out of that anytime soon.

If you are a convert, or in a convert-heavy parish, you know how common this experience is: you discover Orthodoxy, and are so overwhelmed by its theological and aesthetic richness that it seems right that everybody in the world would want to have this too. This year marks my tenth year as an Orthodox Christian, and I still feel that way. Once you are inside Orthodoxy, and get the hang of the liturgy, a whole world opens up to you.

In my case, it was perfectly obvious from the beginning why one would want to be Orthodox. But I know myself well enough to admit that I’m a rare type, in that I am unusually moved by beauty. (Recall, it was seeing the Chartres cathedral for the first time at age 17 that brought me back to Christianity.) Beauty alone isn’t enough, but in my particular case, it is so central to my experience of God that I can scarcely do without it. This has been a blessing to me, because it has made me deeply grateful for the role of beauty in holiness, but also a burden, as far too often I am aware of certain disdainful impulses towards low-church worship, a spirit of criticism that is spiritually harmful. (Believe me, it was very much there when I was a Catholic too).

It’s not just an aesthetic thing. Rather, the aesthetics are inextricably tied to the theology, in ways that are difficult to see from a drive-by visit to an Orthodox liturgy. If you’ve only been to one Orthodox liturgy and decided it’s not for you, I would invite you to make two or three more visits before you make your mind up.

Still, Msgr. Pope’s words about the Latin Mass ring true to me re: Orthodoxy. The bottom line is that if the superiority of Orthodox worship were obvious, we would have many more converts than we do. Many of us Orthodox — and I’m pointing at myself here — do a poor job of evangelizing. Granted, we face enormous hurdles. Yes, we say the liturgy in the language of this country, English, and Orthodox worship is incomparably more participatory from a congregational standpoint than the Latin Mass is. But mostly, we are alien to American expectations, in ways that make us seem inaccessibly exotic.

Like the Latin Mass folks, we Orthodox have got to do a much better job of evangelizing. And like the Latin Mass folks, we have particularly high hurdles to clear. Like the Latin Mass, the Orthodox liturgy will never be able to offer the kind of “plug-and-play,” seeker-friendly experience. That is a hidden strength; Orthodoxy is very “finder-friendly,” in the sense that if you commit yourself to it, the Orthodox life gives you an experience of Christianity that, in my experience, is unparalleled in its depth.

But we live in a culture in which everyone expects things to be tailored to their own preferences, and if it doesn’t suit us instantly, we move on. Most of us are like that. More often than not, when I sit down to find a movie on Netflix or Amazon Prime, I end up surfing for half and hour then decide to go read, because I can’t find anything that I’m willing to commit to. That same mentality tends to govern our decisions about everything. I constantly have to resist this tendency in myself. I’m reminded of David Brooks’s great line from Bobos In Paradise: that many of us today try “to build a house of obligation on a foundation of choice.”

So, you can be a Latin Mass Catholic or an Orthodox Christian, and be frustrated with the masses who fail to appreciate the richness, beauty, and theological profundity available within your church and/or liturgical tradition … but that doesn’t get more people into church. If we want to push past Peak Latin Mass and Peak Orthodoxy in American life, we have to figure out a better way to evangelize.

I have been to Orthodox parishes that are booming with converts. I have been to frozen-chosen parishes that are dying on the vine. And I have been to parishes that are terrific, but struggling for worshipers. Let me ask you readers: what makes the difference in these places?

Let me put the question to you Latin Mass Catholics as well: what makes the difference between a thriving Latin Mass parish community and one that’s just holding on?

Understand the spirit in which I am asking: I want both Orthodoxy and Latin Mass Catholicism to thrive in this country.