Over the past quarter century or so, I have written my share of stories and columns about traditional Catholics who yearn for the return of the Tridentine Mass. I realize that this is a very emotional subject, in part because of the tsunami of cultural changes that swept over the American Catholic Church -- emphasis on the word "American" -- at about the same time as the Second Vatican Council. For a nice summary of all of that, check out this post from Amy Welborn at open book.
There are Catholics who think the church went too far into modernism and there are Catholics who do not think the changes went far enough. Now here is the key to the emotions tied to this issue. Many of the people who yearn for the return of the Tridentine Mass are convinced that the leaders of the "we want more changes and we want them now" camp are actually in charge of the liturgy offices in many dioceses across the nation. There is some truth in this claim. There are people in places of power who shudder at the sound of Gregorian chant and traditional language in the Mass.
As the old joke goes: "What's the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist."
Thus, temperatures rise all over the place at the slightest mention of bringing back the old Latin Mass. So I read, with interest, this Sunday's Baltimore Sun report by Liz F. Kay titled "Enthusiastic Catholics clamor for Mass of past -- Interest grows for rare 16th-century service." I came away with the impression that there are, as the story sort of says, dozens of local Catholics clamoring for this 16th-century rite. Can you get a real clamor going with dozens of voices?
Anyway, why are they clamoring?
If the speculation around the Vatican is right, their prayers might be answered. Rumors have swirled for months that Pope Benedict XVI will formally grant permission to all Catholic churches to perform what's commonly -- though incorrectly -- known as the Latin Mass.
... The move -- if it happens -- is seen as a way of reaching out to traditionalists who were alienated after the Second Vatican Council produced a new missal, or prayer book, in the late 1960s that streamlined the Mass.
"Identifying with the Tridentine Mass is a kind of a mild form of protest," says Mathew N. Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross. "A lot of it has to do with a more aggressive assertion of Catholic identity and a feeling that that has been lost."
Here is my problem. This is an emotional story, but is this a big story?
Frankly, I think it is a story hooked to a symptom rather than a root cause. And, besides, I haven't seem much evidence that large groups of modern American Catholics clamor about much of anything at the parish level. They tend to live rather quietly in their doctrinal and stylistic niches like everybody else in mainline religion in this culture. They do like to clamor on the Internet.
Meanwhile, the Tridentine is not the only Latin Mass. It is perfectly legal for Catholics to celebrate the Novus Ordo liturgy in Latin (although, truth be told, there are bishops and liturgists who oppose even that -- which is a story in and of itself). It is also possible to celebrate the post-Vatican II rite with a high degree of respect, dignity, beauty, pomp and, yes, glorious injections of chant and other forms of ancient and medieval Catholic music.
So the Sun story is good, but I think it confuses several issues. To use the Tridentine Mass as the symbol of conservative Catholicism in the Baltimore area, or America in general, is to miss the point and to hide some of the fascinating divisions in the modern church. The "worship wars" that ravage many churches are a big part of modern Catholic life. Trust me.
There are Catholics who yearn for beautiful worship -- period. There are Catholics who yearn for their church and for their own priests and liturgists to defend the doctrines of the faith. There are charismatic, semi-megachurch Catholics who yearn for conservative doctrine, yet love the informal forms of worship and music that drive the traditionalists bonkers. There are liberal Catholics who love smells, bells and NPR classical music, yet who want inclusive language and female priests. There are priests who want to be talk-show hosts. There are parishes that are totally dead when it comes to liturgy and spirituality and have no idea what they are doing.
In other words, this story merely scratched the surface. In an old, complex Catholic city like Baltimore, the heart of Maryland, readers deserve more. Let's hope that the Sun turns this one story into a longer and more worthy series of articles.