Can America's Catholics Adapt to Tridentine Mass?

Pope Benedict XVI is considering a proposal that would allow more Roman Catholic churches to return to the traditional Latin mass, called the Tridentine Mass. Rachel Martin visits one of the few U.S. churches that still offers the Tridentine Mass.

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For more than a thousand years, the Catholic Mass was a sacred ritual meant to invoke the mysteries of the divine, and the entire ceremony, called the Tridentine, was delivered in Latin. That changed in the 1960s, when the church ruled that Mass should be given in the vox populi, language of the people. Now Pope Benedict XVI is reportedly considering a decree that would revive the old Latin rite.

NPR's Rachel Martin has the story.

RACHEL MARTIN: It's Sunday Mass at the church of St. Paul the Apostle on the West Side of Manhattan. The priest faces his congregation and welcomes them. The service is all in English, and the music is more Broadway ballad than Gregorian chant.

(Soundbite of choir)

MARTIN: But across town at St. Agnes Catholic Church on East 43rd, Sunday Mass sounds much different.

(Soundbite of choir)

MARTIN: Ethereal chants emanate from the rafters. The priest, dressed in white robes trimmed with lace, walks slowly to the front of the church, his back to the congregation. The Mass is entirely in Latin and the priest delivers it in sober, hushed tones, barely audible to the couple hundred people behind him in the pews.

(Soundbite of Mass)

MARTIN: This is the Tridentine Mass and it was practiced by Catholics for close to 1500 years before the Second Vatican Council decreed that services should be in the vernacular of the people. About 20 years later, Pope John Paul II said the High Latin Mass could be performed with permission from local bishops. St. Agnes is one of only five churches out of hundreds in the greater New York area that offers it regularly.

Now reports in the Catholic Press suggests Pope Benedict may allow priests to perform this Mass without permission. Those who practice the Tridentine rite say it's an antidote to changes made by the Second Vatican Council that encouraged conscious and active participation in the service.

Father RICHARD ADAMS (St. Agnes Church): What happened after the Second Vatican Council was that a lot of irreverence entered the liturgy.

MARTIN: Sixty-seven-year-old Father Richard Adams is the pastor at St. Agnes and one of only a handful of priests on New York who can speak Latin well enough to give the Tridentine Mass. He laments the changes in the Mass, like the Sacred Greeting of Peace, which he says can degenerate into, hey, how's it going? And then there's the change in the music.

Father ADAMS: I always call it country and western. You know, it was hip-hop and all that kind of stuff. And this was supposed to attract the young people. Well, it never did.

MARTIN: And so the...

Father ADAMS: And so people harken back to this, the more reverent, the more sacred, a sense of the sacred.

MARTIN: But what's sacred for some is akin to the liturgical Dark Ages for others. Richard McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and an ordained priest.

Professor RICHARD MCBRIEN (University of Notre Dame): There is always a small group of Catholics who never accepted the reforms of Vatican II or the new understanding of the church, which looked upon the church as the whole people of God and not just the clergy and the hierarchy, with the laity as simply, you know, appendages or customers.

MARTIN: The majority of Catholics in the U.S. attend English language Masses, but McBrien says the Tridentine rite is gaining popularity among American Catholics in their 20s and 30s, who he says don't understand the theological symbolism of bringing back the old Mass.

Prof. MCBRIEN: Many any of these Catholics are really young romantics who pine for a day that they never knew.

Mr. MATTHEW ALDERMAN(ph) (Member, St. Agnes Church): I think a lot of people will just assume that, it's just like for people who are nostalgic, or - but it's more - it's not just that...

MARTIN: Twenty-three-year-old Matthew Alderman is a regular at the Tridentine Mass at St. Agnes. After the service, he and a group of friends mill around the sidewalk in front of the church. For him, the old Latin Mass is a chance to capture some of the mystery and ritual that defines Catholicism.

Mr. ALDERMAN: Well, I think it's very rewarding because there are multiple layers of meaning. There are multiple - you know, the symbolism is intricate. And I mean there's a lot of Scriptural reference. Not everything is apparent at first glance. And so it is a lot to mull on and a lot to chew on.

MARTIN: Alderman's friend, Dawn Eden, is a new Catholic convert who came in from New Jersey for church. It was her first Tridentine Mass here and I asked her how much of it she understood.

Can you speak Latin or understand it?

Ms. DAWN EDEN (Member, St. Agnes Church): I can understand it about as well as an English speaker who's taken three years of French in high school could understand it. They sell these at the bookstores for four dollars. It's a Latin-English missal, so I can follow along. See, it says stand, sit, kneel.

MARTIN: But not everyone can here is quite so enthusiastic. Sixty-nine-year-old Bobbie O'Brien(ph) and her husband were on vacation in New York from South Carolina. They didn't know they were going into a Latin Mass and they came out feeling less than inspired.

Ms. BOBBIE O'BRIEN (Catholic Worshipper): I think for me it brought home the fact that so many of the changes were good ones that happened, because when it's said in English we know what's going on.

MARTIN: Debate over the possible expansion of the Tridentine Mass is mounting, particularly in Europe. But an official with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says they won't weigh in until it's clear when, or even if, the pope will issue such a decree.

Rachel Martin, NPR News.

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