About a week and a half ago, Monsignor Charles Pope, a priest of the Washington DC Archdiocese published an article in the National Catholic Register stating his conviction that interest in the Traditional Latin Mass (the pre-conciliar liturgy) is no longer growing and advocating a more aggressive evangelism among its devotees to restore the momentum of expanding the popularity of the old rite. It was a remarkably balanced and well-written article although Monsignor’s observations are based on “anecdotal evidence” and not established statistics. One facet of his observations is that as the number of TLM’s expands, the congregational base divides so that there are more Masses but those Masses are less and less crowded. Monsignor Pope suggests that what is needed to restore momentum is a push for “evangelization.”
Now, to be fair to Monsignor Pope, he is a bit ambiguous about what he means by evangelization, but I would like to draw our attention to the fact that evangelization is not a matter of advocating for one form of liturgy or another, nor is the focus of evangelization advancing the Church. Evangelization is spreading the Gospel (Ευαγγαλιον, Good News) of the Kingdom of God. The Church is the agent of the Gospel, not its object, and while some rites might it express it more lucidly, every celebration of the Liturgy in whatever Rite is an expression of the Lord’s Paschal Mystery. All Christians are call to evangelize; it is a responsibility given us at our Baptisms. But this is not the focus of this post.
According to Monsignor Pope, despite the availability of the TLM at five parishes in the Archdiocese the number of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington who attend the Traditional Latin Mass (Extraordinary Form, not the Novus Ordo in Latin) are about one half of one percent of the Catholics who regularly attend Sunday Mass. This translates to about one thousand people spread over five sites, or an average of two hundred people per site. The neighboring Diocese of Arlington has a plethora of parishes that offer the TLM every Sunday but there too many of the sites draw less than 100 people for a Mass. Across the country even as new TLM sites are springing up an equal (or even greater number) are closing down or cutting back for a lack of sufficient numbers attending.
Monsignor Pope uses the example of a parish where he had often celebrated the TLM over the past quarter century. When the Mass was first introduced, the Church was “almost full.” Over the years the congregation has declined by two-thirds. What is the reason for this? One reason—and probably the most significant—is that with more parishes offering the TLM, people opt for a site closer to home. A second reason is that just as some people have “graduated” from the Ordinary Form to the TLM, they go on to graduate school in the Byzantine or other Eastern Rites; some people are pilgrims and they migrate, never settling. Still others make peace with the normative liturgy or find a place where it is celebrated in a way they can at least tolerate and return to the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. And some simply lose interest in the spiritual journey, having sampled the honey from a variety of rocks, and just don’t go anywhere anymore. But no matter what the reason, the impetus to return to the preconciliar rite seems to have lost momentum. There will always be those who, for one reason or another, choose it but there seems to be little likelihood of it becoming universal practice once again.
I think a big factor in the popularity (or survival) of the TLM is the reasons that motivate people toward it. I hear all this “stuff” about “more reverent” or “a sense of holiness” but ultimately that is all pretty subjective. Granted in the exceptional situation where it is a sung Solemn Mass there is a certain aesthetic beauty to it, but so too is there in a Novus Ordo Mass that is well done—just look at the papal Mass for Christmas Eve. I know myself that I have some experience of worshipping with a Cistercian community and find the Liturgy—all very Novus Ordo—to be exceptionally beautiful and reverent. And as for reverence, despite my liberalism I have yet to trip across a “clown Mass” or see some sandal-clad nun in wispy dress “preside” at Mass or any other such silliness. I somewhat think such aberrations are a bit like the Loch Ness Monster: more a creature of legend than of fact. If I have any criticism of the Novus Ordo it is that too many priests have fallen into a routine of how they “say Mass” and show all the enthusiasm of a tired mother at the end of the day folding the laundry. But then I remember the 11 minute Saturday morning specials of my Tridentine youth and have no illusions how the TLM is inherently more reverent.
I think people are drawn to the TLM for a number of reasons, not all of them spiritual. I don’t mean to suggest an individual who prefers the TLM represents all of these characteristics and there may be other reasons as well.
1. the TLM preserves that sense of individualism from the encroachment of a “community” of unknown (and undesired) strangers. You don’t have to (and couldn’t if you wanted to) interface with your neighbor at the TLM
2. The TLM permits you—if you wish—to pray via pious reverie rather than engage you with the Liturgy itself. This is related to the sense of individualism in number 1.
3. The TLM gives you an escape from the daily world and its pressures, allowing a peaceful and otherworldly respite for the duration of the Liturgy.
4. The TLM suspends the cultural tensions of our contemporary world and represents a retreat into a secure past with fixed answers and well-defined boundaries.
5. The TLM gives you a sense of intimacy with Christ that excludes others.
6. The TLM marks you as different and distinct. The sort of music, the use of Latin, the more formal tone gives you a certain status as a more cultured individual.
7. The TLM draws people somewhat like-minded in their social and political views, namely of a strongly conservative conviction.
8. For the spiritually restless, the TLM offers something new, foreign even, that creates an immediate semblance of religious experience.
I don’t mean to suggest that all people drawn to the TLM have one or more of these (conscious or unconscious) motivations and do not mean to suggest that there are not other reasons. But I think the movement in favor of the Traditional (Pre-Conciliar) Rites is, at best, a sort of niche Catholicism and I agree with Monsignor Pope that the niche is pretty well filled.