Traditional Liturgy Flourishing in the Bible Belt

A South Carolina parish demonstrates that reverent, beautiful liturgies—in the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms—are possible in a modern American parish.

This September marked the sixth anniversary of the implementation of Summorum Pontificum, the motu proprio of Pope Benedict XVI that provided juridical recourse to Catholic laymen interested in receiving regular access to the traditional Latin Mass and the sacraments. Since the document went into effect, what results can be seen in the United States and Canada in terms of the availability of Holy Mass in the Extraordinary Form?

The Coalition in Support of Ecclesia Dei keeps a comprehensive list of locations in which the traditional Latin Mass is available. At last count, in the 191 dioceses in North America, there are about 485 parishes that offer Mass in the Extraordinary Form with some frequency (monthly, twice-per-month, or weekly), with 335 parish locations offering it weekly.

In North America there are 75 parish locations that offer daily access to the Extraordinary Form. Of those locations, 38 are in the care of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and 13 are provided for by the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. That leaves 24 locations run by dioceses or religious communities (such as the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius in Chicago) where the Mass in the Extraordinary Form is offered daily.

One such parish is thriving in what may seem to some to be the least likely of places—what is often referred to as “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” Greenville, South Carolina. Prince of Peace Catholic Church, located in Taylors, SC, is a diocesan parish with nearly 2,000 families and an evangelical liturgical approach that is beginning to draw national and international attention.

Not only is this parish attracting families interested in regular access to traditional liturgy and the sacraments, it is beginning to be recognized by even the non-traditional Catholic audience as a beacon of the “New Evangelization,” due to the number of converts and reverts it draws into the Catholic Church.

Prince of Peace also has a burgeoning school, a round-the-clock adoration chapel, and numerous other flourishing apostolates.

Father Christopher Smith has been the pastoral administrator of Prince of Peace since December 2011. A native of nearby Easley, he is a former Baptist who converted to Catholicism as a teenager. He is a graduate of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, and he holds both a licentiate and a doctorate in dogmatic theology. He recently spoke with CWR about parish life at Prince of Peace and the parish’s approach to the liturgy.

Editor’s Note: Since this interview took place, Prince of Peace ceased offering daily Mass in the Extraordinary Form until a second priest is assigned to the parish. The Latin Mass is currently offered on Sundays, Holy Days, and special feast days, and it is expected that the daily Latin Mass will resume when another priest is assigned.

CWR: Why did you decide to offer access to Mass in the Extraordinary Form daily?

Parishioners embark on a candlelight rosary procession in solidarity with Pope Francis's consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on Oct. 13.

Father Smith: We had a community dedicated to the Extraordinary Form for about 10 years prior to my arrival, and the community has grown and has really begun to expect to live its daily life around that liturgy. Because we have had two priests who are able to celebrate both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Forms in a parish large enough to warrant two daily Masses, it made sense to have both forms daily.

Also, it has both consolidated the community of those attached to the Extraordinary Form and has provided the opportunity for those who want to attend daily Mass the opportunity to consistently experience the Extraordinary Form Mass at noon. Some people come more because it is at noon Mass more than because it is the Extraordinary Form.

CWR: What reactions have you received from parishioners?

Father Smith: There was a little bit of concern at the beginning—especially because I was coming in new—from people thinking we were going to completely change it over into an Extraordinary Form parish. But when they saw that we were not taking away anything, but just adding more opportunities to go to Mass, I believe that that helped alleviate those concerns.

CWR: What did you expect when you began this assignment leading a parish, and what have you learned over the nearly two years since?

Father Smith: When I first started, what I thought was those who are already going to the Sunday Traditional Mass might choose to go to daily Latin Mass. We have a lot of homeschool families, so I thought they might go to that Mass.

What I didn’t expect—but which has been very, very wonderful in our parish—is that a lot of people who swore two years ago they would never darken the doors of the Latin Mass now go every day because it is a Latin Mass at noon and they have grown to respect it, appreciate it, and love it. Also, we have members of the Latin Mass community who would previously never go to an English Mass, and they now go periodically because it is celebrated according to the mind of the Church and it is celebrated in the same manner as the Extraordinary Form.

I didn’t expect that to happen and I certainly didn’t think it would happen that quickly.

CWR: Not many diocesan parishes in the US offer the Mass in the Extraordinary Form at all, let alone daily. How does this serve to build the Church and aid in the salvation of souls?

Father Smith: I think that children who grow up with both forms of the Roman rite offered daily will recognize that as completely normal. They don’t have any baggage against one or the other forms.

And there won’t be any kind of animus against either the Ordinary Form or the Extraordinary Form because they have had frequent experiences of the proper celebration of both forms. So when they go into other parishes in other locations, they will bring with them a much broader understanding of the “little c” catholic view of the liturgy because it hasn’t been weighed down by any psychological baggage from the past.

CWR: What kind of response—either positive or negative—have you received from other priests in the diocese or elsewhere?

Father Smith: A lot priests, when they hear about what we do—it may perhaps sound very strange to them for some reason. But when they actually come and visit and experience firsthand how both forms are [celebrated as similarly] as possible, while still respecting the unique differences, and they see the participation and the faith of the people—when they see all of this in action, then it makes more sense to them.

No one else in our diocese is doing it the way that we are, but we also have a history in our parish that other parishes have not had. There are places where they would love to have the Extraordinary Form more often, but they don’t have the same level of desire—as shown over a period of 12-plus years now—that our parishioners have.

CWR: What would your advice be to other priests considering a similar approach? There are lots of logistical challenges and practical considerations. How would you answer those practical challenges and considerations?

Father Smith: There are many priests in our diocese who regularly offer five or six [Novus Ordo] Masses every weekend, and often times, at different locations. And all of those are necessary. In situations like those, with one lone priest, it is difficult for the priest to celebrate the Extraordinary Form on a regular basis. It is simply not feasible when they are by themselves. Where there are two priests in a parish covering only one location, then it is a little bit easier.

But I also think it is important that the people don’t feel that it is being forced upon them in any way. So altar rails, ad orientem worship, and the things that are normally associated with the Extraordinary Form—slowly a kind of modus vivendi between the two forms begins without constantly having to redo the sanctuary space. There are all kinds of variables that exist depending upon the parish.

In some places, it can work very easily, and in other places, it takes a lot of creative thinking.

CWR: Wouldn’t the music considerations alone be quite daunting for the average parish?

Father Smith: Right off the bat with the Extraordinary Form, you can build as much as your resources allow. Now, how can that have a positive gravitational pull on the Ordinary Form? That is a little more difficult. What are the resources in your parish? But also, what has the music history of the parish been?

One of the things I would offer is to provide regular, ongoing catechesis on music in the liturgy at Mass [for the Ordinary Form] and then introduce the propers and ensure there is some kind of coherence in a parish between one liturgy and the next.

One of the things about Prince of Peace is that when we have sung liturgies, when we have hymns, the propers are included in all the Masses as well.

I believe you must create a consistent way of worshipping in the parish rather than catering to everyone’s individual taste, because that never really works to unify a parish around the liturgy.

CWR: How do you answer common objections from people who don’t appreciate the Prince of Peace style of liturgy due to their experiences in American parishes since 1970?

Father Smith: People have to understand that the liturgy is not primarily about the externals nor about creating an interesting experience, as many people tried to do after the Council. Nor is it about just fixating on lace, vestments, and the smells and bells. We need to understand the liturgy is not principally about something we do.

If you put the emphasis on the externals, then some people will say, “I don’t like that,” and they will reject it.

Whereas if you understand what is actually happening during the liturgy—and it’s not just what is happening at the altar, but it extends into one’s daily life, then all of a sudden the beauty and the majesty and transcendence of the liturgy is something the people can take with them to their daily lives.

For example, I often speak about reverence for the Body of Christ and that the [way] people receive Holy Communion…shows a specific internal disposition as well as an external disposition. 

It is important, but also that same reverence we have for the Body of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament should also be had for the Body of Christ in the Church.  We are all fellow members of the Body of Christ—so the life of charity flows from everything we do in the Eucharistic celebration. And I think when people begin to realize that is where you are coming from as a priest, not just kind of re-arranging the furniture, they begin to understand that this all has a deeper meaning rather than conclud[ing], “Father just likes to do things this way and is forcing it upon everyone.” It is a natural outgrowth from a vision of the liturgy that emphasizes its transcendence, but also its relationship to daily life—rather than just making it up according to what is someone’s particular taste.

Pope Francis has said that the Church cannot be shut up in the sacristy. Some people take that as some type of implicit criticism of traditional liturgy. But it really is not at all when it is understood properly.

Because all of the beauty of the liturgy is not just something that “people in the know” kind of do as a hobby; it is something that is to be a school of Christian service so that we can go out and evangelize and perform acts of service and charity in the world.

If that doesn’t happen in the life of the faithful, it is not the fault of the liturgy; that is the fault of the Christian world not making that link between liturgy and life that is the essence of Christianity.

CWR: What has been your experience as far as reverent liturgies performed according to the mind of the Church—both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Form—regarding its attraction to younger or older Catholics?

Father Smith: It has been my experience that every place where the liturgy is celebrated according to the mind of the Church, whether in the Ordinary Form or the Extraordinary Form, younger people tend to be those who gravitate toward it.

Even at Prince of Peace, a lot of the older Catholics who lived through the changes following the Second Vatican Council just don’t want to go back again. And for some of them, it is very difficult. When they were in their formational years and they were exposed to all of these things, they were systematically taught to hate them.  I understand and I respect that, and I think pastors have to take this into consideration because it is not those people’s fault. You really cannot undo that even with all of the best will in the world.

Whereas with the younger generation, they have no psychological baggage attached to traditional liturgy. When they see it, they don’t automatically think, “Oh my God, they are trying to undo Vatican II!” They think, “Wow! This is really interesting and beautiful. How can I learn more?”

And that is true whether it is the Extraordinary Form or the Ordinary Form done well.

The generations that have survived the liturgy wars have often closed themselves up into these trenches and they are not going to come out except for some kind of work of grace. But the younger people seem to gravitate toward the transcendental you can see within it—truth, goodness, and beauty—because they are not distracted by what these things supposedly mean if you view them through a hermeneutic of rupture.

I would encourage pastors to find a place within their parishes for the Extraordinary Form, but [do] so as gently as possible, and to focus on the solemn celebration of the liturgy in both forms and to get the younger generation to really understand it and participate in it and to love it. I would focus on that.

That is why schools and religious education programs are also so important, because once the parish sees you are getting their children involved in the liturgy and they understand the propers and the reasons behind the vestments, as but two examples, it works like spiritual leaven through the families and the parish.

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About Brian Mershon 0 Articles
Brian Mershon is a father of seven living children and grandfather of four who writes from the buckle of the Bible Belt in Greenville, South Carolina, when he is not at sporting or music events. He has a master's in theology and a bachelor's in news-editorial journalism.