Kenneth J. Wolfe is an American Catholic writer who contributes to Rorate Caeli, the most-read Catholic traditionalist blog in the world. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, and The Remnant, among other publications. Mr. Wolfe, who lives in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia with his wife, holds a BA from West Chester University in Pennsylvania.
In October, I interviewed Mr. Wolfe by email about the relationship between Pope Francis and Catholics who worship in the traditional Latin Mass.
Sean Salai, SJ: What is the “traditional Latin Mass” and why do you attend it?
Kenneth J. Wolfe: The traditional Latin Mass is the sacrifice of the Mass dating back to at least Pope Gregory the Great (hence, Gregorian chant) that most canonized saints would recognize as their form of worship, as compared to the Vatican II liturgy of the 1960s that is normative in parishes today. I attend it because I love the universality, contemplation, beauty, and solemnity that is commonly identified—even by children—with the traditional Latin Mass.
Salai: What does the phrase “traditionalist Catholic” mean to you?
Wolfe: One who attends—exclusively—the traditional Latin Mass and sacraments, and adheres to the corresponding disciplines, as they existed in 1962 or earlier.
Salai: What is the difference between Catholics who attend the traditional Latin mass approved by Rome and Catholics who attend similar masses celebrated by the schismatic Society of St. Pius X?
Wolfe: First, the word “schismatic” has been repeatedly corrected by even bishops who have mistakenly used it to describe the SSPX. And I say that as one who has only attended about three or four Masses offered by the Society out of the last 20 years of exclusively attending traditional Latin Mass. “Irregular” is a much more accurate adjective for a group of priests who offer valid sacraments, have visitations conducted by bishops appointed by the Vatican, and have even been explicitly granted faculties for the sacrament of penance during Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy. Having said that, the main difference between the two groups of Catholics is pragmatism versus purity. Both have positives and negatives, and both are fully Catholic in the eyes of the Church.
Salai: What tensions have you experienced between Catholic traditionalists and Catholics who are not traditionalists?
Wolfe: There is often a tendency to defend the status quo by conservatives who are not yet traditionalists, treating the pope like a fourth person of God; the Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and Francis. Traditionalists err on the side of tradition, which admittedly befuddles, at best, or irks, at worst, those who do not quite grasp, accept, or even know about the first 1,900 years of the Catholic Church.
Salai: Although this Mass seems to be growing in places, primarily in the United States and some parts of Europe, the growth is not explosive. How do you respond to the reality that most Catholics, by and large, are pretty content with the current form of the Roman Rite offered in the vernacular?
Wolfe: I don’t think most Catholics are content with their typical novus ordo liturgy. When there is a traditional Latin Mass at an accessible and beautiful parish, on a Sunday morning, it is usually packed. The two strongest countries, it seems, for the traditional Latin Mass are the United States and France. Both have an unusually high number of traditional liturgies with young people and large families. In America, bishops are turning failed parishes over to traditional orders. In France, which I had the pleasure of visiting this spring, there will be more Catholics attending the traditional Latin Mass than the novus ordo liturgy in a couple decades if trends continue. The hierarchy of the Church can’t help but notice this energy and momentum.
Salai: From your perspective, what are US Catholic traditionalists doing right at this point in time?
Wolfe: Evangelizing and multiplying. Both are a lot of fun to accomplish, particularly in the current climate.
Salai: What are some mistakes that traditionalist Catholics have made as a community in the United States?
Wolfe: We can all smile a little more and laugh a little harder with friends and family. Rorate Caeli made a wise decision shortly after this papacy began to end comments on blog posts. I think we should all shut off the computer for a few hours each night and weekend and have good, old-fashioned cocktails and conversations instead of venting on the Internet 24/7. Leave the online reporting to those who spend more than a few seconds researching the issue of the day.
Salai: Pope Benedict XVI issued a motu proprio that extended faculties for the old Latin Mass to priests throughout the world, a permission that Pope Francis has continued, but traditionalist Catholics often seem less enthusiastic about the current pope. How would you describe the current attitude of Latin Mass-going Catholics to Francis?
Wolfe: When Jorge Bergoglio was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, even after Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio, there was one location where a Latin Mass could be offered, and it was a hybrid liturgy with novus ordo novelties as mandated by the archbishop. After becoming pope in 2013, he—despite the motu proprio—prohibited priests in the Franciscans of the Immaculate from offering the traditional Latin Mass and used several disparaging words to describe pre-Vatican II sacraments and those who adhere to them. For his own liturgies, this pope has rejected beautiful vestments in favor of 1970s polyester. There is reason to be concerned what may be next, as the one consistent thing with Pope Francis is no one ever knows what in the world he will say or do tomorrow.
Salai: Where does Pope Francis connect most strongly with traditionalist Catholics?
Wolfe: His focus on the Evil One. He recognizes the presence of the devil in our world.
Salai: When Pope Francis criticizes empty ritual that lacks inner conviction, how do you experience those words as a traditionalist Catholic?
Wolfe: Saint Ignatius of Loyola was no fan of novelty, and anyone who has been fortunate enough to make an Ignatian retreat based on his Exercises knows that repetition and rhythm in prayer and devotion is the way the founder of the Jesuits preferred. Pope Francis, even though a Jesuit, seems to dislike, and even mock, things such as spiritual bouquets. That is sad, as the Catholic Church contains a wealth of ritual that has helped so many saints and sinners alike gain happiness and, ultimately, salvation.
Salai: During many of the big public masses on his recent US visit, Pope Francis recited the Eucharistic Prayer entirely in Latin, something that Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI never did when they came to this country. What do you make of that?
Wolfe: This pope doesn’t speak English very well, and Latin is closer to Spanish or Italian.
Salai: If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about the traditional Latin Mass and people who attend it, what would that be?
Wolfe: Your Holiness, please at least acknowledge that the sacraments and discipline we adhere to was the universal norm of the Catholic Church for many, many centuries until the rupture of the Second Vatican Council.
Salai: What is distinctive about traditionalist Roman Catholicism and what is continuous about it with the rest of the church?
Wolfe: The calendar, language, orientation of the altar, dress, solemnity, and reverence are much different than the average novus ordo parish. We have the same Holy Ghost, the same pope, the same Scripture, and the same doctrine. Even though it appears there are two (or more) subfolders within the Catholic Church, there is not a doctrinal schism, and traditionalists will continue to defend doctrine to ensure faith and morals are guarded and maintained.
Salai: What’s your favorite Scripture passage and why?
Wolfe: Saint John’s Gospel, verses seven through eleven in the second chapter: “Jesus saith to them: Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And Jesus saith to them: Draw out now, and carry to the chief steward of the feast. And they carried it. And when the chief steward had tasted the water made wine, and knew not whence it was, but the waiters knew who had drawn the water; the chief steward calleth the bridegroom, and saith to him: Every man at first setteth forth good wine, and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse. But thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee; and manifested his glory and his disciples believed in him.”
This is the communion proper for the Second Sunday after Epiphany. I always smile at those High Masses each January, as the music is fairly routine until the mention of good wine, where the chant then skyrockets in range. The monks who presumably wrote it many centuries ago knew our Lord’s first miracle was an awesome one.
Salai: Who are your role models in the Faith, either living or dead?
Wolfe: Personally, I most admire the priests in the Institute of Christ the King and the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter. They never steer me wrong. In Washington, DC, I have been blessed to make friends with dozens of fellow parishioners at Saint Mary, Mother of God Church—kind of the epicenter for the traditional Latin Mass in the capital region. For saints, Thomas More is one of my favorites.
Salai: How has your own faith changed or evolved over the years?
Wolfe: Before college, I attended conservative novus ordo liturgies with family through territorial luck; during college I got wrapped up in the Newman Center and its folk scene; and immediately after graduating I found the traditional Latin Mass. I’ve never been happier, 20 years after deciding to attend only the old sacraments.
Salai: How do you pray? Any favorite prayers or intentions, or spiritual tradition?
Wolfe: There’s nothing better than praying at Mass. I sing in our local Gregorian chant schola, praying twice, as Saint Augustine of Hippo remarked. From the Rosary to the Spiritual Exercises with a traditional retreat master, to daily prayers for living and dead family and friends, there’s always some time in the day for the important stuff.
Salai: How does Catholicism influence your approach to being a husband?
Wolfe: Mass comes first, then everything else. My wife and I love to travel, and some of our favorite moments in a trip are at either Mass or a church in a different city or country.
Salai: What are your hopes for the future?
Wolfe: Restoration. Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, wisely wrote: “The Church stands and falls with the Liturgy.” Falls? Imagine that horrible thought! I hope and pray for a Pope Pius XIII who will bravely begin a counter-revolution, starting with liturgy and sacraments. Start there, and all of the other important things will follow.
Salai: Any final thoughts?
Wolfe: I am happy to see a growing number of smart, young Catholics enter religious life. A new generation of priests, sisters, brothers, and bishops will determine the direction of the Church. Know that there will be many prayers—including spiritual bouquets—for good vocations and great work and leadership.