Zita Ballinger Fletcher’s recent National Catholic Reporter essay, titled “The Latin Mass becomes a cult of toxic tradition” is such an adolescent and amateurish a rant, abounding in so many grotesques about an unnamed “Latin Mass community”, that my first reaction was to laugh aloud. Surely, I thought, this is some kind of risible tax wheeze by the Society of St. Pius X or the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter to drum up donations before the end of the fiscal year. Surely they must, like my local Catholic and NPR radio stations, be in the midst of their fall fundraising drives? Even if they aren’t, such an hysterical hit job can only redound to their benefit, financial and otherwise.
I will not bore readers by offering a systematic refutation of grossly hyperbolic adjectives and generalizations including “Latin Mass cultists”, “fundamentalists”, “anti-modern practices”, “cultism”, “radical and narrow-minded”, and “vortex of toxic, traditional radicalism”. Instead, let me respond by sharing a bit about some of my particular and concrete experiences in a Latin Mass community, including as a paid part-time teacher in one such high school.
Prior to following the orientale lumen and becoming Eastern Catholic, I spent three years of my life at St. Clement Parish in Ottawa, Canada. There I met some of the most interesting, sometimes eccentric, but always gracious and hospitable people. Neither they nor the clergy of that parish bear the slightest resemblance to the composite cartoons Fletcher conjures up in her piece. (I do not wish to create the impression that the parish was perfect. The pastor warned me to watch out for what he called the “lunatic fringe,” though he said—and my experience confirmed—that it was a very small minority of the parish.)
I confess that prior to going I had steeled myself, based on nothing more than lazy stereotypes of precisely the sort Fletcher flogs, to find the parish a hotbed of reactionary octogenarian cranks—all six of them, I assumed. Imagine my surprise, then, when in the high summer of 1996 I walked up the enormous hill to the parish only to hear, from a good half block away, the shrieks of forty or fifty children of all ages, who filled the front and side lawns of the parish and spilled onto the sidewalk and street. This was not at all what I expected. It was but the first of many surprises.
My second surprise consisted in simply opening the front door. Instead of seeing a handful of aged and bitter hangers-on from mid-century ranting about Vatican II while clacking their rosary beads loudly, I found a nearly full church of fascinating people of two languages (this being Ottawa, the parish did everything in French and English), of various cultures, and every social class, from diplomats and high government officials to homemakers, carpenters, and other professions, and with a clear distribution across the life spectrum, from very young children to adults in their early twenties (as I then was), and peoples of every decade thereafter. I was immediately befriended after my first Mass there, and invited to breakfast with a group of people who became fast friends.
Within short order, one of the teachers who wanted to retire from the parish school put my name forward as his replacement—without telling me! This was one of the clearest examples of Divine Providence in my life for it introduced me to the idea of teaching, which until then I had never considered. I quickly came to love it, and received encouragement to continue down this path, which I have done for more than twenty years now.
That venerable parish claimed for itself the singular distinction of being the only place in all of Canada always to have celebrated Mass in Latin before, during, and after Vatican II. This was usually done by cobbling together sympathetic priests on an ad hoc basis before the parish was given over to the care of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the relatively new order in the Church dedicated entirely to preserving and celebrating all the sacraments according to the 1962 liturgical books. My three years in that parish were so utterly unlike anything Fletcher has described that I seriously have to doubt whether her descriptions come from and correspond to any actually existing community. Strikingly, she provides no identifying details, which, given her relentless acrimony, we cannot ascribe to any charitable desire to protect the innocent.
In any event, my experience at St. Clement offers refutations of such claims as “the Latin Mass fosters clericalist structures in the church.” Having recently written a book that deals in more detail with radical reforms to clericalist structures than any other book on offer, I should be sympathetic to her claim, but in fact it lacks support in both the concrete particulars of St. Clement and the more abstract and general terms laid down in the previous pope’s Summorum Pontificum, to which I shall return presently.
St. Clement was a parish kept afloat by devoted lay people for much of its early history often in the teeth of official hostility and general disdain. Women in particular were overwhelmingly involved in all aspects, including especially the hugely difficult, and poorly remunerated, work of setting up and running the parish school where I taught history. (The principal who hired me was a splendid woman from England of prodigious talent who did at least three full-time jobs in the school and parish with great flair and good cheer. My admiration for her was boundless.)
The people had learned from hard and bitter experience that many priests, and almost all bishops, could not be relied upon for anything so they did it themselves. There was no clericalism here. In fact, their approach always reminded me of a line from Fiddler on the Roof, adapted slightly: “God bless and keep the bishop…far away from us!”
The above is sufficient evidence for me not to believe Fletcher’s claim that “the Latin tradition oppresses women. Women are expected — indeed, in some cases commanded — to wear skirts instead of trousers, cover themselves with long clothing and wear veils over their heads.” The woman I dated at the time steadfastly refused, along with her equally elegant sister, to cover their heads. Their mother (one of the most uproariously hilarious women I have ever met, whom I still deeply revere) did insist on covering her hair, and wanted her daughters to do so, but knew better than to force the issue with them for she had brought them up to be fiercely independent and to brook no nonsense from any churchman. Plenty of other women in the parish had the freedom to do what they wanted on these and other issues.
It is, in fact, freedom that is the hallmark and central point of the 2007 document of the previous pope treating the “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite. In Summorum Pontificum, Benedict XVI performed so radical a reversal that I still think many even ostensibly intelligent people have not grasped it. He rebuffed the totally unfounded, hideously unjust centralization of the modern papacy whose most egregious power-grab came after Vatican II when it foisted upon the Church the theologically, historically, and ecumenically offensive notion that the pope has the prerogative of replacing an entire liturgical tradition in the Church—something no pope in 2000 years had ever attempted.
Benedict XVI sought to give back to local communities like St. Clement Parish the right to decide which of the two forms they wish to celebrate. In doing this, the pope struck a blow in ecclesiological and liturgical terms for what, in Catholic social teaching, we call “subsidiarity.” Benedict XVI, who for forty years as a theologian wrote against the unhealthy centralization of the modern papacy and its cult of personality around the pope, paradoxically used that office to rightly push back against centralization and curial micromanagement. He was in many important respects the pope of freedom and of diversity: he wanted both forms of the Roman Rite to flourish, and two years later in Anglicanorum coetibus, manifested again the same desire by allowing the unique gifts of Anglican liturgy and spirituality to flourish in Ordinariate parishes.
It is safe to say that if the pope thought the parishes he was liberating would turn into the nightmares conjured up by Fletcher’s fevered fantasies, he would never have gone down this path. But he did, and, as I have argued , it should still be counted unto him as righteousness.
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