Hell’s Bible: Interesting op-ed about older Rite of Mass at St. John Cantius

There is a revelatoryop-ed piece about the older form of Mass in Hell’s Bible, today.    It concerns my good friend Fr. Philips at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.

My emphases and comments. 

Editorial Observer
The Pope Reopens a Portal to Eternity, via the 1950s

Published: July 29, 2007


To a child in a Roman Catholic family, the rhythm of the Mass is absorbed into the body well before understanding reaches the brain. It becomes as lullingly familiar as a weekly drive to a relative’s house: opening prayers like quick turns though local streets, long freeway stretches of readings, homily and Eucharistic prayers, the quietude of communion and then — thanks be to God — the final blessing, a song and home to pancakes and the Sunday comics.

Last Sunday, I drove through a strange liturgical neighborhood. I attended a Tridentine Low Mass, the Latin rite that took hold in the 16th century, [mistale] was abandoned in the 1960s for Mass in the local language [mistake] and is poised for a revival now that Pope Benedict XVI has swept away the last bureaucratic obstacles to its use.

If you don’t remember L.B.J., you don’t remember the Latin Mass. At 42, [He’s 42.] I had never seen, heard or smelled one. Then a family trip took me to Chicago last weekend, and curiosity took me early Sunday morning to St. John Cantius, an old Polish parish on the Near West Side.  [I think it is the Near North Side, no?]

I went up the steps of the Renaissance-baroque church, through a stone doorway and back into my dimmest memories. Amid the grandeur of beeswax candles and golden statuary, the congregation was saying the rosary. I sat behind an older couple wearing scapulars as big as credit cards. I saw women with lace mantillas and a clutch of seminarians in the front rows, in black cassocks and crisp white surplices.

The sanctuary, behind a long communion rail, looked oddly barren because it lacked the modern altar on which a priest, facing the people, prepares the Eucharistic meal.  [GAG!] The priest entered, led by altar boys. He wore a green and gold chasuble and a biretta, a black tufted hat, that he placed on a side table. His shaved head and stately movements gave the Mass a military bearing.

I couldn’t hear a thing.

I strained to listen, waited and, finally, in my dimness, realized that there was nothing to hear.

At a Low Mass, the priest prays unamplified or silently.  [Well… no, that is a matter of style, though undoubtedly some of the prayers must be quiet.] The people do not speak or sing. [That is also a matter of style.] They watch and read.  All around me, people’s heads were buried in thick black missals. I flipped through my little red Latin-English paperback, trying to keep up. Had it been 50 years ago, I would have had every step memorized. But I didn’t know any of it.  [Okay, so go more often and you will have it memorized too.  This is Mass, not astrophysics.]

I felt sheepish, particularly because I was surrounded by far more competent flock.  [Okay, so his own ignorance seems to be the problem.   Granted it is not his fault that he doesn’t know this stuff.]

I also felt shaken and, irrationally, angry.  [Here we go!] Catholics are told that the church is the people of God, but from my silent pew, the people seemed irrelevant. [cliché] This Mass belonged to Father and his altar boys,  [cliché] and it seemed that I could submit to that arrangement or leave. [That is the way it is ANYWHERE!]  For the first time, I understood viscerally how some Catholics felt in the ’60s, when the Mass they loved went away.  [?  I am not sure what this means.  I think he is saying that people were glad it went away, but he is saying also that they loved it.  I don’t get it.  Unless… I wonder if his anger came from his sense of having been cheated out of this for so long??  Just kidding.]

I called Eugene Kennedy, professor, author and former priest, an old Chicagoan and eloquent critic of church matters. He is a scourge of the Catholic hierarchy, which he considers grasping and autocratic. But he spoke fondly of the old Mass, of the majesty to be unearthed by learning and praying it, like reading Proust in French. It contains a profound sense of mystery, he said, which is what religion is all about.  [And these are bad?]

But he said he wouldn’t want it back. [Bizzare]  Priests aren’t ready; [maybe true] it takes years to learn. [Ridiculous.] And forget about the laity, he said, which is accustomed to a half-century of liturgical participation and rudimentary parish democracy. [This from a guy who doesn’t like the hierarchy.]  He seemed certain that most Catholics would never go for it.  [Again, The Party Line: "The MP won’t make a difference!  No one wants this!  We are already doing enough for these people!]

But St. John Cantius, once given up for dead, is thriving with an influx of new parishioners. [Okay, this guy was angry, admittedly without reason, and everything even the über-liberal Kennedy said was positive.  What is really going on?]  In his homily, the pastor, the Rev. C. Frank Phillips, spoke proudly about the Latin Mass, which his parish was the first in Chicago to revive. He announced that it would soon be training priests in the old rite, which he vowed would restore the Catholic church to its place leading the world back to Christ.

Father Frank does not disparage the contemporary Mass, nor could he, lest he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the last 40 years of Catholic worship. But other traditionalists do not always share his tact. Their delight at the Latin revival can seem inseparable from their scorn for the Mass that eclipsed it, which they ridicule for its singing, handshaking and mushy modernity.

They’re right that Mass can be listless, with little solemnity and multiple sources of irritation: parents sedating children with Cheerios; priests preaching refrigerator-magnet truisms; amateur guitar strumming that was lame in 1973; teenagers slumping back after communion, hands in pockets, as if wishing they had been given gum instead.

Pope Benedict insists he is not taking the church on a nostalgia trip. He wants to re-energize it, and hopes that the Latin Mass, like an immense celestial object, will exert gravitational pull on the faithful.  [That is actually another good image to file away with "cross-pollination".]

Unless the church, which once had a problem with the law of gravity, [I think this is a slam at Church which "hates science"]  can repeal inertia, too, then silent, submissive worship won’t go over well. ["submissive"… okay… I think this fellow’s problem is with who has the power.  The older form of Mass was just a catalyst.]  Laypeople, women especially, have kept this battered institution going in a secular, distracted age. Reasserting the unchallenged authority of ordained men may fit the papal scheme for a purer church. But to hand its highest form of public worship entirely back to Father makes Latin illiterates like me irate.  [Yes, it is looking more and more like it is a question of who has Power.  This is the position of feminists.  Also, note that he says he was irrationaly angry.  During that Mass he was incompetent.  Now he says he is an illiterate, viz Latin.  The objective elements are left aside for the visceral.  The spiritual dimension matters not?  This is about how you line up with power structures.  This is all politics to him.]

It’s easy enough to see where this is going: same God, same church, but separate camps, each with an affinity for vernacular or Latin, John XXIII or Benedict XVI. Smart, devout, ambitious Catholics — ecclesial young Republicans,  [I told you so.] home-schoolers, seminarians and other shock troops of the faith [Nazi skin heads] — will have their Mass. The rest of us — a lumpy assortment of cafeteria Catholics, guilty parents, peace-’n’-justice lefties, [Commies – aging hippies] stubborn Vatican II die-hards — will have ours. We’ll have to prod our snoozing pewmates when to sit and stand; they’ll have to rein in their zealots.

And we probably won’t see one another on Sunday mornings, if ever.  [That’s a choice.  We are all about choice.]


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  1. Justin says:

    “For the first time, I understood viscerally how some Catholics felt in the ’60s, when the Mass they loved went away.”

    Father, I believe he may be saying that attending Mass in the Extraordinary Form made him miss the Ordinary Form that he loves. So he can relate to those who love the older form and who were forced to attend the newer.

    Thats how I read it anyways.

  2. Michael E. Lawrence says:

    “If you don’t remember L.B.J., you don’t remember the Latin Mass.”

    Is he trying to spoil our appetite with this statement?

  3. vox borealis says:

    What a strange critique (I think) of the older form. Basically, he says that the devout–who also happen to be Nazi Republican shock troops–are full of zeal and enthusiasm, and will attend the older form. But the rest, who are somnambulent and indifferent about a mass form that the author finds irritating as well, will snooze through the less somber form. Oh, and the real reason the older form irritates him is his own ‘illiteracy,’ as he puts it.

    So, who/what is in the wrong here?

  4. Dr. Peter H. Wright says:

    “I felt sheepish, particularly because I was surrounded by far more competent flock.”

    I don’t see why anyone unfamiliar with the 1962 Missal need ever feel sheepish about attending Mass in the older form.
    Don’t enter the church with a load of pre-conceptions.
    Just kneel, stand or sit as everyone else does.
    Yes, carry a Latin-English Missal, and try to follow the prayers of the Mass. You’ll soon get used to it.
    And remember : you’re not obliged to attend Mass in the old form.
    As Fr. Z. says, It’s your choice.

  5. I think the author was refreshingly honest. He doesn’t flatter himself and appears to know that his reaction was unreasonable. I think he’ll be back for another look.

  6. vox borealis says:

    Jeff C,

    True. And to be honest, the first time I went to the older form (a few years ago), I absolutely hated it–I didn’t know what to expect and was lost. But instead of blaming the Church or the home schoolers or the Republicans (?!), I blamed myself for my own lack of Catholic literacy. So I studied and went back a few times before making a final evaluation.

  7. Kate Asjes says:

    “I felt sheepish, particularly because I was surrounded by far more competent flock.”

    Having traveled quite a bit, I have been to many N.O. daily Masses at parishes where I felt sheepish because everyone around me knew what was going on and I didn’t. This is because each parish seems to have it’s own little rituals–not just how to process up for Holy Communion, either. At one parish in Virginia Beach, the whole congregation (only 10 elderly folks) got up and took thier places around the altar during the consecration… In fact, your average Catholic is almost guaranteed to feel this way when venturing outside his own parish because the N.O. Mass, in the U.S. anyway, seems to be the property of the parish Liturgy Committee, not Rome.

  8. John Enright says:

    I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a “former priest.”

  9. michigancatholic says:

    Any man who thinks that a woman in a mantilla prayerfully speaking to her savior is powerless is a clueless man indeed. Women have a special status before God and it’s not the one the progressives imagine.

  10. michigancatholic says:

    He probably means a “laicized priest.” We have quite a few.

  11. John Enright says:


    That was my feeble attempt at sarcastic humor. I don’t know if Kennedy is laicized orsimply left. Either way, he is a priest forever.

  12. mary martha says:

    I regularly attend St. John Cantius and will have to admit I too was a bit sheepish when I first went there. I distinctly remember calling a friend and saying “The 9 year old in the pew in front of me knew exactly what was going on. I had no idea – I feel like an idiot”… but that didn’t stop me from coming back.

    In fact, I think it made me more curious and slightly angry that in growing up Catholic and going to expensive Catholic schools I was NEVER taught any of this. Now after fairly regular attendance at St. John Cantius I love the Mass (both 1962 and 1970 missals) more than I did before attending Cantius.

    Fr. Phillips has never in my experience been at all disparaging of the Mass of 1970. How could he – it is offered in both English and Latin every Sunday at St. John Cantius.

  13. techno_aesthete says:

    “separate camps, each with an affinity for vernacular or Latin, John XXIII or Benedict XVI.”

    Mr. Downes, I think you meant “John XXIII or Paul VI”

  14. D. Robert says:

    Its amazing, reading the comments of various bishops on the Pope’s Motu Proprio you almost fear that they are victims of “No Child Left Behind” since simple comprehension of the document makes them seem absurd in their comments. Why is it that so many bishops seem unable to utter a simple delclarative sentence?

  15. Kim says:

    I am also 42. I am a woman. I go to the Tridentine Mass whenever I can. When did I first go? About 1.5 years ago. Was I lost at first? Sure, but then I knew I would be, since it was my first time and I was going alone,with no one to help me.

    Did I complain that it was too for me to follow? No, I bought a missal. I read it, looked at it and prepared for the following week.

    Guess what happened? It was much easier for me to follow the Mass. And quite frankly, I saw some similarities to the Novus Ordo Mass (as it is supposed to be said).

    And anyone who says we laity just sit back and do nothing well…….clearly they have no clue at how we are truly experiencing “active participation” in the Tridentine Mass.

    But of course that’s something I learned a long time ago, after I was trained to become an EMHC. I became an EMHC to have a more “active participation” in the Mass, only to realize afterwards that remaining in the pews and praying the Mass mindfully is VERY MUCH active participation.

    Anyone who sits in the pews at a Novus Ordo or a Tridentine and does nothing quite frankly is not doing their job. If you are going to do Mass half-a$$ed, why bother doing it all?

  16. Tadhg Seamus says:

    The claim is often made that the congregation at an extraordinary form is “passive,” and that at the ordinary form, the congregation “is accustomed to a half-century of liturgical participation.” It’s been well pointed out that “participation” goes well beyond mere physical action, so I think we can quickly dispense with the notion that the congregation at an extraordinary form is “passive” and that this Mass belongs “to Father and his altar boys.” What’s far more interesting, at least to me, is the largely unfounded assumption (at least in my experience) that the congregation at the ordinary form is all that engaged. I don’t know about you, but I look around at fellow worshippers and see a lot of lethargy. At least half the congregation is NOT singing, at least half the congregation is NOT responding, and at least half the congregation is NOT joining in saying the Creed. So, where’s all this “participation” I’ve been hearing about for forty years? Oh, sure; the band up front is doing their mighty best to be “vibrant” and “Spirit-filled,” and there’s a whole phalanx of “Eucharistic Ministers” ready to help distribute communion (to a congregation which, at least today in the upper Midwest, was wearing shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops, and tank tops), so there sure seems to be a lot of “participation,” but no one in the communion “procession” was singing, and, after receiving, a good third of the church left to go elsewhere. This is the “good” that’s come of the Second Vatican Council? Anyone who says so is being more than a little disingenuous, I think. I wonder why the Motu Proprio engenders such fear, such visceral reactions. I mean, if the ordinary form is such a huge, stunning, revelatory success in terms of attendees’ better understanding of the holy mysteries, personal sanctity, enthusiasm for the Faith, and love for the Church, what could there possibly be to fear from the use of the extraordinary form? Those who denigrate the extraordinary form with such venom reveal some pretty raging insecurities concerning the ordinary form. Why might that be??

  17. Fr. Paul McDonald says:

    They participate best who grow most in grace and charity, and only God can see that.

  18. M Kr says:

    Again, like many others this author can only conceive of the extraordinary form in terms of the low mass.

    Also, I don’t understand why he specifically mentioned the 50s in the title. The author seems to have a very narrow, black and white conception of things.

  19. Boko Fittleworth says:

    “Near West Side” is accurate (and “Near North Side” is not).
    I think the “Near West Side” designation for that are started in the late 90s.

  20. Maureen says:

    I agree that the extraordinary form Mass, especially the silent bits, can be a bit disconcerting, as can the ignorance of the newbie (ie, me) vs. the competence of everybody else. I don’t really get the passive thing, though, as my impression was more of purposeful activity by everybody else! :)

    I did find myself feeling kinda torqued off and out of it, but then they had bagpipes at the end. And I also found out that it was really an anniversary Mass for some school graduates, so I had reason to have felt like I was an outsider. :) Also, I have to say that I’m a bit more used to feeling frustrated and irrationaally angry, so I guess I had less trouble teasing out my reasons for feeling frustrated. (Happy that my classical Latin served me well for understanding, but frustration that I kept forgetting and pronouncing things that way.)

    And then I went and got some baklava and used books, so my first impressions mellowed further. :)

  21. dcs says:

    I never found the traditional Mass disconcerting — even though the first one at which I assisted was a famous “mumbled Low Mass” at which the priest spoke in such a low voice that it didn’t even sound like Latin to me.

    On the other hand, there have frequently been times, even before I entered the Church, when I found the ordinary use to be quite disconcerting. It’s hard to go from singing a Mass by Mozart and traditional hymns by Bach and others, as I did when I sang in a choir 25 years ago, to singing tripe like “Gather Us In.”

  22. Lee says:

    I have no quarrel with the extraordinary form per se, but I have to say that the celebrations I’ve attended over the last fifeen years have been VERY wooden and tediously long.

    Everything, you could tell, was very correct, but there seemed such an emphasis on correctness and form (granted, that has been missing in many celebrations of the ordinary form) that it seemed to me a performance (sic) without soul and, frankly had an almost mechanistic feel- like watching one of those elaborate German clock towers where the twelve apostles appear on schedule.

    Then there is the fact that at least one such Sunday Mass took all of an hour and a half. But at our parish in the fifties and sixties the Masses were only 45 minutes long, because they were said on the hour and fifteen minutes was required to empty and fill the parking lot.

    The reading of the epistle and the gospel to the congregation in Latin struck me as simply bizarre, though I think Pope Benedict has remedied this by making provision for the readings to be in the vernacular.

    Also, frankly I’d like to see another moto proprio where the pope eliminates the Last Gospel from the extraordinary form. It’s a perfectly lovely passage, but obviously an accretion very out of place.

    With these concerns addressed ( or most of them) I would willingly attend the extraordinary form of the Mass, but my wife has put her foot down and won’t, which means that the default form for us- as for the entire Church- will continue to be the ordinary form.

  23. RBrown says:

    Also, frankly I’d like to see another moto proprio where the pope eliminates the Last Gospel from the extraordinary form. It’s a perfectly lovely passage, but obviously an accretion very out of place.

    Comment by Lee

    1. Frankly, I’d like to see you learn that the spelling is Motu Proprio rather than Moto Proprio.

    2. The Last Gospel came from the Dominican Rite and was inserted by St. Pius V, who was also a Dominican. I think it is more important now than ever that it be read–it is there as an antidote to Gnosticism*, which seems to be everywhere in post modern culture. In fact, it is well established that the Fourth Gospel was at least partly written as a refutation of Gnosticism.

    *Generally, Gnosticism denies: 1) the existence of a Creator God Who exists independent of everything, and 2) that the Creator God took on human flesh. Both are emphatically affirmed in the Last Gospel.

  24. Dan says:

    One positive of the NYT piece: it further publicizes the traditonal Latin Mass. The piece won’t dissuade anyone who doesn’t already have the author’s mindset. For those who don’t have that mindset, it has got to make them think: “hmmm, what’s all the fuss about? maybe I should check this out….” — a sort of “banned in New York” appeal.

  25. dcs says:

    tediously long . . . an hour and a half

    I do not think that an hour and a half is “tediously long” for Sunday Mass. It’s hard to see how a High Mass could be celebrated in less time than that, especially if there is a sermon. I would be lying if I said that I never found the old Mass tedious, but that is a problem with me, not a problem with the Mass; and there have been more than a few occasions on which I found the ordinary use tedious, even though (in my experience) it almost never ran to more than an hour.

  26. In fact, the NO Sunday Mass at my parish is consistently an hour and a half long, and that seems to be about the right pace for me. It’s hard to imagine what could be left out to trim it down to an hour; maybe a 5-minute homily could do it, but even that would require rushing through the rest of the Mass to the point where I might as well stay home and pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

  27. BobP says:

    I attended that same Mass. Fr. Frank Phillips actually centered his sermon around the people who worked on his knee, Fr just returning from some knee surgery.

    I’m surprised, though, that the author didn’t mention the confessional lines, which usually strike anyone walking into this Church. Or was this that familiar to him? Also why didn’t he stick around for the following Mass, which would have been the English NO, so he could see Fr Phillip’s attempts to make everything in that parish reverent? Maybe when I get a chance I will wander into some church in his area out of curiosity with the same closed mind and write an article about IT.

  28. CPKS says:

    Downes wrote: “I also felt shaken and, irrationally, angry.” I have felt like this at a mass in the pre-conciliar rite (shaken, irrationally angry) when, making the responses just as I did as a child years ago, I find people, mostly younger than I, wheeling round and glaring at me as if I were intruding on their private territory.

    Perhaps we should seek to understand the irrational anger that can sometimes arise in liturgical contexts. I am not happy with the assumption that those who feel it, and recognize it to be irrational, are solely to blame for what is surely a regrettable state of affairs.

  29. Ma Beck says:

    Father, you need to get out of my head.
    When this article came out, I snarked it like you, and many of our comments were similar.


    St. John Cantius is my parish and it is indeed the near WEST side – he’s actually right about that.
    (Near North is Wrigleyville area.)

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