“In the seminary we were taught that our homilies should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Recently out of work, I sat in the pew, worried about how I was going to provide for my family. An unknown virus was making its way throughout the country, and with a fervor absent in the defense of unborn life, fellow parishioners were feverishly embracing the strong suggestion—not yet a mandate—to wear a mask, looking askance at those who did not and snitching on them to the priest after mass. Cities were burning, and the powers that be were doing nothing to stop the destruction.
Though I could have gone for some comfort, I knew better than to expect it. Careful to avoid the buzzwords that would have lit up the rectory switchboard, the priest continued his homily and proceeded to paint with broad strokes, implicating all of us in feeding (perhaps unwittingly, so sinister was this systemic evil) the grievances that were supposedly being aired by club and torch in many of our cities.
Like the proverbial frogs in a slow boiling pot of water, we had long sat in the pews of our architecturally beautiful parish church and tolerated mediocre liturgies, milquetoast priests, and the petty politics and machinations of school board and parish council members, some of whom were considered close friends. No line was ever blatantly crossed, rather, it was that lines were never really drawn, or the ones drawn by the Magisterium were never articulated, much less defended. Trying to work within the system to address problems had only revealed an ugliness I didn’t want to acknowledge. Sure, unlike family, one is able to choose one’s parish, but leaving that parish where sacraments were celebrated and childhood memories were formed is far more complicated than deciding to switch gyms.
This time, though, a line had been crossed. Or maybe I had finally decided it was so. The long developing thought that as the spiritual head of the family I needed to take a stand could no longer be ignored, and this homily had forced my hand. In the car after mass I stated that while I wasn’t outright suggesting we leave the parish, I did think we should begin visiting others. Receiving unanimous support from the rest of the family was further evidence that a move needed to be made.
We began visiting other parishes. More of the same without the effrontery. Platitudes at best. I figured this would be the case, and in the back of my mind wondered how long I would wait to explore the option I suspected would be our last refuge—Latin Mass.
I had visited the Latin Mass in the past. I was younger then, and single, and had it not been for some orthodox priests who reverently celebrated the Novus Ordo in the city where I then lived, I may have landed there at that time. But those priests variously provided spiritual guidance, witnessed our marriage, accepted my wife into the Church, and baptized our children. We had also visited the Latin Mass a few times as a family, when visiting my family in my hometown. We took the occasion to visit those few churches—which also happened to be old, beautiful, and never renovated—that I knew still hosted a Latin Mass. Perhaps our very young children were a bit too vocal, or perhaps our modest dress wasn’t quite modest enough, but we drew some looks from the regulars. Though fighting for the same cause, we felt we were viewed as suspect, with no way of voicing our allegiance. A visit to another parish with a Latin Mass gave the impression that one had entered a period piece, with players overly focused on costume and “Trad” credentials. Willing to acknowledge that my position as an outsider may have influenced my perceptions, I tried not to draw too many conclusions and to simply move on.
Not long after these visits we moved to that same hometown to be closer to ailing parents. I changed careers, and we joined the parish in our new neighborhood where our eldest had started pre-school and where we met families who welcomed us in a new place. The water in the pot was cool and refreshing at that time.
Those visits to the Latin Mass with my very young family were now giving me pause. We had not been back to those parishes since that time, but those first impressions were still fresh in my mind. I also knew that a Latin Mass parish had been founded in our diocese about five years ago, and had even driven past it on a few occasions during some trying times in our parish, tempting myself to check it out. A few weeks into our unofficial search for a new parish, my wife was out of town with our kids visiting her mother. I took the occasion to do some reconnaissance.
As I dusted off my Fr. Lasance, 1962 Missal and reacquainted myself with the placement of the ribbons, I was again struck by the beauty of the words on the pages, realizing how rich this liturgy was compared to the Novus Ordo. As a member of the first litter of guinea-pigs catechized in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, I had been assured—whether in error or by deceit—that the only changes made to the mass were that it was now said in my language (as opposed to a dead one), and the priest no longer turned his back on the People, both points made with either understated derision for the rigid Old Ways, ebullient appreciation for the enlightened New Ways, or both. As the habited nuns who had educated our parents and older siblings began to disappear, we were told by those in trousers who replaced them how lucky we were. In time, even their numbers dwindled.
Perhaps prompted by the sacramentals I saw in my grandmother’s house, I asked with innocent curiosity why we no longer practiced certain devotions. My grade school Religion teacher simply explained, “We just don’t do that anymore.” Unsatisfied with the response but unwilling and unprepared to challenge authority more than I already had, I left it at that. More red flags appeared when, as a teenager, I worked in the parish rectory answering phones and began hearing strange accounts about the diocesan seminary from the seminarians who served summer residences with us. And then again when a very popular priest in our parish suddenly disappeared one night. I was told he had gone on sabbatical and was instructed to direct any calls for him to another associate pastor.
In my twenties, and in the aftermath of some personal spiritual bouts, I began scratching the surface of my faith. It was at this time I found the aforementioned devout, Novus Ordo priests. A second hand bookstore in my neighborhood was a source for out of print books from the estates of a previous generation of Catholics, volumes as absent from the shelves of current stores as the apologetics they contained were from most pulpits. Concurrently, stories of priests abusing children and adolescents began flooding the news. As it turned out, I had been at the epicenter of one of those banner cases. The priest that disappeared had been a serial offender, some of his victims my classmates. Hidden pieces of a puzzle began to surface, and as my intellect was compelled to put them into place, my heart balked at completing the picture. Like a man long suffering from an unknown ailment finally diagnosed as cancer, I dreaded what had been revealed, but found a certain sense of relief in knowing that I wasn’t crazy after all, that something indeed had been amiss. Seriously amiss.
Missal in hand, I entered the church for Low Mass, made my way past a long line for the confessional, and was greeted by the sound of voices reciting the rosary. Bits of all those previous Latin Mass experiences were present, and I was cautious.
After the Gospel reading, we sat for the homily, preceded by the recitation of a Hail Mary. The priest began by describing his wish that if by the mercy of God he made it to heaven, he might be able to seek out those who had gone before him who had lived through turbulent times and ask them how they were able to persevere. He mentioned the sailors at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 who, along with many throughout Christendom, prayed the rosary on the eve of battle, and though outnumbered by the Muslims, fought to victory. What must it have been like waiting in the dark hull of a ship, knowing the ferocity of the enemy to be faced, but united in prayer with your fellows?
He then invited us to embrace and strengthen our own faith, refuse to give in to despair during our own dark times, and cling to the hope that we, too, might persevere, and attain heaven. Once there, perhaps we might be approached by others who arrive after us, and be asked by them, “How did you do it? In the face of scandal and betrayal within the Church, persecutions, and the crumbling of civic institutions, how were you able to maintain your faith and persevere?” Our responsibility—right here and right now—is to live so that we might be worthy of being asked that question.
As we proceeded to The Mass of the Faithful, the truth, beauty, and timelessness of this Rite was undeniable. Herein was an incredible treasure of faith. Yes, these prayers befit the Holy Sacrifice. These were the words and actions that stood the test of time, the mass celebrated by missionaries who risked life and limb on the edges of civilization and converted so many, that kept priests standing on altars even as bombs exploded outside and plaster from the ceiling rained down on their heads. This Rite is befitting of the Sacrifice of the Lamb of God, the means mercifully offered to bridge the chasm between Creator and fallen creation.
Some weeks prior I could have used some comfort, or at least some consolation. Instead, I was judged worthy to be afflicted. The comfort I had sought awaited me at this TLM parish. Not patronizing, milk and cookies comfort, but the comfort found in Truth for its own sake, as difficult as that may be.
I relayed my experience to my family, wary not to overplay my hand in trying to sell my case, or underplay it in trying to be objective. They were game, and we have been primarily attending the TLM ever since. Though yet to join the parish, we have been slowly migrating to it. I see the same families week after week, and while they are friendly and welcoming, I have yet to reach out to them and make myself known. I owe it to my family to do so. This time, the lack of connection is on me.
Friends of ours who left our previous parish before we did have run up against it at the parish to which they fled, and are now really struggling. We have invited them to join us. They have never attended the TLM, and are hesitant. At the end of their rope, they made a last minute decision this past Sunday to make a go of it, the entire family piling into the SUV and making the trek across town. Once in the parking lot, they saw the dress of those entering the church and the sign outside listing guidelines on dressing modestly. Though certainly no slobs, they worried that what they were wearing at the time didn’t pass muster, at least not enough to feel comfortable on a first visit. I suspect they may have experienced a certain degree of culture shock as well. Whatever the case, they bailed out, and seem leery of trying again soon. One step forward, two steps back. Maybe after a few more Sundays of sitting in the segregated and stigmatizing “un-vaccinated” section of their parish church they might return, and someday maybe they, too, might be part of a new parish picture.
I understand their hesitancy. To a small extent I still share it. But I am reminded of the adage about a man drowning at sea. Finally thrown a life preserver, he does not stop to question such details as the color of the flotation device or the attire of the one who threw it. Perhaps only in the safety of the barque am I able to see those details in the context of the greater mission.
So hold fast and climb aboard. A battle looms. The enemy is legion. We need only surrender our wills to the Victor and heed His call.
All hands on deck.
Shaun Powell is a husband and father from the Midwest.