Readers of Father Z’s blog are probably familiar with the motto “Brick by Brick.” The reverend father is here referring to the slow but steady stacking of liturgical improvements over time. I know this works because I have seen it happen, at St. Rita Parish in Alexandria, Virginia (Diocese of Arlington, USA).
My then-girlfriend (now wife and mother of our three daughters) and I were looking for a parish back in 2006. We first went to St Rita’s for two reasons — Supreme Court associate justice Antonin Scalia’s son Paul was the vicar there, and we heard it was a nice building. My wife was in the process of discerning a conversion, and as a big Federalist Society–type attorney, this was attractive on a number of levels.
St. Rita’s at that time was a nice parish, but only mildly traditional (and dependent on which priest you caught for Sunday Mass). Most Sundays, you had either the Kyrie, the Sanctus, or the Agnus Dei in the original language, but usually not more than one. You heard the Roman Canon about half the Sundays. There was male-only altar service. Communion, although received standing, was one species only. Occasionally, there might be incense or a Latin hymn or motet. This was certainly better than most parishes at the time, and still today this would be a solid A-minus kind of place.
St. Rita’s was more known as a parish for theological orthodoxy and no monkey business on liturgy. The priests are not shy about pushing south-of-the-belt hot-button issues, there is a strong pro-life group, and the school is bread-and-butter Catholic learning. So there was a good base to start on.
We can thank Fr. Scalia for moving the process along. Besides being a magnet for orthodox Catholics and converts (who often came for the surname but stayed for the brilliant presbyter), he gradually started to incorporate a “Reform of the Reform” element into his Masses. He invariably selected the “Confiteor” Penitential Rite A (in English), always used the Roman Canon on Sunday, and in general did the other best practices readers here would expect.
In Easter of 2007, my wife received the sacrament of Confirmation at a very nice Reform of the Reform Easter Vigil Mass at St. Rita’s.
One Sunday, Fr. Scalia announced he would be celebrating a Novus Ordo Friday evening Mass for Sacred Heart, but mostly in Latin and…ad orientem! This was quite a new development, so he had a packed house that year. There was a schola on hand, chanting the Mass proper antiphons in Latin, as well as the Mass setting. Fr. Scalia did most of the Mass parts that pertained to him in Latin, and the readings were done in English. This was repeated again from time to time on the odd solemnity.
Building on this, Fr. Scalia planned a traditional Latin Mass for Michaelmas that year. It was a Missa Cantata, and was the first TLM at St. Rita’s since the 1960s. It had a packed turnout, showing that parishioners had a desire for it consistent with the then-new Summorum Pontificum.
My wife and I got married in October of that year and had a Reform of the Reform nuptial mass celebrated by Fr. Scalia. By the time our first daughter came around toward the end of 2008, Fr. Scalia had been reassigned to another parish. We wished to have her baptized in the Old Rite, but the priests at St. Rita’s didn’t know how. They called in a priest from the chancery who did. Notably, this is the last time our parish had to resort to doing so.
For a couple of years, the liturgical life of the parish did not improve, and even slightly regressed. This is not a statement against the priests. They were simply not “liturgy guys” in the same way Fr. Scalia was. They were and remain, however, holy and orthodox priests, and I am grateful to them on behalf of my family for their dedicated service. This, too, was a lesson: brick by brick is not always steady.
In 2010, St. Rita’s got a new pastor who is very much a “liturgy guy,” Fr. Daniel Gee. He came just in time to baptize our second daughter (he also baptized our third), and he had no problem navigating the traditional form of the sacrament.
Slowly, but less slowly than if Fr. Scalia had not laid the groundwork, Fr. Gee began to incorporate improvements to the Sunday Mass. Nearly all of them used Penitential Rite A and the Roman Canon. The Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei was in the original language on a weekly basis. Then came the replacement of hymns with Mass propers for the Entrance Antiphon, Offertory Antiphon, and Communion Antiphon. A communion motet was there most Sundays.
When the corrected Novus Ordo translation went into effect on Advent Sunday 2011, we used the occasion to switch to ad orientem at our “High Mass” Novus Ordo at 11 A.M. (this was later expanded to a majority of Masses) and to restore kneeling as an option at our intact communion rail (this also got expanded to the point where kneeling is now the norm).
We also went through some book purchases for the pews, starting with The Vatican II Hymnal and later moving on to the Lumen Christi Missal and Lumen Christi Hymnal. There were also laminates put in the pews that include traditional prayers before and after receiving communion, the prayers for Eucharistic adoration, some seasonal Marian antiphons, etc.
Around this time, a Thursday-evening traditional Low Mass was put in place. This attracted quite a following and was expanded to our current Tuesday- and Thursday-evening schedule. At some point, my hope is that there will be a daily TLM at St. Rita’s parish.
Meanwhile, as you can imagine, all of this stunning liturgical beauty and seriousness, combined with the orthodox theological base that was there before, became a magnet for Catholics sick of “Gift of Finest Wheat” lazy Masses. The 11 A.M. “Reform of the Reform” Mass (which featured all these elements in full) was overflowing.
In 2017, Fr. Gee announced that a regular Sunday TLM would be squeezed into the Sunday rotation on an experimental basis. After about six months of steady attendance (much of which was a welcome pressure valve for the 11 A.M.), the new 9:30 A.M. Latin Mass became a permanent part of the schedule. It remains the only “prime time” Traditional Latin Mass in the diocese to my knowledge and is about two thirds full every week. As you would expect, there are tons of babies and young adults.
So here we sit, amid the ruins of a crippled Church, with a pearl of great price. We have a parish that is rock-solid orthodox, with a choice on Sunday between a prime-time Missa Cantata and a prime-time Reform of the Reform Mass. We have multiple Latin Mass options during the week, a robust devotional life, and a booming parish of intentional Benedict Option families — and all of this on a foundation of daily Confession, widely available and accessible to the faithful.
The lesson is that you start with a single step. Maybe it’s a Kyrie — after all, how hard is it to sing three words in Greek? Maybe it’s a single priest just happening to choose Penitential Rite A and the Roman Canon every single time. God takes these small inches and gives us a mile in return. All we have to do is participate in His plan. Even with everything else going on, we have a place to hide from the storm and a beacon for others.
Ryan Ellis and his family are members of St Rita parish in Alexandria, Va. His three children all attend St. Rita school, and he and his wife are active parish volunteers. Professionally, Ellis is a self-employed Beltway lobbyist with a seasonal tax preparation business. He writes occasionally for the Washington Examiner and other publications. When he isn’t trolling Catholic Twitter, Ellis watches way too much Star Trek and YouTube reviews of it. He has been attending New England Patriots training camp annually ever since Adam Vinatieri’s rookie season.