Evangelizing the Reluctant Pearl Merchant


Reflections on a Recent Essay by Msgr. Charles Pope on the Future of the Traditional Latin Mass

The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Matthew 13:45-46

The Parable of the Pearl is brought to mind by a recent blog essay by Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington in the National Catholic Register,An Urgent Warning About the Future of the Traditional Latin Mass” (Jan. 7, 2016). Msgr. Pope, a respected pastor and blogger with long experience celebrating Mass according to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (EF), is the Archdiocese of Washington’s delegate for implementation of Summorum Pontificum.[1] Indeed, he has standing to opine on the state of the celebration of the EF. Therefore, it is worth paying attention when he sets off warning flares that the growth of the traditional liturgy has stalled. “It seems that a ceiling has been hit,” he says. He presents anecdotal evidence from DC suggesting that it may even be declining. He urges us that if we want the traditional liturgy to thrive and grow, the laity must work a lot harder to make it happen. “Evangelize,” he warns, “or else close and die.”

Some have responded to Msgr. Pope’s essay with differing anecdotal evidence supporting a healthy growth narrative.[2] Others, however, have shared his sense of a stall, noting low attendance at their local EF Masses.

Msgr. Pope’s observations are striking because they cut hard against the typical narrative of remarkable growth of EF Masses in the US in recent years. Catholic sites (including Juventutem DC’s) enthuse about “Unstoppable Summorum Pontificum.” Even secular media outlets like USA Today and the Economist, have recently limned the return of the traditional liturgy.[3] And, of course, those hostile to the EF have bemoaned its resurgence.[4]

In the Parable of the Pearl, the merchant seeks long and hard to acquire the Pearl of Great Price, selling his entire inventory to acquire it when he finally finds it for purchase. For us, the Extraordinary Form is the Pearl. But have we overestimated how many desire it and will sacrifice for it, as Msgr. Pope suggests? Or is the Pearl too often still hidden from view, not available for purchase at any price?

I. Just What Were the Expectations for the Extraordinary Form?

“One of the promises was that if parishes would just offer the Traditional Latin Mass,” Msgr. Pope writes, “each parish would be filled again.” It’s difficult to find prominent or official predictions along these lines. The reactions at the time by traditional societies and groups mostly restricted themselves to simply expressing gratitude for the decree.[5] Still, there was a great deal of exuberance among supporters.

Of course, one could find highly pessimistic predictions, too. Some bishops were also dismissive of the need for it. “I do not foresee a pressing pastoral need on the part of our people,” said Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie.[6] A few, like Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, even criticized perceived defects in the traditional Mass.[7] A number of dioceses imposed restrictive rules to greatly narrow the wide permission given in Summorum.[8]

So how has the traditional liturgy in the US actually fared?

II. Sifting the Data: What is Actually Happening With the Extraordinary Form?

Chart 1 Growth in Extraordinary Form Masses 1988-2015

Chart 1

The EF in the United States. The record in the US is one of remarkable growth over the past generation:

  • In 1988, Pope St. John Paul II renewed the indult for the traditional Mass when there were only six such Masses (known) in the US. When Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum in July 2007, the number had grown to over 200. Today, according to the Coalition Ecclesia Dei, there are now 476 publicly scheduled regular EF Mass locations in the US.[9] [See Chart 1] While this figure represents only 2.7% of the nearly 17,500 US parishes, it still represents a remarkable rate of growth for a liturgy that had essentially vanished for an entire generation in the context of a clerical leadership that generally discouraged its reappearance.[10]
  • From a handful of dioceses less than a generation ago, we now have roughly 92% of the 195 dioceses in the United States hosting at least one regular weekly EF Mass.[11]
  • Also, we cannot overlook the emergence of canonical communities, taking the form of oratories, personal parishes, personal quasi-parishes, or priories, exclusively (or nearly so) devoted to the Extraordinary Form since the invitation of the FSSP to its first apostolate in Dallas in 1991 – now numbering over 50 in the US.[12]

If some exuberant hopes have not been fully realized, dismissals by those hostile to the Mass have not been borne out, either. If about 500 regular EF Masses in the US remains a modest total, such a prediction 20 years ago would have been utterly laughable.

Yet to count Masses and parishes is not to count the people actually attending them. How many people are actually in the pews?

Because attendance is not taken or published, observers extrapolate or make crude guesses about just how large the lay population engaged with traditional liturgy really is. Still, such an exercise may have some value. Out of the 476 EF Mass locations listed by Coalition Ecclesia Dei, 473 Masses are weekly (nearly all on Sunday); 87 locations have daily Mass, nearly always six times per week; and there are a smattering of monthly Masses (about 100). Assuming an average of 100 attendees per weekly EF Mass and 15 attendees per daily EF Mass, we estimate around 50-60,000 Catholics attending an EF Mass at least a once a week, without taking into account attendance at private Masses.

To put this in perspective, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in 2010 estimated that about 17.8 million Catholics attended Mass weekly in the US.[13] Given our (admittedly crude) assumptions, this seems to leave attendance at EF Masses in the US at about one third of one percent of all weekly Mass attendance. It could range anywhere from a quarter to a half of one percent, with considerable variation by diocese. Msgr. Pope argues that “numbers matter.” We agree, and these numbers do seem quite modest, no matter how much they have grown over the last decade. At the same time, attendance in the Ordinary Form has greatly declined (from 47% to 24% between 1974 and 2012, for example[14]) – a trend Msgr. Pope himself has noted with dismay in recent years.

As critical as lay mobilization is, perhaps the problem the Church faces goes much deeper.

The EF in the Archdiocese of Washington

Msgr. Pope’s essay focuses on the Archdiocese of Washington. He notes that although there are EF Masses in five different parishes in the Archdiocese, “we’ve never been able to attract more than a total of about a thousand people.” To put it in context, he adds: “That’s only one-half of one percent of the total number of Catholics who attend Mass in this archdiocese each Sunday.”

Juventutem DC, also in Msgr. Pope’s diocese, largely agrees with these numbers. His figures are consistent with our national estimate. It is also true that in absolute numbers in DC, there seems to be slow growth.

But just across the river in the Diocese of Arlington, there has been an explosion of regular EF Masses, most of them in the last few years: 16 such parishes (that’s nearly one in four parishes!), and most of them in the greater DC suburbs, where many families live. This has had the effect, inevitably, of siphoning off many EF Mass-goers from the longstanding DC Masses. As for the attendance decline in the monthly Sunday Mass that Msgr. Pope has graciously celebrated for years, it is more difficult to explain. One possibility, however, is that a much larger number of Solemn High Masses are now available in the greater DC area, making any individual one less compelling to attend, especially since it is not a weekly offering.

Even more generally, there are far more options available to Catholics seeking the EF Mass in the greater Washington, DC area than there were a decade ago. This does not necessarily refute Msgr. Pope’s observations about a ceiling/plateau, or even a decline, but it does qualify them to some degree.

Based on the numbers, against great odds, Summorum Pontificum is being implemented. Without question, it could be implemented much more fully.

So what could be frustrating its growth?

III. Real Obstacles: Sometimes the Laity, but Often the Clergy

Msgr. Pope’s critique seems to assume that a greater demand for the Extraordinary Form exists, or could exist, if only lay Catholics could be brought into contact with it through intra-Church evangelization: “Even traditional Catholics have to evangelize,” he observes. While he does not spell out what that would look like, it is hard to disagree with him in principle. Still, let’s look at the barriers, assuming a serious evangelizing effort were to begin (which we agree is necessary):

  1. Communities that alienate/ignore newcomers. Traditional communities are not always as welcoming as they could be. Whether it’s “the Angry Trad” or a “ghetto mentality,” sometimes there’s a learned, defensive posture at play (though we think this is often exaggerated). Thankfully, the increasing mainstreaming of tradition since Summorum has tempered this behavior. Suffice it to say, yes, it is important to be a welcoming community if we want the EF to prosper.
  2. Pastorally inadequate settings. Traditionally, lay Catholics have received the sacraments in the context of parish life. While parishes have taken different forms over the centuries, there have been some basic commonalities: reasonable accessibility, availability of all the sacraments, pastoral leadership, parish activities directed to spiritual and corporal acts of mercy, and a sense of community. In a parish administered by the FSSP or ICRSS, or a fearless/safe pastor, all of these elements are usually present. Yet short of that, most or even all of these elements are often lacking:
    • Many EF Masses (including the two largest and longest standing ones in DC) are dependent on rotating pools of priests, who cannot provide full-time pastoral care, or by parochial vicars who are easily reassigned – when the priest disappears, the Mass often disappears with him.
    • Such Masses are often not integrated into any larger parish life through its devotional activities, social life, or corporal works, making it very difficult to build a sense of community – something Catholics crave and have come to expect.
    • EF Masses are almost never permitted to replace existing OF Mass times, with the result that they typically are scheduled at times – either very early in the morning, or in the afternoon – which can prove difficult for many Catholics (especially those with small children, and those traveling from a longer distance) to attend consistently.
    • Lastly, location cannot be dismissed as a real concern for some prospective newcomers and even existing attendees; long travel distances can be a deterrent to those with large, young families. Similarly, Masses in crime-prone neighborhoods can be legitimate deterrents to families and singles alike, especially when Masses or activities are scheduled after dark.

In fairness, clergy are not necessarily in a position to address such problems. Nonetheless, the problems remain and they frequently constitute obstacles to growth. They cannot be dismissed, or ignored.

  1. The hierarchy itself. Unsurprisingly, the most common criticism made in social media in response to Msgr. Pope’s essay was the disinterest or hostility of the clergy itself, and more specifically, its senior ranks. Many contend that this is the greatest suppressor of interest in the Extraordinary Form. We agree. Indeed, the supplier in this market can, and often does, act to suppress demand, with:
    • Extrajudicial hurdles  –  policies and interpretations that derogate from the plain meaning and logic of Summorum – these undermine the laity’s faith in the legal structures that underpin the “market” of liturgies (i.e., “No matter what I do, it’s not worth it.”);
    • Segregation – when laity do come forward, according to Summorum’s blueprint, and attempt to promote a new EF Mass, they are directed to previously approved/tolerated indult parishes;
    • Intimidation –  a general tone from the chancery that results in the discouragement and intimidation of priests by superiors for supporting the Extraordinary Form and which creates disincentives to learn it or to grant requests from laity who want to have it and grow it; and
    • Insufficient education – in many cases, a limited knowledge of Latin among clergy of the Latin Church, despite the requirements of Canon 249 and Vatican II’s Decree on Seminaries.[15]

Such treatment can create frustration that is expressed in what may be, or seem like, a decline. It also makes a difficult atmosphere for evangelization. We appreciate that there are many practical barriers to tradition for priests on the ground level. Again, we welcome concrete steps from Msgr. Pope and priests like him who are of good will, detailing how to go about this good work.

Given all this, the problem often becomes far bigger than evangelizing our fellow lay Catholics. We are in the awkward position of evangelizing the hierarchy of the Church. The Pearl of Great Price, so essential to the Church’s life, too often remains hidden away in the merchant’s vault.



[1] Indeed, Msgr. Pope has offered a number of the most high profile Solemn High Masses (and Office) in the region in recent years at his parish (see here, here, here and here just in 2015). We wholeheartedly thank him.

[2] See for example: “Is the traditional movement approaching a moment of crisis?A Blog for Dallas Area Catholics, Jan. 12, 2016; Gregory DiPippo, “How is your TLM doing?New Liturgical Movement, Jan.8, 2016; Jeff Ostrowski, “The Miraculous Rise Of The Traditional Latin Mass,” Corpus Christi Watershed, Jan. 8, 2016; Joseph Shaw, “Reply to Mgr Pope: Are Traditional Catholics doing enough?Rorate Caeli, Jan. 13, 2016; and Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, “TLM: Evangelize or else close and die.” Fr. Z’s Blog, Jan. 8, 2016.

[3] Eric J. Lyman, “Latin Mass resurgent 50 years after Vatican II,” USA Today, March 13, 2015; “A traditionalist avant-garde: It’s trendy to be a traditionalist in the Catholic church,” The Economist, Dec. 15, 2012.

[4] Ron Schmitt noted with alarm that “there seems to be an increasing interest in this “extraordinary form” in our diocesan paper and among some of our clergy.” Ron Schmitt, “Attempt to resurrect pre-Vatican II Mass leaves church at crossroads,” National Catholic Reporter, Dec. 8, 2012.

[5] See the relevant pages of Una Voce, the FSSP, ICRSS, and even the SSPX for their official statements.

[6] Fr. John Zuhsldorf, “Statement of Bishop Trautman on Summorum Pontificum,” July 7, 2007. (Original release is no longer available on the website of the Diocese of Erie.)

[7] Most Rev. John Vlazny, Archbishop Emeritus of Portland, “Liturgical growth and progress in the Roman Missal,” Catholic Sentinel, July 27, 2007.

[8] Indeed, the perception of hostility to the decree among many episcopates was enough to drive Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, then-Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, to issue a warning: “Frankly, I don’t understand this distancing from, and, let’s just say it, rebellion against the Pope. I invite all, above all shepherds, to obey the Pope, who is the Successor of Peter.”

[9] See “Mass Listings,” Coalition in Support of Ecclesia Dei for the complete list. (NB not inclusive of traditional Latin Masses celebrated by the SSPX and independent groups, or the substantial and growing number of private, unpublicized EF Masses, many of which are attended by laity.)

[10] This is the way in which Pope Benedict XVI characterized the situation since the promulgation of the Pauline Missal at the end of the 1960’s. “I must say, quite openly, that I don’t understand why so many of my episcopal brethren have to a great extent submitted to this rule of intolerance, which for no apparent reason is opposed to making the necessary inner reconciliations within the Church.” Joseph Ratzinger, God and the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), p. 416.

[11] Our calculation agrees with that of Jeff Ostrowski, who also provides his chart of growth of the Extraordinary Form in the US in his commentary of Msgr. Pope’s essay last week.

[12] The FSSP currently lists 38 houses in 35 dioceses in the US (though these in turn also provide Masses at other parishes and locations) and the ICRSS lists 12 oratories and parishes. Mater Ecclesiae in Berlin, NJ is a personal parish dedicated to the TLM serviced by diocesan clergy, a unique arrangement in the US. There are also communities administered by consecrated religious of various sorts, such as the priory of the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem in Charles Town, WV and  the Oratory of Ss. Gregory and Augustine in suburban St. Louis, MO. Mention should probably also be given to the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, a “biritual” clerical institute of consecrated life which makes the EF a prominent part of its liturgical life, administering four parishes in Illinois and Michigan, and perhaps also to a handful of “biritual” diocesan parishes whose Mass schedule and parish life is nonetheless heavily dominated by tradition, such as Holy Innocents in New York City and St. Mary’s in Norwalk, CT.

[12] Calculating attendance even in Ordinary Form Masses is usually done by polling, and results can vary. We use the CARA number because it is the most commonly accepted number.

[13]A Micro-scoping View of U.S. Catholic Populations,” Nineteen Sixty-Four, May 11, 2012.

[14] Michael Lipka, “The number of U.S. Catholics has grown, so why are there fewer parishes?” Pew Research Center, Nov. 6, 2014.

[15] See Optatam totius 19 which says: “Moreover they are to acquire a knowledge of Latin which will enable them to understand and make use of the sources of so many sciences and of the documents of the Church. The study of the liturgical language proper to each rite should be considered necessary; a suitable knowledge of the languages of the Bible and of Tradition should be greatly encouraged.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email