Dear Fellow Catholic,
I know the past few months – really, the past few years – have been pretty tough. With the situation at your local parish changing during the pandemic, perhaps you’ve been livestreaming a Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) on television out of curiosity, or maybe you’ve even headed down to the closest TLM chapel that’s still offering a liturgy you can actually still go to, or perhaps even more importantly, Communion on the tongue. (Even better, you get to do it kneeling.)
I don’t know how much you know about the TLM, so I don’t know how comfortable you are with any of this. That’s what I wanted to write to you about today. You may know that traditionally-minded Catholics can get passionate about their liturgy, but this is not a polemic. It’s an invitation, and, I hope, a helpful guide on how to get started.
Truth be told, going to the TLM can be a pretty daunting experience at first, and can take some getting used to. Like almost all of you, I grew up in the post-conciliar Church, and the Novus Ordo Mass was the only thing I ever knew until some friends took me to a Byzantine parish while I was in college. I had an experience with the TLM once when I was in high school, but it was a low Mass, and I walked into it having absolutely no idea what was going on. I’d been an altar boy for years, and I knew the new Mass pretty much inside and out, so it felt absolutely bizarre to me to be present at a Catholic liturgy of the Roman Rite and be completely lost. The priest was turned around facing the other way, so I couldn’t really see what he was doing. He was praying the prayers quietly, so I couldn’t follow along. I didn’t have a book of any kind, so there was no way to tell where I was in the Mass. At least, not until the Consecration, at which point I was probably frustrated that I had been oblivious to everything that had happened so far. To be honest, I can’t remember if I left early in frustration, but knowing my teenaged self, I probably did.
I didn’t see a TLM again until I was in college — it came after my excursions to the Eastern rite — and I was similarly unimpressed. I was a little older, a little wiser, and a little more patient, so I’d say it went a tad bit more smoothly. It didn’t hurt that the Mass I attended was in Salzburg, Austria, in a church built for the old Mass. Still, I left feeling kind of grateful that the Mass I had just gone to was part of the Church’s past, and not her present. I was content to keep seeking out reverence in the new Mass wherever I could find it. The Reform of the Reform seemed to have legs, and I decided I wanted to stick with it.
The third time I saw a TLM, I didn’t even stay. I’d just met a beautiful young woman about six months previously, and had helped her come into the Church. I didn’t know it at the time, but she would later become my wife. We were at the Novus Ordo Mass together one Sunday, and after it was over, as we knelt there praying, a priest came out and started quietly offering a TLM. I didn’t even know it was on the schedule. Feeling the need to teach my then-girlfriend about all the Catholic things she hadn’t yet been exposed to, I leaned over to her and said, “This is the way the Church used to do Mass. I thought you might find it interesting.” I felt like I was showing her an exhibit in a museum. I looked at her face, and was surprised by what I saw there. Her eyes stared ahead in rapt attention, and a smile creased the corners of her full lips. “This,” she said to me in a tone of awe, her gaze never leaving the altar, “this is what Mass is supposed to be like.”
But I thought I knew better.
It took more time, more research and the insistence of a recently-ordained diocesan priest in my family that I read some things he had been looking at — in particular, the Ottaviani Intervention — before I was finally ready to make the switch. Although we got married at a Latin Novus Ordo in the summer of 2003, just a little over a year later I found myself with my new bride at a Sunday TLM at St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Phoenix, Arizona, at long last with an actual book to help me follow along, and I knew somehow at that moment I would never look back.
It just felt right. It felt like what I had been looking for all those years I had been parish shopping, trying to find the best priest, the best homily, the most reverent liturgy. It had been around all along, and I didn’t even know it.
The intervening years have only more deeply affirmed this conviction, but in that time, I’ve come to a clearer understanding of what it was that my wife saw in the Church’s ancient liturgy — something that I only much more slowly came to appreciate. Namely, an act of worship squarely focused on the four ends of Mass — adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and reparation — and a sacrificial mystery that drew me more deeply than ever before into presence of the Blessed Trinity and the sacrifice of Our Lord on the cross. I came to see the wisdom, as Martin Mosebach writes in his beautiful and edifying book, The Heresy of Formlessness, that
[L]iturgy’s death knell is sounded once it requires a holy and good priest to perform it. The faithful must never regard the liturgy as something the priest does by his own efforts. It is not something that happens by good fortune or as the result of a personal charism or merit. While the liturgy is going on, time is suspended: liturgical time is different from the time that elapses outside the church’s walls. It is Golgotha time, the time of the hapax, the unique and sole Sacrifice; it is a time that contains all times and none. How can a man be made to see that he is leaving the present time behind if the space he enters is totally dominated by the presence of one particular individual? How wise the old liturgy was when it prescribed that the congregation should not see the priest’s face—his distractedness or coldness or (even more importantly) his devotion and emotion.
I later came to learn about the beauty and depth of the other, older sacramental forms. Six of my now seven children were baptized in the old rite, with its attendant exorcisms – a testament to the Church’s perennial belief that we come into this world under Satan’s power, and need all the suppressing fire we can get to hold the enemy at bay.
There is a lot to love about Catholicism in its traditional forms, but as I well know, it can be a bit overwhelming. It helps to have a good missal, and there’s one I recently discovered that seems perfect for newcomers – streamlined, but comprehensive. There are more books than ever that do a great job explaining the faith, not just for adults, but for adults and children alike.
If you’re worried about the language barrier, just let me say this: I’ve been going to the TLM for 16 years, and to be honest, I’ve never learned Latin (though you’d be amazed how much you pick up just through sheer repetition.) It really doesn’t even slow you down once you figure out how things work.
If you’ve recently started going, or recently started watching, you probably have a lot of questions, many of which may not be answered here. (If you haven’t started yet, and you’re still curious but not quite ready to attend in person, I recommend the livestreamed Masses of my friends at the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem, available each day on their YouTube channel.)
I want you to know that that feeling a bit out of your depth is totally normal, and to encourage you not to give up. It gets easier and easier with time, and within a month or two, you’ll start to feel like a pro.
Catholics who have already fallen in love with the TLM have been so unbelievably fortunate to have discovered this ancient treasure, this pearl of great price, hidden within the bosom of the Church, laden with rich spiritual nourishment for ourselves and our children, and designed to help us draw closer to and better worship God. We know that we have been greatly blessed, and we are excited to share that blessing, which does not belong to us. We’re excited to see you there, discovering it for the first time, trying to find your way, falling in love with your faith all over again as though you’re seeing it for the first time. We’re excited and happy because we know exactly how that feels, and we want to welcome you and help in any way we can. Please don’t be afraid to talk to us or ask questions. Speaking for myself, I know I can sometimes be a bit shy, but I love to be of assistance where I can.
The truth is, we’re not only happy to have you, we need you here and we hope you’ll stay. You may find that our little churches are sometimes overcrowded, but there’s always enough room for you here. And as the shadows deepen in the global Church, as we face a post-COVID Catholicism that will find many parishes still empty, when folks who showed up mostly out of habit no longer return, we know that our little chapels, already growing by leaps and bounds, offering the fullness of the faith in and out of season, are moving even more rapidly towards becoming the Catholic strongholds of the future. They are filled to the brim with young families with many children. They are producing vocations. The confession lines are long, the people are sincere in their faith and happy to talk about it, and the sense of the sacred you find there is a true consolation in trying times.
We’ve heard for many years about a New Springtime in the Church, but, for me at least, it was difficult to find evidence of it until I discovered its green shoots growing strong and steady out of the old and fertile soil of our forebears in faith.
We hope that you won’t just visit us here. We hope that you will stay.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.