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Growing Up with the Underground Latin Mass

Above: TLM at a home altar in Oswego in the 1980s. Photo credit: Rorate Caeli

Editor’s note: for practical strategies, see “What if They Restrict the TLM Even More?” 


Controversy regarding the Latin Mass has been a mainstay for my whole life. The Latin Mass, after Vatican II in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee under Archbishop Rembert Weakland, was truly an underground movement. For several decades, the Latin Mass was not welcome in any Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. It was a time of instability within the Church and the adjustments brought about by Vatican II left many Catholics questioning these unchecked liturgical changes. I was a child in the 1980s and my family attended the Latin Mass every Sunday. Looking back, it is quite a miracle that the Latin Mass survived and thrived throughout many tumultuous areas around the world. I am truly grateful to my grandparents, and their dear friends, who were the first responders to preserve the Latin Mass in the Milwaukee area. It was not an easy task, considering the climate of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Weakland, and the desire by many of the hierarchy to suppress all forms of tradition, especially the Latin Mass.

Imagine this – young children dressed in their Sunday best, Missals containing the prayers of the Mass, altar boys responding to the prayers of a devout priest at the foot of the altar, rose scented incense wafting towards heaven, and a choir chanting the Mass Propers. This was our Sunday Mass. This description sounds quite usual for a Latin Mass; however, one aspect was out of the ordinary. The Latin Mass was not allowed to be said in a Catholic Church for many decades in Milwaukee – it was said in event halls, the basements of banks, bowling alley halls, and many other places. The faithful were surviving from one week to another, just praying that a space was available to rent for the next Sunday Mass. This is the reality of those times. It was not glamorous. It was simple, but edifying. This was the time prior to the “acceptance” of the Latin Mass.

Looking back at those Sundays, it is truly remarkable the amount of faith and hope that such a small number of Catholics exemplified as they strove to protect this treasure. It was vital to be cautious, rather than boastful during these times of uncertainty. Social media did not exist, nor did cell phones, text messaging, or the internet. (And it was probably providential that none of these public outlets existed, because this may have damaged the movement.) All coordination was done via home phones or personal visits to share the next Sunday’s location for Mass. This was the beauty of such a difficult time in Church history. Families were brought together by their conjoined love for the Latin Mass. The growth of these Latin Mass communities was small, but organic. It was not convenient driving over an hour on a Sunday to attend a Latin Mass – it was an act of love.

The above history is recapped to give a small glimpse into the weekly life of the laity prior to the early 2000s. Yes, the Latin Tridentine Community in Milwaukee was “allowed” to use a church by Archbishop Weakland in the 1990s, but it was still not an ideal scenario on many different levels and contained an array of restrictions. Thankfully, since the presence of Bishop (now Cardinal) Dolan from 2002 – 2009 and Bishop Listecki 2000 – the present, there has been a beautiful revival of Tradition throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, including the growth of the Latin Mass and the historic restoration of St. Stanislaus Parish and Oratory.

Within the last ten years, there has been a strong revitalization of the Latin Mass across the globe. There is no doubt that a level of criticism and judgement may still exist in some traditional communities. As there may be some parishioners who appear judgmental, it is usually from the older generation – and somewhat a product of their fight to preserve the Mass. The main focus for many years after Vatican II, of our now older generation, was to protect the Latin Mass. It was a time of uncertainty, instability, and lack of support from the hierarchy of the Church. This left many of the laity in the Latin Mass community apprehensive of other people’s motives. There was a desire (among the hierarchy and some laity) to permanently end the Latin Mass rather than to preserve it. Such motives gave rise to Traditional Catholics “guarding” the Latin Mass and in some cases developing a critical perception towards new attendees. This is the “judgmental” factor that came to exist. This is not an excuse for uncharitable behavior, for under no circumstances would Christ approve of that. However, our fallen nature portrays behavior that may be perceived one way, but ultimately, has underlying motives that are difficult to change when triggered by a fight or flight scenario. It is necessary to promote charity, as there appears to be a misconception (and sometimes a judgmental reaction) from Traditional Catholics to those who are new to Tradition. Given the rise in young Traditional Latin Mass attendees, I have personally also witnessed a strong shift towards charitable behavior and welcoming arms to new visitors.

The robust revival of the Traditional Movement over the past ten years has been tremendous and I am truly blessed to witness what my grandparents were not able to. It was through priests and laity (like my grandparents) around the world who tirelessly spent their lives to preserve the Latin Mass. God’s hand has been in this renewal every part of the way. From what I witnessed in my childhood and progressively now as a wife and mother of six children, the Latin Mass community is thriving. It was not the work of a single individual or organization (though some were very influential and vital) – it was the work of God using souls as instruments for His glory.

The current situation of the Latin Mass Movement has different needs now, compared to the decades immediately following Vatican II. The revival of the Latin Mass Movement is very apparent throughout the world, but the work is not complete and I agree that there is much more to be accomplished.  I am often reminded by the words of a very good and holy priest who once responded to my frustration that the Latin Mass should be thriving and spreading faster. This priest said that God’s time is never our own time and what is Divine is usually slow and organic in growth, but strong in faith, hope, and charity. These words are truly a testament of the Latin Mass Movement. It was a small number of Catholics who desired to preserve this treasure and God gave them the necessary graces to continue each week, each year, and each decade. Their perseverance has brought us to a time in which the Latin Mass is blossoming with vibrant and growing communities. Even ten years ago, most Latin Mass communities did not have the gala dinners, social events, schools, homeschool co-ops, children’s clubs, and choirs that are available in many of the large parishes today. This is the revival and even though the numbers may still appear low, and even though it is not accessible to all, there has been tremendous growth over the past sixty years. So, let’s step back and examine the rich history of the Latin Mass movement, while walking towards a fruitful future so that it’s more accessible to all souls around the world for God’s glory and adoration. For as G. K. Chesterton said,

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

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