On Saturday, May 18, 2019, a Solemn High Mass was celebrated in the Mariners’ Memorial Chapel on the campus of the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), the first traditional Latin Mass celebrated there in fifty years. The following is an interview with Midshipman Brian Rainwater, 1/C, who organized and coordinated this historic event.
Tell me about yourself and how you were introduced to the Latin Mass.
I grew up in Lawrenceville, Georgia, which is near Atlanta, and attended St. Pius X High School there. I am a first class midshipman (i.e., a senior) at USMMA, and after graduation, I plan to serve as an active-duty surface warfare officer in the Navy.
My first exposure to traditional liturgy was a Mass in the Melkite Rite that I attended in middle school. I was struck by the reverence, the rich symbolism, and the adherence to an unbroken tradition. It was a taste of what I was looking for in the traditional Latin Mass before I had ever heard that such a thing existed.
Sometime after that, I read The Council in Question by Moyra Doorly and Fr. Aiden Nichols, O.P. It was eye-opening for me regarding the nature of the Mass. I remember reading the criticism that the Novus Ordo failed to emphasize the sacrificial nature of the Mass, and thought to myself that I didn’t even know that the Mass was a sacrifice at all! Most of all, it showed me how much I was missing.
Later that year, I found a chapel in Oyster Bay, N.Y. that offered the traditional Latin Mass and a group of us from the Academy’s Newman Club took a day trip there. What we didn’t realize was that the chapel we had found was run by the Society of St. Pius V. They asked to see proof that we were Catholic, and when we couldn’t produce any paperwork, they denied us Holy Communion. Perhaps that was providential. After that experience, I did a bit more research and discovered Holy Innocents Parish in New York City and started going to the Latin Mass every week.
That’s when everything kind of clicked. I realized that Mass was not just a box to check off every Sunday. My whole mindset changed. I started doing more spiritual reading and praying the rosary. All of a sudden, it hit me that the spiritual life isn’t just an accessory to existence; existence is for the spiritual life. The meaning of life is to praise God and get to Heaven, and all that isn’t ordered to that is a waste of time. Once you realize that everything in your life should be oriented toward Heaven, things change. As Fulton Sheen said, “Most people today want a religion which suits the way they live, rather than one which makes demands upon them. Religion thus becomes a luxury like an opera, not a responsibility like life.”
On the other hand, it is hard to take a bad liturgy seriously because it’s hard to find meaning where meaning isn’t attached. When I was younger and had only attended the Novus Ordo, I saw Mass as a bit of an extracurricular, whereas now it is completely central to my life.
What is the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy?
The Merchant Marine Academy, also known as Kings Point, is probably the least known of the five U.S. Service Academies (the others being the U.S. Military Academy, the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy). Our mission is to “educate and graduate leaders of exemplary character who are inspired to serve the national security, marine transportation, and economic needs of the United States as licensed Merchant Marine Officers and commissioned officers in the Armed Forces. We graduate with a U.S. Coast Guard license as 3rd mates or 3rd assistant engineers on vessels of unlimited tonnage, an officer’s commission either active duty or in the reserves of any branch of the armed forces (depending on the midshipman’s career choices) and a Bachelor’s Degree in a marine transportation or marine engineering discipline.
A few other notable things about the Academy: It was dedicated in 1943 to provide officers for the ships that were being built for World War II, which was at its height at that time. Part of our education has always been to get the sea time required for a Coast Guard license on actively sailing merchant ships. During the war, these ships were sailing through U-boat-infested waters, and many were sunk with cadets[i] on board. One hundred forty-two cadets died during the war as a result of their ships being torpedoed. For this reason, USMMA is the only Service Academy that has earned the right to carry a battle standard on parade.
What are some of the challenges facing a Catholic attending Kings Point?
I’d say the biggest challenge is the year at sea due to the lack of sacraments on board a ship. Unlike U.S. Navy ships, merchant ships have very small crews (an average crew is about 20) and have no chaplain. The best way I can express it is with an analogy to navigation. On the bridge, you periodically take fixes, which determine your exact position. If there is a period of time where a fix can’t be taken (such as on a cloudy night and the GPS is broken), you can only navigate by dead reckoning — that is, by estimating position based on your course and speed since the previous fix — but this can often be grossly inaccurate, even though you think you’re on the right path from your limited viewpoint. In other words, you can only get where you’re going by looking outside of yourself, which is as true of the spiritual life as it is of navigation, and in the spiritual life, those fixes come from grace and especially the sacraments. If there’s another Catholic on board, it is very helpful, because then you can connect and try to make up somewhat for the lack of the sacraments in a way that can’t be done alone, but there is no substitute for the real thing.
I know that sailors have a reputation for being particularly immoral, but with people, looks can be deceiving. Sailors may seem to be a rougher crowd but isn’t that true all around these days? There are many opportunities for evangelization: if you live a good life, people will notice and talk to you about it. They will often surprise you with their receptiveness! I’ve had many good conversations about faith on the bridge, and I’ve noticed open Bibles on quite unlikely peoples’ desks while inspecting life jackets in staterooms.
At school, the biggest challenge is probably time management. It is hard enough to meet all of the academic and regimental rigors of Kings Point, but it is even harder to maintain one’s spiritual life in the midst of them. Psalm 126 says, “It is vain for you to rise before light, rise ye after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.” If we do not lead our lives for God, we are leading them for nothing. It is, of course, important to be productive according to one’s state in life, but we must also keep the goal in mind.
What are some of the good things about being a Catholic Kings Pointer?
There’s a big connection between the sea and the Church. At least four of the twelve apostles, and likely more, including St. Peter himself, were sailors. Our Lady has long been venerated under the title of Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea, and the Church is the Barque of Peter.
Standing on the bridge and watching the storms, the sunrises, the sunsets, the sheer majesty of the sea is a glimpse of eternity. When a massive-looking ship is dwarfed by waves in a storm, or when you look out and see nothing, not even another ship across the entire horizon, and realize there are no other people for hundreds of miles, you get a true sense of the vastness of creation and the smallness of man. It is humbling as well as orienting. In an old cathedral, the eye is drawn upward and outward to give a sense of majesty of God, and the same is true of the sea.
At school, there is a large emphasis on discipline. While, strictly speaking, Kings Point is not a military school, we follow the same sort of regimented and disciplined life one would expect to find at a military school, including daily musters and formations, room inspections, maintaining uniform standards, and the like. This encourages midshipmen to develop habits of self-discipline that they can carry with them after graduation, which is something sorely needed in today’s world. Many people today seek liberty without discipline, but this is mere anarchy and will lead society to collapse.
This habit of discipline also helps in development of the spiritual life, which without discipline degrades into dissipation and worldliness. Likewise, the hierarchical structure of authority we have at school mirrors the hierarchy of the church. During plebe indoctrination (the first three weeks at the academy, which are essentially a much shortened form of boot camp), the older midshipman drill instructors often quip that they are not your friend. Rather, they are there to lead, and lead without partiality. It seems to me that the same should be true of a bishop, not partial to certain members of his flock; otherwise, his authority degrades. Rather, they must be leaders.
This was the first traditional Latin Mass to take place at Kings Point in almost exactly 50 years! Tell me how it came to fruition.
Honestly, it was Divine Providence. It started with a post in our Newman Club’s Facebook group. I asked if anyone had or knew of any pictures of the traditional Latin Mass being said in our school’s chapel before the Novus Ordo came out. A recent alumnus commented, asking why not try to have one now, so that put the idea in my head, and after that, I was on the lookout for an opportunity. Later on, I heard about the traditional Latin Mass that was celebrated at West Point (here and here). I had a high school friend that is a West Point Cadet and asked him if he knew Capt. Randy Shed, who had coordinated the West Point Mass. As it turned out Capt. Shed was his Company Officer, and I was able to get in touch with him. Capt. Shed was very happy to hear from me and said he had been praying for something else to do in order to spread the traditional Mass while he was still assigned to West Point. He put me in touch with Fr. Donald Kloster, the assistant priest at St. Mary’s in Norwalk, Connecticut. After some correspondence with Fr. Kloster, we were able to nail down a date, and from there, we made arrangements with the Academy’s chaplains and administration and got the necessary approval from the Archdiocese for Military Services.
Tell me about the Mass itself.
It was wonderful! We had servers and a small schola, and an organist come down from St. Mary’s in Norwalk. Fr. Kloster celebrated the Mass, with Fr. Michael Novajosky, pastor of St. Augustine Cathedral in Bridgeport, Connecticut acting as deacon and Fr. Sean Connely, assistant priest from Immaculate Conception and Assumption Parish in Tuckahoe, N.Y., acting as subdeacon.
There were around sixty people who attended the Mass, a mix of midshipmen, faculty, locals from Long Island, and Capt. Shed and two West Point cadets. The Mass took place on May 18, the Feast of St Venantius, a Roman martyr from the 3rd century. As one of the servers was caught in traffic, I had the opportunity to serve my first traditional Latin Mass as a torch-bearer.
Fr. Michael Novajosky preached a wonderful homily tying the liturgy and the martyrdom of St. Venantius to the Academy’s motto, Acta non Verba, deeds not words. Though it is true that the Mass consists of spoken and sung words, what is crucial is how those words are said and sung. What we do is the expression of what is inside. It is crucial to have a liturgy rooted in tradition that is also well executed. Similarly, it is one thing to say what you believe, but another to live it. It was his deeds, not his words that won St. Venantius the crown of martyrdom.
How was the Mass received, and how do you see it influencing the community on campus?
It was very well received by those who attended. The timing was especially good for us first classmen, as it was immediately following our final exams and was a breath of fresh air before we hunker down to study for our Coast Guard licensing exams. The soul craves beauty, and this brought beauty back on campus that has not been seen here for decades. The whole theme of the day seemed to be exposure. Among the midshipmen who attended were several Protestants who got a unique glimpse of the Catholic faith, and many had questions about the Faith afterward. For many of the Catholic midshipmen who attended, this was their first traditional Latin Mass. It was also good exposure for the Academy itself to those locals who attended the Mass.
Personally, I would have never been exposed to the old liturgy without stumbling across it. I’m very glad to help share what has changed my own life for the better with others. We will not win many converts from Protestantism if Catholicism simply seeks to imitate what Protestants do. On the other hand, there is something truly extraordinary about the traditional Latin Mass. The Novus Ordo is so mundane that it is accepted as commonplace and ordinary, but the Mass is not supposed to be so. The traditional Latin Mass breaks through the monotony of everyday life because it transcends it. It’s extraordinary in the literal sense of the word.
I think nowadays there’s a search for fulfillment, especially on the spiritual side of things. The rise of things like yoga and new age spirituality is trying to fill a void that exists in all people whether they recognize it or not. People always have spiritual needs, and balance in the spiritual life is key to balance in other aspects of life. The Latin Mass fills that void and is the ointment for our aching souls. People are longing for what it provides because ultimately, it provides God.
Are there any plans for future Latin Masses on campus?
There is nothing definite at the moment, but everyone involved was interested in making it a more regular occurrence. Fr. Kloster is willing to come back, and there are several parishes here on Long Island that have Latin Masses, so we may be able to reach out to them as well. This is my last year here, but there are several fourth classmen (freshmen) who are interested in bringing the Latin Mass back again, and hopefully, they can carry the torch once I graduate.
Any parting shots?
I was blown away with the utility of social media when used properly. I networked with people all across the city, states, and even some parents who came all the way from Maryland! Social media may have many pitfalls, but it can definitely be used for good. I am also pleasantly surprised by how many Kings Point alumni are lurking in the traditionalist community.
Fr. Kloster mentioned to me that now that he has been to two of the five academies, he is determined to at least make it to the Naval and Coast Guard Academies, and perhaps the Air Force Academy can fly out!
St. Venantius, ora pro nobis!
St. Brendan the Navigator, ora pro nobis!
[i] USMMA is unique in that it refers to its students as Midshipmen while at school but cadets while at sea.
Joe Terlisner works as an engineer and graduated from the US Merchant Marine Academy in 2016. He resides in eastern Virginia with his wife and three sons. In his spare time he writes poetry, some of which can be found at at clamores.substack.com.