It has become something of orthodoxy within traditional Catholic circles that we’re destined to win the liturgy and doctrine wars in the end, but this isn’t going to happen without evangelization. Traditional communities are fortresses for us to shelter in, but we can’t be content simply to live behind the ramparts.
I’ve heard many Latin Mass–goers, including priests, state on several occasions that the Novus Ordo is dying. There’s reason to think the Church will return to tradition in her liturgy. A survey conducted by Fr. Donald Kloster, Dr. Sha Balizet Fisher, and Brian Williams for LiturgyGuy.com came up with some interesting data with regard to the TLM-attending Church and the N.O.-attending Church, showing that the TLM attendees were strictly adhering to Catholic moral doctrines, whereas great numbers of the N.O. attendees were not. (For example, 99% of TLM Catholics said they attend weekly Mass compared with only 22% of N.O.; 2% of TLM attendees approved of contraception versus 89% of N.O. attendees.)
The data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a research arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), paint a bleak picture. Since 1970, when CARA began collecting data, and when the N.O. Mass was introduced, the number of parishes in the U.S. has declined by 1,000. The number of those parishes without a resident pastor has increased from 571 to 3,533. The number of self-identified “former Catholics” has risen from 3.5 million to 26.1 million, and the number of priests has declined from 59,192 to 36,580. These are significant declines, for sure, and they are indicative of serious problems within the Church, but those who are writing the obituary of the post-conciliar Church may wish to put down their pens.
I’ve noticed that those who have spent their whole religious lives within traditional Catholic communities, or who have been outside the mainstream N.O. Church for a long time, tend to get a skewed sense of how big the movement is. The Latin Mass is growing, for sure, but let’s examine the numbers to gain some perspective. CARA’s data show that there are 36,580 priests in the United States, of which 25,254 are diocesan priests, the vast majority of whom, probably greater than 95%, are saying only the N.O. Mass. By comparison, the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, the Institute of the Good Shepherd, and the Society of Saint Pius X, the largest of the traditionalist priestly organizations, have a combined total of approximately 1,035 priests worldwide. That’s 25,254 Diocesan priests in the United States alone versus 1,035 TLM priests worldwide. In the same LiturgyGuy.com survey that examined the attitudes of TLM-attending Catholics and compared them with the attitudes of N.O. attendees, the authors note that “[TLM] Catholics attend at least 489 Sunday Masses nationwide” and “on any given Sunday, an estimated 100,000 Catholics” in the U.S. attend the Latin Mass.
This is undoubtedly leaps and bounds ahead of where Latin Mass attendance was 10 and 20 years ago. It’s an improvement, for sure. But compare the 489 Latin Mass parishes to the 17,000 total. While the 489 are not all contained within the 17,000 number (the SSPX parishes are not, for example), if they were, they would make up less than 0.003% of the total. An estimated 100,000 faithful attend the Latin Mass every week, traditionalists have much larger families than pro-contraceptive N.O. families (at least that’s what the data suggest), and the youth do seem to have a much higher preference for tradition than previous generations, but 100,000 is not a large population when you consider that 556,418 Confirmations took place in the previous year.
The purpose of these comparisons isn’t to demoralize my brothers and sisters who attend the Latin Mass and wish to see its proliferation. Rather, it’s to dispel complacency and remind us of the task ahead. We have much work to do. We can’t be comfortable just to let the traditional Mass speak for itself and expect the new parishioners to show up. Conversion takes a conversation — a persuasive one.
We have to evangelize, and we have to convince. As much of an advocate as I am now for the Latin Mass and all that comes with traditional Catholicism, growing up in the Novus Ordo, I had no idea that the old rite was not extinct, as I had been led to believe. As a youth in Catholic schools, Vatican II and its fruits were presented to me as something that had been unanimously agreed upon, an unquestioned positive bearing only good fruits. I had no idea there were oppositional opinions. I suspect that large numbers of Catholics are in that same boat, but clearly many are aching for more.
The fact that so many Novus Ordo Catholics leave the Church for less milquetoast and supposedly more challenging brands of Evangelical Christianity is evidence of that. We need to present to them that, for the traditional communities, Catholicism is still a challenge and a call to action. This isn’t going to happen if we just hunker down in our parishes, secure in our TLM bubbles, expecting the conversions to happen without our efforts. As Monsignor Charles Pope writes, “in my own archdiocese, although we offer the Traditional Latin Mass in five different locations, we’ve never been able to attract more than a total of about 1,000 people. That’s only one-half of one percent of the total number of Catholics who attend Mass in this diocese each Sunday.” That’s not convincing the bishops that the N.O. isn’t the liturgy of the future and that a return to the TLM is the best way forward.
Think of it this way: we often have an overinflated sense of how in demand our traditional Masses are because people drive an hour or more to attend. “If only we all could just have a Latin Mass in our own towns,” we lament. Perhaps the better way to look at it is this: think of how many Catholics reside within that hour radius who aren’t coming despite having that Mass available to them. Monsignor Pope continues:
If we who love the Traditional Latin Mass thought that it would do its own evangelizing, we were mistaken. It is beautiful and worthy of God in many ways. But in a world of passing pleasures and diversions, we must show others the perennial value of the beautiful liturgy. The honest truth is that an ancient liturgy, spoken in an ancient language and largely whispered, is not something that most moderns immediately appreciate. It is the same with many of the truths of our faith, which call for sacrifice, dying to self, and rejecting the immediate pleasures of sin for the eternal glories of Heaven. We must often make the case to a skeptical and unrefined world.
The Novus Ordo is in trouble, this is true, but if it is dying, it has decades, if not a century or more, of prolonged illness before it finally succumbs. We can’t wait for that to happen. If we truly feel that the flaws of the modern Church must be cured, we must convince our fellow Catholics of this. We need to reach outside of our comfortable communities and convince people.
So often, the attitude of the traditionalist community (myself included) is, “why can’t the hierarchy see what’s wrong when it’s so obvious they need to return to tradition and orthodoxy?” It’s obvious to us, but to look at the numbers holistically, for those who aren’t already in agreement with us, the answers are less clear. We have to be willing to make the argument, and we need the numbers to back our arguments up.
The battle over the future of the Catholic Church is far from over. To sheathe one’s sword prematurely would be a mistake.