To the average Penn State student, the fourth of September of 2018 was a day like any other. A Tuesday early in the semester, the weather in State College, Pennsylvania was perfect, and the buzz of a promising football season (coupled with a narrow victory the week before) permeated campus. It was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon when I received a call I had been dreading but, unfortunately, expecting.
My mother had died.
For the past four years, my mother, Cheryl, had battled stage IV metastatic breast cancer. Over the course of her illness, the disease had spread throughout her body, rendering her progressively weaker as time wore on. Always peaceful, those who did not know she was sick would later remark that they had no idea of the extent of her illness. So willing was her embrace of the Cross she was given that the priest who administered Viaticum to her remarked on his way out of the house that he “had never seen a soul so at peace.”
The day I received the phone call, something within me changed. That day, I attended daily Mass on-campus for the first time, beginning a faith journey that has brought me to the farthest corners of the state of Pennsylvania in search of that precious pearl of our forefathers, the Mass of Antiquity. My time in college has been eventful, to say the least; the foundation of the Penn State Latin Mass Society—previously featured on this site—perhaps the defining moment not only for myself, but for the other Catholic students in the Class of 2022 as well. Through these experiences, both in the Newman Club and the Latin Mass Society, I have come to realize the powerful majesty of the ancient liturgy and its ability to captivate those individuals who had, in their earlier experience with the Catholic faith, come to reject the religion outright because of their lackluster experiences with liturgy—a fate that may have befallen me had my mother’s death not brought me back into the fold. I have witnessed the powerful evangelical ability of the unchanging Roman Rite to draw in those souls yearning for their birthright, authentic Catholic liturgy.
It is a sad reality that such a significant number of the hierarchy do not realize the power of the Tridentine Mass. Unfortunately, such is the case in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, where Penn State is located. Previously, Penn State students had access to the Latin Mass at a parish roughly 35 minutes from campus on Saturday mornings and select Holy Days. With the publishing of the facetiously-named Traditionis Custodes, the Bishop of Altoona-Johnstown, Rev. Mark Bartchak, abruptly cancelled this Mass with no reason given. With this was also cancelled the Requiem Mass, long-scheduled for my mother on Saturday the 4th of September, the third anniversary of her death.
There is, in my opinion, no liturgy offered by the Roman Church more profoundly beautiful than the Missa pro Defunctis, the Requiem Mass for the Dead. Rich with symbolism, the prayers of the Requiem are wholly ordered to that most pious custom of Christian charity—praying for the souls of the faithful departed. The entirety of the Mass, so ordered to beg almighty God to have mercy upon the soul deceased, rightly offers us the reminder that we too will one day enter into eternal judgement. The Introit of the Mass is perhaps the most beautiful piece of music the Church has ever given us; in this text, we the living, with the words of eternity, beg pardon at the hands of the most just of Judges. It is, therefore, altogether fitting and proper that those faithful who have died be prayed for with this most potent and beautiful of prayers.
With the news that my mother’s Requiem Mass was to be cancelled, I decided to call the Bishop’s office in Altoona to ask that special permission be given that this Mass be celebrated. To most, it would seem as if the simple request of a grieving son that a Mass be said for his mother would be granted enthusiastically, so I anticipated a short endeavor in which I explained the situation to the Bishop and he granted permission. Unfortunately, what I have since experienced highlights the dire situation of the traditional Catholic in the time of Traditionis Custodes.
When I first called the Bishop’s office on Thursday, August 20th, I left a message with his secretary, who told me she would notify the Bishop of the situation. I then waited until the following Tuesday (the 24th), hearing nothing from the Chancery. When I called again, I left a voicemail, again reiterating the simple request of a son who still mourns the loss of his mother. After yet again receiving no reply, I called on Thursday the 26th and left a voicemail, which again went unreturned. Once more, I called the following day, Friday the 27th of August, this time hearing from the Bishop’s secretary that the Mass was not to happen, and the priest who was to originally celebrate the Mass was to “contact me to find a solution.” With this, I received the news that my mother’s Mass had been cancelled, seemingly in accordance with the recent directives from Rome. Never once has the Bishop contacted me to express this most disappointing fact or to explain his reason for doing so.
Unfortunately, the treatment I have received is not unique in this diocese. Countless other faithful Catholics who attend the only regularly-scheduled Sunday Latin Mass in the diocese have received similar treatment, and the restrictions placed on the Mass of Antiquity are, I believe, some of the most draconian in the United States. While no formal decree has been issued by the Bishop, these restrictions have been corroborated by public pronouncements from the parish pulpit and the shared experiences of the faithful. In the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, no sacraments, other than the celebration of the Mass, are to be celebrated using the Old Rite. This includes weddings and baptisms, but also funeral Masses—were I to die in this diocese, I would likely not be allowed to have my own Requiem Mass. Parents-to-be have been told that, if they want their unborn children baptized in the rite used by their ancestors, they must go to the neighboring Diocese of Harrisburg or Pittsburgh to do so. Further, banned is the participation of other clerics in the celebration of the Usus Antiquior—permission must be given for any priest, deacon, or seminarian other than the prescribed celebrant to serve as deacon, subdeacon, or to even sit in choir. Holy Day Masses are also cancelled, forcing the faithful to seek shelter yet again in a neighboring diocese should they wish to attend the Old Mass on days of obligation. Together, these restrictions represent a crushing blow to the faithful of Altoona-Johnstown who so ardently wish to worship in the manner of their forefathers.
In conclusion, while my mother may not receive her scheduled Requiem Mass, I trust in the charity of the readers of this site to offer many prayers for the repose of her soul. I ask that those who may read this pray especially for Bishop Bartchak, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, and Catholic Campus Ministry at Penn State. Though she may not receive chanted for her the beautiful words of the Requiem, I may only hope that the vision alluded to by the In Paradisum, sung as the body of the deceased is taken from the church to the cemetery, may ring true for my mother.
May the angels lead thee into Paradise; at thy coming may the martyrs receive thee, and bring thee into the holy city, Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive thee, and with Lazarus, once a beggar, mayest thou have eternal rest.
Victor Fuentes is a senior in Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College majoring in political science and philosophy. He is the president of the Penn State Latin Mass Society and a parishioner of St. Rita parish in Alexandria, Virginia.