Flashback to July of this year. My wife, four kids, and I climbed up a high mountain while on vacation. We sat in a glorious subalpine meadow, overlooking a massive glacier, and debated whether or not we wanted to go back down the mountain. We had climbed the mountain for one reason: to escape. Setting up three tents seemed rather enticing at that moment.
As often happens while on vacation, we had just come from an irreverent Mass in a nearby resort town featuring, among other things, four guitar players strumming out of synch to Dan Schutte’s greatest hits. The Mass itself was a display of COVID-obsession mixed with self-affirmation and boredom. However, it was the moments following this Mass where we were really set off. That was when we found out Pope Francis was attempting to ban the traditional Latin Mass. “He actually wants our faith to die with these guitar Masses, and our children to burn in Hell,” was my first thought. Harsh? Probably. Accurate? I will leave that unanswered.
I guess my survival skills need more work, because we eventually decided to come down that mountain. Back to real life. The cross now weighs heavily on our family. Among other things, we have not attended a traditional Latin Mass since July. It’s not that the bishop has banned it outright, it just mysteriously stopped happening. Purely a coincidence, right? We have tried attending Divine Liturgies, but find them more attentive to COVID than God where we live – seeing a five-year-old kicked out of church for not wearing a mask is not conducive to building a spiritual life. Realistically, if we wish to attend Mass, it is in the banal style as experienced on our trip to the mountains. I’ll bet Dan Schutte is proud… As for Pope Francis, you win. I hope you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
No, of course not. Pope Francis will not “win.” Yes, we must attend a Saturday evening Mass in order to receive Our Lord. But come Sunday morning, as a family we chant the traditional Mass prayers and immerse ourselves in the rich treasures of Catholicism. If Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s family was able to survive without an inspired liturgy, so can we. My apologies to Pope Francis, but tradition will live on, despite his feeble attempt to blow it to pieces.
* * *
The other day we decided to shake up our Sunday family prayer routine. We were invited by another family to pray at a hundred-year-old Catholic church – apparently decommissioned – located an hour-and-a-half from our house. They mentioned that the church was beautiful. This made me skeptical. We live in Saskatchewan, Canada, after all. Most barns, hockey rinks, and prisons have more beauty – and occupants – than Catholic churches here. Exhibit A being the newly built $28.5 million cathedral in the diocese of Saskatoon, SK, which looks like a giant sailboat from the outside. But I digress. We took a chance that morning and hit the road to say our Sunday prayers at some unknown abandoned church.
We arrived early. The church, a solid red brick structure, was surrounded by harvested farmland. There was a bungee cord holding the front door shut. We removed it and entered. Our jaws promptly hit the floor.
How do you describe such an experience? Right in front of us was this perfect rural church. Statues and paintings sparkled in beauty. The high altar glistened invitingly. The pews had a worn yet warm feel about them, as though many a devout prayer warrior had leaned over them and poured out a tearful heart to God. It was all just sitting here, forgotten.
I shouldn’t exaggerate. It was not all perfect. Evidently the church had endured a portion of “spirit-led” transitioning over the years. A table altar was added at some point, signifying the arrival of Vatican II Catholicism. It seems a grand piano and lights were added many years after in order to host concerts, signifying the fruits of Vatican II Catholicism. But otherwise, the church remained breathtakingly intact.
We started singing the chants from the Mass. “How long has it been since the Asperges were last sung here?” I wondered. It felt like the deceased souls of past parishioners joined their voices to ours. Soon our friends arrived. They insisted on fifteen decades of the Rosary. Looking down at the hardwood floor with no kneelers, I lied to them and said that’d be just great. The spirit is willing, but the kneecaps are weak. Yet, the fifteen decades flew by with abundant blessings. The Aves echoed poignantly. Praying in a pious building, it turns out, makes knee pain unnoticeable.
Often throughout that Rosary my mind drifted to a recent conversation I had with my 95-year-old grandma. She told me of what life was like for Catholic farmers in her childhood. I do not speak of this particular church, but I imagine there are many similarities with her story. To hear my grandma speak, it all sounded like a different world. The week centered around Sunday. Families would get up early, tend to the animals, tend to themselves, and then hitch the team and ride to the church. The priest would offer low Mass, and then feed the families while teaching them catechism lessons. High Mass followed. Everyone knew the chants. An army of boys served at the altar. No cost was spared for making the church radiate. As my grandma described it, it was like a scene from a movie. Vocations came in abundance, as did fecund marriages. I thought of the longing in my grandma’s eyes as she described these stories to me.
Then, abruptly, her look changed to great sadness. Her little paradise ended. A creepy priest moved into the rectory. Let’s just say he ended up dying in jail. The Mass changed. The farmers were promised Mass readings in their own language. Not knowing any better, they agreed that this might be beneficial. Soon Latin was forbidden. One thing led to another. As my dad often says, “within two years of changing the Mass, all the girls wore mini skirts to church.” Soon people stopped attending all together. It was a simple paradise lost.
My grandma’s stories haunted me as I prayed my Rosary beads in this lonely church. Afterwards our friends showed us around the building. The statues were even more impressive up close, as was the high altar. Every piece of craftsmanship was first-rate. There was a massive bell still in the tower. The choir loft boasted some of the best acoustics in the province. But it was in the sacristy where everything hit home. Gorgeous traditional vestments were all still folded neatly in their drawers. Just sitting there waiting – crying out – for a priest to walk in and say a traditional Latin Mass.
“They just abandoned it all and walked out!” we all stammered. “They just up and left!”
* * *
What shall become of it?
It seems that four guitars strumming Dan Schutte ditties did not do this church any favors. In fact, it must be admitted that the post-tradition age of the Church destroyed it. Now a great treasure lies empty and forgotten. Shall no more be saved here? Is its fate that of a wrecking ball and a few hollow words of regret? In our created epoch, better destruction than admitting a mistake. Better to suffocate a treasure than see it renewed and resplendent. Better to rule in misery than serve God.
If you will permit, I wish to mention my grandma one more time. I think of the last time I visited her. She was standing beside me as I played her songs on the piano. At one point I began playing Aquinas’ Adoro Te Devote. A curious smile came to her. She seemed transported.
“You know, I woke up in the middle of the night last night,” she began, “and I had that hymn in my head… I haven’t heard it in probably eighty years. And yet, I was singing it in my dream. I knew all the words perfectly. Even after all these years!”
And this is why my family, though apparently defeated, will sing the Mass prayers together every Sunday. Yes, it seems there is no hope for us. The traditional Mass is missing, and we do not know where they have taken it. But we will sing it all the same. We will pray, remember, and in a mysterious way be nourished by this Mass – this faith. And we will labor for that blessed day when a priest will be commissioned, a pat on the back from a bishop given, and the words spoken, “Go, rebuild this church.” We are ready to reclaim our heritage. God willing, the faith will thrive there once more.
But still more, God willing it will thrive once more to the four corners of the Earth.