How a Parish Can Attract Traditionalists


basilica-st-john-lateran-8Dear William,

When I shared your previous letter on Facebook, I referred to the contents as “interesting.”  In it, you expressed a desire that over time, the need for the Extraordinary Form would lessen, and that you hope traditionalists would begin to frequent a better done Ordinary Form liturgy.  This is a difficult discussion, but I’d like to touch briefly upon it.

As time goes on, will the Extraordinary Form be less needed?  I’m sure there are those who believe that.  I’m quite skeptical.  Even as the liturgy developed more along the lines of “reform of the reform” during the pontificate of Benedict XVI (a practice Francis has made very clear he thinks was a mistake), the Latin Mass still grew, and continues to grow to this day, even as the younger priests have a decidedly different view of the liturgy than the current pope.  The church is big enough for both to survive.  Contrary to the fears of this pope, a growing Latin Mass community will not endanger the Church, nor the Council, nor (as we will see) the liturgical reform.

Taking the approach the Church is big enough for both is a view consistent with tradition, consistent with the counsel of the last several popes (including this one), and requires no great leaps of logic or a blind faith things will eventually work how you will it to.  If some think the Extraordinary Form will lose its appeal over time, there are those who think the Ordinary Form will also lose its appeal over time, or that we will eventually come to some weird hybrid of the two as the standard liturgy for Roman Catholics.  There’s zero evidence for any of these propositions now, nor is there any evidence any change is on the horizon.  Given that, we are only stuck with what we can do right in front of us:  continue to promote the needs of traditionalists, but also aggressively back a better reform of the Ordinary Form as well.

Is demand for a reverent liturgy sparse?  There’s some evidence for that, but there’s also some evidence opposing that idea.  This is especially the case when you consider our generation.  As the Center for Research in the Apostolate found in a 2013 survey, things like Church Architecture, a reverent liturgy, and a strong identity with Catholic teaching are the things that define Catholicism for the millennial generation.  Unlike their ancestors, they are also more than willing to hop from parish to parish until they find it.

Sometimes, even when they find it, they still hop around.  That tends to be my experience.  I am officially a parishoner at Old St. Patrick in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  At this parish, the Ordinary Form is offered ad orientem alongside a healthy dose of Latin.  Once a month, the Extraordinary Form is also available.  Though I spend time at this parish, I also attend Mass roughly once a month in the Extraordinary Form at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield, a newer Latin Mass community where several of my friends attend. In addition to that, I also make occasional trips to Byzantine & Ukrainian Catholic Churches for their divine liturgies.  We have the means at our disposal to get a reverent liturgy in a variety of ways, and we aren’t afraid to use it.  Now if that line of thinking is prominent among young Catholics of all stripes (and will only become more so), parishes are probably going to have to be a lot more aggressive in recruiting and retaining young Catholics.

The way to retain them is to cater to their desires.  That’s probably going to mean more Latin Masses, not less.  Or if it is just the Ordinary Form, it is going to require an honest assessment of whether or not every aspect of the liturgical reform has worked like claimed, and even reform some of those previous practices.  A parish which offers Mass ad orientem, communion kneeling and on the tongue on the communion rail, no altar girls, a healthy dose of chant and sacred music, and with a healthy dose of Latin will have no trouble at least gaining the goodwill of traditionalists.  Yet if they are going to frequent these churches, eventually they are going to ask for a Latin Mass of their own, and why shouldn’t they?  Such is their right.

Yet even if they do not ask, they are still going to want a reverent liturgy.  I believe I do not speak rashly when I say a reverent liturgy is almost impossible to find in the majority of American Churches today.  Even if there were zero traditionalists, the “liturgy wars” that CDW Prefect Cardinal Sarah has spoken about would continue.  What we are seeing currently is not a debate about whether or not the liturgical reform should stop, but about what character the liturgical reform should take.  Vatican II mandated few if any of the changes the liturgy spoke about, and both John Paul II and (especially) Benedict XVI have called into question if some of the changes were really in line with what the Council intended.

Now that this door is open, even a papal fiat vowing excommunication on anyone who continued that line of thought would be unlikely to close it.  For example, even if one concedes a vernacular liturgy, it must be admitted there is scant evidence it has actually led to people having a better understanding of the liturgy, or that it has led to higher Mass attendance.  So while you might not get a Mass 100% in Latin, the arguments against greater inclusion of Latin in the liturgy (in things like the Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and the like) are based more on emotion than reason and evidence.  Once that point has been conceded, we’re simply haggling over the degree to which Latin should be included.    If the last forty years were all about a liturgical reform, the next forty are almost certainly going to be about a liturgical correction, in which the excesses of the liturgical reform are done away with, previous practices reemerge, and future generations are less likely to hold sacrosanct the propositions previous generations viewed as non-negotiable in regards to liturgical reform.  It is not bragging when I say that landscape favors traditionalists.

So like you, I favor greater co-operation between traditionalists and the wider Church.  Yet that participation is going to cause change, on both sides of the fence.  Like many other traditionalists, we’ve been waiting some time to have this discussion, and we’re confident that over the next four decades, faithful Catholics will be less inclined to support felt banners, cantors doing their best Evita impersonation, and Marty Haugen.  I’d say far from being over, the liturgical correction has only just begun.


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  • Melissa

    I think the traditionalist movement would do well to actively accommodate new people. It’s very intimidating to go to a TLM if you’ve never been before. I searched online for a neophyte’s guide to the TLM and found nothing. The best resource I found was a how-to video for SSPX priests. That’s not a good thing if someone is already wary of being criticized for being “outside” the mainstream church. It needs to be more accessible. I jumped in and one individual was very helpful in helping me follow along. Still, that took several months of mustering courage for me to go the first time.

    • Melissa,

      No doubt that’s important. Before this dialogue with William happened, I was actually doing a step by step guide on the TLM, and I give regular commentary every week at Catholic Exchange on the propers of the Latin Mass (those prayers which change every week) to try and give people those resources.

      I came from a parish where active engagement was a premium. We had handouts with the propers we bundled with Missals to give to people, and we normally had one or two people available some 30-35 minutes before Mass there to answer questions, and normally someone available afterwards as well. The church bulletin, in addition to including whatever the priest wanted to talk about, also included a “TLM news” about little nuggets of traditional spirituality you might like, and where you could go to the Latin Mass around us, even if it wasn’t at our parish.

      It’s a trend I think is changing in traditionalism. For the longest time, if you liked the Latin Mass, you learned quite a bit about it beforehand, because it was so rare. So when you went in, you at least had an inkling that you wanted to be there, driving 90 minutes and all. As it’s become more available, I’d say that’s one of the key priorities parishes need to do.

      And you don’t need a lot of crazy stuff to do it. Simply having handouts with the propers and music can go a long way. Organizing socials afterwards where you actively seek out those who were new and talk to them can go a long way.

      I think you’re starting to see that change amongst younger trads. They aren’t conditioned to think by Church authorities and popular commentators that the Latin Mass is something which you should be lucky you have, and shut up before we take it from you. Rather we tend to think this is a beautiful thing, and it’s so beautiful, everyone else should hear about it as well. I had about 5 years in the Indult culture, and now 8 outside of it. The culture within traditionalism has changed pretty rapidly since then, and over the past year or two the change has accelerated. I think you’ll begin seeing those things you want to see.

      And in the meantime if you aren’t, what do you mean when you want a “how-to” guide? Let’s see if we can get that for you. 🙂

  • Pax

    I have to second Mellisa, I have attended two parishes both about equal distance from my house. One is VERY traditional, the other is ok but often lacks the reverence I’d like to see at the mass. However, the very traditional one has a lot of commuters, who are not really interested in fostering or being involved in creating parish community. More over, even though I taught RE there the people were neither open nor welcoming and very hard to get to know or make friends with, this example extended to their children leaving my daughter feeling rejected. So I’m stuck between choosing an environment where my daughters sees the proper reverence due the mass but does not experience the joy and love of Christ or an environment where she experiences that contentedness but the mass is of the normal mealy type seen throughout most of the U.S.

    I’d like her to have both, but the reality is that the expierece of Knowing Jesus as the greatest love in her life and meeting him through others is , in my mind , of greater value then a reverent mass. Not that a reverent mass wouldn’t enhance that experience, just that if forced to choose between one or the other, openness and authenticates of sinful broken people is better at showing the reality of being a christian then a bunch of cold , exclusive people who are overly focused on ‘doing it the right way’.

    I’d grant ‘traditionalist’ have many valid taking points and a great deal to bring to the table, but most of them that I have meet need to bring it with a great deal more joy and putting their ‘resources where there mouth are’ then I’ve currently seen.

    The battle ground for truth is the mind, but sanctity and holiness are gifts of the spirit that inhabit the sole and the heart. It is so vitally useful to believe what is true , but in the end it isn’t what you know, but who you know, that saves you. So where one is important, the other is essential.

    • Unfortunately most parishes need to put their resources where their mouths are. It’s a very frustrating experience, but also a lot of commuters with families can’t be more active. Classic conundrum. About the only thing that will help that change is if priests actually invite trads into those parishes, and make them feel welcome as equals, not just the crazy uncle in the attic.

      • Pax

        hmm… the commuter part may be partially true. The parish I was talking about though has many traditionalist in it and even when they were there it was hard to feel part of the community.