A Burlap Church No More


A Burlap Church No More

Celebrating the Latin Mass at St. Paul’s Church. Photo: Thom Nickels
By Thom Nickels | Contributing Editor | 24.MAR.10

Celebrating the traditional Latin Mass in South Philadelphia

This past Sunday I made my way through South Philadelphia to attend a Traditional High Solemn Latin Mass at St. Paul’s Catholic Church at 10th and Christian Streets. The last TLM I attended was sometime between my 11th and 12th birthday. I’d grown up with the TLM so its passing then was not a pleasant time for me. While I was captivated then by the Second Vatican Council, I didn’t want the Council to do anything to the Mass, so when the changes began—it took about a year for the liturgical reformatting to take effect—I’d brace myself whenever I went to church.

"What are they going to change this week?" I said to my parents.

Believe it or not, I’d stay awake at night and worry about what was happening to the Mass that I loved. Growing up, the nuns would tell us over and over how wonderful it was to be Catholic because no matter where you went in the world—from China to the South Pole—the Roman Mass would always be the same. They kept repeating that refrain as if it was the selling point of Catholicism, as if it was the one reason why the whole world should become Catholic.

With the passing of the TLM, I disappeared into the secular world for a few years, wearing my agnosticism on my sleeve like all good party members, a book of Sartre in my knapsack. Cynical, know-it-all youth-- that was me, us, everybody; even the way "we" flipped our long hair when we talked told the world that we knew everything and had it all figured out. But over time, especially on Sunday mornings, whether in Cambridge, Baltimore, or Colorado, I’d think of the Grand Lady of Liturgical Ceremonies, the Mass of all Ages, and a strange feeling of peace and comfort would come over me. I’d wonder how "she" was doing, now that she’d been brought up to date and given a new lease on life.

So I walked into a Catholic church one day. It was a modern church in the round, one of those theater churches, and around the bare altar in the center of the circle were burlap banners. I looked in vein for statues, pictures, crucifixes, anything from the not-so-old days, but all I saw were more burlap banners.

I went home and wrote a story, The Church of Burlap, and convinced myself that it was just as well that I’d taken another direction because this wasn’t the sort of thing that I could tolerate for long.

"Good-bye Church," I said. "You were pretty once upon a time, but something happened…"

Years passed, and I ventured back, always trying to find something about the new liturgy to love, my eyes scanning the scene for something to value, hoping to be won over, to be convinced, to be converted. Again and again I’d leave disappointed, wondering how and why it all happened.

But then something did happen. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI issued a Latin Mass motu proprio, allowing Catholic priests to celebrate the TLM anytime and anywhere they wanted without the permission from bishops. This was good news, because bishops—modernist bishops anyway—were the problem. Previously a priest had to request permission from his bishop to say the TLM, a cumbersome process that often got bogged down in webs of delay, obfuscation and sometimes outright rejection.

"That Mass is not the current form," these bishops would say, as if the Grand Old Lady herself, the Mass of the Saints and Tradition, had somehow become heretical or suspect or was somehow an occasion of sin. Ah, yes, the modernist bishops were certainly unique, with their miniature miters and potato sack vestments; they seemed to go hand-in-hand with the secularized nuns in pant suits and fem-Nazi hair.

The Catholic Church has survived greater disasters, such as the iconoclastic controversy and the Arian heresy in the 3rd century. When you’re 2,000 years old, you’ve seen it all.

Things did begin to change, and they are changing now.

When I walked into St. Paul’s I noticed the quiet that precedes a TLM. It’s Quaker Meeting House quiet, not the gabfest that precedes many Novus Ordo Masses in some churches. (Speaking of quiet, a friend of mine, a sometime communicant of Saint Agatha and Saint James at 37th and Chestnut Street, tells me that before and after Sunday Masses there the congregation literally goes wild with talk and ‘shout outs’ to friends. He says he’s considering not going to that parish anymore because of the noise). When Fr. Gerald Carey, in traditional Fiddleback vestments, entered the sanctuary with acolytes carrying candles for the traditional Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, the time machine in my head did double flips. Then the Latin hymns started up and out came the incense. I felt the peace that I’d felt so long ago—yes, the transcendent lift started to take hold.

The TLM has been a 12 Noon staple at St. Paul’s now for several months, and Fr. Carey tells me that on good days he gets as many as 120 people. I counted about 110 people of different ages. There were also about eight to ten young acolytes serving at the altar.

"The Traditional Latin Mass has had a slow comeback," he says. "But it’s always been part of the heart of the Church, but I think that the Holy Father would like it to be even more so, maybe because of the ways in which the Ordinary Form of the Mass has been handled."

Fr. Carey is much more respectful of the Novus Ordo Mass than I tend to be (the NO Mass is also offered at St. Paul’s), but it’s easy to see that he feels passionately about the TLM. As they say in show business, he’s a natural at it. The morning I attended most of the people sat towards the back of the church as if to "read" the stand/kneel/sit cues of the people in front. A sturdy pamphlet, Saint Paul’s Mass Book for the Traditional Latin Mass, is distributed to all congregants. The pamphlets allow congregants to read the English translation while being "lifted’ by the music and chants.

Everything in the TLM seems focused on God, on the mystery of sacrifice that the Mass purports to be, since both priest and people face the same direction. I found myself relieved on several occasions that this was a far less "talky" Mass than exists throughout all of Center City. This was less a Mass about "instruction," handshaking and creating a theater-style reception atmosphere than it was about a "surgical" focus on what happened in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

Although Father Carey may not me saying this, there’s no comparison between the two Masses. The Extraordinary Form is Mozart, while the Ordinary Form is definitely bottom shelf Insane Clown Posse.

"All the Italians in this area of South Philly are now in New Jersey in Washington Township," Father Carey said. "We really don’t have a big Catholic community like we used to have, years ago."

Years ago, when there was a large Catholic community here, St Paul’s would offer 8 Masses on a Sunday. The parish was about to eliminate the 12 Noon Mass when Fr. Carey brought in the TLM at that time.

Because St. Paul’s is the only Catholic church near Center City with a TLM, people travel from Drexel Hill, Bensalem and Port Richmond to attend each Sunday. News (and popularity) of the Mass has also attracted former parishioners of St Clement’s Anglo Catholic in Center City, and congregants from Saint Jude’s SSPX chapel in Eddystone, PA.

Fr. Carey cares for two South Philadelphia churches, the Church of Saint Mary Magdalen of Pazzi as well as St. Paul’s. On Palm Sunday, March 28, there will be a blessing and distribution of palms at 12 Noon at St. Mary Magdalen’s, and then a procession through the streets to St. Paul’s for the 12:30 Solemn High Traditional Latin Mass.

It promises to be a stunner.

With the Italian market around the corner, and cafes down the street, this event seems like the ideal way to prepare for Holy Week and Easter.

Although Father Carey thinks that the Latin Mass motu proprio should have happened in the 1970s, he’s very grateful that the "Mass of the Ages" is finally making a serious comeback. "There are still Catholics who walk in here during the 12 Noon Mass and think that a UFO landed on them," he says. "There are young Catholics in their 20s who have no idea that we used to receive communion kneeling at altar rails. Some don’t even know what a Latin Mass is. They’ll say, ‘What’s that?’ Some will walk in off the street, see this Mass, and be in a state of shock. One person asked, ‘Is this a private affair?’"

Father Carey says that when he distributes communion —there are no lay Eucharistic ministers in the Extraordinary Form—he sometimes sees people crying as they kneel at the altar rail. (Pope Paul VI was against communion in the hand).

When the Mass ended about an hour and fifteen minutes after it had begun, I was

feeling pretty good. In fact, I was feeling so good that I walked into Center City before heading into Starbucks for coffee (and some reflection), and then Macy’s to window shop. In Macy’s, I encountered a Roman priest in a wheelchair.

"Are you a Catholic priest?" I gently inquired.

The priest nodded his head and waited to hear what I had to say.

"Father, I’ve just been to the most beautiful Traditional Latin Mass at St. Paul’s in South Philadelphia. It was a work of art. It was beautiful--I am thoroughly won over. Why did they ever change that Mass?"

"Don’t ask me," he said, "I’m a traditionalist….I already know it’s a beautiful thing. Yes it is
I know how he feels, guess that makes me a Neo-Con or is that a Neo-Cath or whatever is wrong with falling back in love with the Church on this board.
(03-24-2010, 01:09 PM)DarkKnight Wrote: I know how he feels, guess that makes me a Neo-Con or is that a Neo-Cath or whatever is wrong with falling back in love with the Church on this board.

I don't understand what you mean.  You would only be a Neo-Cath if you were promoting the silly idea that the Novus Ordo is an equal expression liturgically of the Catholic Faith as the TLM.   Most of us who were not born and raised  and stuck with the TLM are former Cafeteria Catholics, Neo-Caths, "Children of Winter" or Victims of Vatican II whatever you want to call us.   The main point is to be a trad now so in the future we can simply be referred to as "Catholic"

There's something cthonic about burlap that brings to mind human sacrifice and late 70s horror films.
Man, that article was good. We just finished our monthly Dominican Rite low Mass last evening. We'd love to do a Missa Cantata but our group is VERY small (between 30 &40). And no singers.

We are struggling to survive. Our little church is out in the rural area and is a long way from folks with $$$$$. Our priest drives 75 miles each way just to celebrate Mass for us.
But we are hanging in there. Most Sundays I drive up to Seattle for the FSSP Mass but its nice to have Mass closer.

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