Chasing shadows

9 12 2019

I must have went to my first traditional Latin Mass when I was a teenager in 1993 or 1994. The Mass took place at a Marian shrine about an hour away from our house. As I remember, the Mass was done only once a month, at 7 pm on the first Saturday. At that time, only five or six years removed from Ecclesia Dei Adflicta, the document liberalizing the use of the old Latin Mass, this dearth of celebration of the Latin Mass was quite common. Mind you, this was also pre-Internet (or widespread use of the Internet). How my old friend, blind and 80 years old, found out about it is also a mystery to me to this day. The celebrant was an old Irish-American monsignor who no doubt missed the old liturgy but had gone along with the changes anyway. The venue was the one parish where liberal bishops like to send the conservative trouble makers and rabble-rousers, the folks who write the bishop every month complaining about this or that. These people tend to now “tweet @” or message their prelates on social media. Back then, it was “snail mail” only.

I guess my eighty year old blind friend was the first traditionalist I ever met, but she was far from a “rad trad”. It was hard to be a a radical traditionalist anyway because there was no movement to speak of outside of certain places and being on mailing lists. You had to know people who knew people. Maybe you got involved with a renegade priest who was thrown out of his parish for refusing to say the New Mass, and poof! Five years later you were in a cult. Or maybe you lucked out and the priest founded his own chapel in which you had an otherwise normal life. In other words, the price of entry for being a “traditional Catholic” was quite high. Either you toughed it out trying to find a traditional Latin Mass venue, usually in some hole in the wall somewhere, or which was relegated to some extremely inconvenient time, once every two months on a full moon with the wind blowing out of the northeast at ten miles an hour, etc. Honestly, looking on the Internet, none of this seems to have changed in many places. The one thing that has changed is the illusion of a “traditionalist” community online, which honestly started in the late 1990’s with the rise of the Internet. I should know as I was there for it. Still I see posts on social media saying, “Going to my first Latin Mass today /  I went to my first Latin Mass today, etc.” Times haven’t changed much.

Anyway, back to my first Latin Mass: I only knew the old Mass from the Mass of Father Gommar DePauw as broadcasted early Sunday morning on the local classical music station. This was a low Mass said in his rather robust Flemish accent. The first actual Mass I went to at the shrine was a Sung Mass, so I was a bit confused by the whole thing. It was definitely not “love at first sight” but it was the real thing. Indeed, after that I had a hard time going back to the “regular” Catholic Mass, and attendance at that Latin Mass once a month was the only one that counted to me at that point. The rest of the month I was just going through the motions. Even when I was more devout, I almost never received Holy Communion at the “normal Mass” if I could help it.

Later in the decade, once I decided to get back on the wagon, I was fortunate to have a regular Latin Mass within commuting distance. Services at that church ranged from somewhat sloppy and underwhelming to absolutely sublime, mostly due to the quality of the music. In another lifetime, I would have settled in there and made friends, but as my rediscovery of the traditional Mass was due to a crisis of meaning in my young life, I quickly drifted into the orbit of the Society of St. Pius X. The process by which this happened was not particularly clean nor straightforward. The nascent traditionalist Internet were dominated by rumors that the SSPX was some sort of weird cult, so investigating that brought me into indirect contact with some of the more questionable clergy of the local traditionalist movement living in the area.  I believe I may have reached out and spoken to the infamous “Fr.” Morrison who still has a chapel on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco (“Fr.” in quotes because his ordination is rather questionable). There was at least one incredibly awkward phone call with an ex-SSPX priest who had a chapel in the area who was outright hostile to me when I asked him about his experiences and whether the SSPX was a good place to pursue a vocation. At the same time, I joined a local Legion of Mary praesidium for a month or so (at a “normal”Catholic church). The one time I went out to do some door-to-door proselytizing, I met one woman randomly who said that she hadn’t been to church in years because she just didn’t like how the Mass is done. “I liked it better when it was in Latin,” I think she said. No doubt my youthful brain took that as a sign.

Finally I befriended a few people in the area who would let me hitch a ride to the Society of St. Pius X chapel over an hour away. I also was able to slum it with them in some rather interesting venues, including Mass in a room of a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco who said the old Mass exclusively and was barely tolerated for it. Although I was not in that milieu for very long, I was still able to experience the weirdness and even socially dysfunctional behavior of people involved in the traditionalist movement at the time. Within months I “left the world” and moved into an SSPX priory as a preliminary step to pursue a vocation, but that is a story for another day.

My point in writing down these remembrances is to indicate that, back then, in order to become a Catholic traditionalist of any stripe, it took a great deal of luck and a high tolerance for personal weirdness. The official hierarchy tried their best to make the old Mass into something you could only stumble on completely by accident, if it wasn’t forbidden outright. And it was a “complete package” deal. I see on social media Catholics who have an interest in traditional liturgy and leftist politics: that was almost unthinkable 20 years ago. If you went to the traditional Mass, you were either convinced of some weird unapproved apparition that barely anyone heard about, or your politics were slightly to the left of Francisco Franco (but negligibly so). You were paranoid about Freemasons etc. because you were by definition part of a persecuted minority and sometimes you had been personally kicked out of churches. You knew who your friends and enemies were; you had picked a side.

On one level, I am glad that the Motu Proprio of 2007 brought an end to this mentality in many places in the United States in particular (though not all places). I am glad that a young person doesn’t have to become a weird crypto-fascist pushing some questionable apparition just to experience the Mass as it was before 1960. I also find it slightly ironic that people who would have condemned me as schismatic twenty years ago for defying the authority of the now sainted Pope John Paul II now rattle the sabers of schism against the current occupant of the Chair of St. Peter for (in my opinion) expressing opinions that the Polish pope implied but which were somewhat muted by a more “conservative” veneer. My particular perspective has thus made me deeply cynical concerning such weird maneuvering in internal Catholic politics. I guess I will always be affected by that persecution complex, though I am far removed from the scene now.

 


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12 12 2019
Brian M

You may find this of interest. Note the photo of three Bachata superstars about to drop the hottest mixtape of 2020 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/01/retreat-christian-soldiers/603043/

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