Solemn Latin Mass in Washington stirs change in Catholic liturgy

religion | Apr 25, 2010 | By Robert Moynihan

Embattled Pope Benedict XVI, who turned 83 ten days ago on April 16, was honored in the United States on April 24, the 5th anniversary of his election in 2005 at the age of 78, by thousands of American Catholics who attended a Mass commemorating his installation.

The Mass was also the first celebration of the "old Latin liturgy" in the nation's largest Catholic church in 40 years, since the reform of the liturgy by Paul VI in 1970, and the large crowd in attendance is striking evidence that, despite the passage of four decades, there remains a considerable reservoir of devotion to the old form of the Mass among Catholics in America.

Despite some controversy associated with the choice of the celebrant, between 3,000 and 4,000 people filled the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC on Saturday afternoon for this double purpose: (1) to commemorate the installation of Pope Benedict XVI as Pope five years ago, and (2) to celebrate the return, after a 40-year absence, of the "old Mass" to this shrine dedicated to the Mother of God.

The pews in the basilica was completely filled, and there were several hundred people standing in the aisles. One of the basilica ushers told me that "though officially we seat 3,500, actually the capacity is 2,800 to 3,000." With the number of people standing, he added, it would not be exaggerated to say there were "more than 3,000" present in the basilica.

Paul King, a leading Washington business executive who also heads the Paulus Institute, a group dedicated to the renewal of the traditional liturgy of the Church, was the chief organizer of the Mass. He told me he thought the number of people who were standing, as well as considerable squishing together in the pews, meant that the number present must have approached 4,000.

In the absence of an official count, it seems fair to say that there were between 3,000 and 4,000 people at the Mass.

The Controversy Before the Mass

The Mass, a High Pontifical Mass sung in Latin and accompanied by an organ and choir, was offered by His Excellency Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

But Slattery was not the first choice as celebrant.

"We are pleased and honored to have His Excellency, Edward Slattery, come to Washington to celebrate what will be a historic event and a major step toward the restoration of sacred tradition," Paulus Institute President King, wrote in a mid-April press release. "The richness of our Catholic tradition will be visible to all the world on Pope Benedict's fifth anniversary."

But Slattery was a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled celebrant, the Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, 81, famous for standing up at the risk of his own life to drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, the greatest Colombian drug lord, whose Medellín cartel once controlled 80% of the cocaine shipped illegally into the United States.

So Castrillon is regarded as a man with courage, who will not back down when faced with a challenge. But Castrillon became too controversial for this event.

Several weeks ago, a letter he wrote almost 10 years ago concerning a case of priestly pedophilia in France was made public. In his letter, Castrillon praised a French bishop for not telling police about a French priest who had sexually assaulted children.

In mid-April, advocates for sexual abuse victims voiced outrage that Castrillon was planning to come to Washington to celebrate the Mass.


The "Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests" (SNAP) sent letters to Pope Benedict XVI and to Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, calling on them to condemn Castrillon's remarks and to replace him in the Mass. The Pope did not intervene. He didn't have to.

Instead, there was a dramatic conference phone call between Paul King and another organizer of the Mass and Castrillon in which the decision was made not to have Castrillon be the celebrant.

"A lot of things have been written about how the decision was taken," King said. "Some say I asked him not to come, others, that he took the decision not to come. But it was not as clear-cut as that. During a 40-minute-long phone conversation, a deep and profound conversation filled with much sorrow and pain, it became clear what the decision had to be. It was decided that, in order to maintain the solemnity, reverence and beauty of the Mass, we needed to have another celebrant."

A Homily about Obedience and Suffering

Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, gave a thoughtful, moving homily which focused on how our sufferings in this world can be made meaningful, and so bearable, if we unite them with the sufferings of Christ.

A Passing Phase?

It is right that the controversy over the celebrant, Cardinal Castrillon vs. Bishop Slattery, did not "up-stage" what was happening at this Mass.

For, in addition to the sacred mystery of the Mass itself (which was the most important thing of all, of course), something else was occurring on April 24 in Washington of considerable importance -- of importance for the future of the Church, and so also of importance for the future of the West.

That "something" is this: the interest in this Mass -- which was televised nationwide by EWTN (photo) -- reveals that, in the West, in the United States, and precisely in Washington DC, the capital of the US, despite a generation or more of "post-Christian" cultural pressure, there remains a desire, a hunger, to be connected with the Christian past, and to hand on to posterity what was handed down over the centuries, often in the face of much suffering.

In short, the celebration of this Mass, after 40 years, and in the midst of an admittedly profound crisis in the Church, suggests that American Catholics, like their counterparts in Europe and around the world, may yet turn to the riches and treasures of their tradition to find a way forward.

And this will not be pure archaism. It will not reflect a flight from present reality. Nor will it be a rejection tout court of everything that came with the Second Vatican Council.

Rather, it will be an attempt to pick up the threads of our past, and see if they may still be woven into the fabric of our present, in order to create the tapestry of our future. It is our future that it looks toward -- not just our past.

Having just been in Rome, having been present three weeks ago at the papal liturgies during Holy Week, having talked recently with a number of Vatican officials about liturgical matters, and about the Second Vatican Council and its legacy, for me this liturgy reflected what Pope Benedict is trying ceaselessly to teach: that the Catholic tradition has not been lost, that it remains to be discovered, and lived.

How this will all work out, of course, is yet to be seen. At least one Vatican official I talked to recently told me he believes the future of the Church's liturgical life will be a type of fusion between the old Mass and the new Mass of Paul VI.

This is the view of many. But at least one Vatican official I talked to, also in the past month, told me he believes the future is solely and exclusively in a return to the old rite.

"The old rite is our past, and it will be our future," he told me. "The new Mass is a passing phase. In 50 years, that will be entirely clear."

"Lex orandi, lex credendi"

In this context, we must recall the words "lex orandi, lex credendi." That is, literally, "the law of praying is the law of believing."

To put it less literally: the way one prays, the way the Church prays, shapes and determines and establishes what a person, what the Church, believes. Praying "becomes" believing. And this is the fundamental reason that liturgy matters. Some readers may feel the liturgy is a superficial matter, that time spent discussing or arguing or debating about the liturgy is wasted time, time that could be better spent in study, or prayer, or works of mercy and charity.

But the liturgy is not a superficial matter. It is a fundamental matter. It is fundamental because it determines and establishes the faith itself: lex orandi, lex credendi. And this means that, for those who wish to change faith, or alter it, or destroy it, changing the liturgy is the first, essential step. Likewise, for those who wish to keep the faith, and hand it on, and preserve it, preserving the liturgy is the first and fundamental aim of all their efforts.

Pope Benedict has written: "The Church stands and falls with the Liturgy. When the adoration of the divine Trinity declines, when the faith no longer appears in its fullness in the Liturgy of the Church, when man’s words, his thoughts, his intentions are suffocating him, then faith will have lost the place where it is expressed and where it dwells. For that reason, the true celebration of the Sacred Liturgy is the center of any renewal of the Church whatsoever.”

And so Pope Benedict has been a Pope of liturgical reform, or of liturgical preservation, because he believes that only through the liturgy, through the prayer of the Church, can the Church's faith, that depositum fidei which was entrusted to him, be protected and handed on to his successor.

Lex orandi, lex credendi. In the Early Church there were about 70 years of liturgical tradition before there was any creed -- any formulated statement of what the Church believed -- and about 350 years before there was an accepted biblical canon. The Church's prayer, her liturgy, provided the basis for establishing the other bases of the faith, the creeds and the canon.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles -- whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi." Now, this is not to say that the new rite of the Roman Mass, promulgated by Paul VI after the Council, does not draw on very early Christian traditions and prayers.

Nor is it to say that there was no need for some type of liturgical reform in the middle of the last century. In fact, there can always be a certain need for liturgical reform, especially when social and cultural conditions external to the Church (like, for example, the loss of knowledge of the Latin language), make it necessary to change the form or praying in order to preserve the very essence of that prayer.

And this is what the Council Fathers were calling for in the 1960s when they asked for wider use of the vernacular language in the Latin liturgy -- the mystery of the liturgy does not need to be mystification, incomprehensible and impenetrable. (The liturgy can be comprehensible. It can be in English, or in Japanese, or in Swahili...)

And this is why, again, the Council Fathers called for greater "active participation" by the faithful in the liturgical action -- because they wished the faithful to be drawn more deeply the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice, not to be excluded from it.

And so the liturgy is of central importance to Benedict, and to the Vatican, today. He and his inner circle see the liturgy as critical to the future of Roman Catholicism. But not only to Roman Catholicism. There is another reason for Benedict's focus on the liturgy.

The Orthodox Connection

It is well known that the Orthodox, in a profound way, share Benedict's conviction that the liturgy is fundamental for faith, and so also for practice of the faith.

For example, Eastern Orthodoxy's Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople quoted the phrase "lex orandi, lex credendi" in Latin on the occasion of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Istanbul in 2006, drawing from the phrase the lesson that, "in liturgy, we are reminded of the need to reach unity in faith as well as in prayer."

I believe that Pope Benedict's approval, a few months after that November 2006 visit, on July 7, 2007, of wider use of the old Latin Mass in the Latin rite, was intended to help prepare the reunion of the two great divided branches of Christianity, Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

The path toward this reunion must pass, in some essential way, through the liturgy. Through a shared liturgy.

The liturgies of the two Churches must express the same faith if the Churches are ever to be once again in unity -- something Christ willed for his disciples in his prayer on the final night with them before his crucifixion.

Robert Moynihan PhD writes at Inside the Vatican. He will lecture at Georgetown University on April 28, 2010.



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