What’s Behind the Fight Between Pope Francis and the Latin Mass Movement?

On January 15, 2022, the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, celebrated Mass at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, at Mott and Prince Streets, in Manhattan. The cathedral, erected in 1815, is the predecessor to the present cathedral on Fifth Avenue, and it puts in mind the Catholicism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Irish, German, Italian, and Polish immigrants settled in great numbers in New York City. The Mass itself also called Catholic history to mind: it was the “Mass for the Americas,” a work for choir and orchestra commissioned by Archbishop Cordileone and incorporating texts in English, Spanish, Latin, and Nahuatl—the Indigenous language spoken by Juan Diego, whose visions of the Virgin Mary in Guadalupe, in 1531, figure into the foundation story of Catholicism in Mexico.

Cordileone, clean-shaven, wearing a white cassock edged with lace, offered the Eucharistic prayers in Latin while facing away from the congregation, as priests did prior to the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965. In doing so, he took a stand in an unlikely pair of controversies. By facing the altar, he affirmed the prerogatives of a movement of Catholics devoted to the Latin Mass—a movement that has met resistance at the Vatican under Pope Francis. Cordileone, who was unvaccinated and did not wear a mask, was also defying a COVID-19 city ordinance compelling venues hosting public gatherings to require masks or proof of vaccination.

Since then, the controversies have hardened into direct conflict. The Traditional Latin Mass, long a source of sustenance for Catholics leery of the reforms of Vatican II, is now a focal point for Catholics who disdain Pope Francis. The death, in December, of Benedict XVI, the Pope emeritus, left Catholic traditionalists without a champion in Rome. Benedict’s views on the Mass were complex, but his preference for Baroque vestments (red slippers, a gold-threaded cope) had made him a figurehead for old-school Catholicism; his long efforts to close a breach between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X—a cadre of Latin-reciting priests whose leaders were excommunicated in 1988—had emboldened the T.L.M. movement, and a directive he issued in 2007 had quickened the movement’s spread. Then, in early February, the publication of a leaked report from an F.B.I. branch office declaring that Latin Mass enclaves in Virginia harbored antisemites and members of the “far-right white nationalist movement” led traditionalists to claim that a religion-averse deep state was targeting them, and the Bureau’s retraction of the report soon afterward (it did “not meet the exacting standards of the F.B.I.,” the Bureau said in a statement) only sharpened their sense of themselves as a persecuted minority.

Above all, a pair of terse “instructions” issued by Francis have stirred opposition. In July, 2021, the Pope required priests who wish to celebrate the old Mass to seek permission from their bishops, compelled the bishops to get clearance from the Vatican (which Benedict’s directive did not do), and forbade bishops to authorize the founding of Latin Mass groups in individual dioceses, which would serve to build up the movement as an alternative form of weekly worship. In February, he reiterated that position. The instructions were meant to tamp down the T.L.M. movement lest it deepen, as Francis put it, “the peril of division” in the Church. But, by requiring a bishop’s permission, they gave fresh authority to the bishops who cherish T.L.M.—such as Cordileone and Michael F. Burbidge, in Arlington, Virginia—and prompted Latin Mass enthusiasts to decry a Vatican crackdown on true believers. They also undermined the image of Francis as a “pastoral” Pope who urges Catholics to go “to the margins” and uses a personal touch to bridge the gaps between doctrine and practice, and they drew the expressly forward-looking Pope deeper into a sustained conflict about the status of the Catholic past.

On the surface, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. Latin Mass adherents are a tiny minority of practicing Catholics, and most Church traditionalists—bishops, priests, and laypeople alike—are content to take part in Masses offered in the language they speak in everyday life. (In the Archdiocese of New York, Mass is offered in more than a dozen languages.) But the T.L.M. conflict has become a stand-in for other conflicts: over the decline in Catholics’ participation in Mass and the quality of the liturgy; over the outward-facing, progressive orientation of Francis’s pontificate; and over Vatican II itself, which traditionalists see not as a thoroughgoing reform but as something between a modest course correction and a betrayal of the Church’s patrimony.

For many centuries, especially after the Council of Trent concluded in 1563, the Latin Mass, celebrated according to strict rubrics under the supervision of Rome, was the main thing that all Catholics had in common, and a sign of their difference in the eyes of the wider world. During the suppression of Roman Catholicism under Queen Elizabeth I, Jesuits in England celebrated Latin Mass in secret—and some who were caught were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Charles Dickens, in “Pictures from Italy,” describes arriving in Modena on a Sunday in 1844 and stepping “into a dim cathedral, where High Mass was performing, feeble tapers were burning, people were kneeling in all directions before all manner of shrines, and officiating priests were crooning the usual chant, in the usual low, dull, drawling, melancholy tone.” In Graham Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter,” Henry Scobie, at Mass with his wife while carrying on an affair with a younger woman, wonders whether he is damned: “Hoc est enim Corpus: the bell rang, and Father Rank raised God in his fingers—this God as light now as a wafer whose coming lay on Scobie’s heart as heavily as lead.” In “The Godfather,” the grisly murders of various dons are intercut with scenes from a baptism during a Latin Mass. The lyrics that Bono sang in U2’s breakthrough video “Gloria”—“Gloria, in te domine / Gloria, exultate”—echo the Latin Mass, and countless other baby-boom Catholics have characterized regular immersion in the old Latin rite as the formative experience of their childhood. “Dominus vobiscum. Et cum spiritu tuo,” Anna Quindlen wrote in the Times, in 1986. “These are my bona fides: a word, a phrase, a sentence in a language no one speaks anymore.”

By then, the Latin Mass was twenty years out of use. The vast renewal of Catholic life and practice brought about through the Second Vatican Council began with the reform of the liturgy, building on several decades of efforts inspired by historical research or trends in the arts. Moving the altar away from the far wall; turning the priest to face the people; shifting the proceedings from Latin to the vernacular (a Latinate word for the everyday language of a people or region); enjoining people to recite the prayers themselves, rather than just listen to the priest murmur Latin words they barely understood—all these reforms were meant to elicit a “full and active participation” in the liturgy. The new approach began to be instituted in 1965. Plenty of people complained. A 1969 papal document—with the Latin title “Novus Ordo”—reaffirmed the changes. A sense of grievance became a sense of loss, which Garry Wills described in his book “Bare Ruined Choirs” (1972): “Even the Mass, the central and most stable shared act of the church, had become unrecognizable to many—a thing of guitars instead of the organ, of English instead of Latin, of youth-culture fads instead of ancient rites.” The essayist Richard Rodriguez, a decade later, observed: “No longer is the congregation moved to a contemplation of the timeless. Rather, it is the idiomatic one hears. One’s focus is upon this place. This time. The moment. Now.”

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