Following Jesus as a traditional Roman Catholic
There is an ancient maxim, “Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.” Loosely translated, this means, The law of praying is the law of believing is the law of living. While this captures a universal truth, it has become a motto of significance for traditionally minded Roman Catholics. Our family has been attending the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) for almost 3 years, and it has propelled us into a radically new place of belief and practice, one we had perhaps not dared to hope for. I humbly offer here just a bit of what it means to follow Jesus as traditional Roman Catholics.
When our family converted to Catholicism in 2010, we had worked our way through a gamut of Protestant traditions, moving steadily toward more liturgy as we went. We experienced everything from home Bible churches to mainline denominations. We finally settled at an Episcopalian church which embraced rather high Anglican sensibilities about worship. We received the Eucharist kneeling, sang from the beautiful English hymnody, and enjoyed a rich sense of the liturgical year as it moved through seasons of feasting and fasting.
When one comes from a ‘high church’ context, it can be jarring to convert to Catholicism. It was the theology of the Eucharist and the sacraments that drew us to Rome. Reading and study and prayer confirmed for us that God was drawing us to the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, our visits to many average Catholic parishes often had us shaking in our boots. The Masses felt ‘hokey’ and at times irreverent. The music was abysmal, and while it was not impossible to find priests who could preach a good homily, these visits often smacked a little too much of campfire singalongs for our Anglican palettes. While we had made an intellectual and theological leap of faith toward the tradition that would give us the Transubstantiated Body of Christ, it felt like moving to the desert. It was belief in the sacraments that fed us, along with spiritual reading and the scaffolding of Catholic piety. We found a Cathedral parish where the Masses ‘weren’t that bad’ and hunkered down.
While we had no doubts about our choice to convert, and while we were growing in our Catholic faith, there was a lingering empty feeling around our actual experience of worship at Mass. The otherworldly notes that ring out in the human heart when a truly transcendent kind of worship takes place were far and few between. The ‘summer of shame’ in 2018 brought a new toxicity to what it meant to be Catholic in the United States, with the news of the sex scandals involving then Cardinal McCarrick and his cronies across the U.S. Our hearts were broken. We certainly believe that the Church can be chastised by God, and that some remnant of the faithful are called to repent and do penance for a wayward bride of Christ (see the old Testament for plenty of examples…Oh Israel!), but we also feared that like so many families around us, we would fail to keep our children in the Church. We were engaged in a fierce battle against the culture with our dear Catholic friends, but this battle wasn’t truly led by our Catholic priests and bishops.
As laypeople we homeschooled, we prayed together, and we dug into the faith with our kids and our friends, keeping time with the year the Church lays out. We aimed to rebuild authentic Catholic culture centered on Christ and the good life He offers. And indeed we did this! The domestic church we kept in our home, along with our likeminded friends, yielded a robust Catholic life full of fireside singing, delicious homemade meals shared with friends on feast days, dancing, storytelling, games, and resurrecting old world Catholic traditions. But sadly, this countercultural push to follow Jesus fizzled at Sunday Mass. We met our Lord there in the bread and wine made Flesh and Blood, but our offering of worship never felt quite worthy of our King and our God. What we believed theologically and lived ‘on the ground’ with our community versus what happened at Sunday Mass did not keep stride. In our weakness, we complained. We longed for more. We grumbled and lamented about the state of things. Then, almost on a whim, we visited a new Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) parish dedicated to celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass. And everything changed.
In a technical sense, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that what happens on the altar at the Novus Ordo Mass (the ‘new order of the Mass’ instituted after Vatican II around 1970 worldwide) is the same thing as what happens on the altar at the Traditional Latin Mass (which endured essentially as-is since circa A.D. 600, with many elements dating to the 1st century). All faithful Catholics assert that what happens at Mass is the unbloody re-presentation of Christ’s Sacrifice at Calvary. The priest is there in persona Christi, or as a stand-in for the one true priest, Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man. He offers the bread and the wine, each in turn, to show the separation of body from blood on the cross which resulted in Christ’s death. When the priest says the words Christ spoke at the Last Supper, that bread and wine becomes Christ as perfect victim, offered for your sins and for mine in the mystery of the Eucharist. It happens here on earth at every Mass, at a given place and time, but when it happens we step ‘outside of time’ and enter once again mystically into the perfect sacrifice at Calvary.
Catholics assert that true religion needs sacrifice. Sacrifice must involve gifts offered to God which are then destroyed, and consumed. In the same way that so many aspects of Jewish faith are brought to a fulfillment and a completion in Christ, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a new and perfect form of the sacrifice the Jewish people had been offering to God for eons. The whole point of Mass for Catholics is what happens at this moment on the altar. The music can be great. The sermon can be helpful. But this sacrifice is why we show up. This sacrifice is the praxis of our religion.
While our family understood (if imperfectly!) this theology of the Mass, attending the TLM answered our longing for a fitting form for our worship. This sigh of relief, however, was merely the beginning of a true transformation of our faith. When the lex Orandi changed for us in the TLM, the lex Credendi followed, just as the maxim describes. Without expecting it, we were drawn deeper into the wonder and mystery of the Eucharist and of following Jesus.
It would take another whole essay to describe the differences between the post Vatican II Mass and the Mass of ages, but let me skim the surface. In the TLM the priest spends the vast majority of the Mass facing the altar, with his back to the people. He is at the head of the congregation, and we are all facing God. The priest’s personality essentially disappears in this Mass, allowing the in persona Christi aspect of his role to emerge. The new Mass, with the priest behind the altar table facing the people, invites a kind of showmanship, with the priest highly aware of his ‘command of the crowd,’ using voice and eye contact as features of the Mass, and creating a closed loop focused more on the horizontal experience of faith in a community than on the vertical experience of worshipping God on high.
The TLM is brimming with silence. While the new Mass follows a ‘call and response’ format where the priest says essentially everything out loud and the congregation joins in or responds, there are many places in the TLM where the priest is praying quietly, only to God. The congregation can follow along in missals, but the silence invites a meditative prayer hard to find at the new Mass, where we learn to unite our own sacrifices to Christ’s on the altar. The TLM uses primarily Gregorian chant. This other-worldly music was created for worship and draws the heart and mind up to God in a way that impoverished Catholic worship tunes just…cannot. The TLM offers confession throughout the Mass, and the faithful avail themselves of this sacrament frequently. As we approach Communion, we want to be forgiven and prepared to receive our Lord. Desperately aware of our need for grace, we pray at each Mass (as the Centurion did), “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” We only receive our Lord kneeling in humility, and on the tongue. Only the consecrated hands of the priest feed Him to us, taking such reverent care not to drop a single crumb, as each crumb is the whole of the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Lord.
Before we found the Traditional Latin Mass, our experience of following Jesus was, in a sense, upside down. Now, our experience of Christ flows out from the Mass. The Mass itself, in its structure, its music, its gestures, its engagement of all the human senses, continually teaches us about Jesus Christ and his Church. We meet Him there. The Eucharist, the centerpiece of the Mass, and the source and summit of our faith, shines more brilliantly for us than it ever did, illuminating our efforts to follow Jesus.
Thank you for your thoughtful and informative September 1 posting. I especially appreciated reading about the contours of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) in which you and your family now participate; a celebration of the Mass that does not feel “hokey and at times irreverent.”
However, I did notice an omission in your posting that will lead me to ask a few questions. You make no direct reference in your posting to what I take to be a major strength of the Catholic tradition; it’s well articulated social ethic, which includes a “preferential option for the poor” (As written about so eloquently in the Catechism of the Catholic Church). Is there a reason for that omission, other than space limitations? Is it possible that there is only a segment of the Catholic community, maybe not including those who participate in the TLM, that views the amelioration of social ills as integral to following Jesus? And, finally, if you and your family are committed to living out a social ethic, how do you put that into practice?
It would be very helpful if you could respond to these questions before the other eleven CPs respond on September 15 to your September 1 posting.
With thanks for your consideration, Harold
(From Matthew 25). 44 Then they also shall answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to thee?
45 Then he shall answer them, saying: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me.
46 And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting.
The question you ask, Harold, is certainly a fair one. My response may be surprising to you in some ways. I will begin by agreeing that historically, both worldwide and here in the United States, Catholics have a strong track record when it comes to articulating a social ethic and acting accordingly. A glance back to the early part of the 20th century probably gives the most robust look at a panoply of support across our nation for the poor, the sick, the uneducated, and the under-served (prisoners, immigrants, those with impairments etc.) in the form of Catholic hospitals, schools, orphanages and local programming of every shape and size. This effort on behalf of the Church is rooted in the non-negotiable belief that each and every living person from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death is infused with a dignity that comes directly from God. When we serve people, we serve our Lord Himself, as we read in Matthew 25. Nothing like poverty, age, race, lack of success, addiction, or impairments of any kind can rob an individual of this dignity. Perhaps most powerfully motivating, our very salvation is mysteriously tied up in our service to the least of these (Mt 25: 45-46). This attitude is certainly built-in to ‘following Jesus as a Roman Catholic,’ and practicing Catholics of all stripes (Novus Ordo & TLM) *must* subscribe to this belief as it is laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Let me also, however, offer a critique of the current state of things as well. That most robust version of the Church serving the under-served looked vastly different than it does today. First and foremost, much of the service and support I mentioned was provided by an amazing number of religious orders of nuns, brothers, and priests whose service was literally their life’s work. While lay people often partnered with these orders in their missions to serve, the heart of the work was rooted in the spirituality of the orders who led the charge. This spirituality, undoubtedly, was an outpouring of the charity and grace that flows through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist at Mass.
After Vatican II, and after the institution of the Novus Ordo Mass, we see a dramatically different picture of the way the Roman Catholic Church serves the world. The stats are grim on so many levels. The numbers of working orders of nuns, priests and brothers has, to put it bluntly, tanked. These orders in many cases shed their orthodoxy along with the various religious habits they wore to make their presence known in the world. Interestingly, as the life they led became less visibly ‘set apart,’ the numbers of young men and women interested in joining dropped off significantly. A few numbers to illustrate:
# of religious sisters in 1970: 160,931
in 2020: 41,357.
# of religious brothers in 1970: 11,623
in 2020: 3,801,
# of religious and diocesan priests in 1970: 59,192
in 2020: 34,961.
(Stats from https://cara.georgetown.edu/frequently-requested-church-statistics/)
In 2021, not only are there far fewer Catholic hospitals, schools, orphanages, and programs in general, but those that do exist are increasingly run as corporations, usually by lay people, and often accepting all manner of government subsidies, along with the bureaucracy and compromises that come with it. Often they look indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. Of course there are a few notable exceptions, but these are in stark contrast to the norm. While the entities that remain have kept their Catholic ‘branding,’ there are now many degrees of separation between their service to the under-served and a spirituality that flows directly from the Mass.
I would say that the TLM fosters a return to a ‘boots on the ground’ approach to loving our neighbors, especially those that most need our help. Certainly at the parish level there are ample opportunities to feed and clothe the homeless nearby, write to prisoners, visit shut-ins and support our local crisis pregnancy centers to support mothers who choose life instead of abortion. Our priests walk the neighborhood in their full length black cassocks (they don’t ever wear ‘street clothes’) and invite all manner of conversation with the people they meet. But they also make clear to us that one of the most powerful ways married parishioners can serve the world is to raise devout children who may be willing to give their lives to God someday as nuns, religious brothers, or priests. Certainly we also need to raise devout children who will grow to be laypeople who will partner with religious to revive the Church’s ministry to the underserved, on the Church’s terms. This will surely look small-scale, but aren’t the best things often that way? The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
I will end by saying that the spirituality of the Catholic Church before Vatican II was less concerned with *ending* things like sickness and poverty. Our Lord told us that the poor would always be with us. Instead, the Church’s primary mission was to lift up human dignity wherever it was left alone or unwell or suffering. It was to come alongside and to abide with those who suffer, and with our Lord! The Church saw that work as an intimate opportunity to serve Him, and to learn to see His face in the ones we help. The Roman Catholic Church’s once impressive track record of service to a broken world is tarnished, to say the least. While our post-modern culture is always tempted to create more ‘programming’ to try to fix the various ills of the world, I believe that the return to a devout practice of our faith is what is truly needed. We must meet him in the Eucharist first, and our service must overflow from that fount of life if it is to do any good.