Heterodoxy and Orthodoxy: Latin Mass Lives in Liberal Southern California

At 12:30 p.m. every Sunday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in the coastal Orange County town of Costa Mesa, California, first-time Mass attendees may think they've stepped back in time.

Some women in the pews are wearing lace chapel veils or scarves on their heads; the priest, deacons and altar boys (no girls) wouldn't look out of place at the Vatican (with no sneakers or flip-flops peeking out under the robes); there's incense in the air; and the liturgy is sung or spoken entirely in Latin. (You do have a missal with a side-by-side translation in English, with illustrations to follow along, and the homily is in English.)

There is also a conspicuous absence of contemporary Christian ditties (although the occasional traditional English language hymn sneaks in), hand-holding, or people standing in a pose that resembles the Bird Girl statue from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Clapping, beach-appropriate clothing, liturgical dance, or any "innovation" in the mass not approved by a pope are absent, as well.

The parish is run by the priests of the white-robed Norbertine Fathers, a religious order of preachers, headquartered locally at St. Michael's Abbey in Silverado, in the Santa Ana Mountains in eastern Orange County.

They arere the spiritual descendants of the early fathers of the Church in California.

Starting in the mid-1700s, Franciscan missionaries from Spain--most famously Father Junipero Serra (whose native language was not Spanish, but Catalan)--had a huge effect on what would one day become California. They established missions, built churches with settlements around them, baptized the natives, and ensured that cities, counties, valleys, and mountain ranges across the region would bear the Spanish form of names of Catholic saints: San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Clara, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Gabriel, San Joaquin, Santa Ana, and so on.

California's capital is Sacramento (Spanish for Most Holy Sacrament, another name for the Eucharist), and Los Angeles was founded as El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles, or The Town of Our Lady Queen of Angels--a reference to the Virgin Mary.

As much as the liberal elites of the state would love to expunge or conceal California's deep Catholic roots, it's an effort doomed to failure by geography, if nothing else. But that doesn't mean that a lot of damage can't be done in the effort--and sometimes that damage comes from within.

In the years since Vatican II, the often misguided and misdirected implementation of its directives, especially under the leadership of such liberal California clergy as Cardinal Roger Mahony, disgraced former head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles--with the enthusiastic participation of parishioners eager to express themselves or assert some authority, even in areas where they have none--have succeeded in watering down and deconstructing the faith in some parishes. This has been done to such a degree that Father Serra would probably hardly recognize it.

There's been a lot of heterodoxy in Californian Catholicism--meaning opinions and doctrines that do not agree with the official, or orthodox, position. If past is prologue, the Church here could be expected to stray further and further into the fuzzy, indistinct, spiritual-but-not-religious, New Agey mantra so popular among the glitterati of the Golden State.

But, maybe not.

While the doctrines and dogma of the Universal Church may be unalterable (despite what some people persist in believing), liturgical practices have changed and adapted throughout the two millennia of its existence. For example, the Eastern Rite of the Church, while doctrinally consistent with the Vatican and under the authority of the Pope, maintains its own styles of worship that, on first glance, more resemble an Orthodox Mass (in Greek or even Arabic, among other languages) than what goes on at the Latin Rite church down the block.

So on any given Sunday, Catholics in California may be worshiping in English, Spanish, French, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, Greek, Tagalog (the Filipino language), and so on (and there may be masses in two or three of the above languages, depending on the parish).

But once upon a time, the Universal Church had a universal language. First, it was Greek. Later, it changed to Latin, the lingua franca of Roman Empire.

While the current version of the mass, the Novus Ordo, introduced in the late '60s, can be said entirely in Latin, and, depending on the parish, may still contain Latin phrases (along with the "Kyrie," the last bit of Greek that remains an official part of the mass), it is allowed to be said in the vernacular, or the language of the people.

While that is helpful to those not conversant in Latin (which, these days, is nearly everyone), having masses in more than just Latin and one vernacular language does tend to segregate congregations, to the point where some parishioners who attend masses in different languages may seldom cross paths, even in the same parish.

Of course, as was evident with the recent issues with the Vatican's English translation of papal documents--and in the wake of the recent release of a revised English missal to bring it closer to the Latin original (and more faithful translations in the rest of the world)--linguistic drift, individual variances, and various other things can creep in from language to language.

People may wind up experiencing just a fraction of the Catholic whole, and, in a worst-case scenario, one that's been filtered through heterodox translators or clergy.

This is more like the self-segregation that occurs in Protestant and nondenominational Christian communities on Sunday, with people split among different theologies, practices, and cultural traditions. But it is anathema to the mission and purpose of the Universal Church.

Yet there exists a unifying practice in the worldwide Church today--the Tridentine Mass. It's not the oldest liturgical form in the Church, but its roots reach deep into Church history, theology, and tradition. Also called the Latin Mass, its other proper name is the Extraordinary Form (EF), as opposed to the Novus Ordo, which is now the Ordinary Form (OF).

So, at that 12:30 p.m. Tridentine Mass at St. John the Baptist, the Norbertine priest--usually the parochial vicar, young New Orleans native Father Claude Williams--celebrates mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal, authorized by Pope John XVIII.

No matter the nation of origin, ethnicity, or native language, everyone there is literally on the same page. And a surprising number of the multiethnic, multiracial congregation is made up of the young--either young adults on their own, couples, or families with small children.

This is part of a trend of college-age and young adults embracing the most traditional form of Catholic worship available to them. In 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI released Summorum Pontificum, which encouraged and set guidelines for re-introducing the Tridentine Mass to local parishes around the world, he cited the deep cultural ties, going back generations, that drew people to the earlier liturgy.

Now, as with any change looking forward or back, human nature guarantees controversy and pushback, as people loyal to the EF and the OF snipe across the church aisle at each other. But Benedict's goal was that the EF and the OF would exist together--with the OF as the dominant liturgy--so that all needs would be satisfied.

What Benedict may not have foreseen is that young people raised in the post-Vatican II "kumbaya" Church would feel strongly attracted to the formality, the dignity, and the beauty of the Tridentine Mass. (Click here and here for viewpoints on the rise of the "Latin Mass youth," and click here for an introduction to the practice.)

Twentysomething Catholic Kaiser Johnson, a Los Angeles-based actor who previously spoke to Breitbart about the sainthood campaign on behalf of writer G.K. Chesterton, says, "I love the beauty and the reverence of the Tridentine Mass. It's like they're 'built in.' I know what I'm getting when I go to one--no liturgical abuses or creative artistic liberties from renegade, liturgists or parishioners."

While he attends the OF, as well (both in English and Latin), and understands that an all-Latin liturgy, even if there is an English translation, is challenging, he says, "When my schedule's crazy, I make sure to get to mass, but it might be a different time of day, or even a different parish. But if there were a Tridentine Mass close by, it would definitely be my first choice every Sunday." 

He adds, "I just know I'm going to go to a beautiful, reverent mass with a lot of silence for reflection and not a lot of variables. There is great comfort and quiet for spiritual growth in being able to trust and relax into the form of the Tridentine."

Asked how he thinks Southern California Catholics would especially benefit from more parishes offering the Tridentine Mass as an alternative, he states, "I think you'd see a great revival of reverence in SoCal Catholics. There's a real casual, cultural Catholic feel in almost every single parish, because of a confluence of liberalism, cultural Catholicism separated from theology, poor catechesis, and a casual, secular motif in LA." Johnson states that "the Tridentine Mass shakes that up. Suddenly, it helps us remember we should have clothes that are our 'Sunday Best,' that we need to approach mass with reverence, and most importantly, that we go to mass to worship."

Click here for a guide to where the Tridentine Mass is offered at Catholic parishes (not schismatic communities that look Catholic but aren't in communion with the Church) around the country, and click here for a more California-centric look.


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