My discovery of the Traditional Latin Mass, now known in the wake of Summorum Pontificum as the “extraordinary rite,” was a slow but logical process rooted in a lifelong desire for a liturgy that was sensible, sacramental, and enhanced by the trappings of orthodoxy.
The journey began in a small, rural parish in Pennsylvania attended largely by converts and accompanied by folk music. It deepened through my involvement with a religious congregation that augmented their spiritual life with Gregorian chant, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and an approach to contemporary liturgy that was somber and reverent. In college, I flirted with the Byzantine rite, finding the ad orientem posture of the priest refreshing, the incense welcome, the deeply scriptural sense of ritual satisfying.
During our engagement and the early years of marriage, my wife and I were drawn to a parish that celebrated the novus ordo in a more traditional way, employing the use of Latin, incense, ad orientem, polyphony, and chant. Our wedding Mass was celebrated in this manner as well. But it wasn’t until we moved to Arizona in 2004 that we finally made the commitment to the classical rite, with an indult granted to St. Thomas Apostle parish in Phoenix by Bishop Thomas Olmsted.
My first exposures left me feeling disinterested and confused. Raised completely within the novus ordo, I found the older form inaccessible and foreign. But after I grew in my understanding of liturgy, what was once impenetrable became desirable, appealing, and remarkably comfortable. My wife — who had never professed a specific religious faith prior to her conversion to Catholicism — was even more drawn to it than I was.
The first two years we spent with the ancient and venerable liturgy were like a honeymoon. Babies were born and baptized according to the older form. We dove into our missals and learned to appreciate and understand the beauty of the Mass that was familiar to so many of the Church’s beloved saints. I undertook a spirited defense of my newfound love for traditional liturgy both online and in gatherings of family and friends.
We eventually moved back to Northern Virginia in 2006 and began attending Mass at St. Mary, Mother of God, in downtown Washington, D.C. As our adorable infants grew older and louder, however, I spent less and less time with my missal in prayer and more time in the narthex of the Church in some sort of parent-child version of a cage match.
For many young parents who have discovered tradition, this is where the love affair breaks down. Not a few of us already have to drive long distances to get to an extraordinary rite Mass. Add to that a couple of screaming toddlers, an older parish without a cry room, an usher that gives you the evil eye when your child makes a noise before you can mete out swift parental justice, and the added length of the liturgy itself, and suddenly the silence and solemnity that was so appealing to your deepest Catholic sensibilities becomes an obstacle to being spiritually nourished by Mass at all.
Too many Sundays as I’m showing up ten minutes late after a break-neck drive from 30 miles away, I find myself muttering, “I don’t care. Why do I do this?” Too often after spending an hour-and-a-half on our feet with children who want to bang on radiators, make multiple trips to the bathroom, and smack us in the eyes with their flailing hands and juice cups, we’re tempted to skip out early and ditch the last Gospel or the prayers after low Mass — things we used to find significant and even beautiful. Not having grown up with the old Mass, it has yet to become second nature to me. Without being able to really pay attention, I can easily get lost and feel displaced, and that leads to a lot of frustration, Sunday after Sunday.
In these moments I consider the alternatives — go back to the novus ordo or don’t go to Mass at all. Obviously, the second choice is tempting to parents engaged in an epic test of endurance with their offspring, but not acceptable for a Catholic. The first choice, on the other hand, is something my wife and I simply find distasteful. I’ve spent a very small proportion of my life as a traditional Catholic, and an even smaller fraction of that time fully able to take advantage of the beauty of the ancient liturgy. And yet this has been among the most spiritually enriching periods of my life. There are times when my frustrations obscure that fact, but I’m never divorced from it. Everything I love about the traditional Mass is what will inevitably keep me from leaving it, despite my difficulties.
I grew tired some time ago of the debates over the validity of the novus ordo. The Holy Father has maintained it as the “ordinary form” of the Church, and I won’t presume to know better. What I do know, however, is the power of the older form; I may not be able to see or hear as much of the sacred mystery as I could when attending a novus ordo, but I take consolation in knowing that the priest is fulfilling his role on my behalf, as God intended him to do. I don’t need to see the flight deck to trust that the pilot can fly me safely to my destination, and I don’t need to be aware of every gesture at the altar to know that the priest’s offering is effecting my salvation.
As my cousin, a priest, once told me: “It’s a mystery — if you know everything that’s going on, something is wrong.”