Taking the Widow’s Mite

"I just buried my husband two days ago, please don’t make me lose my parish."

Over at The Lamp, an anonymous writer—a layman in the Archdiocese of Washington—has written movingly about the possibility that Cardinal Wilton Gregory will abolish the Extraordinary Form in his diocese. A group of Latin Mass-goers gathered outside Cardinal Gregory’s “Synodal Listening Session.” According to The Lamp

Among others who intervened was the mother of seven small children whose husband had died that very week. She pleaded powerfully with the cardinal before the whole assembly: “I just buried my husband two days ago, please don’t make me lose my parish.”

That seems pretty straightforward, no? Well, apparently not. One Catholic pundit—a well-known critic of the traditionalist movement, who need not be named—corroborates The Lamp’s story, but says of our widow:

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The impression she thereby gave was that her reasons for wanting the traditional Latin Mass at her parish weren’t merely due to her fondness for that liturgy or her desire to attend it as part of a parish community. Rather, she seemed to be saying that she believed that the sacraments themselves, when celebrated in the traditional Latin rite, were objectively superior to those celebrated (however reverently) in the present liturgical books.

I’m sure you can spot why that’s a bad-faith reading. If not, let’s try a thought experiment. 

Say this widow attends not the Latin Mass but rather a happy-clappy Novus Ordo parish. Call it St. Francis of Assisi. And let’s say the Archdiocese is thinking about closing St. Francis because its membership is declining. There’s no question of the chancery’s motives. It’s a purely pragmatic decision, not an ideological one. They simply can’t afford to keep the doors open.

Now, say this widow went up to Cardinal Gregory and tearfully begged him not to close her parish. She and her husband married in St. Francis. They baptized their children at St. Francis. Their children were confirmed at St. Francis. Her husband was just buried in St. Francis’ churchyard. To close her parish would be one blow more than she could bear.

Why is this widow so attached to her parish? Well, we can assume it’s because she likes the circular nave, the pews that wind around the altar. She likes how Fr. Bob lets the sign of peace go on for ten minutes. She shares the music director’s penchant for Dan Schutte and Marty Haugen.  

You and I probably don’t share this woman’s liturgical sensibilities. But we can recognize her desire to go on worshiping in the manner to which she is accustomed. Her motives are perfectly innocent. She’s attached to a familiar building full of familiar people who have a familiar way of doing things. And, in a time of grief, she—like every other human being—clings even more desperately to the familiar.  

Now, imagine if a local Catholic “influencer” went on Twitter and said

The impression this widow gives is that her reasons for wanting St. Francis to remain open aren’t merely due to her fondness for its liturgy or her desire to attend it as part of a parish community. Rather, she seems to be saying that she believes that the sacraments themselves, when celebrated at St. Francis, are objectively superior to those celebrated at other parishes.

That’s clearly not the impression our widow gives. Any reasonable person can see that. If it’s the impression the pundit gets, it says more about the pundit than the widow. You would assume that she has some sort of grudge, either against the widow or against St. Francis.

Now, back to the real world. Apparently, the anti-trad pundit doesn’t know the widow personally, so the only explanation I can find for her bad-faith reading of the woman’s plea is that she has something against the Latin Mass.  

Is she deliberately twisting the widow’s words to advance her anti-traditionalist arguments? To say so would be uncharitable. The only charitable reading I can give is this: our pundit genuinely doesn’t see how anyone could possibly have any affection for the Latin Mass—except as a kind of revanchist, crypto-sedevacantist hatred of Vatican II and the Novus Ordo.  

Anyway, I’m grateful for the pundit’s intervention. It’s extremely revealing. It gives us a helpful glimpse into the “anti-traditionalist” mindset. It has nothing to do with “Church unity.” It’s not about the “moral harm” done by traditionalists’ “truly un-Catholic” worldview. At bottom, the reason folks don’t like the Latin Mass is just that: they don’t like the Latin Mass.  

It’s critical we understand this, for two reasons.

1.) Those of us who are attached to the Vetus Ordo cannot accept this line about how the efforts to suppress the Latin Mass are purely pastoral. “If only trads were a little nicer on Twitter,” they say, “we’d be happy to let your communities go on flourishing.  Alas, the Latin Mass has become a source of division rather than unity. Really, we’re doing what’s best for the widow by shutting down her parish!”  

We know that’s not true. And how do we know it? Because we’re constantly having our words twisted and our motives questioned by our fellow Catholics. We know they’re not engaging with us in good faith. We know they don’t really have our best interest at heart.

2.) Those of us who truly care about Church unity know that suppressing the Latin Mass will cause a deep rift in the Western Church. We know that, if the Extraordinary Form is abrogated, it will not be for any good reason. Traditionalists will feel like they’ve been wronged because that will be objectively true. Many will then begin to attend illicit Latin Masses. Others will become sedevacantists. Even those who obey the Vatican and begin attending the Novus Ordo will deeply resent the hierarchy—and not without good reason.  

Granted, traditionalists are a relatively small percentage of the Church, but there are still millions and millions of them. Does anyone really want to court a rupture at that scale? Does anyone really think that will put the social media trolls in their place?  

I pray that Cardinal Gregory spares our poor widow and that he lets the Latin Mass communities in his diocese continue to celebrate their rites in peace. I attended my first Latin Mass at Saint Mary, Mother of God in Chinatown as an undergrad. When I moved back to D.C. as an editor for the Catholic Herald, I was blessed to attend Old St. Mary’s every Sunday. A happier, gentler, more faithful group of Christians I have never met. Not once did I hear an unkind word spoken about any bishop—not even Cardinal Wuerl, and this was at the height of the McCarrick scandal.

I’m sure the priests and lay faithful would be devastated if they lost their spiritual home, as would all the members of D.C.’s Latin Mass communities. And I honestly can’t imagine why anyone would wish to orphan them. It’s unnecessary, unjust, uncharitable, and unchristian. 

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]

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