The Latin Mass & A Narrative of War

As a high school religious studies teacher, I began my unit on ritual and liturgy each year with an activity asking students why they think people go to church. From the discussion, I would create three rough categories: Community, Spirituality and eventually one of the tough kids in the back would grumble, ‘I go to church because my parents say so.’ ‘Perfect,’ I’d say. ‘Category three – Authority.’ Students then worked in groups to list examples of rituals or symbols that create the experience of community, spirituality or authority. Last year after the groups had shared their lists, one student raised her hand and asked: “What’s the deal with some Catholic churches going back to Latin? What experience are they trying to give?” The general conclusion of the students was nostalgia. Nostalgia for the church and its authority for an older generation that feels change has happened too quickly. I decided to answer my student’s question more thoroughly, and test our conclusion.

This fall I observed and interviewed parishioners at the only parish in the archdiocese to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass. What I found most surprising was that there were also a large number of young men that our hypothesis could not explain. (The same phenomenon has been recorded nationwide.[1]) Although unforeseen barriers ended my research, this article briefly explores the initial responses of male research participants and their similarities to violent religious groups.

In 1962, the Second Vatican Council set in motion a mandate for reform that quickly led to replacing Latin with vernacular languages. In the minds of some Catholics, these changes represented decentralization of Roman authority in the modern secularized world. Pope John Paul II seemed to echo this sentiment in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, when he characterized the modern world as a “veritable culture of death that has unleashed a conspiracy against life.”[2] Many Catholics who agree have picked up this banner of culture war and view the reforms of the Second Vatican Council as a weakening of the strength of the Church to wage itWhen the legitimacy of an institution like the Catholic Church is weakened, members experience it not only as a political problem but a threat to personal identity and agency.[3] In his book, Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer argues this perceived failure of trusted institutions and its corresponding sense of personal power loss in young men can lead to justified violence when it is also combined with a language of war.[4] Jurgensmeyer’s interviews with known militant and violent religious groups reveal ‘culture war’ rhetoric similar to that of John Paul II and some Traditional Catholics.[5]  In this case, the liturgy has become the battlefield of this culture war because the Catholic liturgy is the source and summit “from which the Church’s power flows.”[6]

In stark contrast to the participatory Liturgy of Vatican II, the Traditional Latin Mass overtly reorients its ‘participants’ to a powerful institution that mediates divine power – a power the laity concede they cannot handle. As soon as parishioners enter the ritual, they consent to this division of labor. How can you argue with Latin? The Traditional Latin Mass resolves the perceived failure of the Church and personal uncertainty by orienting its participants to accepting the authority of the ritual leaders in the liturgy and in the world. Further, in the minds of the young men I spoke with, each celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass represented an act of resistance and superiority against the elements of the Church that have gone awry. My research ended early due to this resistance.

After three weeks of no responses to my phone calls or emails, I introduced myself to the Pastor. He nodded recognition as I introduced myself:  “I am researching the revitalization of the Latin Mass. I also went to seminary.  I have a background and interest in liturgical theology. I would love to speak with you about your liturgy here.” He looked me up and down with a nervous look. Said, ‘no.’ And walked away. Strike one. Fortunately, on a follow-up visit I recognized some of the choir members from my retreat work. The pastor observed from a distance as I spoke with these young men, and scheduled more formal interviews. That week all the participants backed out. Strike two. I decided to try again with the pastor.  The following Sunday the pastor invoked a common theme in his homilies – battle imagery. At one point he shouted: “One faithful person is more important than the whole world! Satan will not rest until he possesses the entire world.  So avoid representatives coming from colleges, universities and even seminaries and their false teachings.”  Strike three. I was not sure what upset me more – that he had associated me with Satan or that my research was over.

Juregensmeyer argues that the attitude that accompanies the language of warfare, even a ‘culture war’, implies that the speaker no longer thinks peace is possible or never wanted a peaceful solution to the conflict to begin with[8]. As I experienced, Juergensmeyers refers to this transforming enemies into objects for destruction as, “Satanization.”[7] Futher, Juergensmeyer’s case studies identify an incremental process that continues to set the stage for religious violence and empowers young males as warriors in that battle. The process escalates with choosing a symbolic location where action can re-claim power. The Liturgy appears to be this symbolic battlefield and a performative act of violence itself for some young men.

To be very clear, this young pastor and small group of young men have not hurt anyone, besides the feelings of one researcher. However, the men I spoke with, and were able to survey, described their attraction to the Latin Mass in superior and aggressive terms – thereby claiming the efficacy of liturgy as their own in a symbolic and physical way due to the very nature of ritual. The central theological and catechetical significance of liturgy in the eyes of the Catholic Church can be summed up in the Latin expression, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The way one prays determines what one believes. The popular trend of young men attending the Traditional Latin Mass should not be dismissed as a fad or applauded as evidence by either traditionalist or progressive agendas, but seen as a phenomenon to study further.  If this is how these young men are praying, it will determine what they believe.

[1] See Manson, J. (2011) Anthony Ruff: The Accidental Activist. The National Catholic Register. Oct 19th. America, 2013; NY Times, 2007; Real Clear Religion, 2013

[2] Evangelium Vitae 1995)

[3] Bourdieu, P. .1977. “Structures, Habitus, Power: Basis for a Theory of Symbolic Power” In Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 159-197.

[4] Juergensmeyer, M. (2000). Terror in The Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

[5] Ibid. pgs147,175

[6] Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) n. 10

[7] Juergensmeyer, M. (2000). Terror in The Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

[8] Ibid. pg.149

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