Reviving a Latin past

Posted: July 10, 2007

With their love of tradition and their formal dress code (no shorts even for children, and covered heads for women), the members of Mater Ecclesiae Church in Berlin Township can seem a tight-laced congregation of Roman Catholics.

But on Sunday they were ringing bells, popping corks and slicing cake, and - mirabile visu! - some were even smoking cigars.

Mirabile visu? Isn't that Latin?

Graceful, dignified, formal and obscure, Latin is the language of choice at Mater Ecclesiae, one of the only Catholic churches in the nation where all the liturgies are conducted according to the centuries-old Tridentine rite.

Its bells were ringing and corks popping after Sunday's Mass because Pope Benedict XVI had on Saturday issued a decree allowing freer use of the traditional Latin liturgy, which had all but withered away in recent decades.

"My good friends, we are living through and a part of a major, fundamental, awesome reaffirmation of the tradition of our faith," the Rev. Robert C. Pasley, rector of Mater Ecclesiae, told his congregation from the pulpit during Sunday's high Mass.

"I never thought I'd see the day."

Just how Benedict's decree, or motu proprio, might affect the availability of Tridentine-style liturgies in area dioceses remain to be seen.

While the "new order" Mass introduced in 1970 continues as the worldwide standard, Benedict's decree instructs pastors to willingly provide Latin liturgies if their parishes contain a "stable" number of parishioners "attached to the previous liturgical tradition."

Bishops are also "earnestly requested" to accommodate requests for the Latin rites, and told they may create special parishes or chapels (like Mater Ecclesiae) dedicated to their use.

Since 1988, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has offered a Tridentine Mass each Sunday in one urban and one suburban parish. The Trenton Diocese offers the old rite once each Sunday in a Monmouth County parish.

Mater Ecclesiae, which is not a parish but a borderless facsimile open to all worshipers seeking to partake of the Tridentine tradition, is the site for Latin Masses of the Camden Diocese. It had 70 families when it began in 2000 and now has 520, according to Pasley, a diocesan priest.

Spokesmen for the Philadelphia, Camden and Trenton Dioceses, all of which allow limited Latin Masses, said their bishops were studying the three-page document.

Sunday's high Mass at Mater Ecclesiae began at 11 a.m. with a procession of three priests, 12 altar boys in black cassocks and white surplices, and 12 white-clad girls of the Blessed Imelda Society, as the choir and congregation sang Gregorian chant. In Latin, of course.

Next, Pasley incensed the altar and shook holy water on the congregants before facing the altar and uttering the once-familiar words "Introibo ad altare Dei" - "I will go to the altar of God" - that for centuries began the Roman Rite Mass.

"What we do in this small chapel is no longer the exception to the norm," he told the 250 congregants in the sermon.

Mass ended after 90 minutes and a half-dozen Dominus vobiscums later with more incense and an exposition of the consecrated host, or communion wafer, in an ornate monstrance. (The much shorter and simpler Sunday low Masses begin at 8:30 a.m.)

After a special ringing of the church bells and a singing of the ancient hymn Te Deum ("Thou, Lord"), the congregation relocated to the church hall for sparkling cider and cake. About a dozen of the men - including Pasley - retired to a veranda for a bit of conversation and "Chestertonian incense," or cigars.

"We love coming," said altar server Mark Byrne, 16, of Allentown, N.J.. The oldest of nine children, Byrne said he loved "the beauty and solemnity" of the Tridentine Mass: "The Novus Ordo [English-language Mass] is just not the same."

Marisa Consoli, 17, who said that next year she will join a traditional order of cloistered nuns that prays day and night for priests, said she owed her "vocation to the Latin Mass because it increased my love for the Lord."

Although the word Tridentine comes from the 16th century Council of Trent that standardized the Roman Rite liturgies of the Catholic Church, "the council in no way created the Mass" that bears its name, Msgr. Charles Sangermano, pastor of Holy Saviour parish in Norristown, noted last week. Rather, he said, the council and Pope Pius V pruned regional variations from a rite that was centuries old.

The Tridentine Mass of 1570 served as the worldwide standard for most of the world's Catholics until the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 instructed that Masses and other liturgies would henceforth spoken in the local, or vernacular, tongue with the priest facing the congregation. It took several years to be implemented.

While a breath of fresh air to many of the world's Catholics, the change shocked millions of others who had assumed that the Mass was divinely ordained, or nearly so, and immutable.

In 1988 Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, granted diocesan bishops special permission to provide an occasional Latin Mass. Many chose not to do so, out of concern that their dioceses, or the whole church, might form into modern and traditionalist camps.

"This fear . . . strikes me as unfounded," Benedict wrote in his Saturday decree, further adding that by allowing greater use of the old rite, he hoped to restore to the mainstream the "not small number" of alienated Catholics who never warmed to the new Mass.

Pasley said the impact of Benedict's decree will be gradual. "Many priests don't know Latin and don't have an interest in it," he said, but "down the line, as they become more exposed to it, that will change."


For a video of high Mass at Mater Ecclesiae Church in Camden County, along with the pope's decree, go to


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@ phillynews.com.

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