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Keeping the Latin Mass - 2002-09-18

The recent allegations of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, combined with evidence suggesting this abuse was hidden from the laity by members of the Church hierarchy, have caused many lay Catholics in America to start questioning the relationships they have with their priests. Lay people are demanding a greater voice in the Church, and they insist the clergy need to be more responsive and responsible to the congregation… and that includes decisions on the style of worship.

Latin the language of ancient Rome, the foundation for the Romance languages and once the bane of many a schoolchild has been the language of worship in the Roman Catholic Church for 2000 years. For Catholics like Kay Biltoft, the traditional rite offers a sense of familiarity. "If I ever have to go to another church other than the Latin rite I will become a Protestant," she says. "My profession is I'm a field geologist and I've worked in the Mediterranean. And it was very comforting to go to churches in many nations and understand the Latin Mass. The Latin Mass is international and I've lived in many countries and I always was able to understand the service because of the Latin Mass."

Most U.S. Catholic Churches no longer offer the Mass in Latin… the result of a directive from the Vatican in the 1960s, to "modernize" the service. Mass was to be offered in the language of the community English, Spanish, French… whatever the congregation spoke so everyone would understand what was being said. The Church also changed the way its priests would stand during services. The Second Vatican Council decreed that priests would face their parishioners during Mass, instead of standing with their backs to the congregation as Catholic clergy had done for centuries, and as many Orthodox priests still do.

At the Immaculate Conception Church in Rapid City, South Dakota, the Latin Mass and the traditional rituals were allowed to continue. Immaculate Conception is led by Franciscan Father Valentine Young, a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. "The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter is a religious congregation started by Pope John Paul II in 1988 to minister to the needs of those people who are still attached to the former Latin traditional rites," says Father Young. "And the pope wrote a document called Ecclsea Dei, and in this document he said that great respect should be shown to those people, and that they have legitimate rights and aspirations."

According to Helga Harris and others in the Immaculate Conception congregation, there's a greater feeling of reverence in hearing the Mass in Latin. "Since I came back to the old rites, to the old ritual of my faith, of my holy Roman Catholic faith, I feel that my inner self has changed for the better," she says. "Here the celebration of our faith is most holy in an adoration only can come from the depths of the heart." Even children attending Immaculate Conception show the same devotion to the traditional Mass of the Catholic Church. "Because when you come here it just feels like there's more love and like...'He's' here," says one child. "Well, I like it because it has kind of...more taste, you know?" But Catholics who attend St. Anthony's Church in nearby Hot Springs like the changes decreed under Vatican Two, and say the Mass is more inclusive when it's said in English. Marcel Greenia says he thought he wanted to go back to the Church's traditional ways, until he attended the Latin Mass at Immaculate Conception. "The idea of the priest facing the altar and being away from the community, not face to face as in the modern or contemporary style, it kind of changed my view," he says. "It's the contemporary Mass that's more my...I feel more a part of the community, more of a participant."

The question for American Catholics is, does that participation include the right to interpret Papal decrees and question the decisions of the local bishop? The traditional purist congregation at Immaculate Conception answers an emphatic "yes", demanding what they see as the right to celebrate Mass the way they believe it was meant to be.

At the more liberal St. Anthony's congregation, where their new folk music-styled Mass is quite a few steps to the left of the strict traditions of the Church parishioners like Mr. Greenia say whatever the bishop says is law. "I always want my opinion to be considered, however there is a point when you have to look at the communal good, what's best for the whole community considering factors that I may be ignorant of."

Rapid City diocese Bishop Blaise Cupich recognizes the challenge facing the Catholic Church and his office in the 21st century. "I do think that if we're serious about lay participation in the Church, that's going to affect the way that we govern. I think that the problems that we're facing today in the Church are not just a matter of a few clergy that are having some difficulty," he says. "I think that it has to do with a style of governance that has at times distanced us from people and also created a climate of secrecy and a procedure that communicates that we are closed to giving people the information they have a right to."

Pope John Paul II has called upon the Catholic hierarchy to reject that 'climate of secrecy' and have broader consultation with lay members of the church. Bishop Cupich is holding meetings in the Rapid City diocese where delegates from various congregations including Immaculate Conception And St. Anthony's discuss and will later vote on proposed changes in the way Mass is offered. But that openness has limits the delegates decision will not be the final word it must approved, ultimately the bishop.