This article first appeared in the Sunday Wisconsin State Journal.


Ellie Arkin doesn't speak Latin, so upon entering Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Madison on a recent Sunday, the 21-year-old UW-Madison student opened a Latin-to-English translation book provided by the church.

For the next hour, she and many of the other parishioners followed along in the book as the Mass unfolded mostly in Latin.

For centuries, this was the only way Catholics around the world experienced Mass. Reforms ushered in by Vatican II in the 1960s largely eliminated Latin Mass, but now, across the country and in the Madison Catholic Diocese, traditionalists are seeking its comeback.

Supporters say it offers a reverence and gravity lacking in today's more casual worship approach.

"There's this incredible sacredness you can feel and taste and see — it is not just a social gathering," said Jacek Cianciara, 67, of Madison, one of the parishioners helping to bring back Latin Mass locally.

Other Catholics find the older style needlessly difficult to follow and too passive.

"When it's in Latin, it's just rote — you're not reading the words for the real meaning," said Alice Jenson, 66, of Fitchburg. "I'm opposed to having this artificial barrier being put up."

Catholics now can attend a Mass in Latin somewhere in the 11-county diocese every day, although the vast majority of worship services remain in English. About 200 Catholics consistently attend a Latin Mass at least weekly, with others dropping in periodically, the diocese estimates.

That's a tiny slice of total church attendance — about 57,000 people attend Mass in the diocese each week — but it's a vocal and growing slice.

More than language

Latin Mass, also known as the Tridentine Mass, is distinguished by more than language. The priest faces the altar, which traditionally faced East, the direction from which Catholics believe Christ will return.

This means the priest has his back to the people, which traditionalists view as appropriate, like a general leading his troops.

The priest speaks in a low, quiet voice, rendering the Latin largely and intentionally inaudible to parishioners. That's because the priest should be praying to the Lord in their name, not proclaiming something to the people, said Monsignor Delbert Schmelzer, 81, one of the diocesan priests who leads Latin Masses.

"That emphasis is a world of difference," he said.

Gregorian chant is the required music, sometimes accompanied by an organ or singing. Female altar servers are not used because traditionalists believe the role should be reserved for boys, the only ones who can become priests.

Only the priest reads the Scriptures or distributes Communion.

A big shift

The 1962-65 Second Vatican Council introduced Masses in local languages, and reform-minded theologians followed with a host of other changes that loosened the structure of the worship service and increased roles for laypeople.

Girls were added as altar servers, and church members started assisting priests as Scripture readers and Communion distributors. The music expanded to include guitars, folk choirs and hymns such as "Amazing Grace."

Priests began facing the people instead of the altar.

"Vatican II shifted the emphasis to draw more on the talents and abilities of people who are not ordained — the idea that, ‘It's my church too,'" said the Rev. Steven Avella, a history professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee and a Catholic priest.

The same principle was behind the translation of the Mass into the native tongue, Avella said. "People could understand what was being said and respond in their own language," he said.

For traditionalists, the changes were unfortunate.

"Churches were full in the 1930s and 40s, but they're not full now because people don't even understand why they're there," Schmelzer said.

Holy Redeemer

Eighty-two people attended the Aug. 7 Latin Mass at Holy Redeemer, held every Sunday at 7 a.m. Attendance averages 60 to 100 people, Cianciara said.

About 90 percent of the Mass was in Latin, save for a short sermon (in English) and the Scripture reading (first in Latin, then English.)

Many women wore veils, traditionally a way females showed outward humility in the Lord's presence. The crowd seemed about evenly split between young and old.

Jeff Skalsky, 47, of Fitchburg, was there with his wife and six children. He likes that parishioners at a Latin Mass treat the sanctuary with reverence.

"You don't see people after Mass standing up and talking and being loud," he said. "It's reserved as a holy place, not a place to socialize."

Avella said Latin Mass seems to have a particular appeal among people who are politically and socially conservative. Cianciara did not take issue with the characterization.

"These are people who base their lives on very strong moral principles," he said. "If you extend that to politics, they are more conservative. You will find they are against abortion, against euthanasia, against homosexual marriage."

A gradual return

Over the years, the Vatican has sought to clarify issues surrounding Latin Mass, with the result being a gradual lifting of restrictions on how and when it can be celebrated. For instance, a bishop once had to give permission for Latin Mass to be celebrated in his diocese. Now, individual priests no longer need that approval.

The most recent Vatican announcement, in May, said priests should approve Latin Masses for even small groups of people who request it, even if the group is formed of people from different parishes or dioceses.

In the Madison diocese, parishioners petitioned Bishop Robert Morlino to restore Latin Mass in 2006. Morlino, a strong supporter, led a Latin Mass in December 2007. It was the first official Latin Mass in the diocese since 1969.

Regular weekly Latin Masses began at Holy Redeemer in early 2008, initially attracting 20 or so people. Now seven of the diocese's 134 churches — one each in Madison, Roxbury, Fennimore, Merrimac and Mazomanie and two in Platteville — offer a Latin Mass at least once a week.

Avella predicts Latin Mass will continue to appeal to a minority of Catholics.

"Most U.S. Catholics still gravitate to their home parishes where the Mass is in English, the music is more diverse, and they can be active in various liturgical ministries," he said.

Schmelzer sees a gradual blending of the more-formal Latin Mass with the more-casual new Mass.

"They are the same Mass, just different styles," he said. "The Pope would like it to be a melding of the best parts of both for the future, and that may take a generation or two."

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