NEW YORK — The crowd in front of Hunter College on a rainy Monday evening in June is intentionally old-school.
About a dozen young men, most with short, gelled hair, stand in a circle chatting. Dressed in long black cassocks, each sporting a wide, bright-white clerical collar, they sip from cups of coffee and bottles of water.
Back inside the Kaye Playhouse, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who finished his talk several minutes ago, is still trying to make his way down one of the theater’s main aisles. He isn’t making much progress. Crowds swarm around him. Several people, including young priests and seminarians, bend down to kiss the cardinal’s ring. Burke poses for selfies.
These are the True Believers.
They comprise a small, vocal, and especially young segment of the Catholic Church. They see the liturgical changes that took place after the Second Vatican Council as ushering in the breakdown of society. Abortion, same-sex marriage, gender theory: these changes are the result of sacrificing beauty and truth, truth with a capital T, on the altar of individualism and reason.
Many are gathered in New York this week for Sacra Liturgia USA, an annual gathering of mostly American and British priests and seminarians to discuss ways to bring the sacred back to Catholic worship. For them, sacred means the use of traditional music, art, and the Latin Mass.
The main attraction here is undoubtedly Burke, a traditionalist known for his elaborate vestments, outspoken views on traditional worship, and sharp defense of Catholic orthodoxy. That Burke’s been sidelined by Pope Francis, losing his job as head of the Vatican’s supreme court last year and then relegated to a largely ceremonial role at a relatively young age, doesn’t matter here. He’s a rock star.
The crowd of a few hundred is mostly male, and it’s noticeably youthful. They hang on Burke’s every word, interrupting his keynote address repeatedly with applause.
Offering a dense theological treatise on beauty and truth, Burke plays to his audience. He extensively quotes Pope Benedict XVI, whom he calls the “most faithful exponent of liturgical theology in our time.”
Vatican II was just fine, he says, but he slams “the so-called ‘spirit of Vatican II,’ which was nothing less than a hijacking of the council for a completely other agenda.”
Burke, like many of the other speakers, blasts contemporary culture. There is much discussion about a lack of reverence for truth, changes in social norms, and assertions that the Church is under assault.
“Things are bad,” he says. “There are no questions about it, when we think about what happened in Ireland, this referendum.” He links a loss of appreciation for beauty to liberalized views on abortion and marriage. “Precisely because we have lost beauty, we have also lost goodness and truth,” he says.
Burke, known for sporting colorful gloves and the cappa magna, an ornate red cape that spans several yards and which hasn’t been used widely in decades, said it’s essential that vestments, art, and liturgical tools be “of such a quality that they can express the beauty and majesty of the liturgy as the action of Christ among us uniting heaven and earth.” He emphasizes his belief by wearing the elaborate garment.
There’s no cappa magna at the Pontifical Mass Wednesday afternoon, but the dozens of bishops, priests, and seminarians at the Church of St. Catherine of Siena have dressed for the occasion. Seminarians sport black birettas and lace surplices over their cassocks. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, the main celebrant, wears bright red gloves and a shiny red, Tridentine-era chasuble.
The Mass proceeds slowly and deliberately. The procession alone takes several minutes, with congregants bowing as Cordileone passes by their pews.
Once seated, the seminarians tip their birettas at the mention of St. Charles Lwanga, whose martyrdom is being recalled. The veiled tabernacle is the focal point, incense is burned, and the readings chanted. Most of the Mass is in Latin, though the homily is given in English.
Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, the homilist, asks the congregants to pray for modern-day martyrs in Africa. He says that although those gathered here are unlikely to die for the faith, they will nonetheless face a slow martyrdom at the hands of a hostile culture.
“The world wishes we would go away,” he says, but he exhorts worshippers to “stand firm.”
“We will suffer,” he says.
Parallel to the general condemnation of contemporary culture, there’s a distrust of media here.
Reporters can’t interview key participants, and we’re warned not to approach the cardinal and bishop. One speaker during the opening panel says the Church must ward off attacks from “a militarized and secularized press.”
At a time when Pope Francis is trying to recast how the Church is perceived in popular consciousness, this gathering shows that some traditional markers of Catholicism — cassocks, Latin, chant — have strong supporters. It’s difficult to find a priest or seminarian here dressed in pants and a jacket. They want to turn back the liturgical clock.
The Mass that most Catholics are familiar with today draws its rituals from the Ordinary Form, or Novus Ordo, which dates back to 1969, at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. This is the rubric that ushered out Latin in favor of the vernacular and turned the priest around to face the people.
This supplanted the Mass of 1962, with its more formal, Latin liturgy, that was suppressed after Vatican II.
In 1984, Pope John Paul II decided it could be celebrated with special permission from Rome.
But that older Mass, now called the Extraordinary Form, enjoyed something of a renaissance under Pope Benedict XVI. In 2007, the now-retired pope issued instructions to bishops and priests to make the rite more available for Catholics who wished to worship in that style.
Whereas Vatican II-era liturgists made “efforts to try to switch out smells and bells for strums and drums,” as Patrick J. Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society put it during a lunch panel with Burke, Pope Benedict’s decree was an opportunity to reverse course.
There aren’t numbers available on how many dioceses or parishes offer the Latin Mass, but its fans comprise a vocal minority in the Church who believe most Catholics would be on their side if they only knew of its beauty. Groups of young Catholics host the Latin Mass in dioceses from DC to Los Angeles.
Those gathered here applaud speakers who seek to bring the Latin Mass to Catholic campus ministry centers, promote the use of Gregorian chant in parishes, and restore all-male altar server programs. They laugh at the mere mention of Vatican II hymns. They audibly gasp at projected images of Catholic churches lacking icons and statues.
Many insist that a renewed emphasis on the liturgy — a very particular form of liturgy — will lead to the Church’s renewal and may even transform the world along the way.
The Rev. Christopher Smith, pastor of Prince of Peace Parish in Taylors, SC, told me that those who practiced the Extraordinary Form after 1970 were viewed with suspicion, that they were driven underground, “marginalized in a Church subculture that wasn’t always healthy.” With Benedict’s proclamation, however, he believes the Latin Mass, “taken out of the dustbin of history,” will only grow in popularity.
“Liturgy must draw from all streams,” he said. His parish, with 2,000 families, offers both rites, and he estimates attendance is equal at both.
The Rev. Kevin Cusick is pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Benedict, Md., which has been offering a Latin Mass since the 1980s. Though his parish is small, about 150 families, he said members are on board with spending money to beautify the Church, restoring brass candlesticks that were unceremoniously placed in storage after Vatican II.
He ripped out the sanctuary’s carpeting and brown paneling, restoring the original wall and placing a marble floor. “People put marble floors in their bathrooms, so they understand beauty,” he said. But they need to be brought on board with the idea of spending money to renovate the church.
Liturgical battles in the Catholic Church have been roaring for decades.
Those who prefer the old style believe modern worship focuses too much on the congregation or the priest, what they call “horizontal worship,” and not enough on Christ, or “vertical worship.”
Fans of the Vatican II style, however, say worship should include the full people of God, and see in the Extraordinary Form a return to the clericalism — emphasizing the supremacy of priests and bishops over the laity — that Vatican II sought to eliminate.
Both camps can be equally strident in its insistence that God is on their side.
A preference for high church — the smells and bells — isn’t necessarily the preserve of conservatives. Some progressive Episcopalian congregations, for example, incorporate sacred chant and incense in their liturgies. But participants at Sacra Liturgia told me that in the Catholic Church, preference for this style of worship has been pushed most often by conservative voices.
Despite the many references to a broken culture that has lost its ability to understand beauty and truth, a sense of optimism permeates the conversation at Sacra Liturgia. One senses a feeling of pending triumphalism here: Once the Vatican II crowd passes on, traditional liturgy can retake its rightful place in the life of the Church. The fact that the crowd is especially young strengthens this argument.
Some speakers throw a bone to Pope Francis during their talks. Cordileone, for example, cited Francis’ views challenging gender theory. But nearly all the talks are filled with multiple quotes from Pope John Paul II, but especially his successor, Benedict XVI. If a Pope Benedict Church-in-exile exists, it would resemble the crowd here. There is a great love here for the quiet German theologian.
Cordileone received a sustained ovation when he rose to speak Tuesday.
Under fire from liberal critics in his archdiocese for asking teachers there to sign contracts with detailed morality clauses, those gathered here have his back. In his 45-minute talk about liturgy, Cordileone doesn’t back down.
He slams the “invention” of new gender identities. “Those initials keep getting longer and longer,” he says, referring to the LGBT movement. He says the debate over same-sex marriage confuses Catholics, threatening their understanding of worship. “God has used marriage as the primary sign of our relationship with him,” he says. Referring to the trouble he faces with his teachers back home, he blames it on “a small minority, who are hostile to Church teaching.”
It’s not surprising, he says. After all, “we’re going on 50 years of bad catechesis.”
The speakers accept that the kinds of Catholics who prefer strums and drums still need a home in the Church.
“We need to keep everyone in the family,” Cordileone says.
“I see people who are on fire for the faith,” he says, answering a question about “liturgical abuses” within Catholic charismatic movements. “They’re very supportive of me in all these moral stands that I’m taking. I see a vibrant adherence to the teaching and values of the Church. On the other hand, it seems a more horizontal style of worship.”
Cusick, the priest in Maryland, tells me that he attended a Mass at a parish known for the Latin Mass. This particular liturgy was unexpectedly a contemporary Mass. Up front sat several gray-haired women and men, enjoying the guitar music.
But in the back, the crowd was younger, disappointed with the worship style. A couple of seminarians, dressed in black cassocks, sat among them.