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.
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