At St. Alphonsus Ligouri in Baltimore, believers find new inspiration in old Latin Mass

An icy wind rips along a boarded-up downtown street, swirling paper wrappers into the air. A city bus roars past, trailing fumes. A man in rags begs for a handout. Two passersby ignore him on their way to lunch.

It’s a typical winter tableau for a modern East Coast city. But walk up the steps at West Saratoga Street and Park Avenue, pass through a warm foyer, and enter the sanctuary of the National Shrine of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, and you’ll think you’ve stepped back a thousand years in time.

Worshippers kneel in worn pews, a vaulted ceiling soaring far above them. Towering stained-glass windows admit just enough light to dispel any gloom.

Women young and old wear the lace head coverings of eons past, and a priest in white and blue vestments stands up front, facing not the congregation but the altar against a wall, murmuring in Latin.

“Introibo ad altare Dei,” says the Rev. Joel Kiefer, the church’s 48-year-old pastor: “I go unto the altar of the Lord.”

St. Alphonsus is the only church in Baltimore that offers the traditional Latin Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist that all Catholics observed prior to the sweeping reforms instituted by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

It’s also part of what appears to be a modest worldwide comeback for the ancient service, also known as the Tridentine Mass or the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite.

Pushed to the margins of Catholic practice by the reformist church leaders of Vatican II, the traditional Latin Mass had nearly vanished in the United States by the early 1980s.

Now it's celebrated in more than 400 Catholic churches across the country, according to Una Voce, an organization that promotes the rite.

Nathaniel Marx, an assistant professor of systematic theology at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Indiana, says it’s hard to track the numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the movement is continuing to grow.

Marx explored the ethnography of modern Latin Mass Catholics in his 2013 doctoral thesis, “Ritual in the Age of Authenticity.”

“I do believe it’s gaining energy, both from older Catholics who recall the rite from their childhood days and from younger ones now discovering it for the first time,” he says.

That growth is certainly evident at St. Alphonsus, which offers a Tridentine Mass seven days a week in addition to Lithuanian and English-speaking services earlier on Sunday mornings.

The Tridentine Mass is celebrated mostly in Latin, the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. Readings from the Old and New Testament are delivered in both Latin and English; the homily is in English.

During the liturgy of the Eucharist, when Catholics believe bread becomes the body of Christ, the priest faces ad orientem — away from the congregation and toward the East. Attendees kneel at an altar rail when receiving communion.

In the Novus Ordo Missae — the New Mass — the priest faces toward the people, worshippers take communion while standing, and the altar rail is gone, all parts of an overall aim by the reformers of Vatican II to integrate lay Catholics more fully into the life of the church.

At St. Alphonsus, weekly attendance at Latin rite masses has nearly doubled, from 125 to 247, in the four months since Kiefer took over.

Before entering the priesthood, Kiefer was an Army officer. The Philadelphia native graduated from West Point, was commissioned a second lieutenant and served in combat in Mogadishu, Somalia.

But he had always wanted to be a priest. After completing his military obligation, he entered the seminary. He learned Latin during summers.

Now he’s set to make local history.

At 6:30 Saturday morning, he’ll offer the Rorate Mass, a Latin-language devotion associated with Advent that has not been celebrated in Baltimore in more than 50 years.

Per Catholic tradition, he’ll conduct it by candlelight in an otherwise dark church, the space illuminated only by however many candles the faithful contribute.

Kiefer avoids touting his work, lest the larger mission become identified with one person. But with the Rorate in the offing, and the parish in financial need, he’s happy to make an exception.

“Anyone can call or visit our website and donate a candle with intentions,” the Catholic practice of requesting prayers for particular people or causes, he says. “All donations go directly to the maintenance of our building, and the church will be as lit as people’s support.”

If that’s the benchmark, the place should be aglow Saturday.

Those who attend the Latin Mass at St. Alphonsus speak of the experience in mystical terms.

John Rotondi, a retiree who lives in Owings Mills, says he knows only enough Latin to track the high points of the Mass. What he doesn’t know, he follows in a Latin-English church missal. But its ancient feel and built-in moments of silence evoke a spirituality that is hard to find in the Novus Ordo.

“The Latin Mass brings out the real beauty of Catholic worship,” he says.

Miriam Waicukauski agrees.

The 50-year-old Bel Air homemaker, a lifelong Catholic, is one of many attendees who drive as much as an hour each way to make it to services.

She has been attending the Latin Mass at St. Alphonsus at least once a week since Kiefer became pastor last summer.

For Waicukauski, the joy stems as much from the Gothic Revival grandeur of the building — with its majestic arched ceilings, dozens of life-size statues of religious figures and soaring columns, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places — as the mysteries of the rite.

“I come here and just look around as though I’m a child,” she said. “There’s something here from the distant past, like a treasure I’m continually rediscovering.

“I don’t have to understand every word. I’m absorbing things bit by bit. My heart is so filled whenever I come here, I just know I am growing.”

Katherine Waicukauski, 13, also attends weekly and sounds just as enthusiastic as her mother about a rite that was, in effect, put out of commission decades before either of them was born.

“The priest doesn’t face us — he’s talking to God, not us, and that’s powerful,” she says. “I think young people see it as cool, how all this comes from such a long time ago.”

It was Cardinal William Keeler who brought observance of the Latin Mass to St. Alphonsus in 1992.

The parish had been home to an unusual number of luminaries of the Catholic Church.

The Bohemian-born priest John Neumann, served Baltimore’s thriving German population at St. Alphonsus in the mid-1800s. Neumann would later serve as he fourth bishop of Philadelphia, where he founded the first Catholic diocesan school system in the United States. He was canonized as a saint in 1977.

Neumann’s successor, Father Francis Xavier Seelos, was beatified in 2000, a step toward sainthood. And a Lithuanian-born nun named Sister Casimira Kaupas taught at the now-defunct St. Alphonsus School in the early 20th century. As Mother Maria Kaupas, she was declared a Venerable Servant of God in 2010.

Monsignor Arthur W. Bastress, a Baltimore native, served the church as pastor for 19 years, championing the rite until he retired at age 90 last summer.

Archbishop William E. Lori reached out to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, Kiefer’s traditionalist society, for a successor to further energize the parish mission.

It was a bold choice in an era of broader progressivism in the church. Pope Francis himself has written of his bewilderment at the renewed popularity of the Tridentine Mass. But in many ways, archdiocesan Vice Chancellor Sean Caine says, it was a fitting one.

At a time when church leadership is aging, Caine says, the brothers of St. Peter average 34 years of age.

The group’s North American seminary attracts twice as many applicants as it can accept, and demand for its graduates is brisk.

Kiefer expects to tap the society for at least one new priest in the coming year — all the better to help him celebrate the second traditional Latin Mass he has added to his church’s Sunday calendar starting next month.

In the meantime, he invites everyone, Catholic or not, to check out the Saturday morning service this weekend and the High Latin Mass he’ll lead, with Gregorian chant and 13th Century sacred polyphony, at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Beyond that, his plan is to keep celebrating the Tridentine Mass as faithfully as possible.

The rest, he says, is up to God.

So far, the plan is working.

“When we do what we do, word seems to spread, and the numbers grow,” Kiefer says. “There must be something behind it.”

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