Old Latin Mass being revived at St. Alphonsus

Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster is one of many older Roman Catholics who fondly remember the traditional Latin Mass and plans to be present tomorrow when it is revived at an historic Baltimore church.

A member of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Sister Wilhelmina says she tried to adjust to vernacular worship after the old Latin Mass was virtually outlawed by church authorities in 1970. As a teacher, she even encouraged children to adapt to the experimental folk music promoted by church liturgists.


But she longed for the comforting cadences, the serenity, the mystical quality of the discarded Latin rite.

"Now, years later, I have finally come to my senses," she said. "I am resolved to return to the traditional Latin Mass, so that I can pray to God without distraction."


She may be part of a national trend. A growing Latin Liturgy Association, based in Versailles, Ky., has 1,700 members, including 200 priests. With three archbishops and 17 bishops as advisers, it is planning a convention next spring in Chicago.

Last year, Pope John Paul II congratulated the group for its "truly praiseworthy zeal" and urged it to "educate the Christian faithful in the knowledge of and respect for liturgical Latin, from which source the whole community of the Church may draw spiritual profit."

The Gregorian Society of Baltimore, organized this year and claiming growth among younger Catholics as well as the elderly, has been asking for Sunday Masses in the ancient Latin form, known as the Tridentine Rite, at a convenient hour, in a centrally located and traditional church setting.

As a result, Archbishop William H. Keeler recently approved their resumption at St. Alphonsus Church, a 151-year-old Gothic Revival landmark with a baroque interior. For the time being, the Masses will be scheduled every other Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at the church, located at Saratoga Street and Park Avenue.

The first of them -- tomorrow's -- will be a High Mass, with a men's choir from Washington providing Gregorian chant.

Rita K. Dent, president of the Gregorian Society, praised Archbishop Keeler's decision. Although he earlier had permitted the Tridentine Rite twice a month at St. Lawrence's, a church in Woodlawn, Mrs. Dent said many people found the time -- 2 p.m. -- and the location inconvenient, and the building's modern design less appropriate for the traditional Mass.

For example, it has no communion rail, so that traditionalists preferring to kneel for Communion had to do so on a carpeted step.

The last of the Latin Masses at St. Lawrence's, on Sept. 20, drew about 40 worshipers.


The limited return of such Masses once a month seven years ago, as the result of more than 1,100 written requests, was first permitted by Archbishop Keeler's predecessor, retired Archbishop William D. Borders.

But when Archbishop Borders ordered announcements of the time and place removed from The Catholic Review, the archdiocesan week ly, one of his aides explained that local church leaders did not want to encourage people to attend.

Gregorian Society members said this week they are hopeful that Archbishop Keeler will eventually allow St. Alphonsus' to schedule a Tridentine Mass every Sunday.

Meanwhile, a Latin version of the Novus Ordo -- the Mass created after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s -- will continue to be offered each Sunday at 9 a.m. at the Basilica of the Assumption on Cathedral Street. Archbishop Keeler is occasionally the celebrant of that well-attended Mass.

Studies have shown that many older Catholics, despite their church's efforts in the intervening decades, believe that the theological and social changes of the 1960s produced a noisy, distracting, undignified and confusing replacement for the orderly Latin they grew up with.

Catholics under the age of 40, on the other hand, may find Sunday's event at St. Alphonsus' merely a bit of history, an interesting contrast to their less formal worship.


The congregation is expected to include curious Catholics who have never experienced the expectant silences, the whispered and sung Latin, the ornate vestments, the chanting, the bells and the incense of the Tridentine Rite -- named for the Council of Trent that first authorized it in the 16th century.

In it, the priest faces the altar, with his back to the people.

Other differences are in the wording of prayers and in the sequence of the parts of the Mass, placing greater emphasis on the mystery and solemnity of the Eucharist in the view of the Tridentine Rite's supporters.

A mark of the newer Mass -- even when it is said, rarely, in Latin -- is the introduction of what is called the "passing of the peace." Depending on individuals, this can be a more or less intimate greeting among worshipers.

"I never could stand the hand-shaking, hugging and kissing that goes on just before Communion," said Sister Wilhelmina, who lives at the Oblate Sisters' motherhouse in Catonsville. "Out of sheer justice and charity there should be, at all Novus Ordo Masses, some portion of the church reserved for the use of persons who do not care to exchange greetings during Mass."

The nun, looking forward especially to the Gregorian music planned for tomorrow, said that when the experimental vernacular Masses were introduced in the 1960s and early 1970s, she never dreamed that the Latin hymns and motets would be banned by church leaders as "beyond the understanding" of the people in the pews.


"I spent my youth studying diligently, striving to learn standard English as well as music," she said, "and now I am expected to be delighted with dialect and cornfield ditties. At Mass, I want to give God my best, which broken or infantile English is not."


Where to call: Those interested in the resumption of Latin Masses in the Tridentine Rite at St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church may obtain more information by calling Rita K. Dent, president of the Gregorian Society of Baltimore, at 668-7094 or Joseph Clisham, vice president, at 467-9475.