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Vatican grants a revival for old-style Latin Mass

The aficionados of the Latin Mass in the Roman Catholic Church are a committed bunch.

The Rev. Charles J. Higgins was ordained to the priesthood in Boston long after the Latin Mass had been relegated to the history books -- but he read about it, heard about it, and became so enamored of its beauty that he taught himself to celebrate the age-old rite by watching a training tape.

Christine Quagan of West Roxbury is so passionate about the old-style Mass -- complete with whispered prayers, a priest facing away from the congregation, and periods of silence -- that she organized a group of Catholics from the area to agitate for wider use of Latin Mass.

Most importantly, from the point of view of church officials, the switch from Latin to English in the 1960s is one of the reasons an estimated 1 million people worldwide have left the Catholic Church. The disaffected include some who worship at an unauthorized Latin Mass in West Roxbury and another that gathers weekly in Norwood.

The minority of Catholics who have clung to the Latin Mass, formally known as the Tridentine Rite, are celebrating yesterday's release at the Vatican of a new document in which Pope Benedict XVI , reaching out to alienated traditionalists, opened the door to wider use of the Latin Mass by allowing priests to say the Mass without requiring authorization from their local bishop.

But the step is troubling liberals, who worry the move could be the first step toward a broader rollback of a variety of modernizations that have taken effect since the Second Vatican Council ended.

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, one of two American bishops invited to meet with the pope last week to discuss the change, is urging both sides to keep the change in perspective. He said that the pope specifically said that worship in Latin will continue to be the exception, not the rule.

"There are some conservative Catholics who feel that everything ended with the [Second Vatican] Council, and some liberals who think that everything began with the Council, and this Holy Father is trying to say that this is continuous growth, that it's the same church, and that we must try to avoid allowing the liturgy to become a battleground rather than a point of unification and communion for believers," O'Malley said in a telephone interview.

O'Malley, 63, grew up attending Latin Mass, and for a decade after his ordination in 1970 he continued to pray daily in Latin. Now, however, he says his daily prayers in Spanish, and celebrates Mass primarily in English, but also in Spanish and Portuguese.

O'Malley said he has no plans to expand the number of worship sites in Latin in the Archdiocese of Boston, although if demand increased, he would be willing to do so.

Currently there is one weekly Mass in Latin, recently relocated from Holy Trinity Church in Boston to Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Church in Newton, which is attended by about 250 people out of an estimated 373,000 who attend Mass on the average Sunday in the archdiocese.

O'Malley also said he does not see a need to change the training of future priests studying at the archdiocese's two seminaries, St. John's and Blessed John XXIII.

"In the United States, this is not a burning issue," he said. "Obviously, I think most Catholics would prefer the newer form of the Mass. But still, it's striking that a number of young Catholics are attending these Tridentine Masses, people who grew up after the [Second Vatican] Council but have been caught up by the beauty and the solemnity and the sense of the sacred that they find in that celebration."

O'Malley said his primary hope is that the document will help reconcile the church with people who have broken away, adding that "actually, we've already reached out to some of them."

The group in Norwood, called the St. Botolph Chapel, is associated with the Society of St. Pius X, the main international association with which the pope seeks reconciliation. The group in West Roxbury, called St. Roger/St. Mary, is independent.

"We hope that they will reconsider their situation and see that the Church will welcome them back and that their attachment [to the Latin Mass] would not be an obstacle to their reintegration," O'Malley said.

The Tridentine Rite, in Latin, was the official form of worship for Catholics until 1970, but priests had begun experimenting with the use of English translations about six years before that as a result of changes set into motion by the Second Vatican Council, which ran from 1962 to 1965. About 60 percent of today's US Catholic population was born after the new worship rite went into effect, according to Bryan T. Froehle , an associate professor of sociology at Dominican University.

"I find a greater spiritual awareness of the presence of God," Quagan said of the Latin Mass. Quagan is the leader of the Boston chapter of Una Voce, a group advocating for great use of the Latin Mass.

Scholars say the Latin Mass evokes a different set of emotions for many worshipers than today's Mass, which tends to be more informal and participatory.

"There's something that's clearly religious and sacred about the old rite -- there's something mysterious about it, the sense of the holy, awe before something that's a lot bigger than you -- and a lot of people are unhappy with the way they are experiencing mystery in the current rite, which does not convey the same thing at all," said the Rev. John F. Baldovin , a professor of historical and liturgical theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge. "But I think this is the wrong way to go about redressing some of the mistakes of the last 40 years, and a lot of crazy people are now going to come out of the woodwork, people who are discontent with the way the church has gone for the last 40 years."

Some scholars fear that advocates of the Latin Mass also want the Vatican to roll back its efforts at interfaith and ecumenical relations, lay participation, and other changes since the Second Vatican Council. And the Anti-Defamation League has objected to wider use of the old rite because it includes on Good Friday a prayer for the conversion of the Jews.

"Clearly, the pope is attempting to respond pastorally to a small group of disaffected former Catholics who were very disturbed by the Vatican II liturgical reforms, but potentially this runs the risk of being misinterpreted as calling into question the Second Vatican Council," said the Rev. Keith J. Pecklers , a professor of liturgy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Higgins, who now leads the weekly Mass in Latin in Newton, disagreed, and said he is hopeful that the document will allow more people to discover the richness of the old rite.

"You have to distinguish between people for whom the Latin Mass is the rallying cry and people who simply like the Latin Mass," he said.

Higgins called the Vatican document "very significant," saying that "it gives a place in the mainstream church for people who are very attached to the traditional Latin Mass. Their legitimate aspirations are now being officially recognized by the pope."

Michael Paulson can be reached at