Dozens of people gather every Sunday morning in the
Gothic sanctuary of St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church to pray for the
future of a tradition that's deeply rooted in the past.
Before the Latin prayers begin, they seek God's intercession for the
future of the Tridentine Mass - a form of liturgy established in the
16th century but now celebrated only in churches with special
If the speculation around the Vatican is right, their prayers might be
answered. Rumors have swirled for months that Pope Benedict XVI will
formally grant permission to all Catholic churches to perform what's
commonly - though incorrectly - known as the Latin Mass.
For Catholics who are dedicated to the handful of local services, such a
declaration would be about time. "I don't see the purpose in outlawing a
Mass," says Elise Phair, 21, who has attended the Tridentine service at
the church on Saratoga Street for about a decade.
The move - if it happens - is seen as a way of reaching out to
traditionalists who were alienated after the Second Vatican Council
produced a new missal, or prayer book, in the late 1960s that
streamlined the Mass.
"Identifying with the Tridentine Mass is a kind of a mild form of
protest," says Mathew N. Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at
the College of the Holy Cross. "A lot of it has to do with a more
aggressive assertion of Catholic identity and a feeling that that has
During Vatican II, the leaders of the council established what is known
as the novus ordo - new order in Latin - which is followed in the vast
majority of Catholic churches today.
Aesthetic differences between the two services are obvious. The
Tridentine Mass, which uses a 1962 missal, is mostly spoken in Latin,
with some Greek. The priest faces the tabernacle housing the Eucharist,
with his back to the congregation. Much of the Mass is silent, even the
High Masses every other Sunday, which feature choirs.
To be sure, the nearby Basilica of the Assumption does offer a Sunday
Mass in Latin - but it's merely a translation of the novus ordo, not the
full Tridentine Mass.
While the overall structure of both Masses is the same, the Novus Ordo
simplifies the service by reducing the number of prayers and ceremonial
actions, says Joanne M. Pierce, an associate professor of religious
studies at Holy Cross who researches medieval liturgy. The Tridentine
rite even specifies the orientation of the priest's thumbs as he
elevates the Eucharist during the liturgy.
Parishioners can follow along in a missal, perhaps with a Latin
translation, recite the rosary, or engage in their own private devotions
during the Tridentine Mass. By contrast, in the Novus Ordo, the
congregation participates through responses and reading.
Although the council decrees did not abolish the Tridentine Mass, Pierce
says there may have been fear that some Catholics would consider the
Tridentine rite as the only true Mass.
The church began giving indults, or special permission, to some parishes
to celebrate the Tridentine rite in 1984. Four years later, Pope John
Paul II issued a motu proprio allowing more churches to use that version
"out of respect ... for the feelings of all those who are attached to
the Latin liturgical tradition."
The Catholic Church often faces criticism from those who oppose its
conservative views on topics such as abortion and birth control, but
some feel it is not conservative enough. Pope John Paul II's 1988 decree
began by excommunicating some members of schismatic communities that
supported the Tridentine rite.
"It all plays out in internal church politics. The pope is being caught
between a rock and a hard place. Trying to balance all these
sensibilities is very difficult," Schmalz says.
For John Ambs, 42, the Tridentine Mass made his Catholic faith come
As a teenage altar boy in the Diocese of Scranton in Pennsylvania, he
couldn't understand the stories he read of saints crawling on their
hands and knees to get to Mass. Then his father gave him a missal from
the old rite, and said, "The Mass you know today wasn't always this
way," Ambs recalls.
"As soon as I got my license, I and some other like-minded young
Catholics ... drove as far as it took to go to an underground Mass, just
to see what it was like," he says.
Ambs went on to write the petition to allow for the Tridentine Mass in
Washington, then contacted Cardinal William H. Keeler in Baltimore. He
became the recording secretary for the Gregorian Society of Baltimore, a
lay organization that supports the service.
Ambs later introduced the woman who became his wife, Lucy, to the
service. They had to secure special permission in 1996 to be the
Archdiocese Of Baltimore's first couple married under the Tridentine
rite since Vatican II. Now the Westminster residents bring their three
children to worship at St. Alphonsus. Some women, like Lucy Ambs, cover
their heads with a mantilla, or lace scarf.
Even if the pope were to make a declaration tomorrow, few Catholic
churches are likely to immediately start offering the Mass because few
priests are still trained in the Tridentine rite. Monsignor Arthur W.
Bastress, the pastor of St. Alphonsus, was ordained in 1951 and
celebrated Tridentine Mass for more than a decade.
The services draw young families like the Ambs. Most of the baptisms he
performs are from the Tridentine rite, Bastress says.
Young people who never experienced the Mass before Vatican II are also
drawn to the spirituality of the service. Phair, a lifelong parishioner
of St. Alphonsus, studies modern languages at University of Maryland,
Baltimore County and uses a Latin-French missal during the service.
She describes it as an "overwhelming spiritual experience, because it's
"There's another level there that I don't find at other Masses," Phair
Bastress says the church almost operates like three separate parishes:
the English-speaking community, those who come to Lithuanian services at
8:30 a.m., and the Tridentine followers at 11:30 a.m. The latter is the
largest service with up to 175 attendees each Sunday, many of whom
travel from as far away as Virginia or Pennsylvania to attend.
When the Diocese of Harrisburg started offering a Tridentine Mass
several years ago, it drew some regular attendees from St. Alphonsus.
"They wouldn't come all that distance just for a social gathering," says
Timonium resident Rita K. Dent, president of the Gregorian Society.
"It's the beauty and the reverence and of course the sacrifice. The
Novus Ordo contains all that, but I think it's much more enhanced in the
The possibility of having more options promotes the buzz about
Benedict's potential decision. "People are just feeding the rumors
because they want it to happen," says Lucy Ambs. "It's not that we're
saying everybody's going to change. The beauty of it is, more people are
going to know it's available."
Her husband John says he prays for this intention daily.
"I think if the Mass is freed, it'll be a new springtime for the
church," he said.