By Brennan Doherty
Photo by Fr Jeffrey Keyes
This is a story about a Christmas Convert. It was not Christmas when I invited her. It was not an emotional kind of holiday experience. Nonetheless, I learned later that the woman who had accompanied me to the traditional Latin Mass (the Dominican rite), this praise-and-worship, non-denominational woman, had tears streaming down her face.
Yes, during that awful, anachronistic, didn’t-you-know-Jesus-didn’t-speak-Latin Vetus Ordo Mass.
This movement of grace during the liturgy was no accident; the liturgy itself, with its reverence, chant, rhythms, rubrics, and setting all conspired to move upon the waters of her soul — evoking this response even though it was in a language she did not understand.
I wonder what her response would have been had I taken her to a typical parish Mass? Let’s leave that alone; I’m feeling a bit too polite.
Above human understanding
Of course she is not the only person to react this way. Throughout history our traditional liturgy has inspired countless conversions, vocations, and the visible manifestation of our Faith in art, architecture, music, statuary, devotions, and a multitude of other signs that catch the wandering eye or the listening ear.
And this is normal. This is what is supposed to happen when our liturgy acts upon the soul. It’s not always within our human understanding, but it surpasses it, just as grace often works on the soul in ways we do not always perceive immediately.
Converted by Beauty
I also had been immersed in a low liturgical background prior to my conversion to Catholicism. And it was beauty that helped draw me in; not liturgical beauty, since I was not attending any Mass — but the beauty of the lives of the mystics and saints.
There was a depth there that I could not fully explain. This attracted me. These people seemed to be living in a closer union with God than any I had known before.
This was what I had been seeking in my search through so many churches.
Finally, my contact with books by Catholic apologists like Scott Hahn and David B. Currie caused my Protestant edifice to crumble, and I came into the Church in the year 2000.
When I converted, it was as if the heavens had shifted. Now, there was more than merely me, my Bible, and Jesus. In place of my “Jesus and me” relationship, (along with any disposable intermediaries like my local pastor), there was now the Blessed Virgin, the saints, the angels, the mystics, and the multitude of Catholic ancestors.
Naturally I wanted to get to know them better. Of course one can read about them, and that is good. Yet since we are moving toward the same goal – union with God – we want a bit more immersion. And there is no better immersion than experiencing nearly the same liturgy, praying the same prayers, watching the same gestures, and even seeing the same art, as those holy men and women who went before.
What I found
But it was not to be. The Church I came into was reeling from the effects of the so-called ‘Spirit’ of Vatican II, where changes in the liturgy were accompanied by a devastating drop in both Mass attendance and vocations which still afflicts the Church 50 years later. This is not even to speak of the de-sacralization of the churches.
If the committee which reformed the liturgy after Vatican II had simply put the traditional Latin Mass in English, it might even have been fine. Then one could still celebrate the Gregorian rite, which goes back hundreds of years, prior to Trent, in either the vernacular or Latin.
But they didn’t. Tragically, they decided the entire liturgy, including the prayers and rubrics themselves, needed to be updated for “modern man”.
I can think of no more effective means of cutting Catholics off from the history of their Church and the nourishment which sustained and formed countless Saints than revising the liturgy in such a manner. Because now when you hear the liturgy in English, you aren’t hearing the prayers which countless Saints prayed over the course of history. You’re hearing the prayers concocted by a committee in the 1960’s which decided most traditional elements of the liturgy had to go.
And so we are left with an utterly banal liturgy, one which is incapable of inspiring great works of art as the traditional Latin Mass has done over the centuries.
The sad truth is most Catholics can’t attend a traditional Latin Mass. If you have a liberal or progressive bishop, good luck in finding one. And best wishes finding one available every Sunday so one can fulfill their Sunday obligation.
Separated from our ancestors in the Faith
Conversely, where there is a rupture in this immersion, as happened when the liturgical committee after Vatican II decided to drop/alter the prayers and rubrics of the liturgy in order to adapt them to “modern man”, one can become cut off, in a sense, from our ancestors in the Faith.
Not that they are no longer near to us and interceding for us, but the way they followed has become more dim and uncertain because we no longer have access to the same help they did. We are no longer praying the same prayers, imitating the same gestures, nor are surrounded by the same beauty for the most part. And since Catholicism is an incarnational religion – one goes through the Church to God and not around it – the way we worship God is essential and not merely a set of “externals” which can be altered or jettisoned with hardly a ripple among the faithful.
Since this is the Christmas season we recall that Jesus was born in humble circumstances, not in a palace or a magnificent temple. Yet what was the response to the Christ child? Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a manger. The wise men gave Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In other words, they gave Him the best they had, whether it was cloth or gold.
And it was a physical manifestation of what was in their hearts. Since that time, countless Catholics have given to Christ the best they had, in art, music, architecture, or in composing the radiant, timeless prayers of the liturgy. Others made smaller sacrifices, such as building a home shrine. As such, they helped offer not only a repose for the soul beset by the corrosion of the world, but a means to transcend this world and draw closer to God. This is not to be mocked or disregarded.
Women, of course, play a crucial role because they often specialize in what our market-driven world considers ‘useless’ – ie not money-making. Thus when women make a home more beautiful, or spread an elegant table, they too are providing an avenue for grace. May God bless their efforts.
So this Christmas season, let us all pray and work toward a re-beautifying of our liturgy, our sanctuaries, and our homes. Even a single statue, prayer station, or home shrine can fight against the tide of brutal mediocrity ever-present in our culture.
And the woman I invited to Mass? She has returned a few times, drawing ever-closer to immersion in the ancient liturgy. I hope and pray for her conversion, and also that one day I can bring others to the traditional rite with Gregorian chant. My further hope is that the liturgy may become an avenue to explore the ancient riches of Catholicism for all converts, rather than some sort of endurance test.
God works in strange ways. While the rest of the Church languishes for lack of vocations, Orders and monasteries which celebrate the ancient liturgy such as the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey, and The Monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel are bursting with youthful callings. Apparently a number of men aren’t attracted to the modern liturgy simply because it’s easier to celebrate.
But Dietrich von Hildebrand has said it better than I ever could:
“Do we better meet Christ by soaring up to Him, or by dragging Him down into our workaday world?”
Brennan Doherty is a convert from Protestantism. He lives in Oregon, USA.