For centuries, Catholics around the world gathered in their local parishes to worship God in Latin, the official language of the Church and its liturgy. Today, however, guidance from Pope Francis threatens the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), and multiple priests and parishioners in the Archdiocese of Washington (which encompasses D.C. and several Maryland counties) fear that in the coming weeks, Cardinal Wilton Gregory will permanently remove the Old Mass from parochial settings. Setting debates about the virtues and vices of the TLM aside, Gregory’s decision will have serious, real-world consequences for parochial life in D.C.: from uprooting longstanding communities committed to the extraordinary form of the Mass to relegating the TLM to a centralized location that lacks the care of a designated pastor.
Gregory’s decision is unlikely to affect most of the nearly 650,000 Catholics living in the archdiocese who attend the Novus Ordo—a form of the Mass promulgated in 1969 after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and celebrated by most Catholics today, typically in the vernacular. But Msgr. Charles Pope, the pastor at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian on Capitol Hill, warned that this sort of “one-size-fits-all” policy will “deeply hurt” the roughly 1,200 parishioners who attend the TLM on a weekly basis. “If this is fully implemented in Washington,” he said in an interview, “it will isolate people from the priests and the parishes they have known and loved for almost thirty-five years.”
In the District, two parishes that stand to suffer the most are St. Mary Mother of God in Chinatown and St. Frances de Sales at the end of Rhode Island Avenue Northeast. Both parishes feature young and growing TLM communities that account for at least 50 percent of people in the pews on any given Sunday and much of the financial support. Msgr. Pope said that these parishes will be “existentially threatened” if Gregory implements this “policy of Pope Francis” in such an “exacting, to-the-letter manner.” Sid Marcus, who serves as president of the parish council at a small church in southern Maryland, said that banishing the old rite to non-parochial settings would make members “scatter, feel disenfranchised, and seek other TLM alternatives” outside of the archdiocese. This sort of exodus would make it difficult to keep the doors open and could spell spiritual homelessness not only for devotees of the old rite, but also a Chinese American congregation at St. Mary’s and a large African American community at St. Frances de Sales who attend their parishes’ respective Novus Ordo services.
For Patrick Lally, who has been attending the TLM at St. Mary’s since 1989, the situation is “unspeakably disheartening.” “It feels like being abandoned,” he explained. “The Latin Mass is the most tangible connection I have with the Universal Church in its past, present, and future.” More than a liturgical preference, Lally’s feelings are fueled by more than thirty years of devotion. “Three decades ago, with a dying, depopulating downtown, the Latin Mass community made a commitment to St. Mary’s,” he said. “We have nurtured it all these years, renovating the historic church, running a food pantry for the needy, caring for the homeless, and helping at every step to make St. Mary’s a vibrant and living expression of the Church.” Now, he and other parishioners have deeply personal attachments to their parish. “My son served the Latin Mass for ten years and was confirmed at St. Mary’s,” he noted. “My daughter was baptized at St. Mary’s; countless of our children have received first Holy Communion there, married there, and been commended to the Almighty there. All in the ancient rites of the Church.”
Although no less jarring for those affected, Gregory’s most likely decision will hardly come as a surprise. Ever since July 2021, when Pope Francis released Traditionis Custodes, a motu proprio that established a bishop’s “exclusive competence” to authorize celebrations of the TLM, Gregory—whom Francis appointed Archbishop of Washington in 2019 and cardinal in 2020—has formed committees, received (and rejected) multiple invitations to visit parishes that perform the TLM, and hosted synodal listening sessions to consider how to proceed.
Conor Stark, a parishioner at St. Mary’s who participated in a listening session on May 14, said he was “happy that the cardinal was there, and I think he did a good job of going around and listening to as many people as possible . . . but I don’t think that what we said really meant anything.” To Stark, “the whole procedure seemed very top-down,” and the questions presented for discussion “sounded like bureaucratic jargon.”
Meanwhile, outside the listening session, more than seventy-five parishioners from St. Frances de Sales—a church that was in financial ruin before the introduction of the TLM in 2015 helped the parish stabilize and grow—were holding a vigil. According to a recent article in The Lamp, they had gathered to appeal to the cardinal and pray for their “community’s survival.” Among them was a “small girl who insisted on waving a Sacred Heart banner” and a “mother of seven small children” who pleaded with Gregory: “I just buried my husband two days ago, please don’t make me lose my parish.”
When the session ended, those gathered at the prayer vigil were surprised to learn that the TLM “had drawn overwhelmingly positive comments” from delegates that “strongly favored keeping traditional Catholics and their liturgy within parishes in the archdiocese.” The “Spirit,” they hoped, “had spoken.” However, more than a month later, Gregory has still not announced a decision, and the communications office for the archdiocese declined to comment on this story.
The heart of the issue surrounding the future of the TLM is a question of Church unity. When he released Traditionis Custodes, Francis claimed that he was acting “in defense of the unity of the Body of Christ,” and suggested that the TLM has been used “to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.” In general, opponents of the TLM have expressed concerns that communities who continue to celebrate in the old rite reflect a growing “rejection of the Church and her institutions.”
But Catholics throughout the archdiocese insist that the TLM does not sow division; rather, it facilitates unity. “It’s not only that the two rites can co-exist,” Lally said. “In order for the Church to express herself in public worship with all of the fullness of two thousand years of liturgical development, both rites must coexist.” From his perspective, at St. Mary’s “the old informs the new and the new informs the old.” Msgr. Pope, whose parish only performs the old rite on special occasions, agreed, saying “in Washington it has always been our approach to keep people who attend Latin Mass in the parishes. It would help them and help us; it would be mutually beneficial.” Linda Williams, who has been at St. Frances de Sales for more than twenty years, explained that though she doesn’t personally attend the TLM service, she doesn’t see “any harm” in celebrating it. When asked about the question of Church unity, she said that “at St. Frances de Sales we understand that we are one church. We are one group of parishioners.”
Williams added that her heart was especially warmed by “all the children that attend the Latin Mass.” “At the end of the day,” she said, “they are our future and they should have a place in the Church.” She has a point: Even as Catholics in the archdiocese wait with bated breath on their cardinal’s decision as to whether they will be able to continue celebrating the traditional rite in their parishes, they remain one of the youngest and fastest growing segments of the entire Church.
And according to Msgr. Pope, regardless of Gregory’s decision, the TLM community is “going to keep growing.” “They will survive in spite of this,” he said. “Popes come and go, bishops and priests come and go, but the Mass remains.” That may be true, but how long the Old Mass will remain in the archdiocese of Washington is still an open question.
Evan Myers is assistant editor at National Affairs.
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Photo by Servus Tuus via Creative Commons. Image cropped.