Two Sunday morning Masses in Charlotte, North Carolina, seen via video posted on each parish website, tell a story.
At St. Peter Catholic Church downtown, a Jesuit community, Mass goes on much like it does in most of the country. Jesuit Father James Shea, the pastor, faces the congregation. A female lector provides a reading. The homily brings in the gospel reading for the day, which describes Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. There’s a lesson there about women’s service, says Shea.
“Our church will be much better off if more women had more authority and more leadership roles,” he says in the homily.
Ten miles northeast, near the University of North Carolina campus, St. Thomas Aquinas Church offers another kind of liturgy. The vestments and costuming are elaborate, with a few dozen participants near the altar. Everyone serving at Mass is a male cleric, and they are accompanied by male altar servers. The women in the congregation are bedecked with head coverings. Communion is on the tongue, a practice questioned by some during the pandemic.
The homily focuses on issues such as preparing “spiritual weapons” for the upcoming season of Lent and decrying a recent Pew study that indicates a minority of Catholics accept the fullness of church teaching on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Charlotte, a region of more than 2.5 million people, the home of the Billy Graham Library and Billy Graham Parkway, is a classic booming New South city. It is still overwhelmingly Protestant and evangelical, but Catholic transplants from the North have created their own inroads. The Catholic Diocese of Charlotte encompasses western North Carolina and includes more than 235,000 Catholics. In many ways, the liturgical diversity of the diocese reflects that of the U.S. church as a whole. However, upon closer look at these two parishes—and others like them—it is unclear whether St. Peter and St. Thomas Aquinas are just two examples of the diversity of our faith or reflect growing hard-rock divisions.
The two parishes described previously illustrate a tension that is going on across the country between parishes that see themselves as living out the legacy of the Second Vatican Council and those that have become known as rad trads (shorthand for radical traditionalists), a movement that is quietly transforming parishes around the country.
A prime example is St. Matthew Catholic Church, another parish in the Diocese of Charlotte, that once boasted a congregation of more than 30,000 and claimed to be the largest Catholic parish in the United States.
It may not be so large at the moment, as the parish reacts both to COVID-19 and a change in parish leadership.
Jane Francisco, a former parishioner at St. Matthew, moved to Charlotte from the Philadelphia area and immediately gravitated to the parish. Led by Msgr. John McSweeney, who retired in 2017, Sunday Mass at St. Matthew routinely filled the 2,000-seat sanctuary, with rollicking music that combined Gregorian chant with contemporary Christian evangelical pop.
The parish was huge, but McSweeney offered a small group for just about everyone. Some 7,000 parish volunteers participated in 103 different ministries. There were small groups for every available interest, from scripture study to social justice ministries to support groups for those who were divorced and remarried.
A similar drama is happening all over the country: In come the smells and bells, out goes an emphasis on inclusion and social justice.
“Father McSweeney could make the parish seem small,” says Francisco. However, since McSweeney retired, she says, the parish no longer has that welcoming vibe.
One homily earlier this year declared that only Catholics could expect to go to heaven. Another argued that Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez should be made a cardinal for challenging newly elected President Joe Biden’s stance on abortion. The music has a more formalistic tone. While the Mass is still in English, parishioners expect that Latin will be incorporated soon.
A similar drama is happening all over the country: In come the smells and bells, out goes an emphasis on inclusion and social justice. Former parishioners may leave for another parish, or even another denomination, but their ranks are often replaced by new parishioners, often from miles away and often wealthy and more likely to give large sums to the church.
Some church insiders argue this is nothing new, merely liturgical pluralism in action, a necessary counterreaction to folk guitar and tambourines, a reclaiming of the riches of church music and chant. They are also quick to note that the rad trad parishes are often filled with young, large families, replacing aging Baby Boomers who came of age during Vatican II but whose vision of church renewal, they say, has largely passed.
Rad trads fill social media insisting that they are instigating a cultural renaissance. It’s about offering a worship haven removed from a coarsened culture, proponents say.
However, not everyone feels that the changes are beneficial. Father John Hoover, a priest of the Diocese of Charlotte who lives in a contemplative community in Mount Holly, North Carolina, says that post-Vatican II Catholics in the Diocese of Charlotte often feel like spiritual orphans, left adrift as parishes transform themselves into traditionalist models. The region is known for parish shopping as Catholics seek out amenable spiritual and religious communities.
At St. Gabriel Catholic Church, a parish just to the south of Charlotte, the church’s Just Life group, a chapter of a social justice advocacy organization which attracted interest from around the area, was disbanded by the pastor for not being Catholic enough during one of these transitions. “We didn’t know what that means,” says Francisco, a former member of the group.
In response, Francisco and other Diocese of Charlotte parishioners formed a chapter of Voice of the Faithful, which grew out of the sex abuse scandals in the early part of the century in the Archdiocese of Boston and is dedicated to changing the church from within, particularly in the areas of scandal response, financial accountability, and lay input into parish and diocesan decisions.
Others feel like the new rad trad parishes are less open to lay ministries of any kind.
“It used to be our opinions mattered. They listened. Most of the time they treated us like we were important. Today they don’t know who we are.”
Don and Janet Garbison were parishioners at St. Matthew for 24 years, and they describe a parish that was alive with lay ministries. St. Matthew was once known as a model parish, able to pull together tens of thousands of parishioners and make them work as one. Now, they say, projects are consigned to either clergy or parish staff and lay input is no longer considered.
Don Garbison once toured the country visiting parishes attempting to emulate the success of St. Matthew, including St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica, California. “Nobody is asking for that anymore,” he says.
“It used to be our opinions mattered. They listened. Most of the time they treated us like we were important. Today they don’t know who we are,” Don says. People have left, he says, in part because of COVID-19 restrictions, in part in reaction to the changes.
Janet Garbison is a convert. Fifty years ago, she felt the excitement generated by Vatican II. Now she speaks forlornly of a church that used to invite lay participation but is now, she says, dominated by clericalism.
“If it wasn’t for Vatican II I would not be a Catholic. It has been tremendous for me. I bought into Vatican II,” she says. But now, she says, “it’s totally changed. It’s not what Vatican II spoke of.”
“Men of nobility”
Father Hoover believes that one reason for this shift is seminary recruitment and education. Pastoral leadership, says Hoover, should emerge from parish life rather than being imposed from outside.
Hoover describes a diocesan clergy wracked with divisions between those formed in a post-Vatican II consciousness, mostly older, and younger rad trad priests.
Bishop Peter Jugis of Charlotte rarely talks to the media and did not respond to inquiries for this article. But Hoover, who is 76, says the bishop welcomes rad trad new pastors, sometimes from dioceses outside of Charlotte. They provide the steady stream of clergy necessary to minister in Charlotte, which is grappling with a growing number of Catholics and a declining number of clergy.
“Seminaries are a big part of the problem,” says Hoover. “They are institutional, cold, and ineffective,” and, he says, expensive to run. He suggests they be dismantled in favor of an apprentice system, much like the system in the church before the Council of Trent established a seminary training system featuring institutions often spiritually and physically apart from the rest of the community.
Bishop Jugis has put extensive diocesan resources into a new junior seminary to train and welcome this new generation of priests. The focus, according to a diocesan appeal, is to create “men of nobility.”
A pattern has emerged: More young men are entering intent on creating a pre-Vatican II style of priesthood they may have read about but never personally experienced.
Jesuit Father James Martin, popular spiritual writer and editor-at-large for America magazine, also notes how some U.S. seminaries have taken a lurch rightward in recent years. A pattern has emerged: More young men are entering intent on creating a pre-Vatican II style of priesthood they may have read about but never personally experienced. Some gravitate to the online world of Catholic conservative websites, a kind of parallel magisterium led by writers and preachers from Church Militant, Lifesite News, and EWTN.
“It is an important story in the church that nearly everyone is missing: A wave of priests formed in this way who will, in a few years, become pastors, often at odds with what their parishioners have appreciated at parishes that have welcomed their participation,” says Martin.
“In many cases I have heard of newly ordained priests simply disbanding parish councils, removing women from roles of leadership, renovating liturgical settings, and upending the entire life of the parish, all without consultation from their parishioners. It leads to feelings of betrayal, isolation, and anger and often makes some of the most active Catholics leave their parishes,” he says.
The purpose of the parish
Chase Jackson is a 26-year-old Catholic convert who is married and a father of two. He regularly attends the Tridentine Mass at Our Lady of Grace Church in Greensboro, part of the Diocese of Charlotte, and says there is an intensity of faith he experiences at the traditional Mass community.
“I feel like everyone going there has strong faith. They believe in what the church teaches and in making it a priority in their lives,” he says.
The preaching, he says, defends church teaching, particularly on issues such as abortion. There is little effort to be deferential to those who might disagree, and that’s a good thing, believes Jackson.
“Being like a real father, calling you to something higher—it makes you evaluate what you need to change,” he says about the preaching at his parish. “It’s a real faith, not wanting to hold back.”
The ancient liturgical rites, he believes, convey a simple message: “God is present. This is serious, this is sacred.” For him, small symbols convey that message, such as altar rails and kneeling at communion.
The ancient liturgical rites, Jackson believes, convey a simple message: “God is present. This is serious, this is sacred.”
Pope Francis, says Jackson, remains a contentious concern among traditionalists. Many are concerned that he is too willing to accommodate modern culture. He points to the pope’s famous question—“Who am I to judge?”—a response to a question about homosexuality, as sowing confusion.
“A good Father would be willing to say that there is a right way to live and a wrong way to live,” says Jackson.
While some, like Jackson, find comfort and meaning in the certainty of the rad trad movement, others feel befuddled by the change. For this latter group of Catholics, an integral part of belonging to a parish is lay involvement in social justice and other parish ministries, and they are unsure how to navigate belonging in a parish community without these opportunities.
At St. John Fisher Chapel University Parish in Auburn Hills, Michigan, a part of the Archdiocese of Detroit, new parish leadership resulted in some 150 parishioners leaving the church, according to 70-year-old John Smyntek, a parishioner who went through the exit.
What was an active parish ministry outreach to Central America and to local food charities has been disbanded. The contract of the former music director, a woman married to another woman, was not renewed. Homilies focus on damnation.
“I prefer something more hopeful,” says Smyntek. He acknowledges there is a small cohort of younger people—the parish is affiliated with the campus ministry of nearby Oakland University—that revels in the assertion of a counterculture Catholicism, complete with elaborate rituals.
While some, like Jackson, find comfort and meaning in the certainty of the rad trad movement, others feel befuddled by the change.
“It doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t understand it. I did it in high school,” says Smyntek.
It is something heard about all over the nation, says Donna Doucette, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, based in Massachusetts.
“We hear this often. New bishops come in and toss out multiple lay-led initiatives and lay leaders, replace Vatican II pastors with less-experienced traditionalists and with conservative religious order priests, and support the more rabid extremist pastors,” she says.
Tensions rose during the 2020 election cycle as some rad trad priests preached regularly from the pulpits about what they said was the Catholic imperative to reelect Donald Trump, says Doucette.
But for Jackson, the radical traditionalist movement is being unfairly maligned. He, for one, has no desire to deny others the post-Vatican II Mass if they want that. “We are being seen as the oppressor,” he says. “But it’s not to belittle or kick anyone. It’s a way to get everyone out of the cultural mess.”
By contrast, St. Gabriel’s Francisco says that it isn’t enough for rad trads and more progressive Catholics to stay in their own separate parish bubbles. She is determined to encourage a church that is more inclusive, inclined toward addressing issues of social injustice, and welcoming to all.
“I am 76 years old,” she says. “And I am going to die fighting.”
Images: Left: Unsplash/marek kizer, Right: Unsplash/Dan Mall