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Why ‘trads’ seek to root the church’s future in the past

Behind liturgical battles lies a search for a more “pure” kind of Catholicism.
In the Pews

If you’ve never attended a Latin Mass before, just know that no one is going to tell you what’s going on.

Most likely, no one will talk to you at all—though you might get a mischievous smile from the little boy on the other end of the pew, fidgeting his way between his brothers and sisters while you try to give his mother a sympathetic nod.

If you’re a girl or woman, you’re likely going to feel out of place without covering your hair. You might be able to grab a spare lace covering in the lost and found, provided you don’t mind not knowing who wore it last.

You’re likely to see a lot of these head coverings and long skirts. But face coverings, as in masks, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, are much less likely.

Unadorned faces. Solemn looks. And the pastor’s back. These are your likely guarantees.

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You’ll also smell the holy scent of incense. You’ll be invited to the table, provided no one knows your political stances. And how would they, when everyone seems anonymous? At least to the uninitiated.

If you take the opportunity to attend a Latin Mass, you could be transported to another place and time. A time when Mass attendance was much more obligatory and serving as an altar boy, even on weekdays, was a matter of course. A time when Catholic families were big, parents were married, and women stayed at home to manage their burgeoning households.

If you squint, you could be taken back further. A journey past the 1950s and before the Second Vatican Council’s American Catholicism to pre-Reformation Catholic Europe. A time when the host itself was so powerful that some wouldn’t even eat it, but instead would carry it back to their homes to set it in a place of honor outside the reach of hungry children or vermin.

These Catholics venerated the host itself because the words were unintelligible. For many, at least. They recited them by rote but had no idea what they meant. The holiness was in the rhythm, routine, tradition, and unquestioned authority of a still-sacred clergy class. Even though then too so many clergy had betrayed their vows in sexual or financial sin, they were seen not as individuals but as holy instruments. Even their language was foreign and indiscernible. Perhaps because of this, it and they were pure.

In a post–Vatican II and post–Spotlight American Catholicism, it’s clear to see why a return to this kind of basic rote Catholic faith would be desirable. That unquestioned trust in the clergy has been shaken. Church leadership itself is divided. There are two living popes, each with his own approach to the rekindling of pre–Vatican II traditions.

Our American religious world has words—so many words. The Bible is a vast and complicated document, and many Catholics interpret it differently. Is it most important to defend the rights of the unborn? Or of the poor? What of criminals condemned to death? How should the church minister to LGBTQ Catholics in its midst? Shall it again confront the question of birth control? Of immigration? Of refugees? Of sanctuary? Shall it be an American Catholicism rooted in English or Spanish?

Perhaps the best, if escapist, answer to many of these difficult questions for American Catholics is to root the future of the church firmly in the past, in an ancient language that has long been considered “dead,” having no native speakers.

Its resurrection, maybe in pursuit of the resurrection of the church of decades past, has become a central purpose of some American Catholics, known colloquially as “the Trads.”

Who are the Trads?

Any parish pastor would likely relish the presence of Kari Aamot and her 10 children in his church. While Aamot rocked her youngest child in a car seat carrier in the pew, two of her older boys served as altar boys during weekday Mass in May 2022 at the Church of All Saints in Minneapolis. Initially established in 1916 to serve the Polish community in northeast Minneapolis, in 2013 All Saints became part of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), a clerical society established in 1988 by St. Pope John Paul II to affirm a sanctioned right for clergy to offer the Tridentine Mass and other sacraments according to the Roman rite as they existed before Vatican II.

Pastors at All Saints declined a request for an interview. Instead, they referred U.S. Catholic to the national FSSP offices, which did not immediately respond to an interview request from the magazine.

The FSSP gained greater importance recently in the church, after Pope Francis issued new restrictions on the Latin Mass in July 2021. In truth, however, these restrictions weren’t new at all but merely reimposed after they had been relaxed by then Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. In December 2021 Pope Francis reiterated these restrictions and made clear that newly ordained priests must be explicitly authorized by the Vatican to celebrate the Roman rite. That effectively limits new practice of the Latin Mass to FSSP communities or to preauthorized priests. Pope Francis also forbade the creation of new parishes dedicated to the Latin Mass.

The stated reason for these restrictions from the Vatican was that Pope Benedict XVI’s reforms had caused division in the church and been exploited by Catholics who were opposed to Vatican II, according to a December 2021 article in Voice of America.

While 2022 marks 60 years since Vatican II, Catholics continue to disagree about its reforms. Much of the traditionalist Catholic community in America continues to oppose the council, and this opposition energizes even those who were born after its ratification, such as Aamot.

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Aamot says she grew up Methodist, though her parents “church hopped” throughout her youth, and she never felt particularly connected to her faith. When she met her husband, Nathan, a graduate of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, she converted to Catholicism prior to their marriage in the church. For a time, the couple attended the Cathedral of St. Paul, in accordance with Nathan’s mainstream Catholic family background.

But as their family grew, Aamot felt out of place with her “big family” at the cathedral. Meanwhile, Nathan was first drawn to All Saints through a young men’s group. The Aamots appreciated the community feel of a smaller parish and access to priests. This community feel and accessibility of priests can seem at odds with outsiders’ impressions of Latin Mass parishes, because the Mass itself feels inaccessible and unfamiliar and people often already know one another.

Through the young men’s group and growing connection to the pastors, the Aamots are now an integral part of All Saints. Their older boys serve as altar boys during the week. Aamot home-schools the kids and joined the parish’s home-schooling co-op, which meets once a week in person and provides a daily schedule with before- and after-school catechesis for students and families.

As the COVID-19 pandemic upended both American public schools and mainstream Catholic schools, many families sought alternative educational options. It’s easy to see why overwhelmed mothers with lots of children would find comfort in the structured community offered by traditionalist Catholics, especially if their husbands are already connected. Aamot says the home-schooling co-op at All Saints includes around 150 to 200 students, and her big family is “the norm.”

In the co-op, students study physical education, elementary science, and writing in addition to options for choir and Latin chant, lives of the saints, the liturgical year, and Lego club. Gender roles, as in the Latin Mass culture of altar boys and head coverings for girls and women, are strictly prescribed, with options for “boy skills” classes and “good and beautiful skills for girls.”

There is a great evil we have to fight.

Kari Aamot

Aamot herself references Vatican II when talking about why her family felt compelled to become part of All Saints and practice the Latin Mass.

“Some of the things we were told in Vatican II really aren’t OK,” she says. “[This community] gives us great reasons for hope. People are more engaged in the faith. There is a great evil we have to fight.”

That sense of “us against the world” is common in traditionalist Catholic communities, and it does lead to the division referenced by Pope Francis when he reinstituted the restrictions on the Latin Mass in 2021. Aamot says that while her Protestant parents initially questioned her conversion to Catholicism, now that the family has joined All Saints, her husband’s mainstream Catholic parents are the ones most concerned with their family’s choices regarding church.

Regarding liturgy

Unlike American Protestants, American Catholics count church tradition and the liturgy of the Mass to be every bit as holy as the Bible itself. So while the “worship wars” between contemporary and traditional worship were a hallmark of American church culture throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the more ancient Catholic liturgy sometimes stirs even greater passions among the faithful.

One church official interviewed by U.S. Catholic is so burned out from refereeing liturgical conflicts in his diocese that he doesn’t want to be quoted on the record, fearing reprisal in the Catholic blog world. He says despite growing up with a deep love for the Mass, the sense that the church is big enough for all liturgical expression is more difficult to find in the midst of intensifying division.

The liturgical battles pitting traditionalist proponents of the Latin Mass against mainstream Catholics, particularly those leading Mass in English, tend to be most pronounced in areas of the country that are predominately white, according to church officials. While interest in the Latin Mass extends to nonnative English speakers and immigrant communities, its most dedicated defenders and leaders in the traditionalist movement tend to be white conservative Catholics. They also draw disproportionately from home-schooling families, possibly because home-schooling allows children to participate in daily Mass on a more regular basis.

Alongside the Latin Mass, American diocesan officials also note the growing popularity of eucharistic adoration. One practical reason for growth in daily options for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and adoration is that lay ministers can lead these rituals, an attractive option especially in rural parishes hit hard by Catholic clergy shortages.

But diocesan officials challenge the notion that interest in practices like adoration necessarily jibes with a Catholic population invested in the Latin Mass and a rejection of Vatican II. Instead, they point to a richness of Catholic liturgical options post–Vatican II, including practices rooted in the Global South and Asia.

While the traditionalist Catholic movement has earned Pope Francis’ attention, given the 2021 reinstatement of restrictions around the Latin Mass, it’s nonetheless still a distinct minority movement in the United States according to diocesan officials. They question the assumption that interest in traditionalist Catholicism is growing. They suggest that the movement is stable, and they reiterate that the sense of mystery and ritual in the Latin Mass may also be found in mainstream Catholic parishes as well as in languages other than Latin or English.

The trajectory of a movement

For many religious Americans, religious identity is formed in childhood but shaped more deeply in their late teens and early 20s, often on college campuses. Andrew Cirillo, who holds a master of divinity degree from Catholic Theological Union, sees that development firsthand in his current role as assistant director for spirituality and religious life at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where he says the Catholic Newman Center is the college’s largest organization. Previously, Cirillo worked at the University of Rochester’s Catholic Newman Community, which has a small but energetic group of students involved in the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

Similar to evangelical groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ, FOCUS groups tend to be more evangelistic and fundamentalist than Newman Centers. They use language such as “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and talk about the Great Commission. FOCUS groups often appeal to people who are drawn to traditionalist Catholicism, and they’ve grown popular on campuses partly because FOCUS chaplains fundraise their own salaries and thus don’t rely on college or diocese funding. As a 2018 article in the National Catholic Reporter states, much of that funding comes from politically conservative donors and organizations.

[FOCUS chaplains] revered devotion. But they didn’t really know what was behind it.

Andrew Cirillo

While FOCUS does not explicitly connect itself to the Latin Mass, Cirillo and his colleague Nora Bradbury-Haehl, associate director of the Newman Center at RIT and author of multiple books on youth and young adult ministry, see some common threads between the FOCUS chaplains and traditionalist Catholics.

“One of [my former parish] students was told that he wasn’t ‘truly’ Catholic because he didn’t pray the rosary daily,” Bradbury-Haehl says. “I would see my youth go off to college and it was such a roll of the dice. . . . Some of them got to a place that only did the March for Life and adoration and didn’t have any social events. It wasn’t open and accepting.”

Cirillo says that the influence of FOCUS groups on college campuses distorts Catholic education and teaching, which historically has been led not only by male priests but also by women, people of color, and religious and lay leaders.

“[The FOCUS chaplains] had like five weeks of training from [Ave Maria], and they had no idea what they were doing,” Cirillo says. “They were completely underqualified for leading Bible studies, and they taught the Bible like it’s a fundamentalist text. Considering that we have a rich history of biblical criticism in the Catholic Church, that was very disturbing.”

FOCUS chaplains, alongside theology in line with Protestant fundamentalism, tend to emphasize traditional Catholic practices such as adoration and the Latin Mass, say Cirillo and Bradbury-Haehl.

“They revered devotion,” Cirillo says. “But they didn’t really know what was behind it. . . . It was less about the community . . . forgetting the bigger body of Christ.”

Both Cirillo and Bradbury-Haehl emphasize that all the students they work with are similar in that they often try on different religious practices and beliefs for size, seeing which ones fit best at a time in life that is often full of exploration. But occasionally they do find students who, full of traditionalist zeal, voice strong opinions and criticism of the Newman Center’s practices, such as the fact that the worship spaces on campus are both interfaith spaces and not traditional antiphonal sanctuaries.

Bradbury-Haehl has seen changes recently in the diocese in general toward a growth in support for traditionalist practices. She says it has been a big shift, especially considering that the diocese had formerly allowed women to preach for decades.

Still, RIT’s student population is diverse, and while some students request more “reverent” liturgies and traditionalist practices, others, including Catholic students who identify as LGBTQ or nonbinary, desire a more open and affirming faith experience.

“My first goal is for people to come back [to Mass],” Bradbury-Haehl says. “Reverence is part of the Catholic liturgy, but it’s not the only or the most important part.”

For their work with young Catholics, Cirillo and Bradbury-Haehl say Pope Francis’ new restrictions are “vital” to rebuild the unity of the church, and they were instituted out of a “pastoral” aim to unite communities.

One Holy Catholic Church

Father Richard Fragomeni, chair of the department of word and worship at Catholic Theological Union, says he has heard a “general longing for what has been” among American Catholics since he was ordained in the mid-1970s.

He reiterates, however, that Vatican II did not institute a new form of the Mass.

“The Novus Ordo is not a new rite, but it is the Tridentine rite by the authority of the Second Vatican Council,” Fragomeni says, noting that one purpose of Vatican II was to allow the Mass to be “enculturated” into various cultures, including by using music that was not Gregorian chant.

While the Latin language and Gregorian chant recall the connection of the Catholic Church to the Roman Empire, neither of them has any connection to the language or music of the Bible or of Jesus. Indeed, Latin was the language of the empire that crucified Jesus.

A scholar of liturgy and theology, Fragomeni wonders if some of the attraction to the Latin Mass betrays a longing of Catholics to find a guaranteed route to salvation, whereby the practice of “perfect” liturgy and the Latin Mass becomes the route to salvation, recalling the experience of Bradbury-Haehl with college students seeking to find “perfect” ways to be Catholic.

Still, this emphasis on liturgy and perfect practice as a route to salvation betrays the Catholic respect for the hierarchy and authority of the church, especially at a time when the pope is seeking to limit liturgical expressions grounded in resistance to Vatican II.

In the absence of allegiance to the Vatican, many traditionalist Catholics find inspiration and authority in right-wing Catholic blogs and right-wing American politicians, Catholic or not. While the conversation around Catholic liturgy is always more complex and rooted in ancient history than conversation around American politics, some trends toward traditionalism in the church mirror trends in right-wing American politics, especially a desire to return to the past and, particularly among white Christians, an interest in “pure” practice and behavior separated from a more diverse and heterogenous American public.

[Extreme traditionalist Catholicism] creates this sort of vacuous hole that people fall into, and you can’t get them out.

Andrew Cirillo

While the Latin Mass may seem confusing and alien to the uninitiated, all the Catholics and Catholic leaders interviewed for this article affirm that within the ancient practice of the Latin Mass and traditional liturgical practices, there is beauty and holiness that speak to a desire among American Catholics to connect to ancient holy mystery, stewarded by the church.

Cirillo affirms the draw of this type of worship experience and the need for the church to provide a sense of holy mystery in every practice of the Mass.

But he also warns against the exclusive nature in which many American traditionalist Catholics hold to the Latin Mass, resistance to Vatican II, and, to a lesser extent, resistance to Pope Francis himself.

“When groups start [worshipping] leaders and traditions that focus on doing one thing—liturgy—well, they ignore everything else about Catholicism since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry,” Cirillo says. “There are no corporal works of mercy. There’s none of that. It’s all about correct form. Worshipping someone who is wearing the surplice or gloves. Bowing down the exact right angle. Not focusing on the person who is sitting outside the church in the alleyway and walking with them.”

He continues: “[Extreme traditionalist Catholicism] creates this sort of vacuous hole that people fall into, and you can’t get them out.”


This article also appears in the August 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 8, pages 16-20). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Mateus Campus Felipe

About the author

Angela Denker

Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist. Her book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump, was published in August 2019 by Fortress Press. Follow Angela on Twitter @angela_denker.

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