Embracing Antiquity: Youth Clings to Traditional Latin Mass


Published February 4, 2010

At the beginning of last semester, I started attending a Tridentine Latin Mass across town. The Tridentine Mass is the Latin Mass that was developed in 1570 in the wake of the Council of Trent. The service was solemn and un-rushed, and the congregants were intently pious. The Gregorian chant from the choir sounded like heavenly background music and I was aware that each word and movement in the Mass had significance.

I was refreshed by the lack of liturgical abuses—too many priests stray from the rubrics by changing words, removing sections, encouraging hand-holding during the Lord’s Prayer or allowing liturgical dancing. I was surprised by the sheer number of people present, and particularly struck by the age of the congregants. There were, of course, many tiny old ladies. But the church was full of young people: young couples with small children, people my age, young professionals. What’s more, the people in their late teens to late twenties were generally there alone and returned week after week. I went thinking I was alone in my attraction to the traditionalism of the rituals of the “Mass of all time” (as the Tridentine Mass is affectionately called), but I was wrong.

Several years ago, I was recommended a book called “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy,” by Colleen Carroll. I bought it, even though I didn’t really intend on reading it. Somehow it found its way into the many boxes of books I brought with me to school this fall and I came upon it recently while looking for another book. It was published in 2002, and deals with a rise of Christian orthodoxy in Generation Xers. As I skimmed through it and thought of my experience at the Tridentine Mass, I started to consider how this trend has developed more recently.

We were born to champions of moral relativism, pluralism and choice. Our parents were some of the first youngsters to be catechized based on the Second Vatican Council, which was largely a response to the climate of the time. They came to think they could pick and choose what to believe while still remaining in good standing with the Church. So they took us to church once in a while, where we heard the spirit-of-Vatican-II homily, “I love you, you love me, we’re one, big, happy ecumenical and socially relevant family.”

Most of us call ourselves Catholic even if we don’t go to church, haven’t been to Confession for seven years, wouldn’t know a catechism if we saw one and are only vaguely aware of the Church’s teachings on moral theology. But still, we keep that Catholic identity, and I don’t know that that’s such a bad thing.

For a long time, I’ve felt that my generation would turn to conservatism (not political) in response to the extreme liberalism of our parents. I suspected that young people would be dissatisfied with the ambiguity of their parents’ moral code and would seek more concrete definitions of what “truth” really is. I thought that young people would expect more from an institution that promises eternal truth and salvation than just guitar strumming and “kumbaya.” I’ve always believed that the reason church attendance is down because the priests have made the message too easy to swallow and therefore compromised its integrity. Young people know when a message has no substance, and they won’t waste their time listening to the same baloney that they get in all of their classrooms, books, movies and television shows.

While most of us have fallen away from the church, many of us hunger for a definition of truth that feels as weighty as truth should feel. As a result, it seems that a great deal of young people have challenged themselves, intellectually as well as spiritually, to seek that truth. And for some, including myself, this search had led to a more traditional understanding of Catholicism.

Apparently many of these young people were so attracted to Catholic traditionalism that they turned to the Tridentine Mass. I’ve started to notice this attraction to traditionalism and orthodoxy elsewhere as well. Last semester, Rose Hill’s campus ministry began to hold a Latin Mass on Monday nights (maybe Lincoln Center will follow suit!). On Facebook, there are growing numbers of traditional Catholics in groups like “1,000,000 strong for the Tridentine Latin Mass,” which so far as a little over 3,000 members. One group, “Traditional Latin Mass Catholics” is administrated by a trio of university students and has over 4,000 members, most of whom are under the age of 30.

We’ve been taught to challenge the status quo, which our parents told us was traditionalism, organized religion and moral absolutism, and we believed them. We should challenge the status quo, but we necessarily do that by embarking on a committed search for truth, not by blindly accepting what our parents tell us. Let your search for truth be both intellectual and spiritual. If it takes you where it took me, then you can dust off that Catholic identity you’ve been keeping in your back pocket.