Small but growing number of Catholics returns to rigid rules, Latin masses

Knight Ridder Newspapers, July 9, 2003
BY LISA FERNANDEZ, Knight Ridder Newspapers

SAN JOSE, Calif. – (KRT) – Tucked away in the hills of Los Gatos, Calif., is a conservative Catholic retreat where much of modernity is rejected: Priests wear ankle-length black cassocks, children’s play structures look like ancient castles, and Mass is celebrated in Latin.

The St. Aloysius Retreat and Camp Center is a hub for Silicon Valley’s traditionalist Catholics. They are a small but growing body of worshipers who believe mainstream Catholics are too open-minded, the pope isn’t strict enough, and all other denominations of Christianity stray from the true path of God.

The movement is receiving renewed interest as actor Mel Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic, is helping fund the construction of a multimillion-dollar church in Los Angeles County’s Agoura Hills where the Latin Mass will be said.

At the same time, some traditionalist Catholics are capitalizing on last year’s national priest pedophilia scandal to entice disillusioned Catholics back to a world where the New Testament is taken literally and the rules and rituals of the church are rigidly followed.

Andrew Russo, a 37-year-old Salinas, Calif., political consultant who has attended traditionalist Catholic services in basements and garages since he was a child, wants his religion to tell him what is right and what is wrong.

“Everything’s become too Protestant. Too much, `It’s your opinion.’ It’s too New Age-y. And the church is descending into chaos,” he said. “It’s become less about God and more about priest as entertainer.”

Often, the traditionalist message doesn’t bode well in the progressive, diversity-rich Bay Area. Religion should be dynamic, not set in its ways of 2,000 years ago, critics say.

“A professor of mine once said, `Religion is a container for your faith,’ ” said Arlene Goetze of Sunnyvale, Calif., former communications director for the San Jose Diocese and director of the Catholic Women’s Network. “And sometimes you outgrow that container. Rejecting modern thought for religion makes as much sense as living by medicine or modes of transportation of 100 years ago. Religion needs to adapt. If you don’t, you’ll continue to live in ignorance, which isn’t very adult, Christian or spiritual.”

What sets traditionalist Catholics apart to the average lay person is that they celebrate Mass in Latin and believe that no other language should be used during the church service.

Nationwide, the number of traditionalist Latin Mass sites has grown to 524, up 100 from almost a decade ago, according to the National Registry of Latin Masses.

Traditionalist Catholicism was born as a reaction to the landmark Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, when the Roman Catholic Church attempted to make the religion more accessible. For example, Catholic leaders said Mass can be celebrated in any language of the people; women can perform some liturgical duties; and celebrants can receive the Eucharist sacrament from lay people instead of priests. Traditionalists object to all of those changes.

Traditionalist Catholics are not part of the Bay Area dioceses, although the dioceses of San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco all offer in some of their parishes at least one Mass in Latin, mostly for parishioners older than 45 who miss the language.

Traditionalists, however, point out that most of the rituals aren’t kept strictly and therefore believe the entire Mass is invalid. For example, the priest in the diocesan rituals will face the people, instead of the altar, as was codified in the 16th century – an act that ruins the whole ritual, traditionalists say.

Most of the traditionalist splinter groups around the world are not welcomed by the Roman Catholic Church because of their hard-line views.

“I don’t think there are very many traditionalists in this diocese,” San Jose diocese spokeswoman Roberta Ward said. “In Silicon Valley, there’s this mentality of innovation and entrepreneurship. People enjoy change.”

But the movement is popular in pockets of the Bay Area, especially with old-time San Jose Catholics and new immigrants in the Latino, Filipino and Vietnamese communities, said the Rev. Daniel Cooper, head priest of the St. Aloysius retreat. In addition to the Los Gatos center, where 300 worshipers attend on any given Sunday, Cooper said there are a handful of unsanctioned Latin Mass services in the South Bay, Sacramento and Stockton.

Traditionalist Catholicism is most active in the Midwest’s Bible Belt.

Cooper ticks off what he sees as unfortunate changes made by the modern Catholic church.

“They’ve stripped the church of anything devotional,” he said. “Their liturgy is man-centered, not God-centered. The church has become too humanistic. People want to be entertained and happy. Church should be a place where you’re led to God.”

It’s not surprising, experts say, that fundamentalism of any kind exists in the most liberal region of the country.

“It’s precisely because they’re in the belly of the beast that they want to solidify,” said William Dinges, a Catholic University of America professor and the nation’s expert on Roman Catholic traditionalists.

“The West is the most unchurched part of the country, a fertile mecca for sex cults and New Ageism, as they see it. They want a world where things aren’t wishy-washy, where things are either right or wrong.”

Out of 63 million Roman Catholics nationwide, conservative Christian groups estimate there may be about 15 million traditionalists.

However, Dinges said that’s a gross exaggeration. He estimates there may be only 20,000 who comprise the Society of St. Pius X – the largest and most cohesive branch of traditionalist Catholics.

The members of the Los Gatos retreat belong to this order, founded in 1970 by Marcel Lefebvre, a French priest who was banned by the Roman Catholic Church. The inflated figures, Dinges said, may include all Catholics who enjoy celebrating Mass in Latin but don’t follow the sect’s stringent beliefs.

In the traditionalist Catholic world, there are no shades of gray in the issues of abortion and contraception, and women can’t perform liturgical duties. Believing in purgatory is a must. Eating meat on Fridays is forbidden. Women must wear head coverings in church. Strumming a guitar at church or a pastor entertaining the parish with jokes are seen as silly if not sacrilegious.

Also, traditionalists don’t believe in reaching out to other Christian faiths and are angry the Second Vatican Council changed its official opinion of non-Catholics from “heretics” to recognizing them as “separate brethren.”

“The pope is infected with modernism,” complained Eileen Allen, 45, of Oregon who recently attended a women’s workshop at the Los Gatos retreat. “By that I mean ecumenism, that all religions are equal to the Catholic Church. That’s not true. The Catholic Church is the one that Christ founded. Other denominations are man-made.”

Although the convictions about abortion, Communion and purgatory are still the official positions of the Roman Catholic Church, the majority of mainstream Catholics hold somewhat more progressive views, scholars say. Also, Dinges said a key difference is that traditionalists often want to “cast out” anyone who doesn’t take these religious rules literally.

“They are angry that the bishops and the church authority haven’t taken a harder line on dissenting Catholics,” Dinges said. “The great irony though, is that they are bucking papal authority. They are holding themselves up as self-appointed watchdogs of Catholic orthodoxy and are in open conflict with the Vatican.”

Cooper of the Los Gatos retreat said traditionalists are so tough on their fellow Catholics because they love them and want to prevent them from sinning.

“I don’t think what we’re doing is archaic,” said Cooper, who dresses in a black cassock and admits he gets quite a few stares at the grocery store or gas station. “Things are changing so much. People want something they can hold onto, the traditional faith. We’re not doing it out of nostalgia. We just want to be good Catholics.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday July 10, 2003.
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