Traditional Latin Mass goers: Pope Francis doesn't understand us

LatinMassMcKinleysSaintoftheDay Matt and Maureen McKinley read the description of the saint of the day, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, from their book of daily saints. | Jake Kelly
LatinMassMcKinleysHome2 Maureen McKinley helps her children through some study exercises in her family's dining room in Phoenix, Arizona. McKinley and her husband, Matt, homeschool their five children and offer the older children a curriculum that includes Latin. | Jake Kelly
LatinMassMcKinleysDetails2 The McKinley's family altar stands in the living room of their home in Phoenix. Maureen McKinley and her family pray a Rosary together each evening. | Jake Kelly
LatinMassMcKinleysGoats2 Maureen McKinley milks one of her family's goats in their backyard with help from three of her children, Madeline (behind), Fiona and Augustine on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. McKinley and her family own two goats, chickens, a rabbit, and a dog. | Jake Kelly
LatinMassMcKinleysHome8 Maureen McKinley and her husband, Matt, drink coffee in their home in Phoenix, on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. The McKinleys attend Mater Misericordiae Catholic Church, which offers the Traditional Latin Mass for its parishoners. | Jake Kelly

With five children ages 10 and under to care for, and a pair of goats, a rabbit, chickens and a dog to tend to, Maureen and Matt McKinley rely on a structured routine to keep their busy lives on track.

Chores, nap times, scheduled story hours - they’re all important staples of their day. But the center of the McKinleys’ routine, what focuses their family life and strengthens their Catholic faith, they say, is the Traditional Latin Mass. 

Its beauty, reverence, and timelessness connect them to a rich liturgical legacy that dates back centuries.

“This is the Mass that made so many saints throughout time,” observes Maureen, 36, a parishioner at Mater Misericordiæ Catholic Church in Phoenix.

“You know what Mass St. Alphonsus Ligouri, St. Therese, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Augustine were attending? The Traditional Latin Mass,” Maureen says.

“We could have a conversation about it, and we would have all experienced the exact same thing,” she says. “That’s exciting.”

Recent developments in the Catholic Church, however, have curbed some of that excitement. On July 16, Pope Francis released a motu proprio titled Traditiones custodis, or “Guardians of the Tradition”, that has cast doubt on the future of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) - and deeply upset and confused many of its devotees.

Pope Francis’ directive rescinds the freedom Pope Benedict XVI granted to priests 14 years ago to say Masses using the Roman Missal of 1962, the form of liturgy prior to Vatican II, without first seeking their bishop’s approval. Under the new rules, bishops now have the “exclusive competence” to decide where, when, and whether the TLM can be said in their dioceses.

In a letter accompanying the motu proprio, Pope Francis maintains that the faculties granted to priests by his predecessor have been “exploited 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.”

Using the word “unity” a total of 15 times in the accompanying letter, the pope suggests that attending the TLM is anything but unifying, going so far as to correlate a strong personal preference for such masses with a rejection of Vatican II.

Weeks later, many admirers of the “extraordinary” form of the Roman rite – the McKinleys among them – are still struggling to wrap their minds and hearts around the pope’s order, and the pointed tone he used to deliver it. 

Maureen McKinley says she had never considered herself a “traditionalist Catholic” before. Instead, she says she and her husband have just “always moved toward the most reverent way to worship and the best way to teach our children.”

“It didn't feel like I became a particular type of Catholic by going to Mater Misericordiæ. But since the motu proprio came out, I feel like I have been categorized, like I was something different, something other than the rest of the Church,” she says.

“It feels like our Holy Father doesn't understand this whole group of people who love our Lord so much.” 

McKinley isn’t alone in feeling this way. Sadness, anger, frustration, and disbelief are some common themes in conversations among those who regularly attend the TLM.

They want to understand and support the Holy Father, but they also see the restriction as unnecessary, especially when plenty of other more pressing issues in the Church abound.

Eric Matthews, another Mater Misericordiæ parishioner, views the new restrictions as an “attack on devout Catholic culture,” citing the beauty that exists across the rites recognized within the Church. There are seven rites recognized in the Catholic Church: Latin, Byzantine, Alexandrian or Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite, and Chaldean. 

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“It’s the same Mass,” says Matthews, 39, who first discovered the TLM about eight years ago. “It’s just different languages, different cultures, but the people that you have there are there for the right reasons.”

Eric and Geneva Matthews with their four children. / Narissa Lowicki
Eric and Geneva Matthews with their four children. / Narissa Lowicki

Different paths to the TLM

The pope’s motu proprio directly affects a tiny fraction of U.S. Catholics – perhaps as few as 150,000, or less than 1 percent of some 21 million regular Mass-goers, according to some estimates. According to one crowd-sourced database, only about 700 venues – compared to over 16,700 parishes nationwide – offer the TLM.

Also, since the motu proprio’s release July 16, only a handful of bishops have stopped the TLM in their dioceses. Of those bishops who have made public responses, most are allowing the Masses to continue as before – in some cases because they see no evidence of disunity, and in others because they need more time to study the issue.

But for those who feel drawn to the TLM – for differing reasons that have nothing to do with a rejection of Vatican II - it feels as if the ground has shifted under their feet.

Maureen McKinley wants her children to understand the importance of hard work, of which they have no shortage when it comes to their urban farm. After morning prayer, Maureen milks the family’s goats with the help of the children. Madeline (age 10) feeds the bunny; Augustine (7) exercises the dog; John (6) checks for eggs from the chickens; and Michael (4) helps anyone he chooses. 

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With a noisy clatter in the kitchen, the McKinleys eat breakfast, tidy up their rooms, and begin their daily activities. They break at 11 a.m. to head to daily Mass at Mater Misericordiæ, an apostolate of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP), where they first attended two years ago. 

Matt, 34, wanted to know how the early Christians worshipped.

“The funny thing about converts is they’re always wanting more,” says Maureen, who was, at first, a little resistant to the idea of attending the TLM because she didn’t know Latin. “Worship was a big part of his conversion.” 

Maureen agreed to follow her husband’s lead, and they continued to attend the TLM. What kept them coming back week after week was the reverence for the Eucharist.

“Matt had a really hard time watching so many people receive communion in the hand at the other parish,” says Maureen. “He says he didn’t want our kids to think that that was the standard. That’s the exception to the rule, not the rule.”

Reverence in worship also drew Elizabeth Sisk to the TLM. A 28-year-old post-anesthesia care unit nurse, she attends both the Novus Ordo, the Mass promulgated by St. Paul VI in 1969, and the extraordinary form in Raleigh, North Carolina, where her parish, the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, offers the TLM on the first Sunday of the month. 

Sisk has noticed recently that more people in her area — especially young people who are converts to Catholicism — are attending both forms of the Mass. While the Novus Ordo is what brought many of them, herself included, to the faith, she feels that the extraordinary form invites them to go deeper.

“We want to do something radical with our lives,” Sisk says. “To be Catholic right now as a young person is a really radical decision. I think the people who choose to be Catholic right now, we're all in. We don't want ‘watered-down’ Catholicism.”

Elizabeth Sisk stands in front of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Elizabeth Sisk stands in front of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina.

With the lack of Christian values in the world today, Sisk desires “something greater,” which she says she can tell is happening in the TLM.

Many TLM parishes saw an increase in attendance during the pandemic, as they were often the only churches open while many others shut their doors or held Masses outside. This struck some as controversial, if not disobedient to the local government. For others, it was a saving grace to have access to the sacraments.

The priests at Erin Hanson’s parish obtained permission from the local bishop to celebrate Mass all day, every day, with 10 parishioners at a time during the height of the COVID pandemic.

“We were being told by the world that church is not necessary,” says Hanson, a 39-year-old mother of three. “Our priest says, ‘No, that’s a lie. Our church is essential. Our salvation is essential. The sacraments are essential.’”

Andy Stevens, 52, came into the Church through the TLM, much to the surprise of his wife, Emma, who had been a practicing Catholic for many years. Andy was “very adamantly not going to become Catholic,” but was happy to help Emma with their children at Mass. It wasn’t until they attended a TLM that Andy began to think differently about the Church.

“He believed that you die and then there is nothing, and he never really spoke to me about becoming a Catholic,” says Emma, 48, who was pregnant with their seventh child at the time.

Andy noticed an intense focus among the worshippers, which he recognized as a “real presence of God” that he didn’t see anywhere else. After the birth of their 7th child, he joined the Church.

All 12 of the Stevens’ children prefer the TLM to the Novus Ordo.

Emma and Andy Stevens with their 12 children in Oxford, England.
Emma and Andy Stevens with their 12 children in Oxford, England.

“It’s a Mass of the ages,” says their eldest son, Ryan, 27. “I can feel the veil between heaven and earth palpably thinner.” 

A native of Chicago, Adriel Gonzalez, 33, remembers attending the TLM as a child, which he did not particularly like. It was “very long, very boring,” and the people who went to the TLM were “very stiff and they could come off as judgmental” towards his family, he says.

Gonzalez, who also attended Mass in Spanish with his family, didn’t understand the differences among rites, since Chicago was a sort of “salad bowl, ethnically,” he says, and Mass was celebrated in many languages and forms. 

He took a step back from faith for some time, he says, noting that he had a “respectability issue” with the Christianity he grew up with. He watched as some of his friends were either thoughtless in the way they practiced their faith, or were “on fire,” but lacked intentionality. When he did come back to the faith, it was through learning about the Church's intellectual tradition.

He spent time in monasteries and Eastern Catholic parishes with the Divine Liturgy because there was “something so obviously ancient about it.” He decided to stay within the Roman rite with a preference for a reverent Novus Ordo. 

When he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, Gonzalez committed to his neighborhood parish, which had a strong contingent of people who loved tradition in general. The parish instituted a TLM in the fall of 2020, when they started having Mass indoors again after the pandemic. 

Hallie and Adriel Gonzalez.
Hallie and Adriel Gonzalez.

“If I’m at a Latin Mass, I’m more likely to get a sense that this is a time-honored practice, something that has been honed over the millennia,” he says. “There is clearly a love affair going on here with the Lord that requires this much more elaborate song and dance.”

For Eric Matthews, the TLM feels a little like time travel. 

“It could be medieval times, it could be the enlightenment period, it could be the early 1900s, and the experience is going to be so similar,” he says.

“I just feel like that's that universal timeframe - not just the universal Church in 2021 - but the universal Church in almost any time period. We're the only church that can claim that.”

What happens now?

The motu proprio caught Adriel Gonzalez’ attention. He sought clarity about whether his participation in the extraordinary form was, in fact, part of a divisive movement, or simply an expression of his faith.

If it was a movement, he wanted no part of it, he says.

“As far as I can tell, the Church considers the extraordinary form and the ordinary form equal and valid,” says Gonzalez. “Ideally, there should be no true difference between going to one or the other, outside of just preference. It shouldn't constitute a completely different reality within Catholicism.”

With this understanding, Gonzalez says he resonated with some of the reasoning set forth in the motu proprio because it articulated that the celebration of the TLM was never intended to be a movement away from the Novus Ordo or Vatican II. Gonzalez also emphasized that the extraordinary form was never supposed to be a “superior” way of celebrating the Mass. 

Gonzalez believes the Lord allowed the growth in the TLM “to help us to recover a love for liturgy, and to ask questions about what worship and liturgy looks like.” He would have preferred if what was good was kept and encouraged, and what was potentially dangerous “coaxed out and called out.” 

Mater Misericordæ Catholic Church in Phoenix, Arizona. / Viet Truong
Mater Misericordæ Catholic Church in Phoenix, Arizona. / Viet Truong

Erin Hanson, of Mater Misericordiæ, agrees. 

“If [Pope Francis] does believe there is division between Novus Ordo and traditional Catholics, I don't think he did anything to try to fix that division,” she says. 

Hanson would like to know who the bishops are that Pope Francis consulted in making this decision, sharing that she doesn’t feel that there is any of the transparency needed for such a major document. If there are divisions, she says, she would like the opportunity to work on them in a different way. 

“This isn’t going to be any less divisive if he causes a possible schism,” Hanson says.

According to the motu proprio and the accompanying letter, the TLM is not to be celebrated in diocesan churches or in new churches constructed for the purpose of the TLM, nor should new groups be established by the bishops. Left out of their parish churches, some are worried their only option to attend Mass will be in a recreation center or hotel ballroom. 

Eric Matthews hopes that everyone is able to experience the extraordinary form at least once in their life so they can know that this is not about division.

“I can’t imagine someone going to the Latin Mass and saying, ‘This is creating disunity,’” he says. “There’s nothing to be afraid of with the Latin Mass. You’re just going to be surrounding yourself with people that really take it to heart.”

Maureen McKinley was home sick when her husband Matt found out about the motu proprio. He had taken the kids to a neighborhood park, where he ran into some friends who also attend Mater Misericordiæ. They asked if he had heard the news. 

“I felt disgust at a document that pretends to say so much while actually saying so little and disregards the Church's very long and rich tradition of careful legal documents,” Matt McKinley says.

Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix stated that the TLM may continue at Mater Misericordiæ, as well as in chapels, oratories, mission churches, non-parochial churches, and at seven other parishes in the diocese. Participation in the TLM and all of the activities of the parish are so important to the McKinleys that they are willing to move to another state or city should further restrictions be implemented. 

For now, their family’s routine continues the same as before.

At the end of their day, the McKinleys pray a family rosary in front of their home altar, which has a Bible at the center, and an icon of Christ and a statue of the Virgin Mary. They eat dinner together, milk the goat again, and take care of their evening animal chores. After night prayer, the kids head off to bed, blessing themselves with holy water from the fonts mounted on the wall before they enter their bedroom. 

“The life of the Church springs from this Mass,” Maureen says. “That’s why we’re here—not because the Latin Mass is archaic, but that it’s actually just so alive.”

Editor’s note: Several of the people interviewed here also shared their stories with the CNA Newsroom podcast, and their voices appear on Episode 107: Extraordinary Times for the Extraordinary Form. Click here to listen to the episode.

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