Monday, December 27, 2010

The Elderly and the Traditional Latin Mass

Yes, it's true - every now and then I like to report good news (here, for example). Mainly I like to do this in order ro reaffirm the truth that such a thing as "good news" does indeed exist in the world. The good news I am about to relate occured in my very own parish just this month.

Our parish has recently begun offering the Extraordinary Form of the Mass once per month. Normally our Mass times are 8:00 and 10:30, but on the one Sunday a month when the EF is said it is done as a third Mass offered at 12:30. Well, this past month I was attending the monthly TLM and was standing back in the vestibule with my crying, fussing child (where I spend most of my Masses). Sometime during the consecration, the old church doors creaked open and an elderly couple walked in. They apparently did not know there was a Mass going on (the church is normally empty at that time of day) and were quite surprised to see a Traditional Latin Mass being said.

They kind of stood there in dumb disbelief for a minute before the old woman approached me and asked, "Does this happen every week at this time?" I explained to her that it was a monthly thing, at this time at least. She and her husband told me they would definitely be back every month to attend it. and that, had they known it was going on, would have rather come to that Mass than the one they already went to that day. She then said to me, "I haven't seen the traditional Mass in years. It brings tears to my eyes." Visibly moved, her husband and her stayed on for a few moments longer in silent piety before departing. It brought tears to my eyes, too.

This incident reminded me of the elderly and the way they are thrown about as an argument by those for and against the Traditional Mass. For those who wish the Traditional Mass would just go away, the Extraordinary Form is generally seen as a bit of nostalgia for old people who cannot get over their "attachment" to an antique whose time is over. Thus, for progressives, it is only for the sake of some of these pre-Vatican II elderly who stubbornly refuse to die that the Traditional Mass remains in existence; presumably, once this generation dies off, there will be no more of these obnoxious old people to "remain attached" to it and it will therefore disappear.

If we go over to the other side, to the Traditionalist camp and those who are in favor of the Extraordinary Form in varying degrees, we will see not infrequently the charge made that today's elderly are those most against the old Mass. The elderly of today were the adult generation of the 1960's who, in many cases, welcomed the tragic dissolution of our tradition with open arms and are now fighting to make sure that they pass on the decadent  spirit of the sixties before they kick the bucket. Furthermore, it is often said that Extraordinary Form Masses are usually attended by a higher proportion of young persons, suggesting that it must be in some way true that the elderly do not appreciate the old Mass as much as the young.

Ultimately, these are both stereotypes: the elderly as crusty reactionaries nostalgically clinging to "their" old Mass and the elderly as aged, geriatric progressives still fighting on the cusp of death to modernize the Church. As stereotypes, both of these generalizations can be shown to be false in a thousand particulars, but  are paradoxically true as generalizations. It is definitely the case that there are elderly people whose taste for the old Mass is of a nostalgic, aesthetic nature. It is also the case that I have run across more than a few elderly people who are as radical as any progressive of the 1960's and who would rather go to a Protestant service than see a return of traditional implements like communion rails. Both extremes exist within the elderly community, just as they do in any other age demographic.

But the experience I have related above reminded of was the fact that the elderly are not a weapon to be used as a talking point against various sides, something to bash each other with by saying "The elderly want this" or "the elderly support that" (I often wonder if anybody actually consulted the elderly before making these statements). They are not homogeneous, and it is difficult to make accurate generalizations about what the whole demographic prefers - just like it is wrong to say "young people like contemporary music at Mass" when so many do not. The elderly are real individuals whose experience of the tumultuous 60's and 70's has left deep, emotional wounds - they are not monolithic, unthinkingly clinging to something just because it is old, or relentlessly destroying tradition as if it were perpetually 1968. They are complex and, like everyone else, trying to come to terms with what happened in the Church in their own way. This struggling and interior wrestling can especially be seen in the letters of persons who were elderly when the Council happened, like J.R.R. Tolkien, whose comments on the post-Conciliar Church are heart-rending (see here). In these letters we see neither a stodgy, reactionary traditionalist, and certainly not a utopian progressive (although Tolkien was known to loudly and obnoxiously say the Mass responses in Latin long after his parish had switched to English). What the letters do reveal is an old man torn between what he knows is the beauty and power of Catholic Tradition on the one hand and his loyalty to a Church on the other, a Church which he feels in his gut is making a series of misguided decisions. He said to his son Christopher:
"I know quite well that, to you as to me, the Church which once felt like a refuge, now often feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go! (I wonder if this desperate feeling, the last state of loyalty hanging on, was not, even more often than is actually recorded in the Gospels, felt by Our Lord's followers in His earthly life-time?) I think there is nothing to do but pray, for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves; and meanwhile to exercise the virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it" (Letter 306).
What a tragic conundrum to be stuck in for any person to whom the Church has meant as much as it did for Tolkien! Yet this is the conundrum that I think many of the elderly have found themselves in for decades. Perhaps they still wrestle with it; perhaps they long stopped wrestling and have just accepted the status quo, accustoming themselves to mediocrity and modern trends until, like the woman in my story, one day they stumble upon the Traditional Mass somewhere, not in a book or an old black and white film, but being  gloriously celebrated before them, alive and vibrant, as if the past forty years had crashed like a wave upon the Rock of the Mass of Ages but receded, leaving the liturgy immaculately preserved, and only in that moment realizing what was truly lost. Perhaps this encounter is something like what the woman  in my story experienced when tears welled up in her eyes.

Well, the lesson is to not assume that the elderly, or any demographic for that matter, are completely monolithic in their approach to these matters. I see lots of elderly folks at TLMs and also lots of elderly folks who angrily cross their arms whenever my pastor starts praying in Latin. It is good to remember as well that one day we ourselves will be the elderly of another generation's future and in the meantime study the question of the elderly and the TLM a little more in depth.


Kneeling Catholic said...

I think there is useful generalization which is very true i.e......
'The-people-that-run-things' vs the sheep. TPTRT include ordained, religious and religious ed. people and liturgists. If an elderly person is or has ever been a member of TPTRT then they are against the pope's humble initiatives. The sheep are largely indifferent or might be even be receptive to the reforms.

BB said...

I guess your right. I'm from the typical liberal parish in Australia. I would say that about 70 to 80% of the parishioners here have grey hair as most of the young once the get to their teens are understandable outta there. Any mention of "returning to the past" as they see it is met with instant opposition at least by a vocal few which seems like a majority.
Now thanks be to God I have found that there is a little more to Catholicism than what I've been shown (Inpart thanks to this and your co-blog which I stumbled upon about 18 months ago). A semi regular once a month TLM started this year in my diocese a bit of a drive away but I have been blessed to be able to make it to 5 Masses so far and to my surprise the majority attending are the elderly (granted that it is not well attended by any age group). The alter servers and choir are all probably below 30 but it interesting to see that some of the elderly still knew the responses and when to kneel, stand etc.

Hope you and your family had a blessed Christmas.

Boniface said...

Kneeling Catholic-

That is a wonderfully useful rule of thumb. In many cases, the people I mentioned who sit with their arms crossed are in fact members of TPTRT. Thanks!

@BB - God bless you, and thank you for the compliments. I am glad this blog played some small role in helping to deepen your Faith.

Tony W. said...


I see the sense in what you're saying, but in my experience - for what it's worth - I've found that there's a good deal of truth to the view that the elderly are largely modernists. I live in the U.K., and if I were to enter any mainline Roman Rite church on a Sunday, I should most probably find it dominated by a particular demographic group: namely, middle-aged women (and older) with a certain style of dress and world-view. As K.C. said, this demographic also tends to constitute TPTRT, and I imagine that this is a problem for younger, more orthodox priests. It is also, I think, a problem for the Church in general, as they tend to dictate, de facto, the character of the contemporary Church and make it unattractive to anyone outside liberal Christianity. (In spite of whatever old-fashioned modernists may say, 'spiritual seekers' in contemporary Europe are more likely to convert to Islam than liberal Catholicism/Protestantism, as Islam provides an alternative narrative to Western materialism, atheism, liberalism, etc.)

Regarding the liberal claim vis-a-vis the survival of the E.F. and its relation to a remnant of the pre-conciliar faithful, I can only say that these people ought to check their calendars and up-date their arguments. That line of reasoning may have seemed plausible in the '70s and '80s, but it is now nearly 2011, and Catholics steeped in the liturgy and devotions of the pre-conciliar Church must be thin on the ground. We are here talking about the generation of my paternal grandfather, who was born in 1901 and is now dead. If we think about it, a Catholic who is 80 or so would have been only a thirty-something during the upheavals of V. II, and although these are not a persons formative years, a thirty-something is, perhaps, still more likely to reorder comprehensively his world-view than, say, a sixty-year-old.

Anonymous said...

I'm sixty years old. I was in my teens when Latin was virtually removed from the Mass and it was a painful experience. I'm sixty years old and welcome the return of Latin, incense, altar boys properly attired and young priests who are strong in their faith and willing to stand up to TPTRT.