A Ray of Hope in the Wilds of Liberal Catholicism

My son plays small college rugby, so I find myself traveling on weekends in the fall to college towns in the region, sometimes staying overnight on Saturday and needing to find a local Mass on Sunday morning. An important part of preparing for every trip is the search for a Mass which fits the rugby game time constraints and also might hopefully be a more orthodox version of the Mass. If you are a Catholic who has attended Mass in various regions around the country, you know that the manner in which Mass is conducted can vary quite widely indeed. Ideally I would like to find a 7:30 am Sunday Traditional Latin Mass, but the prospects for finding a Traditional Mass, much less an early one, are slim to none.

So on a recent Friday, I perform my due diligence, checking parish websites, and especially bulletins, for warning signs of a congregation which I might prefer to avoid. Such as the one I came across not long ago, which advertised that Father James Martin, S.J., the ubiquitous LGBT advocate, was holding seminars at the parish. In any case, on this Friday I can not find any parish which seems obviously objectionable, so I pick one and hope for the best.

On Sunday morning, I arrive about a half-hour early, in fond hopes that the church might still be quiet, with maybe even subdued lighting, in order to have some silent prayer time before Mass. Alas, I immediately find that “subdued” is a poor characterization of the pre-Mass ambience in this church. The church has a very large and well-lighted vestibule, which is already inhabited by a large group of chattering elderly people, who are happily greeting one another, and whose greetings carry over noisily into the church. As my dear departed mother would have said, “They were having fellowship!” and as I would have said to her, “Yes, Mom, and the rest of us have to listen to their fellowship whether we want to or not!”

Proceeding into the vestibule, a large poster on the wall catches my eye, advertising meetings for progressive causes, in this case gun control and immigrant rights (or as I would more accurately call them, illegal alien rights). I fail to understand why Catholics today so readily tend toward the simplistic, progressive, solve-the-symptom-not-the-cause approach. Given the influence of the powerful intellectual religious thinkers of two millenia who have formed Catholic thought, one would think that Catholics today would bring much more depth of thought to the political arena, yet it seems they do the opposite. Knowing now that I am an imposter among liberal Catholics, I tell myself to be nice, and not grind my teeth too loudly. Sometimes, I know, that the good Lord requires sacrifice of us.

As I enter the church proper, I am accosted enthusiastically by the designated greeter, and am relieved that I am not required to identify myself as a visitor, who might then be called upon to stand up and receive yet more greetings by the assembled congregation later on. Once inside the church, I am confronted with a church interior which looks not at all Catholic. In fact, I start to doubt that I have actually entered a Catholic church, and am siezed with a desire to go back outside and make sure that the sign announcing the name of the church d0es in fact say “Catholic.” This church is lacking many of the familiar signs of Catholic identity. The church is barren for the most part, with blank white walls, and not a votive candle or statue in sight. Instead of the customary Stations of the Cross which are normally positioned on the side walls and which are there to support a venerable Catholic devotion, there are pictures of a few saints. Immediately before me is a large pool of water, and I wonder what it is doing there. I surmise that perhaps it is an excessively large baptismal font, and that maybe in this church they perform immersion baptisms. Anything is possible these days, I think. I look in vain for the small holy water font that can be found just inside the door on most churches, so that I can make the sign of the cross with the holy water in the font. I look again at that pool in front of me, and think, no, that can’t be it. I mean, it’s so large, should I dip my entire hand, and not just a finger, as with the usual holy water font? I look furtively around to try and get a hint from someone else, not wanting to look like a fool dipping my hand into the baptismal font. No exemplars being available, I sidle away from the pool without any dipping, and go in search of a seat.

Now this church has one of those semicircular floor plans, so that when you sit down and face forward toward the altar, your focus is on a large, empty chair, which looks sort of like a throne. This setup presents a real difficulty for anyone who wants to kneel and worship Jesus, knowing that He is present in the tabernacle. In most of these semicircular churches, the tabernacle has been displaced from the center of the sanctuary, and moved somewhere off to the side. If one wants to assume a prayerful position, kneeling, and facing the tabernacle wherein Jesus resides, it is hard to do this. You can get one knee on the kneeler, and face the right direction, but what then happens to the other knee? It must of necessity be either jammed up against the pew in front, or hanging in space without support, depending on which direction you are trying to face and which knee you favor. Such contortions are really not favorable to prayer, but I suppose the church architect didn’t think about that. Or maybe the architect was thinking on a higher level, and intended this twisted knee experience as a minor mortification which would enhance the prayer.

In any case, I really don’t understand the motivation for moving Jesus Himself off to the side. The focus in churches like this is now all on the priest. And while I am sure that Father is a fine fellow, one whom I would respect greatly for the consecrated life that he has undertaken, I still don’t see that he merits top billing in the church.

Now in this particular church, I can not find the tabernacle anywhere. So I am not sure whether I should genuflect. Because the only reason for genuflecting when entering before being seated in a church is to acknowledge the Real Presence Himself in that tabernacle. Now at certain times Jesus is not resident in the tabernacle, and we know when that is because the candle that is usually burning beside the tabernacle is extinguished. But in this church, there does not seem to be any tabernacle, or an associated candle, so not wanting to genuflect toward an empty throne, I forego the genuflection, and hope that the good Lord will forgive my impertinence, should He be hidden up there somewhere.

Finally I am seated, at the end of a row, in case I become overwhelmed and find it necessary to leave early (although I was taught by my parents a long time ago that leaving Mass early is only a last resort and frowned upon mightily by the good Lord). Since I can’t find the tabernacle, and it is brightly lit and noisy in the church, meditation doesn’t seem possible, so I decide to just stay seated and attempt to blot out the distractions. Then, however, my gaze falls upon an unfortunate situation occurring at the front of the church, just to the side of the altar. I see there a collection of folding chairs accompanied by some band instruments, and think, oh, no, it’s going to be a folk Mass. Now I understand that these music folks are dedicated, and doing their best. But I wonder why they also have to be up front, where I have to look at them if I keep my eyes open. At the very least they can be a distraction. And in that regard, this group does not disappoint. A couple of mature women with butch haircuts and pantsuits appear, accompanied by a rather hermaphroditic-looking person (I seriously can not determine whether this person is male or female, and the confusion is amplified by the afro-style hair surrounding a caucasian face). Having made these somewhat critical observations, I fall into a penitential mood, feeling some remorse for having had such unkind thoughts about the diverse appearance of the music ministers, and right before Mass, of all things.

Well, I think, maybe it won’t be a folk Mass (after all, it is 7:30 in the morning), and maybe the music won’t be as bad as I have sometimes experienced, which I have unrepentently labeled “caterwauling.” And also, maybe, mercifully, Mass will soon start. But suddenly I am startled out of my penitential reverie by a commanding voice which bellows a forceful good morning, and declares that we the congregation will now begin our musical training for the morning. Ah, I say to myself, hoping for Mass to start soon was being wildly optimistic. And so an energetic middle-aged fellow with a large (and really quite nice) voice commences teaching us the Gloria and Responsorial psalms that will be sung at this Mass. I have learned in situations like this that it is important to appear to be responsive, because a music minister who feels that the congregation is not responding has the power to continue training us until he feels that we have gotten our attitude right. So I do my best to appear involved, but without singing. This is not easy, but I have become good at it.

While in music training, I notice a young man, I guess to be of middle school age, bustling importantly about the church, and I wonder what his role might be. He confers with a number of people around the church, and then I think, oh, perhaps they are training ushers at a younger age these days. And then I get worried, because as we all know, a vital function of the ushers at the Novus Ordo Mass is the selection of those who will bring up the gifts at the Offertory. This drama is played out every Sunday, and can be quite enjoyable to watch, unless you are the selectee. The usher will cast a discerning eye about the congregation, seeking a likely set of candidates. You can tell when he finally makes a decision, and begins moving toward the victims, who promptly become so absorbed in such deep prayer that they can’t possibly be expected to respond to any interruption. But any usher worth his salt is not deterred by this, so eventually the hapless candidate has to acknowledge that hand upon his shoulder. At which point, the whispering begins, the husband looks at the wife (help!), the wife glares back at the husband (this is your fault, I told you to sit farther back!), and the kids attempt to disappear under the pew. Finally, the inevitable is accepted, because what good Catholic family can possibly turn down the honor of bringing the gifts up to the altar for the Offertory? I often wonder how these selections are made. Does the usher go for someone who will reliably say yes, or does he look for that one who is most studiously avoiding his gaze?

As the opening procession begins to form at the back of the church, it turns out that the busy middle-school boy is actually an altar boy in civilian clothes. He is accompanied in this duty by a slightly older and much taller girl, also in civilian clothes. It appears that the customary robes for the altar servers have been dispensed with in this parish. I find this interesting, because I have been to other Catholic churches where everyone on or even near the altar, including the music ministers, are richly clad in robes of various sorts. I remain mystified as to the symbolic significance of either no robes or too many robes.

I am feeling somewhat relieved because I see the priest at the back of the church, ready to proceed into the church for Mass. Now at least the distractions will be over (aside from the continual gaping yawns of the afro-adorned music minister up front) and I can concentrate on the Mass itself.

But I have once again misled myself as to the impending commencement of Holy Mass (or the Eucharistic Celebration as it is called in this parish). Suddenly another man proceeds to the pulpit, declares a good morning to all, and demands that we all stand up and greet one another. Since it was totally unexpected, I inadvertently mutter “What the hell is this?,” which I fear, was regrettably heard by the nice lady in front of me who was about to greet me. Somewhat awkward. And so my penitential mood returns, just before Mass begins. I wonder if God has created all of these Novus Ordo innovations in order to create a more humble disposition in me. Probably.

So Mass begins, and proceeds as usual, mostly singing, and with literally no way to read the prayers of the Mass because there are no missals in the pews. It seems that someone has decided that reading the prayers of the Mass is not participatory enough. Too bad, think I, because the prayers written down in that Traditional Mass missal are some of the most beautiful, reverent, and inspired prayers I have ever encountered.

I await the homily with some trepidation. Who knows what a priest at a church like this might want to talk about? I experience some anxiety right after the Gospel reading, because the priest takes the large lectionary from which he read the Gospel and comes forth with it from behind the pulpit. I think he might be one of those priests who roams about the altar and front of the church while sermonizing, and maybe even wants participation from the congregation. Now I have to worry about how to not catch Father’s attention, if he comes my way during the homily. But Father does not proceed any further, and instead places the lectionary on a shelf in front of the pulpit, with the open pages facing the congregation, apparently another new custom implemented at this church, which must have a meaning that escapes me.

And then the miraculous event happens. Any concerns I had about what this priest might say were completely unwarranted. Here, in this church, where it seems as if someone has worked hard to to remove every sign of Catholic tradition, is a priest who boldly proclaims the truth.

The readings for that day include the story of the Maccabean martyrs, a mother and her seven sons, who were tortured and killed by Antiochus IV of Syria for refusing to break God’s laws. Father admires their fighting spirit, and says that we in our day should emulate that fighting spirit in defense of our faith. And then I almost fall out of my seat (recall, I was at the end of the row), as Father proceeds to cite as an example of such a fighting spirit the young Catholic man from Austria who took it upon himself to hurl the pagan Pachamama goddess statues into the Tiber River recently. These were the goddess statues which had been employed in certain papal ceremonies associated with the recent Amazon synod held at the Vatican. The use of these pagan goddesses in ceremonies conducted right at the very heart of the Catholic Church has been extremely controversial, prompting public condemnation of their use by Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan, among others. [1]

I ask myself, did Father really just say that? Is he allowed to say that? Gee whiz, I hope he doesn’t get into trouble! I want to jump up and shout out a hearty Amen!, and then I remember that we Traditional Mass types don’t normally exhibit that sort of behavior at Mass. So I have to be content with a big smile on my face, and must also confess to some self-righteous satisfaction, when I hear some unhappy grumbling in the pews behind me right after Father makes that statement.

Let me explain why I think this is a big deal. It is very unusual, at least in my experience, for a Catholic priest to defend Catholic teaching on controversial issues, such as the many social issues of the day, from the pulpit. For example, in my sixty plus years of attending Mass, I have very rarely heard a parish priest preach on the evils of abortion. It is even more unlikely that a Catholic priest would emphatically preach against contraception, or would attempt to teach the congregation about the disordered nature of homosexuality.

The use of these pagan Pachamama statues and the accompanying rituals within the Vatican is only the latest in a long series of contentious initiatives erupting from this papacy. However, very few among the Catholic hierarchy have found the courage to even raise questions on such issues, as did the four Cardinals who famously wrote the “dubia” questions requesting clarification of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Yet here is an ordinary parish priest who is not afraid to challenge this latest aberration emanating from the Vatican.

Therefore, I am in almost a euphoric state, recognizing that what I have just experienced is really quite a significant event. So much so that I serenely overlook the other common Novus Ordo irritants arising during the remainder of Mass, such as the employment of numerous Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist for Holy Communion when they are clearly not necessary, or the ignorant use of the “orans” posture for prayer by members of the congregation when it is actually proper only to the priest. [2]

As I depart the church for the pitched battles on the rugby field I am about to enjoy, I feel greatly encouraged. Hearing this one courageous priest forthrightly speak the truth about the distressing use of pagan goddesses in the Vatican has been very refreshing indeed, and I am reassured that even in the midst of the confusion currently bedeviling the Church, there is still reason to hope that the battle for the Church is not yet lost.


1. Schneider, Athanasius. “Bishop Athanasius Schneider: Pachamama was worshiped at Vatican and it wasn’t harmless.” Lifesite News. November 20, 2019.

2. Izolt, Jason. “The Faithful Are NOT To Use the Orans Posture During the Our Father.” Catholic365.com. October 30, 2016.