Just as many Catholic traditionalists were lamenting Rome’s new restrictions on the Tridentine Mass, I came across a prescient cri de coeur written by a Catholic priest and published anonymously in the pages of the Atlantic back in 1928. To read it is to be reminded that some things never seem to change in the Catholic Church, while other things have changed a great deal, thanks be to God.
I found the essay in Looking Back at Tomorrow: Twelve Decades of Insights from the Atlantic. Published in 1978, the collection was compiled and edited by the late Louise Desaulniers, who was a senior editor at the Atlantic in the 1970s and ’80s—and also a summertime neighbor of my family’s when I was growing up. I didn’t realize that these anthologies were “Atlantic Subscriber editions,” meaning they were never sold in stores or otherwise made available to anyone besides the magazine’s subscribers. My parents had a copy of Louise’s first anthology for years. I recently remembered it and decided to look for it online, where I discovered she had edited three books all together, the last of which was Looking Back.
I bought a copy on eBay. I was curious about which articles had been selected from the magazine’s long history. (The Atlantic was founded in 1857). Desaulniers had included early essays by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and John Muir from the 1800s. W.E.B. DuBois, George R. Harrison and Benjamin DeMott lead the entries from the twentieth century.
But smack in the middle of the table of contents was a series of four essays titled “The Catholic Church and the Modern Mind,” signed Anonymous. Published in four issues of the Atlantic in 1928, these pieces were written by a Catholic priest and professor “at a Catholic college in the West.” The issues he raised, Desaulniers wrote, “were considered by ecclesiastical authority to be worthy of censorship at the time they were written, and yet they represented the questioning of a growing number of Catholic clergymen and they voiced the torments and traumas besetting American members of the Catholic faith.” It would be almost four decades before these issues would be discussed openly at the Second Vatican Council, whose changes are now under attack from many of the same people pouting about the new restrictions imposed by Pope Francis on the Tridentine Rite.
Back in 1928, the Tridentine Rite was, of course, the only rite Catholics in America knew, and so it’s interesting to see what the anonymous priest had to say about the Latin liturgy in his own day. “Strange, indeed,” he writes, “it is to assemble people into a church and then conduct divine services in a language which they do not understand. Why should it be so? Perhaps it has to do with the centralization of ecclesiastical power in Rome. Who knows? But to find a rational basis for the practice is beyond the most zealous protagonist.” Latin, he adds, is not the language in the East, where some twenty different languages are used in approved Catholic liturgies. The liturgy is beautiful, yet how pathetic, he notes, to hear a priest mumbling, in a strange idiom, prayers that his own parishioners cannot understand. “Likewise does he use that dead language when he anoints the sick; when he officiates at funerals; when he assists at marriage; when he administers the sacrament of penance; when he says vespers and benediction; when he offers the sacrifice of the Mass. He also trains his choir to sing this unintelligible tongue at solemn services.” (My Irish grandmother died in 1969 at the age of almost eighty. More than once my own mother told me how overjoyed my grandmother had been to finally be able to hear the Mass in English in the years just before death.)