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Articles: Pastoralia

Why Do Good Priests Leave Bad Impressions?
Rev. Anthony Cekada

What kind of impression do we traditional priests allow people to get when they come to one of our Mass centers for the first time? Do these newcomers feel they've been encouraged to return? To help answer the question, let's construct a little scenario.

      Imagine that you're a young Catholic layman with a wife and two small children. You're upset with the goings-on over at the local parish, St. Teilhard's. Almost everything there contradicts what you know is Catholic teaching. Liturgical practices run from the fuzzy and the bland to the wild and zoo-like. You've had enough.

      You see an ad for the traditional Latin Mass. The bishop of the diocese has denounced the traditional Mass folks as renegades and non-Catholics. But (you figure) the bishop wouldn't know a real Catholic if one bit him on the nose.

      You get up early on Sunday - the Mass center is half an hour away - pack your somewhat skeptical wife, your antsy six-year old and your rambunctious toddler into the car and head off.

      You wander into the chapel and take a seat at the back. A dour-looking gentlemen appears with a little lace doily, thrusts it at your wife, and says "Here!"

      Mass was scheduled for 9:00 AM. It starts fifteen minutes late. Father, it seems, was finishing up confessions.

      Mass begins. You're impressed with the quiet reverence of the rite, but can't figure out what's going on.

      Father goes to the pulpit. A whole series of announcements follow. Father reads a lengthy and hard-to-follow statement about who is forbidden to receive Communion - something about doubtful baptism, invalid marriages and the Novus Ordo (whatever that is).

      He then gives a sermon castigating "liberal parents" for not sending their children to his school, and reads out everyone generally for not giving enough financial support to his school. What a sermon!

      At least you thought it was the sermon. The Epistle and Gospel then follow in English. After this Father launches into a 25-minute denunciation of the Novus Ordo (There's that weird phrase again!) and the pope (I thought he was a good guy!), replete with pulpit-pounding and dire threats that anyone associated with either will probably go straight to hell.

      Father stops dead halfway through all this and casts a withering stare in your direction. Your restless toddler, it seems, has been making noise. Your wife shamefacedly hushes the child.

      At long last, Father winds up his 45 minutes of pulpit time and returns to the altar. You're impressed with the way the Mass proceeds - until Communion time, that is.

      You receive Communion, but Father stops at your wife. "You're improperly dressed," he snaps, "and I'm not giving you Communion."

      This mystifies you. She's wearing baggy slacks and a high-necked, sleeveless blouse - compared to the way the women dress over at St. Teilhard's, your wife is dressed like Queen Victoria.

      She slinks away from the communion rail.

      When Father finally leaves the altar it's 10:40 AM - one hour and forty minutes after Mass was scheduled to begin. (Later you learn that this was only Low Mass - and wonder how long the ominously-named High Mass would take.)

      You head out in hopes of catching the priest to ask him a few questions. Too bad, the usher says, Father is already off to say Mass somewhere else.

      You look for something to explain what went on. In the pamphlet rack, all you find are a couple of old novena books.

      Most of the people ignore you - but not everyone. One lady latches on to you. After some brief preliminaries she warns you that the priest is really a monster. She is joined by another woman who tries to be very helpful about explaining the situation in the Church after Vatican II. Something about flying saucers, and how the pope is really a robot controlled by a computer in Brussels named "666." She learned this, she confides, when she was held captive by David Rockefeller in the dungeon of the Chase Manhattan Bank.

      "Speaking of which," you say with a wan smile as you and your wife edge sideways towards the door, "Time for us to 'chase' off to breakfast."

.          .          .          .          .

      It would be nice to tell you that I've invented the foregoing horrors merely to make a point. Alas, I've either perpetrated them myself at various points in my priestly life, or allowed them to go on at Mass centers I've served - though mercifully (I hope!) not all on the same day.

      We priests who say the traditional Mass often conduct our ministry without giving too much thought to the "unconverted" - lay Catholics who are profoundly dissatisfied with the new religion, but who are still trying to figure out what to do in the practical order. These souls may hear about a traditional Mass in their area and decide to check it out. They probably know that the Conciliar establishment considers us renegades. It's a big step for them to walk in the door of a traditional chapel on a Sunday morning. When they do, it may be our only chance to convince them. If these newcomers receive a bad impression the first time around (that we are insular, weird, a clique, etc.), the chances are, short of an extraordinary miracle of divine grace, that we will never see them again. How might we improve this first impression?

      As a first step, traditional priests ought to look at what goes on in their chapels from the perspective of someone who is coming to the traditional Mass for the first time.

      In our scenario, is it likely that the hapless father of two would return? Hardly. While he started out well-disposed toward the traditional Catholic faith and has made what he considered a considerable sacrifice to investigate matters, just about everything he encountered militates against him proceeding further. The lay people he encounters are rude or weird. He's received no information about what's going on. Odd rules with unfamiliar terms are announced. The operation seems poorly organized. The announcements and sermon are windy tirades. The priest humiliates the man's wife and children. And the whole thing goes on forever. Everything, in short, is like a giant arrow pointing the poor layman and his family back to St. Teilhard's.

      These specific difficulties represent failures in communication, good manners, common sense and charity. The priest in charge of a Mass center neglects to provide a potential "convert" with proper information, or allows him to be treated like a leper when he shows up.

      Here are some practical suggestions to avoid this problem.


1. Instruct your ushers on how to be polite and considerate to new people.

      The first traditional Catholic the newcomer will encounter may be an usher. Make sure the usher knows he's supposed to be helpful, polite and diplomatic to newcomers. He's not supposed to stand around doing nothing, like a cigar-store Indian. Nor on the other hand should he act like the East German Grenzschutz patrolling the Death Strip.

      When newcomers arrive, the usher should give them booklets with the Ordinary of the Mass, and give ladies chapel veils. He should conduct newcomers to places where they won't feel too conspicuous. (Imagine coming to the traditional Mass for the first time and winding up in the first pew at High Mass. Even some people who've been with us for years can't figure out when to stand, sit and kneel.)

      If a lady arrives dressed improperly, the usher should know how to deal with the situation diplomatically. For borderline cases, you may want to have the usher discreetly lead newcomers to the choir loft or cry room.

      After Mass, the usher should keep an eye out for new people and direct them to the social area.


2. Start Sunday Mass on time.

      One feature of normal parish life is that the priest emerges from the sacristy on time. A Mass scheduled for 8:45 AM should begin at 8:45 AM. Some parishes before Vatican II even had mechanical sacristy chimes which sounded automatically when services were to begin.

      While circumstances beyond your control may occasionally force you to begin Mass a bit late (a delayed flight, missing altar boys, etc.), don't make it a habit. Starting Sunday Mass at the appointed hour is an act of consideration toward those layman who arrived on time, and is a good example to those inclined to be late. An egregiously late start will leave the newcomer with the impression that you are disorganized.


3. Avoid protracted pulpit announcements.

      These needlessly stretch out the length of Sunday Mass. Announcements are not supposed to be mini-sermons, so limit yourself to a few brief comments on one or two events of particular importance, and then refer people to your bulletin. If nothing truly significant is going on during the coming week, don't bother to make announcements, other than the one directed toward newcomers. (See below.)


4. Provide first-time visitors with a pamphlet containing Communion and dress code rules.

      Rather than reading a complex set of Communion and dress code rules at announcement time, prepare a simple and politely-worded pamphlet containing all the requisite information. Have copies in the pews, and ask newcomers to read it.


5. If you occasionally do parish mailings, have visitor cards in the pews.

      Some first-timers may not be willing to register as members right away, but would like more information. Consider providing a visitor card where they can give you their name and address without actually joining the church. Put one box on the card for them to check if they'd like more information, and another if they'd like an appointment to visit with the priest. Put them on your church mailing list so they can be kept apprised of various church activities. If they don't come back right away, a parish mailing at a later date may get them thinking.


6. Give a free information packet to newcomers.

      This should include a short and simple pamphlet on the differences between the traditional Mass and the New Mass, and (if possible) another pamphlet on the effects of Vatican II. Other items could be added: a guide for using the Missal, a booklet with the Ordinary of the Mass, a pamphlet on how to say the Rosary, an inexpensive rosary, an examination of conscience form, holy cards, and various devotional pamphlets.


7. Stock a selection of good Catholic reading material.

      Ideally, every traditional chapel, even a small one, should have a book and religious goods table of some sort. A selection of standard books on the spiritual life, Church history and Catholic doctrine should be kept in stock, as well as vernacular missals, devotional manuals and religious items. Longer works on the post-Vatican II crisis and the New Mass, and various traditional Catholic periodicals should be prominently displayed so that a newcomer can educate himself on the issues.

      Don't forget to check the table periodically to insure that someone hasn't put out objectionable literature potential converts would find bizarre. (The flying saucer lady may have written a pamphlet on her visit to the Chase Manhattan.)


8. Every Sunday make at standard announcement welcoming new people.

      This idea may sound a bit corny. But remember that the traditional Mass is a completely different world from what the newcomer normally experiences on a Sunday. You should try to make him feel a bit at home.

      My standard announcement runs something like this:

      "If you're new at St. __________'s, we welcome you to the traditional Latin Mass.

      "In the pews you'll find a pamphlet explaining our communion rules. Please take the time to read them over before you receive Holy Communion.

      "Also in the pews is a Visitor's Card. You may want to use this to give us your name and address so we can put you on our mailing list. We send out a letter periodically to apprise people of our church activities. There are also boxes you can check if you'd like to receive further information, or if you'd like an appointment to speak with a priest.

      "If, however, you'd like to register as a member of St. __________'s, there are special cards available for that purpose in the vestibule.

      "Also available free of charge to newcomers is a little information packet which explains the differences between the traditional Latin Mass celebrated here at St. __________'s and the New Mass celebrated in your parishes. Please pick one up in the vestibule or at the book table.

      "We have a fine selection of Catholic literature available at our book table.

      "Coffee, doughnuts and snacks are also available in the church social hall downstairs after all Masses. We invite you to stop by.

      "If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to speak with me after Mass."

      It may seem like a lot, but once you've got it down, you can make the announcement rather quickly.


9. When preparing a sermon, remember that there may be newcomers in the congregation.

      The easiest types of sermons to give are doom-and-gloom harangues, foaming-at-the-mouth anti-Novus Ordo diatribes, or tirades against other traditional groups. Preaching this way requires little or no preparation, since about all you need do is lock on the target du jour and rave till you run out of steam.

      Some traditional priests have been feeding their congregations a steady diet of this thin and bitter gruel every week for years. This disedifies newcomers and cheats the old-timers. Far better to present a good mix of topics: the lives of the saints, exposition of Catholic doctrines, ascetical practices, the sacraments, liturgical texts, etc. These are subjects people in the Novus Ordo hear precious little about.

      When you decide to preach a sermon pointing out (as you should) some evil of the new religion, be particularly careful in your preparation. Get your facts straight (obviously), and try to make an argument which will strike people as objective. This will be far more convincing to the "unconverted" or skeptical among your hearers than a string of buzzwords and bromides indignantly shouted with quaking voice.


10. Keep your sermons short.

      Good, effective writing, all the style manuals say, is ninety percent editing. Over the course of two millennia, several thousand books have been written on any standard sermon topic you choose. Don't weary the people by trying to give it all to them in an interminable sermon. Unless you're another Lacordaire or a Fulton Sheen, twelve to fifteen minutes should be long enough on an average Sunday.

      Choose two or three clearly-formulated points, tell a story, give the people something specific about each point, sum up, and quit. "Be bright, be brief, and be gone," my old rhetoric professor used to say. "And if God hasn't given you the gift of being bright, at least be brief and be gone." If you're a windbag, you will irritate newcomers and put your regulars to sleep.


11. Don't single out someone for public correction unless his conduct is not only improper, but also obstinate.

      The wailing baby during the sermon is the classic case. Usually parents are considerate and will remove the child. Sometimes, though, this won't dawn on them right away - after all, Mom and Dad are used to the crying. A new couple, moreover, may be the ones whose child has the lung capacity of the Hindenburg. If you get angry, you may lose them.

      Parents may get the hint if Father pauses in his sermon and, with a confused look on his face, eyes his sermon notes as if he's lost his place. If you proceed and the problem still continues, try to find a diplomatic way to phrase the second hint.

      If the ushers have done their job and if new people have a pamphlet containing the rules for receiving Holy Communion, you'll have few problems at the communion rail. The occasional woman who shows up for the first time in slacks, but is dressed modestly otherwise, should probably not be turned away. She hardly seems to qualify as one of the indigni to whom the sacraments must always be refused; chances are, she is not of bad will, and just wasn't paying attention.

      Some traditional priests like to conduct lengthy interrogations at the communion rail. I've never seen this recommended in any moral theology book, and I never remember a priest doing it at even one of the countless Masses I served before Vatican II. If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, it may be better to have the ushers interrogate people as they're coming in before Mass.


12. Have coffee and snacks available after Sunday Masses.

      Few of our parishioners live near our Mass centers. They appreciate something to eat and drink before they begin their trip home, especially if they have a platoon of hungry children in tow. In most places, moreover, the only occasion our people have to socialize with fellow traditional Catholics is after Sunday Mass. If you have coffee and snacks available, you'll be able to build up some parish spirit and offer newcomers an opportunity to meet other Catholics.


13. Assign some well-spoken parishioners to seek out newcomers.

      In every traditional chapel, you can always find people who are not only knowledgeable and highly articulate about the traditional movement, but also very outgoing and sociable. Ask them to look for new people after Mass, make them feel at home, and discuss thing with them. This prevents the parish troublemaker or the local seer and mystic from pouncing on the hapless newcomer.

      Assigning someone to the task of explaining things to new people will also allow you some time after Mass to make a short thanksgiving and then go immediately to the social area so you can.


14. Make a point of speaking personally after Mass to any newcomers.

      This initial contact with the priest may make all the difference between a newcomer returning to the traditional Mass or staying away. If you, the priest, engage newcomers in conversation, they can ask questions. In a few minutes after Sunday Mass, you can put some of their fears to rest, and explain in a simple way what traditional Catholics are doing and why it's right. Make a point of inviting newcomers to phone you or come it for a chat if they should have further questions.

.          .          .          .          .

      The foregoing list is not exhaustive by any means. Some suggestions may belabor the obvious, and not all of them may be feasible or even useful in every traditional chapel. They are, in any event, the product of much trial and error over the years.

      We traditional priests sometimes feel we can win converts solely by appealing to intellects. But when people first come to the traditional Mass, they may not be ready for cold logic right away - Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum, St. Ambrose reminds us. If, when newcomers arrive for the first time, we treat them with consideration, good manners, common sense and charity, we stand an excellent chance of seeing them again.

(Sacerdotium 11, Spring 1994).

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