The Old Mass has regained critical mass in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix. The one-year experiment to determine whether enough Valley Catholics wanted Masses in Latin — the mother tongue of the church — has ended.
And Bishop Thomas Olmsted has declared Latin a winner.
The response to a first year of "Tridentine liturgy" or Latin Masses at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in east Phoenix has been so strong that Olmsted is making them permanent, and extending the special Masses to more parishes.
After July 1, a Tridentine Mass will be offered Sundays at St. Augustine in Phoenix, which has a largely Hispanic congregation. For Catholics in the northern parts of the diocese, a Latin Mass will be on Sundays at St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church in Clarkdale.
The Phoenix diocese had gone 35 years without traditional Latin Masses in wake of the sweeping reforms ushered in by Vatican Council II (1962-65).
Changes implemented in 1969 included turning priests around to face their parishioners instead of the altar, new music instead of Gregorian chants and Masses in the congregation’s native tongue instead of Latin.
But some traditionalists resented changes and appealed for a return to the Old Mass, with its cadences and rhythms.
More than 1,300 Catholics packed into St. Thomas the Apostle, 2312 E. Campbell Ave., Phoenix, on June 6, 2004, for the return of the Latin Mass. They heard phrases like "Sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth" instead of "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts." Some came with their old Latin missals.
People showed up that day out of both "piety and curiosity," said the Rev. Greg Kotnis of Sun City, who conducted the Mass.
"Surprisingly, there were many young people, too. The old people were nostalgic for the old message," he said.
"It is the Mass of the ages," said Michael Malone, whose wife Ann and seven children regularly attend the Mass at 1 p.m. Sundays at St. Thomas. "It’s been the succor of countless saints, and for us, my wife and my family, it expresses the best sense of the sacred, the mystery and the sacrifice of the Mass."
The Phoenix man said more than 300 Catholics come from across the Valley, driving up to an hour each way, to take part in the Mass where the priest faces the altar, chants resound from a choir and altar boys hold prayer together at the foot of the altar before the formal Mass starts.
It carries the tradition of receiving the Holy Eucharist on the tongue instead in the hand. Women commonly wear veils or mantillas.
Rick Severs of Scottsdale, who went to that first Mass, never went back.
"I did enjoy that, and it really brought back a lot of childhood memories, with the Latin songs and responses," he said. "But it is like anything else, you accept change slowly but once change comes, you don’t want to go back. You see how the change was really good."
Olmsted has given the special community of Latin Masses at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church "mission" status, putting it in line to be a possible Latin parish someday. He has named the mission "Mater Misericordiae," which means "Mother of Mercy."
Rev. Alonso Saenz was named pastor, and he also will continue serving St. Augustine Parish in west Phoenix. Saenz will be assisted by the Rev. Stephane Dupre, a French priest with the Fraternity of St. Peter, now working in the Diocese of Sacramento (Calif.). Dupre will arrive July 1 and live at St. Augustine.
Priests with enough experience in officiating Latin Masses may do so, but the number is limited in the diocese.
The Rev. R. Clements, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Parish in Chandler, holds occasional Tridentine Masses and recently conducted a funeral in the Old Rite. "He wore the black vestments and turned his back to the congregation," said parishioner Mary Douglas. "He is very traditional and very devout."