"What's the least I have to believe and do to feel good about myself?" That's the fundamental question modern religious seekers seem to be asking. For many contemporary Americans, religion is like a scented candle: The purpose of its light is to provide a comforting psychological ambience. But for a small, growing minority -- for whom religion, properly understood, exists to illuminate the challenging path to truth and holiness -- there is an alternative: tradition.
We'll soon be hearing a lot about tradition -- Catholic tradition, anyway. Pope Benedict XVI is soon expected to grant permission for the traditional Latin Mass to be celebrated in any Roman Catholic Church in the world. The Latin Mass was the liturgy used by the Roman church from the 1570s until 1970, when Pope Paul VI promulgated a new Mass following the dictates of the Second Vatican Council. The new Mass simplified the language of the traditional Mass, translated it into everyday languages and made it far less "high church." The traditional Mass was, for all intents and purposes, forbidden.
The new Mass ushered in an era of liturgical chaos and a sense among many Catholics that a crucial dimension of beauty, holiness and transcendence had been lost in translation. In 1984, Pope John Paul II ruled that local bishops could grant permission for the celebration of the traditional Mass in certain instances, but in the United States, many bishops balked. Catholic authorities saw the traditional Mass as a sign of division.
Traditionalists have a powerful ally in Pope Benedict, who supports the Vatican II reform but believes that it has gone too far. "I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it," then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in 1997. Now, as pope, he's going to give it to them.
The curious thing about enthusiasm for the traditional Mass is how many young people -- Catholics who were not brought up hearing the Mass in Latin -- hunger for it. In Dallas, Father Paul Weinberger's celebration of the new Mass in Latin showed how breathtaking and exalting the Mass can be when said reverently, using the ancient liturgical language of the church. To witness a Latin Mass -- whether the old Mass or the new Mass said in Latin -- is to experience something both old and startlingly new.
One has a similar liturgical experience at St. Seraphim Orthodox cathedral in Dallas where every Sunday, amid a panoply of colorful icons and clouds of incense, parishioners pray and sing the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. That rite, which is celebrated in English, can be traced back to the famed patriarch of Constantinople, who assumed the office in 398.
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