An air of serious contemplation hovered over the Sunday mass, tinged with sadness.
It would be one of the last weeks parishioners of the church could celebrate using a traditional Latin form that dates back more than a millennium.
Last year, driven by ideological wars between conservative and liberal wings, Pope Francis said he wanted to limit the use of the old Latin form of the Mass.
This week, the consequences of this papal letter – published on the other side of the world – landed here in Washington with heavy consequences for this small parish in the city’s Chinatown.
On September 21, the parish was told, they were to stop using the Latin rituals that had been part of St. Mary’s history almost since its founding in 1845.
Friday’s local edict, written by Cardinal Wilton Gregory, who oversees the Archdiocese of Washington, allows only three non-parochial churches in the area to practice the Latin Rite. This means that hundreds of Catholics who attend this type of Mass in about six DC-area parishes — including St. Mary Mother of God — will be forced to revise their ritual or abandon their spiritual homes to attend all three. places in the region authorized to perform it.
“It’s been devastating to be honest,” said Erin Menke, 42, whose family has been attending St. Mary’s for nearly two decades. Three sons had served as altar servers in the parish. To help the parish priest, they painstakingly learned the intricacies of the Latin Mass, which incorporates traditional elements like incense, Gregorian chant, and elaborate gestures and words often absent from the modern form of the Mass.
“There’s a sacred reverence that’s just beautiful,” Menke said. “These words that are spoken and have been spoken for centuries in the church, they often feel like the closest thing to heaven we have. To realize that we are going to lose this, we are in shock.
In his ruling last year, Pope Francis explained that he believed the Latin Mass had become a wedge, deepening divisions. Those in favor of the Latin Mass, he said, had exploited the rite as a means of “strengthening differences and encouraging disagreements that harm the Church.”
Most Catholic churches now celebrate Modern Mass in the language most easily understood by local parishioners, a practice spurred by the reforms of the 1960s. For this reason, the decree will not affect the majority of Catholics in the area of Washington.
St. Mary Mother of God, however, was among the most vocal churches pressuring the Cardinal to allow them to keep the Latin Mass in their services. They wrote letters, spoke in synodal listening sessions with leaders of the archdiocese, and begged the cardinal to visit their church to see for himself the importance of the Latin Mass for their community.
Besides the language difference, in the Latin Mass the priest faces away from the congregation and instead faces the tabernacle at the front of the church where the Eucharist is kept. Many who attend Mass in Latin say they appreciate the opportunity to meditate and contemplate during the long periods when the priest speaks softly in Latin.
“You feel a connection with all the Catholics who came before you and celebrated using those same words,” Matthew Balan said as he sat on the wooden pews. He comes from a family of Catholics for generations in the Philippines. Balan met his wife at St. Mary’s to attend Latin Mass, and they were married there as well. But now he doesn’t know whether they and their two young boys will stay at the parish or move to one of the other venues still offering Latin Mass. “It’s a confusing time for many of us.”
In a heartfelt sermon on Sunday, De Rosa acknowledged the pain, anxiety and confusion many felt. And he told his flock that he shared those sentiments.
“It tugs at the strings of my heart,” he said. “There is something that seems mean in this whole story. … But my goal is to show you that your father here and other fathers in this diocese feel your pain.
De Rosa urged this flock to hold on to truth, unity and their faith throughout the seismic changes coming to their parish.
About 60% of the church’s collection money comes from parishioners who attend its 9 a.m. Latin Mass on Sundays, said Sylvester Giustino, who sits on the parish’s finance board.
“I’m worried about our parish and what’s happening in September,” he said. “I intend to stay. St. Mary has become a home for me. But for the others who leave, I can understand that too. We are not only losing the Latin Mass. We are going to lose many families and people who have been part of this community for years.