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The greatest story never told





Pilgrimage, A Journey of Rediscovery:

See the renaissance of traditional Catholicism on DVD. 

Hear (then) Cardinal Ratzinger speak -- before he became Pope Benedict XVI

Find out more.

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by Jack Cashill

A year ago, if you had told me I'd be standing in in St. Peter's Square on a fair October day close enough to the Pope to knock his mitre off (if I chose to do something that truly weird), I'd have thought you possessed.

But here I was. And there was "il Papa." And it was all pretty awesome. Literally.

Much to my own surprise, I find myself in the role of audio-visual custodian of what may prove to be the most significant cultural/religious movement of our time: the renaissance of traditional Catholicism. This movement took flight in 1988 when Pope John Paul II re-authorized the Latin Mass in order to head off a brewing schism. For ten years afterwards, despite the fact that my kids attend Catholic school, I did not even know such a movement existed. My ignorance derived in part from my own prodigality but largely from the media's studied refusal to cover the most ebullient element of our shared American culture--religion.

The view from Mars

An alien monitoring our media from a different galaxy--even if he did have cable--would never guess that the most God-fearing country in the industrial world is none other than the good old USA. Here, some 60% of the citizenry attends church at least semi-regularly. In England, by contrast, that figure is down to about 3%. In surveys, more than 90% of Americans express belief in heaven and/or hell, devils and/or angels and close to 100% believe in God. Every weekend, from rural backwater to big city store front, millions of American burst out in effusive rituals of energy and enthusiasm that for many represent the most significant cultural expression in their lives.

Our alien friend would never see this. Newspapers bury religious news as deeply as they can: The Star stashes it somewhere between entertainment and obituaries. TV avoids religious news altogether unless there is a whiff of scandal about it, say a minister who spends the Orphan's fund on hookers or an accusation of priestly child molestation, real or "recovered." In Hollywood, it's been at least 40 years since the likes of Audrey Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman played nuns or Bing Crosby and Humphrey Bogart played priests. And in schools, alas, religion in any form is about as welcome as head lice. (It could be worse I suppose. In the more "progressive" Canada, religious broadcasting has historically been illegal.)

Raising eyebrows

I had to more or less stumble on to the traditional Catholic revival to find it. A caller on my radio show first broached the topic. Needing a subject for my weekly feature on 41 News, I did a two minute bit on a local Latin mass. The piece raised a few eyebrows at the station not for its content but for its category, "religion." Happily, management at 41 was willing to gamble. When the feature provoked more response than all the others I had produced, combined, I sensed that I might be on to something.

That same night I found myself at a Protestant right-to-life dinner seated next to the young French Priest, Father Edouard De Mentque, who had celebrated the mass. The only Catholics there, we bonded in our fruitless search for a glass of wine and soon got to talking "video."

Providentially, his entire order, the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, was to convene in Kansas City a month hence. There would be enough priests not only to celebrate a solemn high mass in Latin but also to form a superb Gregorian choir. A rare event. So we agreed on a four camera shoot and a twelve track recording. As the mass unfolded it dawned on me that this was to be the most spectacular audio-visual impression ever made of a truly glorious 2,000 year old tradition, an incredible responsibility for all of us involved, kind of like restoring the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. True to form, The Star saw no news value in the production.

From the first rough cut, virtually everyone who saw the video raised the same question: "Why did the Catholic Church ever give this up?" An excellent question, but the fact is that in 1969--that volatile, uncertain, radically unmoored year of Woodstock, the Moonwalk and Charles Manson--the Church opted for "change" and so abandoned the Latin Mass and much of its attendant liturgy as impulsively as Coca Cola abandoned the real Coke.

For reasons unknown and probably unplanned, American churches tended to replace the sacred ritual with chummy priests, nuns in mufti, rejiggered doctrine, denatured texts, soft-core liberation theology, altar girls, gobs of hugging and hand shaking, and the oddly inevitable folk guitarist, he of the wispy beard and doleful eyes. Well intentioned as these changes may have been, and welcomed as they were by many, I stopped going to church about 1969. So did millions of other Catholics. Church attendance fell precipitously world-wide.

Now, you'd think an upheaval of this sort would have played out on the front pages of American newspapers. It did not. The Catholic Church received far less attention when it dropped the Latin Mass than NBC did when it dropped Seinfeld. And the Latin Mass had a longer run than Seinfeld's--by about 1500 years--and a global audience about ten times the size.

Equal opportunity neglect

To be fair, the media did not single out the Catholic Church for this slight. Throughout Protestant America, similar changes were taking place in a comparable media vacuum. Establishment churches were abandoning fundamental beliefs and traditional theology in the hope, I presume, of making church a more tasteful, less burdensome pre-brunch experience. It didn't work. The mainstream Protestant churches were losing congregates by the pew-ful.

What stemmed the hemmoraging of American Christianity was a cross-sect yearning to get back to the basics. Protestant churches, Southern Baptists most visibly, rebelled or reformed themselves as need be to avoid the disintegrating power of progressivism. In the process, they learned that the surest way to make news--maybe the only way--is to challenge the PC canon on hot topics like gender and orientation. This challenge has earned traditionalists the undisguised scorn of the media--Boycott Disneyland! Da noive!--but then again, the Magic Kingdom has never been the Kingdom these to which folks sought the keys.

Alas, from the media perpective, the Kingdom to come is less relevant than tomorrow's weather or next week's Chief's game. That the traditionalist renaissance in Catholicism has focused more on liturgy and theology than on gender politics has pushed it off the media radar screen altogether.

Still, with or without the media, that old time religion will endure and occasionally revive itself. It had better. As we have seen at places like Littleton, Colorado, America can not long exist without it.

Get the DVD that documents this revival.


Posted: August 30, 2000
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