FARGO — Every Sunday afternoon, Sara Ray climbs the stairs to the St. Mary’s Cathedral choir loft, a Gregorian chant book in her hand and a spark of heaven on her heart.
At 2 p.m. sharp, she raises her arms to lead the opening song with the small group of Schola Cantorum musicians assembled in a circle.
This might be the only time, along with the homily, that one will hear English during this “extraordinary form,” or Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). But to Ray, the Latin language is music to her ears.
“Many of these chants are just flat-out ancient. The one that comes to mind, which we use for Pentecost, dates back to the 900s,” she says, “and that’s just when they bothered to write it down.”
“To think of how many saints prayed this precise chant,” she continues, “it’s humbling and edifying to be able to continue to use that and live that out in the daily.”
Ray, 33, loves it all — the incense, the bells, the postures, the prayers. “I think for many, it’s the embodiment of the timelessness and Catholicity of the Church,” she says. “When we tap into that antiquity, it connects us in a very real way to our fathers in the faith, and in a personal way, to our ancestors.”
She speaks for a growing number of Catholics finding themselves drawn to this older form of the Mass, put in place by Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century, then subdued for a time beginning in 1970, when the New Order (NO) Mass — also known as the “ordinary form” — was put into practice.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI gave priests permission to say the extraordinary form again, Ray says, and expanded on its beauty and relevancy. She and her family have been attending the cathedral’s Latin Mass since 2010.
Though a recent Gallup poll reveals a decline in Catholic Mass attendance overall, with numbers down by 18 percent since 2000, TLM Masses seem to be picking up steam. Before the COVID-19 lockdown, Ray says, the Latin Mass here averaged about 60 people every Sunday, but recently, they’ve seen 100 or more.
“There’s a phenomenon happening, and a reason for this resurgence.”
‘Brand new to us’
Ancient though the TLM may be, many new adherents are anything but.
Ethan Devitt, 23, stopped into St. Mary’s one afternoon a year ago and was struck by the peaceful, reverent atmosphere, he says. He now serves on the altar at the TLM, frequently tending to the golden thurible dispensing incense — a gesture symbolizing prayers rising to heaven.
Though still learning the Latin prayers, Devitt says he appreciates the language’s timelessness.
“In our culture, we hear holy names blasphemed on a daily basis. I think it’s great that we have something revered and holy for worship.”
Even the generally more formal dress code points to “the gravity of the event taking place,” he adds, referencing worship of God.
The agility of young people to more easily “pick up and try something new,” Devitt posits, may be part of their attraction to TLM. But despite what some suggest, the TLM is far from a backward move.
“For us, it’s all brand new,” he says. “We’re just thankful for the opportunity.”
Ray adds, “The primary purpose (of worship) isn’t my sanctification, but to glorify the creator, and in a proper way,” offering another reason today’s more self-focused culture might be refreshed by the TLM.
“You perceive (in this form) everything as being done for the purpose of glorifying God and offering Christ back to him as the ultimate gift.”
Teresa Hotten, a Catholic convert, was “the utmost feminist” early in her marriage.
“I was a welder, mechanic and a horse trainer,” she says, noting that she “didn’t want kids and thought abortion was OK in some situations.” But “by the grace of God,” she’s done “a 180-degree turn” in her faith journey.
Hotten was one of the first at her home parish of Sts. Anne & Joachim in Fargo to wear a “mantilla,” or veil, despite her contrary feelings.
“I argued with God about it, saying, ‘I started out going to church in jeans and a T-shirt. Now I’m wearing dresses and skirts — and you want me to wear a veil, too?!’”
After prayer and research, however, she began sensing God asking her to seek his will, and not others’ approval.
“God made women and men different, for different roles,” she says, adding that “veiling is part of embracing that role of femininity.”
“To deny the beauty of womanhood is to deny how you were made.”
Ray explains that veiling, an ancient practice where women cover their heads in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and in church generally, was “clearly taught by St. Paul, and universally observed by women for centuries, until the early 1980s when it was officially made optional,” adding that “certain nods to it — think wedding veils — have been unapologetically retained in our modern customs.”
Now, in attending the TLM, Hotten feels like she’s “come home.”
“When you’re in that Mass, you feel the life of those before you. The ancientness of our faith that surpasses time and generations is there for you, here and now,” she says. “It also feeds your senses more, which is ironic, because it’s more subdued.”
‘Time to breathe…’
Scott Mastel, 38, was “super pumped” to check out the TLM initially but, in his first encounter, found he didn’t care for it. “Which is kind of shocking for me to say, because now, I absolutely love it.”
After a few more tries, “something just clicked,” including a growing appreciation for the silence involved.
“In the ordinary form, there’s always something to do, and that’s not how the TLM rolls out,” Mastel says. “You can just kneel at the foot of the cross and contemplate what is going on. It’s a time to breathe, savor and reflect on the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”
Though he’s heard arguments against the priest facing “ad orientem,” or to the East — away from the people and, instead, toward the Crucifixion and altar – Mastel says it’s appropriate for what’s taking place.
“The Mass is for us, for our redemption, but the priest isn’t talking to us during the Mass. He’s praying to God.”
There are occasions during the Mass when the priest does turn toward the people, in those instances when he is addressing them directly, along with during the homily and dispensing the Eucharist.
As for the Latin language, Mastel calls it “the great equalizer.”
“We all don’t know it together,” he chuckles, clarifying, “There’s absolutely no requirement to know Latin in order to attend Mass,” and people can follow along in English in a bilingual missal — or just let the words wash through them.
The convergence of the old form in a modern time calls to mind St. Augustine, he says, who once addressed God and the faith as “O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new…”
“The liturgy itself is the handwork of God,” Mastel says. “If we can embrace liturgy as that, we’re getting closer to God.”
Searching for truth
Derek Ganzhorn, 34, left the Catholic faith at 14, and considered himself an atheist until he began studying law at Northwestern University in Chicago. His desire to seek truth within the legal system — and the disappointing results — brought him back to the faith of his roots, he says.
“Around the same time, a friend of mine passed away,” he says. “Her death really kicked me in the butt, and I began thinking about things more critically.”
He discovered a parish on the south side of the city near his home offering only the Latin Mass and began studying Latin on the bus ride to work to pass time.
After law school, Ganzhorn landed in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, and was confirmed at a TLM church there in 2016. Now practicing law in Fergus Falls, Minn., he says he and his wife, Pippa, don’t mind the trip into Fargo on Sundays to be part of the TLM community and schola.
“It almost makes you feel like you are part of an army, all charging in the same direction,” he says of the “ad orientem” component. “It gives you a feeling like nothing else you do in your regular day.”
Many in the wider society are touched by the TLM without even knowing it, Ganzhorn says, pointing to Masses written by Mozart and other great composers created specifically to accompany this ancient form of prayer.
Indeed, it’s the glory therein that ultimately draws people, Mastel says, as it should be.
“We’ve got to offer God what’s due him,” he adds, remarking, “Mass should be a kind of glimpse into heaven.”
Sunday afternoon at the cathedral, he contends, it truly is.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on April 23 2021.]