March 26, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – A curious letter is doing the rounds on social media. It is from a parishioner of a Catholic church in Tasmania, Australia, in the small diocese of Hobart, addressed to the young, recently arrived parish priest. Maureen—for that is her name—notes that people have spat at Fr. Nicholas Rynne, and been unwelcoming to him. Far from condemning this behavior, however, she endorses it. Her criticisms are that he has started a Traditional Latin Sunday Mass in the parish, in addition to the two Ordinary Form celebrations, and that he wears clerical dress (read full letter below).
It is not that she is obliged to attend this newly established Mass, or that clerical dress harms her in some direct way—how could it?. Rather, they represent the old days, the old beliefs and practices of the Church, and these fill her with rage. She claims to remember these, which suggests she is of the older generation.
It is possible that Maureen suffered personally from priests of the pre-1965 era (when Mass was still always in Latin): she mentions clerical sex abuse as an issue, although it is evident that translating Mass into the vernacular was not enough to solve that problem. In any case, bad experiences from that era can hardly be blamed on a priest who must be young enough to be her son, if not her grandson. And she can hardly imagine this young man is singlehandedly going to bring back the schools, convents, orphanages and other institutions of the distant past, simply by wearing a clerical collar. No, her reaction is irrational. By the same token, it is doubtless sincere.
This is not the most common reaction of lay Catholics to zealous young priests, but it is a well-established phenomenon. One young priest in England was told by a parishioner, shortly after his arrival, that seeing him wear a traditional-style chasuble to say Mass made her feel ‘physically sick’. I heard of a resident of a Catholic old-folks’ home in California who was enraged by the saying of the Rosary. All over the world, older parishioners, older members of religious communities, and older diocesan clergy, have slowed or thwarted attempts to restore old devotional practices, the fabric of churches, and the celebration of the older form of Mass. Their objections can be summarized by that of one old lady in Oxford, who asked her priest, after he made some changes: ‘You aren’t going to bring all that back, are you, Father?’
Like Maureen in Tasmania, it is not so much the old Mass, or the altar rails, or the clerical collar, which is the problem, it is ‘all that’ which is somehow implied by those things. To rational and dispassionate observers of this conversation, one could make a distinction between the baby and the bathwater, which got thrown out together in the 1960’s and 1970’s. One could point out that if everything was darkness and suffering up to 1965, few at the time appeared to notice: it was a time when people joined the Church, whereas the period immediately after saw waves of laity lapsing from the practice of the Faith, and waves of priests seeking laicization.
It is difficult to imagine these observations making any impression on Maureen and her kind. Why the bitterness? Why the anger?
In some cases, the revolution in the Church represents to these aging liberals a release from moral restraints. It means that they can find priests who will bless their second unions after divorce, or their children’s same-sex unions. It means that they can say to liberal non-Catholic friends that ‘all that’ about contraception has gone from the Church, at least at the local level. It means that they can fit into the wider culture with less friction.
But above all, Maureen represents that section of people in the Church who neither resisted the madness of the 1970’s, which wildly exceeded anything which could claim endorsement by the Second Vatican Council, nor left the Church in despair. For this small but vocal and active group, this was their moment to exercise power. It was mostly destructive: altars, stained glass, Catholic hospitals, all had to be obliterated. But they could justify it to themselves as a work done for God. Only when ‘all that’ is cleared away, they said, could the Church really flourish. The moment was just around the corner. It was held back only by the remaining ‘bastions’ of the Church: institutions, traditional practices, traditional attitudes. They would be thanked when the sun finally dawned.
The non-appearance of this post-revolutionary paradise could always be blamed on others: the saboteurs. But what if opinion starts to turn, and a new generation wants to try another tack and put the program into reverse? Could they have been mistaken, after all? That is a possibility too dreadful to contemplate. They must insist that these young conservatives are misguided, evil, or even mentally ill.
A retired bishop has been asked to investigate the parish in Tasmania. Let us hope that he recognizes that Maureen can’t be allowed to have a veto over the future development of the Church. As she might have said fifty years ago: the young must be allowed to try a new approach.