The small neo-Gothic chapel in the confines of St. John’s cemetery in the New York City borough of Queens was filling up quickly on that brisk autumn Sunday. The cemetery itself is something of a New York landmark—a resting place for the heroes and villains of its turbulent past. The modest tombstones of firefighters killed in the collapse of the towers of the World Trade Center share the hallowed ground with the gaudy mausoleums of Italian mobsters.
The Mass that is celebrated in that small chapel every Sunday morning is the Traditional Latin Mass—the one that is exclusively in Latin and where the priest faces ad orientem, not toward the worshipers. All of the pews were filled with worshipers—about 50 of them, largely families and older couples. Fr. Joseph Wilson entered the chapel wearing a cassock and a biretta, garments rarely worn by most post-Vatican II clerics.
The most noticeable aspect of this Mass was the universal concentration and devotion of the worshipers. There were no crying babies or gossiping couples, and the congregation responded uniformly in Latin at appropriate times. The smell of incense and the sound of Gregorian chant filled the chapel. A middle-aged worshiper in the pew behind me, deducing that I was not Catholic because I did not kneel, helpfully pointed out the relevant parts of the missal so I could follow along.
Father Wilson’s sermon was succinct and traditional, without the modernistic “feel-good” tackiness and mawkish references to “social justice.” Instead, he quoted G.K. Chesterton and criticized theological deconstructionists. Perhaps with my presence in mind, he recommended a book by former Chronicles corresponding editor Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, which was favorably received by the current pope. Father Wilson ruefully observed that the traditionalist Rabbi Neusner took Jesus more seriously than most contemporary Catholic theologians.
After the Mass, I had a chance to talk with several worshipers, who were encouraged by Father Wilson to speak to a traditionalist journalist who was not “out to get them.” Damian Dajka, an attorney who donated the missals used in the Mass, explained that the Novus Ordo Masses that he attended in America were a jarring contrast to the Catholicism he was raised with in his native Poland. Even the Novus Ordo Masses in Poland were far more traditionalist than the ones in this country. Mr. Daj ka’s search for a Latin Mass for his family led him to the traditionalist edge of mainstream Catholicism.
Patrice Jennings, pregnant with her seventh child, was reared in a nominally Catholic household in Queens and became a traditionalist Catholic later in life. She attended the Mass with her husband, Michael, and her children, all of whom are homeschooled. Mrs. Jennings lamented the dire state of today’s grade-school education and the poison of modern pop culture.
The most striking thing about that Sunday’s worshipers was the strength of their faith. While they were saddened by the current state of the Church and society, they did not fall into bitterness or despair. Rather, like the Christians who huddled in the Roman catacombs, Father Wilson’s flock was filled with hope.
Father Wilson himself is a tireless advocate of traditionalism and the Traditional Latin Mass, yet he remains within the Church, where he is parochial vicar in a traditionally white working- and middle-class Queens neighborhood, blocks away from where he grew up. His cheerful Celtic looks conjure up an image of Chesterton’s Father Brown, yet behind the warm smile and soft voice is a steely dedication to the Faith and Western civilization.
He is not afraid to criticize the direction of the Church after Vatican II. To illustrate the unsettling destructiveness of these changes, he invited me to imagine that the next service at my Orthodox Jewish synagogue would end with female guitar players belting out songs and bacon sandwiches served at brunch. Currently, only 14 percent of Catholics in Father Wilson’s diocese go to Mass, while before Vatican II the number approached 90 percent.
The tragedy of Vatican II, according to Father Wilson, was that the princes of the Church misread the signs of the times and relied on advice from secular psychologists and sociologists to reform the Catholic Church. An example of this was the collapse of the vigorous and vibrant Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a religious order that was responsible for virtually all female Catholic education in the Los Angeles area. After Vatican II, it fell prey to gestalt psychologists from the humanistic Esalen Institute who encouraged the sisters to “discover within themselves” the meaning of their faith and obligation. This quest for self-discovery quickly led to the collapse of the order when most of the nuns chose to discard habits and organized community life as a result of their participation in the Institute’s “encounter groups.” An example of this type of nun is Sister Helen Prejean, who has dedicated her life to advocating for the worse kind of criminals. Father Wilson had a few salty remarks about Prejean and her quest to make life easier for convicted murderers.
Father Wilson is also one of the few modern priests who is not afraid to tell the truth about the so-called Religion of Peace and its followers. To him, ecumenism stops at the door of the mosque. When Srdja Trifkovic’s Sword of the Prophet first came out, Father Wilson bought 20 copies and distributed them to friends and colleagues. The good father is totally untroubled about his career and personal safety in light of his open criticism of Islam. He dismissed these concerns with his Irish mirth and a fearlessness worthy of the early martyrs.
From the Traditional Mass celebrated by Father Wilson, I proceeded to another modern-day catacomb, this one in lower Manhattan, to attend the bimonthly lecture on Church history given by John Rao, a professor at St. John’s University, my nominally Catholic alma mater.
The lecture is held in the basement hall of an ultramodernistic Catholic church in the heart of bohemian Greenwich Village. At other times, the hall is rented out to an Islamic group for use as a prayer room. No crucifixes or statues are in sight.
That day, about 30 people were in attendance. Among them were Joe and Olivia Reitzel, a young married couple with five children from suburban Long Island. Joe grew up in Canada and attended post-Vatican II Catholic schools. His grade-school memories testify to the decline of the Catholic Church in the West: One of his teachers openly defended homosexuality, and virtually none of his classmates attended Mass. To him, the traditionalist Catholic movement is a breath of fresh air after decades spent in the Novus Ordo environment.
At first glance, it would seem that Catholic traditionalists face an uphill battle. Forced to meet in cemetery chapels and church basements, their movement seems small and beleaguered. But like with the early Church, behind the small numbers lies a source of strength and devotion that will eventually triumph. After all, the Western world today is just as materialistic and morally depraved as Rome in the time of Nero.
The best evidence of this triumph are the families of Catholic traditionalists—not merely the number of children, but the way those children are reared. John Rao’s 14-year-old daughter was reading P.G. Wodehouse before the lecture began and explained that she hopes to become a nun, but only in a convent where the Traditional Latin Mass is celebrated. It’s the age at which most girls read books like Twilight and dream of nothing beyond next weekend’s party.