3. The Era of the Indult (Part I) 1985-1993
We have seen that the so-called “Traditionalists” of the United States had had very little influence on the course of the defense of Tradition in the world. But prompted by events in Europe, the Vatican had executed a remarkable about–face. It had extended permission to celebrate the old Roman Rite once again. Initially, by its very terms the permission was grudging. The local interpretations were even more restrictive. Later, Ecclesia Dei indicated a more generous policy.
Now although they had not done much to bring about this new situation, American Catholics were among the most active worldwide in taking advantage of it. They were aided by the prevailing spirit of the Americaan hierarchy, which, although hostile, generally lacked the hard ideological edge found in France or Germany. The practical work of establishing traditional mass apostolates also appealed to Americans. Whatever the cause, the effects were remarkable. By the end of this period a very substantial portion of the American population had available to it a traditional mass – at least if we define “available“ as meaning being subject to a drive of two hours or more.
These early masses were often adventures. Who, for example, of those who attended can forget that first “authorized” traditional mass in New York City, at St. Ann’s? Deliberately placed in an out-of the–way parish early Saturday afternoon (so no Sunday requirements could be fulfilled), this first mass nevertheless attracted a large crowd. Those who had shown up found that the Archdiocese had prohibited the mass at the last minute. But eventually that mass did take place on a subsequent Saturday and despite the adverse circumstances celebrations continued in this church for many years afterwards.
The locations and times of these indult masses usually were selected to discourage attendance. The bishop would settle upon a church located in an unattractive or even dangerous part of town. Perhaps the ultimate expression of these policies was the indult mass authorized in a chapel on the truly haunted grounds of the largely abandoned state insane asylum of Wingdale, New York. If the location was in a more normal parish setting, the very existence of the traditional liturgies was concealed – indult masses were usually not listed in parish bulletins. If the mass could be celebrated on Sunday at all, the afternoon would almost inevitably be the only available slot.
The quality of these celebrations often left something to be desired. The norm was the low mass. If possible music would be added sometimes performed by a solo male vocalist just like in pre-conciliar funerals. So much could be expected. What was unexpected was the restoration of the Traditional liturgy in a completeness and magnificence far surpassing what had been the norm prior to the Council. Organizations and churches like the St. Gregory Society (New Haven) and St. John Cantius (Chicago) strove for liturgies with music on a professional level and exactness of ritual (now and then even including the solemn Mass). How did this come about?
Perhaps the main reason was generational change. Traditionalists were of course disappointed that the indult had so little resonance among the general Catholic population. The twenty-year war of the Establishment against Catholic Tradition had been successful to this extent: most Catholics had no interest in the Traditional liturgy. Indeed, only a steadily declining percentage had any interest in the mass or the Church at all. But from the very beginning of the indult it was not just old-timers who were behind the return of the Latin Mass, but a younger generation, which could but dimly recall the pre-conciliar era – if they were old enough to have had any experience of those times at all. Students, musicians, converts and young priests – they had rediscovered the Traditional faith – with God’s help of course – on their own. If they were to celebrate the Traditional mass, they reasoned, it should be as perfect as possible. They rejected the shortcuts and compromises that had become all too prevalent in parish use prior to 1965. And with each year the number of these newcomers to Tradition and the perfection of the services increased as well. So from the very beginning of the indult it has been ludicrous to talk about “nostalgia” as the motivating factor of Traditionalists (the party line of the Establishment and the Vatican).
Moreover, in the wake of Ecclesia Dei in 1988 the Traditionalists received reinforcement in the form of a recognized religious community dedicated to Tradition yet in good standing with Rome – the Fraternity of St. Peter. It had broken away from the FSSPX over their ordination of bishops. The arrival of the FSSP meant that the number of churches where the liturgy was celebrated in its fullness would steadily increase. Regrettably, the FSSP, riven by internal dissension and ideological conflicts, proved unable to fulfill its potential role as unifier and organizer of American Traditionalist efforts. Perhaps we see here also the continuation of an “American way” of organization: the FSSPX likewise had failed to organize the Traditionalists just as Opus Dei (and all the other “ ecclesial movements”) had failed to mobilize the ”conservatives.”
For the work of restoring Tradition rested upon a myriad of individual priests and laity, local groups and societies. Una Voce served as a helpful umbrella organization for some – by no means all – of these efforts of liturgical entrepreneurs and independent local chapters. Traditionalism in the United States truly was a grass-roots effort dominated by the laity. Its weakness was the divorce from the institutional Church and the absence of any legal rights. Indult masses remained a mere gesture of tolerance subject to the arbitrary discretion of each bishop or individual pastor. For example, a new indult mass was established in 2005 in Saint Mary’s Stamford (near New York). It gained a following even leading to the celebration of a solemn pontifical mass. By early 2007, the pastor had changed and the mass was terminated by the middle of that year. (Of course, in many places this situation de facto continues to the present day – compare the recent experiences at Our Saviour’s in New York or at St. John’s Stamford.)
Despite all the defects and limitations, the indult regime had transformed the Catholic Traditionalist movement. Before the indult, American Traditionalism, with the exception of the FSSPX, had been largely a theoretical discussion forum. After the indult it concentrated almost exclusively on the practical task of making the Traditional liturgy available – with a great deal of success, all things considered. The achievement was attributable in large part to concentrating on the “single issue” of the liturgy – and ignoring most of the other myriad problems afflicting the Church.
For the “conservatives,” the balance was much more mixed. It had seemed that with the election of the “Polish Pope” John Paul II the Church had finally acquired a leader to their own taste. Certainly John Paul II’s participation in the events leading up to collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989-91 fulfilled the wildest dreams of the conservatives. But in the area of church government, as opposed to secular foreign policy, the record of John Paul II was much more controversial. No matter what actions the conservatives took, their “dissenting” foes in the hierarchy and the religious orders remained untouched and in good standing. It was the same in the matter of new appointments: for every O’Connor or Law there was a Bernardin or Mahony.
But the conservatives’ greatest failure was in liturgy. In the name of authority, they (or the minority among them which was interested in such topics) sallied forth against the Establishment and the liberals to challenge communion in the hand and altar girls – only to have the Vatican pull the rug out from under their feet. In contrast to the conservatives’ insistence on loyalty to a fixed liturgical text, the Vatican and the Establishment made clear that the Novus Ordo would remain a “work in progress” where change would come about through the implementation of a new praxis regardless of any texts or rules. At the other end of the spectrum, the coming of the indult – wholly unexpected by the conservatives – destroyed overnight most interest in the use of Latin in the Novus Ordo. In view of these developments the liturgical focus of the conservatives shifted from strict construction to reform of the reform. It now was conceded that there were indeed problems in the current liturgy that needed correction; there was, however, no agreement on what those corrections should be.