by Harry Scherer

As I walked up to Saint Anthony of Padua in Brookland, I saw a pair of veiled scoliotic women emerge from their car. Behind me walked a young man a few years my junior; a Miraculous Medal hung in front of his satin red tie. I entered the church through a door on the Epistle side that separated the vestibule from the nave. When I opened it, the bottom of the door scraped against the tile floor and made a loud sound, which reverberated throughout the church. I didn’t notice anyone turn from the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance. 

After I found a pew, the usual cast of characters began to appear: stern-looking acolytes whose eyes darted around the altar in search of any imperfection; groups of pious young women wearing colorful midi skirts; young couples, coming in two by two, looking as if they were only a minute or two from announcing their engagements. As congregants shuffled in, the priest and a few servers emerged for Benediction. The priest chanted Saint Thomas’s prayer, savoring each line: Tannntummm errrgooo saaacraaamennntummm. With each syllable, more congregants joined in. Finally, a church was in song: Vennnereeemuuur cerrrnuuuiii.

When the Mass had begun, the thurifer slowly processed down the center aisle, followed by the crucifer flagged by two candle-bearers. Two long lines of servers followed, and then some Dominicans and secular priests. By my count, there were fourteen servers, and at least ten priests or religious assisting in choir. The celebrant walked slowly and deliberately, his pupils obscured by his eyelids. After he kissed the altar, he returned to the foot, made the sign of the cross, and the schola started: Benedícta sit sancta Trínitas, atque indivísa únitas: confitébimur ei, quia fecit nobíscum misericórdiam suam. Blessed be the Holy Trinity, and undivided Unity. We will give glory to Him, because He hath shown His mercy to us. 

The parish had advertised this as “The Final Latin Mass.” According to the decree issued by Cardinal Gregory in July, the parish will no longer be permitted to offer the Mass in the Old Rite. The compelling pleas made in many places—including the pages of this magazine back in May—were not heard by His Eminence in Washington: “The ‘hope and dream’ of Washington’s traditional Catholics for ‘our parishes’ is simple: that we not be ejected from them.” Ejected they have been. 

Though I hadn’t regularly attended Mass at Saint Anthony’s, I’m one of those to whom Benedict XVI referred as “attached” to the older form. I knew that many others in the room were preparing for a Mass that would be a kind of parting gift. When the priests were walking down the aisle, I checked my feelings against what Oscar Wilde wrote from Reading Gaol:

A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. We think we can have our emotions for nothing. We cannot. Even the finest and most self-sacrificing emotions have to be paid for. . . . And remember that the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.

What the Archdiocese effectively said to the people of Saint Anthony’s was Your work is not wanted here. Their possible responses were limitless. The pit of sentimentalism opened wide in front of their feet. If Wilde is correct, cynicism awaited them in the not-too-distant future. But they rejected that course and set on one that was an apology for their hope. Tuesday’s was a Mass of Thanksgiving to the Most Holy Trinity. 

The Sunday traditional Latin Mass at Saint Anthony’s was unique because it was primarily driven and coordinated by students at the Catholic University of America down the street. One student coordinator told me, “We wanted to give thanks for all God has done for all of our communities—providing us priests, vocations, friends, spouses—a full livelihood. We wanted to hold onto this moment forever.”

That Mass of Thanksgiving instructs the congregants to view their situation as good, though it simultaneously reminds them that something good is being temporarily removed from their grasp. The students’ desire to hold on to the Mass is not a wish upon a star but a thoroughly gracious human reaction to their loss. Each proper of the Mass—the collects, the Epistle, the Gospel, the Postcommunion—offered consolation, grounding them in the ultimate reality as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. From this position of immense security, one woman a few pews ahead of me wiped tears from her eyes as she lifted her kneeler after the choir concluded the final verse of O God Beyond All Praising

Yes, the congregants were aware that the Mass was in some sense historic, an occasion they will recall to their grandchildren at a Sunday brunch after a Solemn High Mass decades from now. The sounds from the choir loft were majestic, the smell of incense intoxicating, and the fellowship of friends in worship re-assuring. But the moment was rooted in something deeper than the continuing history of the traditionalist movement, such as it is: the worship of Almighty God through the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary offered in a form of worship handed down to them by their ancestors.  That the old women, solitary men and women, zealous students, and bright-eyed couples will no longer gather at Saint Anthony’s is a sorry shame. That the priest’s mellifluous voice will not pronounce the hallowed formulas of this ancient liturgy is cause for grief indeed. Those who came together for the “Final Latin Mass” did not come by their sorrows cheaply—they’re paying for their emotion. Until the next Votive Mass of Thanksgiving to the Most Holy Trinity is offered at Saint Anthony’s, they can rest assured that their rejection of decadent cynicism was their way of keeping to the narrow path.

To read more articles like this one,
subscribe to The Lamp here.