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Peddling video of Latin Mass offers lesson in church politics

Here’s what I imagined as I worked on our video version of the Latin Mass: Catholic school children going door-to-door, neighbor-to-neighbor all over America, selling not trash bags nor light bulbs nor candy bars, but “Tradition, The Latin Mass with Gregorian Choir.”

“Sorry to bother you, ma’am. But this is the most inspiring version of a Latin Mass ever recorded, the glorious summation of a 2,000-year tradition. We’re selling it to raise money for our church.”

“Wonderful, son, I’ll take six.”

It hasn’t exactly worked out this way. I began this project oblivious to the various ideological currents within Catholicism. Alas, I have quickly become an expert in the church’s strange and self-defeating politics. Through my experiences trying to market my video, I have come to understand that the Latin Mass is like a Rorschach test -- how Catholics react to it tells us more about them than it does the Mass itself.

The response to our video in the traditionalist community, those already devoted to the Latin Mass, has been predictably enthusiastic. “The footage was awe-inspiring,” said one typical reviewer. “I felt as though I could have stepped from the altar to the very gate of Heaven.” These good folks have helped us spread the word around the world.

The liberal Catholic community has been encouraging as well, at least on technical grounds.

“A first-class production,” wrote one reviewer. Having arranged any number of banjo choirs, hootenannies and sundry other dramatic improvs for his own church, this gentleman knew a good show when he saw one. He even admitted to liking “the old ritual” and said he “might enjoy it from time to time,” but, he added, “certainly not every time I go to Mass.”

But when I started knocking on the door of “mainstream conservatives,” I found there was just no room at the inn.

In one case, I sent a video and a hopeful query to a noted press headed by a priest described as a “courageous and forthright defender of the Catholic tradition.” Not getting a response, I called one of the lay editors. I asked if his organization would like to distribute the video.

“No, we wouldn’t,” he said brusquely.

“Can I ask why?”

“We have no interest in promoting the Tridentine Mass.”

Presuming that the editor had spoken out of turn, I faxed an appeal to the press’ “courageous and forthright” founder.

“I look upon the Latin Mass as the mothership of us all,” I wrote sincerely, “a living tradition, a ritual that is both beautiful and awe- inspiring, the shared inheritance of all Catholics everywhere in the world.” I am still waiting for a response.

This kind of rejection has not been unique to the United States. I had hoped to distribute the video abroad, especially in Ireland where I lived just a few years ago. To one “traditional” press I sent a chatty E-mail asking if they would like to see the video. I got two words in response.

“No, thanks.”

The response from dioceses I have approached has been pretty much the same -- rejection or nervous evasion.

Why? It seems to break down this way: Liberals, with their gospel of tolerance, can embrace the Latin Mass along with a wide variety of other forms of liturgical expression. Those on the far right embrace it, too, because they think it’s the only true form of worship.

But the centrists and conservatives, who by and large control the levers of power in the church these days, do not seem secure enough in their affection for the Novus Ordo to even risk watching a video of the Latin Mass or sharing it with their peers. The road between that and schism seems too short for comfort.

That’s too bad. In putting this video project together -- about 80 hours in postproduction alone -- I felt an awesome responsibility. No one before me ever had the opportunity to record so beautiful a version of a universal tradition. The weight of it all and the wonder turned me from a mildly disgruntled Christmas and Easter Catholic to a weekly communicant.

Like many others, I got caught up in the tradition and the timelessness of the Latin Mass, the stability and sacredness. It seems to me that if I were a bishop and I had so glorious a net at my disposal, I would put politics aside and snare a whole lot more stray flounders like me. There are millions of us for there for the catching.

Jack Cashill is an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer living in Kansas City, Mo. Anyone interested in the “Tradition” video may call 1-888-411-MASS.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998