The following story forms the second installment in the Faith and Tradition series here on the NLM. Upcoming stories include the story of an atheist's conversion to Catholicism, and the role of the beauty of religious art in the life of a Catholic artist.
Rev. Richard G. CipollaTo say that discovering and learning the traditional Roman Mass (I shall avoid the problematic term “Extraordinary Form”) saved my priesthood may be too dramatic to begin this personal account of the importance of the Traditional Mass in my life as a Catholic priest. Although I cannot say with any certainty what would have become of my priesthood had I not encountered the Traditional Mass, I can certainly say that that encounter had such a radical effect on me as a priest that I cannot imagine my priesthood without the real presence of the Traditional Mass in my life.
I am a convert from the Episcopal Church, having functioned as an Episcopal minister for nearly eleven years before deciding to enter the Catholic Church. I was always associated with the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Episcopal Church, so the Mass was always at the center of my faith, and I always understood the role of beauty in the celebration of Mass. When the post-Vatican II liturgical changes came in the late 1960s, we adopted most of the changes including the free standing altar and facing the people. I remember so well when facing the people my feeling of being “ultra-cool” and dismissing the protests of the parishoners against the changes with “Father knows best” because “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.”
The proximate reason why I left the Episcopal Church was because of developments within that body that departed from the Catholic understanding of the Church. But the deeper reason was that, after much study, learning and prayer, I saw, like Newman, that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded and that once one understood this, one had the moral obligation to become part of that Church. The impetus for becoming Catholic was Blessed John Paul’s formation of the Pastoral Provision in the 1980s that made possible for former Episcopal priests who were married to be considered for the Catholic priesthood. I was received into the Church in 1982 and ordained priest in 1984.
I became a Catholic at a time during which there was continuing liturgical abuse, when Catholic music seemed to no longer exist in parishes and in its place saccharine sacro-pop prevailed, a time when Mass seemed more like a high school assembly than the awesome Sacrifice, a time when it seemed as if there was a deliberate forgetting, a mass amnesia, of the Tradition of the Mass. As a Pastoral Provision priest I had the option of being an Anglican Use priest, but I decided against this quite vehemently, for I wanted to be an ordinary Catholic priest at this particular time in the Church’s history. No nostalgia for me, no hankering after the good old days—the Novus Ordo defined the Mass in this present time, and I knew that I must submit to this and do my best to celebrate what the Church had given to me.
This background is necessary to understand the profound effect that learning and celebrating the Traditional Mass had on me. The first ten years of my priesthood were not easy but were a source of grace. But I always felt an incompleteness, that there was something missing, something I should have known but did not. And this sense of incompleteness was always associated with the celebration of Mass. It was at this time that my bishop asked if I would learn the Traditional Mass, because one of the priests who celebrated the two Indult Masses in the diocese had died. I was asked because of my strong background in Latin. I initially refused. My refusal was based on my fear that this would be seen by my fellow priests as a reversion to my old “high-church” (a damnable term) days as an Anglican.
But the bishop prevailed. I learned the Mass at the hands of one of the great mentors of so many priests who have learned the Traditional Mass, Mr. William Riccio of New Haven. He, quite rightly, taught me Solemn Mass first, rather than Low Mass. I remember, more than my ordination, my first Solemn Mass at Sacred Heart Church in New Haven under the sponsorship of the St. Gregory Society, which in the dark days of the Indult, supported the Traditional Mass in an important and heroic way. As I walked up the aisle at my first Mass, I was terrified, frightened that I would forget what I was supposed to be doing. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the thought of remembering all the gestures, the order of things. But I knew Bill was by my side as the MC and that gave me comfort. I got through the Mass through the Offertory without any disasters. And so I started the Canon. I cannot write this except with great emotion, for the moment is so etched into my memory. I came to the consecration and said those words that are at the very heart of Catholic faith and worship. It was then, during the Unde et memores, that suddenly, while saying the words silently, that I realized in a flash of insight, that this was what was missing, this is what I was meant to do as a Catholic priest, this is what joined me to the Tradition of the Church. That was a moment of healing, a moment of grace-ful surprise, surprised by joy, and the joy of that moment changed me as a priest, and in the very real trials of being a priest in the Church at this time in history this moment of joy has never left me.
I am blessed with being a priest in a parish where the main Sunday Mass is the Traditional Roman rite Solemn Mass. This Mass has been a great blessing to our priests and to our parishioners, for its beauty and its depth overflows to the celebrations of the Novus Ordo Mass in both English and Spanish. I am convinced that the presence of the Traditional Mass in every Catholic parish in the world would be a key to that re-evangelization of the Western world that must happen before we can evangelize the world. Hoc est opus nostrum, hoc est labor. May God give us the strength to do what needs to be done.
For an introduction to the idea behind the series, click here. Please note the commenting policy in the introduction to the series.
To see the first installment in the series, click here.