Monday, February 17, 2014

Cardinal Stickler’s Mass in New York, 1992

Editor's Note: This article first appeared three years ago as a retrospective of a major event in the return of what is now called the "Extraordinary Form." The feast of St. Peter's Chair this year marks the 25th anniversary. 

February 22, 1992 is a date dear to the hearts of people who love the liturgy of the Roman Rite, one that marked a watershed event in the revival of the Traditional Mass in the practice of the Church. On that day—the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (and Septuagesima Sunday)—Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler walked up the aisle of St. Agnes Church, New York City, and celebrated Pontifical Mass from the Throne. The first such event in more than 20 years, it gave hope to the hundreds in the church that day, and to millions worldwide.

Looking back on that day after almost 22 years, it was important in many ways: many obvious, but many not so apparent.

As the assistant Master of Ceremonies on that day, it was not until years later that I realized how important the event had been.  To this day when people find out I was involved in that Mass, they remember it with fondness; and more importantly, they understand just how monumental the visit was:

  • John Cardinal O’Connor, archbishop of New York, approved the event, allowing another prelate to pontificate in his diocese;
  • The Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest was intimately involved in the planning and execution of the event. For many, it was our first experience with the Institute. Msgr. Giles Wach, founder of ICRSS, was the Assistant Priest;
  • It affirmed St. Agnes as the prime locus of the traditional rites in New York City under the direction of then-pastor Msgr. Eugene Clark.
  • But the fact of overriding importance was that a high-ranking Vatican prelate gave not only his, but Rome’s, imprimatur for the Traditional Mass. In 1992 that was game-changing.

Less obvious then, it was the beginning of a recognition by Church authorities that the traditional rites had a place in the life of modern Catholicism. Though it would be another 15 years before the publication of the motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum”, many of us believe the seeds of that decree may have been planted on that Sunday morning.

In the days and weeks leading up to the Mass, one nagging question was on the minds of the organizers: would people come? We knew there was interest in some quarters, but in the days following Pope John Paul’s indult Quattuor abhinc annos and his subsequent request to the world’s bishops that they be “generous,” many still had the impression that what was happening was wrong, disobedient and even sinful. Those growing up in the post-Summorum Pontificum era have no idea of the political climate of those days. Cardinal Stickler was sending a message to the traditionalist faithful, and we knew he was doing it with the approbation of “higher authority.”

Still, the question remained concerning the interest of people. The Catholic masses, we were told, had accepted the changes following the Vatican Council; the Novus Ordo was loved and appreciated, and to have the liturgy celebrated in the former rite was the desire of blue-haired dowagers and frumpy codgers.

In fact, much as we find in 2014, the desire for tradition was not the possession of the Vatican II generation, but of younger people. In those days, St. Agnes Church was a two-tiered nave with a balcony around the perimeter. The church was filled to overflowing – and most were people in their 20s and 30s: first question answered.

The second nagging question was our ability to pull off such an intricate rite somewhat ex nihilo, pulling together disparate people from various places in the tri-state area. Seminarian (now Father) Timothy McDonnell was asked to come in and be MC at the Throne. I was called because the work of the St. Gregory Society of New Haven, CT since 1986 had put us at the forefront of the movement.

I can remember getting the call and being asked to be part of such an undertaking. I said yes, and the import of what we were about to do hit me immediately. Dr. John Rao, one of the sponsors, was confident we could get things organized, and it was in his living room that Tim and I began the work of putting together a liturgy that required more than 30 clergy and servers.

The answer to the second question was partially answered on the first night of rehearsals – the Sunday before the Mass, February 15, 1992. Within minutes we knew we could do what needed to be done. Enough men had volunteered to be part of the ceremony and were divvied up into the various roles. From famiiares to pluvialists to acolytes to torch-bearers, the positions were filled.

The second part of the question—could we pull off such an intricate ceremony?—took a little longer to be answered. The beauty of the traditional rite is that one knows what must be done. The trick is adapting it to the space. Manuals on pontifical liturgy never envisioned (with few exceptions) small parish churches.  Like many churches in New York City, St. Agnes was wider than it was long, and the sanctuary, while adequate for Solemn Mass, was a tight fit for a pontifical throne and 27 servers plus attending clergy.

For six nights we worked to get everything working smoothly. By the time the day of the event came, the servers were ready. Much as a team is ready for a big game, the boys and men were experiencing a jumble of nerves and excitement and the desire to get on with it.

Of course, the answer to the question’s second part — could we pull it off? — wasn’t answered until the Mass was over. It was a resounding “yes.”

There were a few problems, of course. The vestments had to be flown in from Italy. The key to the trunk was forgotten, and we had to jimmy it open. John Rao, the sub-deacon, came down with laryngitis and couldn’t sing the epistle. The assistant MC had to do it over his shoulder with the admonition that Rao read it along while it be sung. In the fury to get things ready, a surplice became entangled in a sacristy bell rope. The bell sounded, the congregation stood, the trumpets played. We had to have a do-over.

Despite the problems, it proved to all of us the traditional liturgy had a place in the Church. Hundreds showed up for the Mass. It was so successful that four years later a second visit by Cardinal Stickler was held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where the biggest crowd in the recent history of the building was jammed four deep in every aisle.

Nearly a quarter-century and several pontifical masses later, the questions answered served as a foundation for what came later. The myth of the traditional rites being forbidden: smashed. The myth that only old people were interested: buried. The assertion that the liturgy which served so many millions through the centuries had no place in the modern Church: overturned.

While it is true the world of 2014 is much different than 1992, some of the myths and legends still survive — the grist of a liturgical establishment that refuses to see the vitality of the movement.  Every time a traditional Mass is celebrated, those myths and legends are pushed further and further toward the ash heap of history.

The work remains for younger clergy and laity to take up the cause.  Thankfully, the political headwinds of those days were altered by Pope Benedict XVI and ratified by the words of Pope Francis. The renewal of the Church’s worship, like any good thing, must be taken up by every generation.  To a certain extent, the questions posed 22 years ago remain. Each congregation must find out whether the rites can be done and whether people will come.  They find out very quickly, the answer is affirmative in both cases.

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