Why I, an Agnostic, Love the Latin Mass

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By Jane Pilato, The Catholic University of America

From 2009 to 2017 you would be hard pressed to not see me on the Altar at the earliest mass every Sunday morning. I was raised as a cradle Catholic, and from the Sunday after my First Communion, I was up on the Altar every week doing a silent dance with books and purificators, Holy Water and wine. Even when I stopped serving, I still attended a Catholic high school, singing every hymn I knew at the top of my lungs. Currently, I attend the Catholic University of America, where my late night walks often end in front of the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Catholicism has always been a part of my life, which is why it would come as a shock to many that I don’t identify as Catholic.

Many people have tried to make sense of my relationship with Catholicism over the years. Some chalk up my agnosticism to the tumultuous nature of my home Diocese of Metuchen. Others blame my lack of faith on my more progressive views that do not align with those of the Church. And while I assure you I have reasons for this identification, those reasons are mine and mine alone. However, my agnosticism is not what I intend this article to be about. In fact, many will find this article’s subject ironic.

This article is about how I, a non-Catholic, find comfort in the Latin Mass.

Most of my life has been shadowed by trauma. I have a diagnosed depressive disorder, anxiety and a whole bunch of other mental issues. Many times, my own worst enemy is the very brain inside my head. Oftentimes when I am suffering, I find myself in the Epicurean Trilemma, where a God all powerful, all knowing, and all loving, has allowed for all the cruel events of my and other people’s lives. Furthermore, I often feel judged by my peers for my progressive values of which I am often vocal about. Even with all of this, I find myself seeking community, even knowing that I might be hurt by judgement and prejudice. But the moment I step into the doors of St. Anthony’s, a local church that holds Latin Mass, on feast days, I find myself at peace with every inhale of incense. Every word that rolls off the tongue of the priest sounds like music. With each chant of the choir that echoes throughout the Church, I find myself content. (And I cannot help but mention that the rafters remind me of the hull of a ship, as if we are inside an overturned ark which has become a place of worship)

When I am at Latin Mass, I no longer feel lesser in the eyes of my peers. I do not feel judged when I sit in silent prayer while everyone else receives communion. I no longer feel unwelcomed, as I often do at an ordinary mass, in which I feel my outward participation is examined. I actually feel as if I am part of something important, a member of a community which I have so often sought.

My first Latin Mass was Candlemas amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Something moved within me when I looked around the dark church to see everyone’s face illuminated by a little flame. The light each candle gave off was so little, but with everyone, together, the whole church was aglow. Even before the homily, my facemask was soaked through with tears, tears which I didn’t even know I was crying. I, my candle, my life, were part of something bigger.

At the next Mass, albeit not lit with hundreds of candles, I still felt a tug upon my heartstrings as the smell of incense comforted me and brought back happy memories of the days when I had Altar served. I had a fondness for the thought of struggling to keep the charcoal lit, the ceremony upon which everything was incensed and how the smoke drifted up into the rafters, the light trailing through the haze.

On Ash Wednesday, the whole church was packed. There were so many people that even after arriving twenty minutes early we had to stand at the back of the room. I knew almost every face, everyone there being from Catholic U. Even when my knee dislocated from the constant kneeling on the marble floor, I fought through the pain, and by focusing on the Mass I found myself, while physically hurt, not suffering.

On Easter I found myself once more holding a candle, the darkness of the church expelled by everyone who in their devotion came to mass in the middle of the night. I learned what the different symbols upon the Paschal candle meant, something never explained to me as a Catholic. I reveled in the scent of smoke as we stood around the bonfire, singing a hymn I knew every word to, and found joy. 

I have consistently gone to every Latin High Mass since moving into my new apartment earlier this year. I have made new friends who have challenged me to grow in my faith. 

While I doubt I may ever fully return to Catholicism, it is nice to have those moments of ritual and community that I often feel I lack.

As anyone who celebrates the Tridentine right can imagine, I was scared when Pope Francis issued his Motu Proprio, and I am still fearful of what could possibly happen to the one and only mass I actually celebrate. I do not have a thorough enough understanding of the politics within the church, so I have no right to comment on whether or not the fears of the Holy Father are true.  What I do understand is that the Latin Mass has brought me, in a way, back to God, and my faith, and I will be devastated if I lose that.

5 Responses

  1. Thank you for this article. I am guilty of judging people’s participation at the novus ordo, and I’ve also felt sort of impotent when I attend mass in languages other than English or Latin. This article taught me that the old-fashioned mass can be more welcoming because it requires very little participation.

  2. I was plagued by doubts about Christianity from an early age even as a cradle Catholic growing up during the Latin Mass period. Eventually, I also ended up agnostic. When I found the mystical aspect of Christianity, everything changed. This is the aspect that addressed my mental and emotional issues in a way that nothing else could.
    I view my Catholicism as having expanded rather than having changed into something else. The best way that I can explain this aspect of Christianity is to offer some Scriptural passages that instructed me in this path. See 1Peter 5:5-7, Philippians 4:6-7, Proverbs 3:5-6, Psalms 37:7, 55:22, Isaiah 26:3-4, 55:7-9, John 6:63, and Galatians 5:22-23.

  3. To the author: I live within the Diocese of Metuchen and regularly attend the Latin Mass here. If ever you find yourself in the area and would like to attend the Latin Mass, feel free to reach out to the FB page here as we would be more than happy to welcome you: https://www.facebook.com/MetuchenTLM

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