As he prepared to celebrate the traditional Latin mass at Holy Trinity church in South St. Paul, the Rev. John Echert predicted that it would last 35 minutes. Not "about" 35 minutes; 35 minutes. And it did. Exactly.
He wasn't just guessing. Every genuflection, every wave of incense, every ringing of the signal bells is spelled out in intricate detail in the instructions for the mass. Except for a half-stifled sneeze (Echert was trying to ward off a cold), the parishioners knew that the mass that day was going to be exactly the same as every other day's, down to the smallest detail.
"The people who come to this mass like that it is so fixed," he said. "They like the ritual, the stability and the predictability. There are no surprises."
Echert, whose parish also includes St. Augustine church, is waging virtually a one-man campaign in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to revive what many Roman Catholics had considered nearly a lost rite: the Tridentine, or the traditional Latin mass.
When Pope Benedict issued a decree in July clearing a way for a revival of the mass, which had not been practiced regularly for 40 years, many church insiders predicted that it would appeal only to nostalgic senior citizens. But Echert has seen evidence to the contrary.
"I have more crying babies at the Tridentine mass than the English one," he said.
Indeed, among the worshippers on a recent Friday was Ann Swanson, 28, who was there with her children. "I've noticed a lot of people my age here," she said, going on to explain that the mass "appeals to me because it is so centered on God. Some elements of the modern mass distract from that, but this is entirely focused on the Eucharist, which is the center of our faith."
A few pews away from her sat Henry Jandrich, 30. "This mass celebrates more reverently than many other liturgies I've attended," he said. "It's a transcendent liturgy that brings me closer to prayer."
Echert, 50, has been fascinated with the mass since he was a youngster. "That mass is the reason I became a priest," he said. "I was inspired by its beauty and intricacy."
In addition to leading a daily Latin mass, which alternates between his two churches, he has become the archdiocese's tutor on it, working with a half dozen priests and seminarians who want to learn it. "I guess, by default, we sort of became the mother church for the Tridentine mass," he said. Two priests, the Rev. Randall Kasel of St. Charles in Bayport and the Rev. John Gallas of St. Joseph's in West St. Paul, are about ready to "solo."
Ancient language, modern times
The term Tridentine comes from the Latin tridentinus, a reference to the 1570 Council of Trent, which convinced Pope Pius V to make the mass mandatory throughout the church. It fell out of favor in the 1970s following the Vatican II directive allowing mass in the local languages.
A splinter group that refused to make the change, the Society of St. Pius V, split from the Vatican and has several churches in Minnesota. They are not considered Roman Catholic, although there have been tentative discussions about them rejoining. The major stumbling block is the Vatican's insistence that they also offer rites in English, which they refuse to do.
There also are Roman Catholic churches that offer Latin translations of the contemporary mass, but that's not the Tridentine mass.
There is a contemplative aspect to the mass.
"It's very quiet, Echert said. "And it's very ritualistic. For instance, I genuflect more. A lot more, like 30 times compared with three" in a contemporary mass.
Even though it's shorter than many other masses, it can be mentally exhausting for the priest because it requires an intense focus.
"It's very detailed," he said. "Everything is very specific and demanding. Every step has to be done exactly the same way every time. There is very little in the way of options."
When the pope issued the decree about the Latin mass, church insiders predicted that, at most, it would generate only a ripple of interest among rank-and-file Catholics. And, so far at least, that has turned out to be the case.
"There's a whole generation of people who are used to the English mass," said Dennis McGrath, director of communications for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. "I doubt that a lot of them have ever even heard a Latin mass. Yes, the language [of the Tridentine mass] is beautiful, but most people don't want to go to a mass in a language they've never heard before."
And they might not be hearing a lot about it now. The initiative for the Latin mass must start with the parishioners, who have to petition the priest to offer the Latin mass. This has created something of a Catch-22: Priests can't offer the mass until their congregations hear it, decide that they like it and then ask for it. But that means they would have to ask for it before they've heard it.
"The pope set it up to be a grass-roots movement led by the faithful," Echert said.
In 1984 the Vatican opened the door to periodic celebrations of the mass. Echert was teaching at the University of St. Thomas at the time, but when he made the transition to parish priest six years ago, he volunteered to revive the mass. Having majored in Latin in college, it seemed like a natural fit.
"When I was in college, I used to ask myself, 'What am I going to do with a degree in Latin?'" he said with a laugh.
A lost cause?
Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said that Echert might be swimming upstream in his attempt to build widespread support for the Latin mass.
"For those who are fundamentally disposed toward the Tridentine mass, the pope's decree is very encouraging," Irwin said. "But for the 99.9 percent of the rest of us, I don't see wholesale changes."
While Echert isn't predicting that the Latin mass will replace the contemporary one, he is confident that it will find its fans.
"It's only been a few months [since the pope's edict]. Give it time," he said. "I think that a year from now, there will be half a dozen parishes in the archdiocese offering it. Two years from now, there will be twice that many."
The Vatican established the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter specifically to train priests in the Latin mass. The North American school is in Nebraska, but so far its crash courses haven't generated widespread interest among Twin Cities priests. Echert has had better luck with a more measured approach that stretches the training over several months.
"We watch a lot of videotapes" of the mass, he said. "And we do a lot of practicing."
Echert sees interest in the Tridentine mass as more than just nostalgia. After several years of growth in more-relaxed worship styles, he thinks that the pendulum is starting to swing back toward so-called "high" church with more emphasis on rituals, decorum and formality.
There's a sense of propriety among those at the mass, he said, starting with the way people dress. "I've never seen any cut-offs. And many of the women wear veils, although that's not a requirement," Echert said.
The way mass has been celebrated over the past 40 years doesn't fully resonate with the worshippers who are drawn to the Tridentine mass.
"I think the mass is filling a void that people feel."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392