The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Let the Latin Mass remain in D.C.

Archbishop Cardinal Wilton Gregory leads Mass Feb. 26, 2020, at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in observance of the beginning of the season of Lent. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Kenneth J. Wolfe has sung in the Gregorian chant choir at St. Mary Mother of God Church in D.C. for more than 26 years.

The Archdiocese of Washington, led by Cardinal Wilton Gregory, might eliminate all traditional Latin Masses in its parishes in D.C. and Maryland, forcing the existing seven public Sunday Masses using the centuries-old rite to merge into one new location, most likely the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast D.C. Among the parishes currently offering Latin Masses is St. Mary Mother of God church in Chinatown, a church that has been offering the traditional Mass since the mid-1980s (and 1845 through 1969), when permission was granted to designate that location for a restored Latin liturgy.

The archdiocese said that Cardinal Gregory has not yet announced his intentions related to Pope Francis’s motu proprio “Traditionis Custodes,” the directive given last year on the traditional Latin Mass.

The process that might lead Cardinal Gregory to shut down all Sunday and weekday Latin Masses has saddened, surprised and angered hundreds of Catholics who attend these liturgies. Personal invitations to the cardinal — even by priests — to visit a local Latin Mass have been declined. Alternatives to keep a few Latin Masses alive at parishes in the archdiocese have been dismissed. For a cardinal who has prided himself on the virtues of justice and charity, many Catholics in the pews over the past few weeks have been shut out of any serious discussion, instead resulting in what can fairly — and ironically — be characterized as injustice and intolerance by the archbishop of Washington.

One would think that of all the problems in the Archdiocese of Washington, faithful, practicing Catholics attending Latin Masses would not be considered among them. Cardinal Gregory’s two predecessors (Cardinals Theodore McCarrick and Donald Wuerl) resigned in disgrace, costing millions of dollars. Sex abuse payouts have been enormous. Pews are nearly empty at many, if not most, Catholic churches in D.C., and the archdiocese is likely on the verge of bankruptcy. According to the financial report released for the most recent fiscal year, parishes ran an operating deficit of $2.3 million in just that one year, and the priests’ retirement benefit trust and medical and care funds have unfunded liabilities of tens of millions of dollars. Contrary to some assumptions, the Archdiocese of Washington is actually quite small, having only double the number of parishes as Virginia’s 70-parish Diocese of Arlington), which makes these large monetary deficits staggering.

Yet, Cardinal Gregory is considering shutting down the Latin Mass at St. Mary’s, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of that parish’s income, 100 percent of the church’s volunteer singers and about 90 percent of its volunteer base. Taking away the traditional Mass at St. Mary Mother of God would crush the parish, which was falling down — and nearly empty — until the Latin Mass community was a given a home there in the mid-1980s by Cardinal James Hickey. The flower guild is comprised entirely of Latin Mass attendees. Same with the altar boys. Same with the families who organize and pay for coffee and doughnuts after Mass, every Sunday of the year. When the clock tower needs daylight saving time updated manually, or the bells of St. Mary’s need fixing, or a parish picnic needs a coordinator and cooks, the job always falls to laity in the pews from the Latin Mass.

Why would Cardinal Gregory do such a thing to a vibrant, successful parish that not only is self-sustaining but also actually subsidizes failing parts of the Archdiocese of Washington, including the cardinal’s own cathedral? He claims he is bound to belittle the Latin Mass by order of Pope Francis. Where this story falls apart, however, is the fact that almost no other bishop in the United States has even contemplated such an extreme, uncharitable act of injustice. Why would they, with all of the serious problems currently on their plates, take thriving Latin Masses and merge them into a traditional Catholic ghetto?

No one — even within the chancery — is known to support this. In fact, high-ranking, appointed officials in his office have proposed alternatives. Several of the cardinal’s loyal pastors have pleaded for him to reconsider such a harsh move. Priests who do not celebrate the Latin Mass have expressed opposition to slashing more than a half dozen such liturgies.

The sad part in shutting down the traditional Latin Mass at St. Mary Mother of God church is that it would devastate the parish, which has worked hard to help the neighborhood and those in need. People, including me, who were married at St. Mary’s, who served as godfather for baptisms at St. Mary’s and who have volunteered thousands of hours — and contributed thousands of dollars — will go elsewhere. I will go to a welcoming parish that offers a traditional Latin Mass, just like St. Mary’s, but in the Diocese of Arlington. And I will spend my time, talent and treasure there. But I will still be sad every time another D.C. parish closes, as I now know it was likely because of a tone-deaf cardinal who, when invited to a parish he intends to destroy, had absolutely no interest in even visiting it.

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