LINCOLN, Neb. — The members of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church have been on edge for weeks, worried that their way of worship is under threat, and what makes their fears especially agonizing is the identity of the person leading the crackdown: Pope Francis.

The congregants — belonging to one of hundreds of U.S. churches devoted to the old Latin Mass — say they can’t understand the pope’s thinking on limiting its practice. Some say they are praying that Francis’s better judgment still might prevail. One influential church member, theologian Peter Kwasniewski, has spent day after day publishing fiery opinion pieces, calling Francis’s decree contemptuous, vindictive toward Catholic traditionalists, an atomic bomb against the faith.

“Let’s not mince words,” Kwasniewski wrote at one point on Facebook. “This is a declaration of total war.”

Francis’s decision, perhaps like no other in his eight-year papacy, has struck at the perilous fault line in the Catholic Church, where progressives and traditionalists are divided not only ideologically but also over how they pray. While the vast majority of Catholics attend the modern Mass — devised in the 1960s and celebrated in the local language — a small but devout group of traditionalists prefer the old rite, a ceremony conducted in Latin that dates back more than a millennium, and that has increasingly become a conservative emblem of protest.

Francis, saying he was acting for the “unity” of the church, made clear he felt like the old rite was being weaponized. He said freedoms to celebrate the old Latin Mass granted by his predecessors had encouraged “disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.”

His mid-July decree dramatically tightened the rules on who can celebrate the old Latin Mass, requiring, among other things, new permission from local bishops. Some of the pope’s allies say the goal is to curtail forces antagonistic not specifically toward Francis’s pontificate, but toward Catholicism’s sometimes-lurching effort since the Second Vatican Council to modernize and reform.

But within the U.S. church — a global epicenter for the traditionalist movement — the pope’s decree has only deepened the opposition, expanding it to include fundamental questions about worship and what it means to be a good Catholic. Those loyal to the Latin Mass say they are simply praying the way hundreds of past popes have worshiped, the way saints have worshiped, the way their own grandparents worshiped — using a ceremony they find beautiful, rich, unblemished.

The pushback to Francis’s decision has been intense. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States who has become this era’s highest-profile papal critic, went so far as to call Francis a “non-Catholic pope.” Traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke, on his personal website, offered a 19-point critique of the decision. Many conservative-leaning U.S. bishops have simply allowed the Latin Masses to continue, and one, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., shared the text of his dispensation on a canon law listserv so other prelates could follow suit.

“My assessment of this is that it was ill-advised,” Paprocki said in a phone interview. “I don’t know who was advising him. But to the extent he was trying to solve a problem here, the motu proprio stirred things up.”

An inner turmoil

Because of their own bishop’s decision to let Latin Masses continue, the congregants at St. Francis of Assisi have seen no immediate changes. There are Masses on weekdays, plus Sunday services at 8 and 10 a.m. and noon. If anything, the crowds have grown.

But many congregants speak of an inner turmoil — of feeling at odds with the supreme authority of their religion over something so core. To them, the Latin Mass is not just a form of prayer, but also the central force for like-minded people in their community. For people who take the faith seriously. Who pray the rosary. Who believe the teaching as it was written — that homosexual acts are disordered, that contraception is wrong, that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. Some of these are minority viewpoints even among American Catholics, and St. Francis congregants say they sometimes feel like outsiders in their own city, uneasy about sharing their convictions, other than at their church.

“We are radically countercultural,” said Matt Rauert, 36, who described his life on a “homestead” outside Lincoln with his wife and six children, raising chickens and ducks, trying to live as best he can off the land, and attending Sunday Mass in a coat and tie.

Almost everybody at St. Francis has a story about starting in the mainstream rite and discovering, with a convert’s zeal, the Latin one, conducted in a language most don’t understand. And almost everybody has a story about how their lives, thereafter, had changed.

For Jacob Bauer, 24, that meant applying the principles of the church to nearly every aspect of his family life. It meant modesty — no trips to the beach, for instance, where revealing clothing would be on display. It meant refraining from gossip. It meant a defining 2017 conversation with his eventual wife, Hannah, now 25, about how the role of women had veered off course during modern times, and how something more traditional would be best for their family. So Hannah decided to reconsider her optometry career goals and stay home to raise a family. They now have one young child and hope to have more. Hannah wants to home-school the children.

“I was given the conviction I could do that from church,” where many women were going the same route, she said.

Bauer says he just wants space for his family to follow their own beliefs, without threats, and so his response has been to think of the pope daily: To pray for him, to cite him by name, with the hope that he “sees the love a lot of us have for the Latin Mass.” On Twitter — where Bauer describes himself in his bio as a “12th, 13th, 14th, 15th-century moderate; 21st-century hyper-traditionalist” — he has been similarly civil. He has regularly extolled the virtues of the old Latin Mass but refrained from criticism of Francis.

“I don’t want to make him an object of derision and a joke,” Bauer said. “That doesn’t help at all. It’s a matter of conscience and prudence.”

But several blocks across town, a fellow congregant has another perspective. Kwasniewski, 50, says Francis is threatening the “foundation of the faith,” and so feels he not only has a right to speak out, but a duty.

“There needs to be a certain number of people in a crisis situation that are actually in a position to put everything on the line,” Kwasniewski said.

Kwasniewski arrived in Lincoln two years ago, already something of a traditionalist celebrity. He writes regularly for publications across the Catholic blogosphere, like OnePeterFive. He is friendly with Cardinal Burke. He spent several years teaching at Wyoming Catholic College, a traditionalist school where students forgo their cellphones, read the classics, learn Latin, and begin freshman year with a 21-day wilderness expedition.

He considers the traditional Latin Mass “the crown jewel of Western civilization” — and the Second Vatican Council to be a destabilizing event that unmoored Catholicism from its roots and is still causing shock waves. Francis, he said, is multiplying the chaos.

Kwasniewski has a gentle demeanor in person, and like Bauer he chants in the St. Francis choir, but at the computer keyboard he is a radical. On the day of Francis’s decision, he fired off so many Facebook posts and offered himself for so many interviews that Bauer walked over with an offering: a cocktail in a Mason jar.

“I thought he needed it,” Bauer said.

“I probably did,” Kwasniewski recalled.

Kwasniewski wrote that there was not a single bright side to what had happened. He noted that Benedict XVI, 14 years earlier, had tried to broker a “fragile peace” by granting greater freedom for the Latin Mass — and then Francis had in turn revoked it, essentially erasing the work of his predecessor. He said the pontiff’s move was “inherently anti-Catholic,” and that Francis was trampling on the members of the church.

He called on the “guardians of tradition” to stand up and carry on.

Guardians of tradition

Several weeks later, on a Sunday morning, those guardians of tradition were filling the pews at St. Francis. Outside there was a busy commercial street, a taco joint, an Advance Auto Parts, but inside it could have been an earlier century in Catholicism. Big families were arriving. Congregants were genuflecting and crossing themselves as they walked in. Most of the women wore veils. The church was dappled in purples, golds and reds from stained glass windows.

Then, the rear door opened, and the Rev. Joseph Heffernan walked in.

Heffernan is a member of the Fraternity of St. Peter, a priestly association, with a seminary in nearby Denton, that trains clerics in the old Latin Mass and then sends them around the world, including to 39 dioceses in the United States. The fraternity has been in existence for three decades, born during an earlier phase of post-Vatican II tensions, when a group of Latin Mass devotees were excommunicated by John Paul II after performing illicit consecrations. The fraternity was an offshoot of those schismatics. Its founders reconciled with Rome, acknowledged the validity of the Second Vatican Council, and gained momentum during the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

But now, the fraternity’s future is uncertain.

There have been rumors in the conservative Catholic press that the priest association might receive a heavy form of Vatican scrutiny — an “apostolic visitation” — or be pressured to undertake moderating reforms. The fraternity in late August asked members to pray on its behalf.

On this August Sunday, the members at St. Francis were packed in — few vaccinated or wearing masks. In the choir loft, Kwasniewski, Bauer and others were chanting Gregorian melodies, projecting a warbly sound that echoed as if the church were a stone cave. At the altar, Heffernan was leading the Mass ad orientem — facing toward the altar, back turned to the congregants — and praying in Latin, sometimes barely above a whisper. For congregants, the Mass had the feel of mystical theater. They were witnessing something that was hard to understand, and it was up to them to find the meaning, to pray silently to God.

There was a homily, in English. Then the distribution of wafers on the tongue. And soon after, it was over. Some congregants stayed kneeling, continuing silent prayer as the church emptied out, but others came through the door, heading out back for a coffee social under the basketball hoop.

On the way out, the congregants passed through a barren hallway, adorned with only one framed photo: a headshot of the Holy Father, Pope Francis.

correction

An earlier version of this story misidentified a seminarian as an altar boy in a caption. It also misattributed two quotes to Kwasniewski, when they were instead from an article he had shared, with endorsement. The caption has been corrected and the two quotes removed.

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