There were no smells, but there were enough bells to make Quasimodo happy and to give the congregation the clear indication that they were not participating in a normal liturgy. But by the time the bells were ringing during the Roman Canon those in the pews who are used to the generic, run of the mill, suburban Mass experience must have felt like they had stepped through the looking glass.
As each of us entered a darkened St. Stephen Church, filled with the beautiful strains of polyphonic chant sung by the St. Stephen’s Schola, we were handed a candle and a Mass booklet that must have brought a tinge of nostalgia to those in attendance who, like my great friend and pew-mate Mr. Nick Restifo of the Languages Department, happen to be a little older than me: Latin on the left, English on the right.
That “little older than me” portion of the congregation was minimal compared with those who were in their teens and wearing either ties (young men from Benedictine and Saint Ignatius) or plaid uniform skirts (the young women from Saint Joseph Academy). Seeing several hundred young adults at a 7 a.m. Traditional Latin Mass on a cold Ohio morning where everything is grey is enough to warm the heart of any “what’s wrong with kids these days?” Grinch.
This Mass, which brought out so many young Latin scholars, was officially billed as an “Advent Rorate Candlelight Mass to Honor Our Lady of Guadalupe.” The Mass was sponsored by our own St. John Berchmans Altar Servers Ministry, moderated by the legendary Jim Brennan ’85 of the Theology Department. Through the considerable efforts of Ray Stadnik, father of Harrison ’12, and under the watchful eye of Fr. Bede Kotlinski, O.S.B., of Benedictine High School, our students have for years served regularly at the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass at St. Stephen Church on West 54th Street.
Other than those young men who serve at St. Stephen Church, those high school students in the pews this morning (and pretty much any of the parents who happened to be there) were witnessing something that was totally foreign to their experience. This Mass is a monument to the importance of ritual in our lives. The fact that the Mass simply “began” and was not prefaced by an off the cuff greeting by Fr. Bede gave us all an indication that this would not be a typical liturgy.
In the Traditional Latin Mass the priest faces the same direction as the congregation, and therefore he has his back to us in the same way that a Sherpa has his back to those being led to the top of Mt. Everest. This, and reception of the Eucharist on the tongue while kneeling at the alter rail, are only the most obvious of the many rubrics with which we are unfamiliar, but the notes in the Mass booklet help us youngsters to understand what was going on.
Adding to the mystical nature of this ancient ritual was the fact that we were celebrating a Rorate Mass, typical not only of Advent but of the culture of German-speaking peoples, from which the founders of St. Stephen Church came. For these people, a Rorate Mass was said before sunrise, lit only by candles, and in honor of the Blessed Mother. The term rorate comes from a phrase in Isaiah: rorate coeli, “come down from heaven.” Its usual referent is Christ in the Incarnation, but on this Marian feast we can maybe broaden that understanding to include the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego on this day in 1531.
The Mass in an ancient language, candlelight, chant, kneeling to receive the King of the Universe in the form of a simple host: this is the embodiment of mystery. In The Little Prince we are told that, when confronted by a mystery that is too overpowering, we must not disobey. This morning a whole lot of young people were given the opportunity to obey the Mystery, and hopefully they walked out of St. Stephen Church with a better sense of just how overpowering that can be.