When presented with evidence that his priests were raping children, Catholic bishop Tod D. Brown did what most of his predecessors in the Diocese of Orange had done before him: nothing.
But when it comes to a bunch of septuagenarians attending the Mass in Latin, Brown is suddenly George W. Bush engaged in a war on terror.
The enemy gathers every Sunday at Our Lady Help of Christians in Garden Grove.
Help of Christians practices the Tridentine Mass, a millennia-old service that all Catholics attended until the 1960s, when the Vatican ordered priests to recite prayers and the liturgy in the languages of their parishioners.
This ancient Mass, with its droning Latin and Gregorian chants, is rare today. Help of Christians and Mission San Juan Capistrano are the only Orange County Catholic parishes offering it. And for good reason—it's a bore.
Traditionalists rave about the mystical qualities of the Tridentine Mass, saying it draws the faithful closer to God. But it's hard to see how anyone could feel a divine connection in an age when Latin is on life support, aided only by bug-catching scientists, college mottoes and the Vatican. The priest spends most of the Mass with his back to the parishioners, who remain silent save for the occasional cough or sneeze. When the faithful receive the Eucharist, they do so kneeling en masse on a long rail that separates the altar from the pews. Women wear chapel veils; men wear suits or, in the absence of such formality, long-sleeved shirts and dress pants. The priest performs the Mass almost entirely in Latin, still the official language of the Vatican.
The Tridentine Mass is more living museum display than vital Catholicism. But to Brown, whose Catholics make up one-third of the county's population, anyone who practices this Mass is living in sin—an outcast deserving of public scorn. In 2004, Brown killed the Tridentine Mass at St. Mary's by the Sea in Huntington Beach after the retirement of its pastor. That same year, during a Mass at St. John the Baptist in Costa Mesa, Brown yanked to her feet a woman kneeling to receive the Eucharist in the Tridentine fashion. Video of the incident shows Brown snarling to the woman that she was "causing a scene."
His Eminence continues the fight. In the spring, Brown stood behind St. Mary's pastor Martin Tran after Tran warned parishioners in a church bulletin that anyone who genuflected or knelt after priests held up the Eucharist was practicing "rebellion, grave disobedience and mortal sin." And in a September 6 letter to St. Mary's parishioners, Brown wrote that if he reinstated the Tridentine Mass at the parish, "the people of the Diocese generally would likely view permission for the Tridentine Mass so close upon the protests as nothing less than a capitulation to a special-interest group."
Brown has saved his strongest barb, however, for Help of Christians. The Orange diocese doesn't recognize Help of Christians, even though its priests remain in good standing with Brown's bosses in the Vatican. Churches in the Orange diocese periodically issue bulletins at Brown's behest urging county Catholics to ignore the church. Help of Christians' pastor Patrick Perez has fought back: he once told a Catholic website, "No, we most certainly are not 'under the bishop' or he would have closed us down a long time ago and sold our property to help pay for his lawsuits [involving the sex-abuse scandal], and all of these people would have no place to receive the sacraments the way the Church says they should."
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Brown has never explained his opposition to the Tridentine Mass. It's certainly not founded on canonical law; the Archdiocese of Los Angeles offers dozens of them.
If anything, the Tridentine adherents could help save Brown's church. During a recent Sunday morning Mass, Help of Christians' pews were packed, mostly with elderly whites and immigrants clutching worn missals. English made a few appearances, during the Gospel and the sermon, and churchgoers remained silent until the end, when everyone recited "Hail Mary"—in Latin. Afterward, in the parish hall, they greeted the priest. The pastries and coffee were warm and the conversations were in English.
"This is a good church," says a Help of Christians parishioner who requested anonymity. It was his first time. "If you come here, you care about God. You don't feel an obligation to attend Mass like so many Catholics. Those Catholics are insulting; why [Bishop] Brown prefers them over us is beyond me. But that's why his church is dying, and we're just beginning."