This past Sunday, as I attempted to get my wriggling, squeaking, squirming children settled in our pew for what usually amounts to a liturgical rodeo — see if you can keep them on their best behavior for eight seconds without getting thrown out of the church — I noticed the arrival of two women in their sixties who clearly looked like they did not belong. Processing up the aisle in search of a seat, they were dressed very casually, with the short-cropped, boyish, almost intentionally unattractive hairstyles that seem to be de rigeur for the aging members of America’s post-feminism movement. They stood out in a sea of suits, ties, dresses, and chapel veils.
Far be it from me to judge based solely on appearances, of course: I may be a Trad, but when I know I’m going to be wrestling with toddlers for the duration of an hour-and-a-quarter-long Mass in the heat of the summer, I’m the first to arrive in a polo shirt instead of an oxford. Even so, sometimes it’s just true: “By their fashions you will know them.”
This daring duo of anti-patriarchalism might have been guests in from out of town and staying in the hotel across the street, unaware that the 9 a.m. Mass at this particular parish is, in fact, a throwback to the glory days of Catholicism, before the option existed to replace all the masculine pronouns for God in the liturgy with gender-inclusive ones. Might have been, I say, but for the fact that they gave themselves away with their refusal to kneel during such unimportant moments of the Mass as, say, the consecration. They stood like Amazon warrior priestesses at attention, forming a phalanx to defend the rear guard of fruit-loopy Catholicism’s last hoorah.
As I looked at them (they were partially blocking my view of the altar, so I couldn’t help it), I felt not my usual twinge of irritation at the guardians of “Me-Church,” but instead a kind of amused pity. They couldn’t perform their non-conformist schtick, mad-libbing their way through responses that, in Latin, they couldn’t understand. Hindered by the liturgical language barrier and unfamiliar with the posture of the priest, they were also unable to determine when to hold hands inappropriately during the “Our Father” and were ritually deprived of the showy displays of human affection afforded them by the Sign of Peace.
In other words, the liturgical experience in which they found themselves was horizontal-proof. It resists by its very essence all efforts to make it conform to Man. Instead, within its confines, man (or womyn, if you prefer) must conform to God.
As I watched the priest, his attention turned to the altar and, incidentally, away from their awkward and ineffectual protest, I felt certain that I was at last seeing the death of an ideology that had long outlived its time. The parish was full — not just with gray-haired hangers-on, but with young families teeming with small children, all of whom demonstrated a deep fondness for tradition, ritual, and respectful worship. The visitors’ triumphalistic “We Are Church” mentality was made irrelevant by a more humble, less self-conscious Catholicism. The people around them were far less concerned with having the attention focused on them, and far more concerned with keeping children quiet and well-behaved, and making it through the confession line before Communion time.
This reality is not restricted to the extraordinary form of the Mass, though it finds much substance there. As the Church turns with a view to the past, not just the future, and admits more of its once-abandoned orthodoxy back into its liturgies, the revolutionaries who sought to remake Catholicism are growing old and fading away. The Church is timeless and seems now, at last, to be maturing out of its bi-millennial identity crisis. It is a Catholicism that remembers what it was and where it is going — to Our Father’s house — where the choirs of angels sing not their own praises but His, forever and ever.