Finding New and Ancient Faith at Harvard

By Christopher Bruno Lacaria - Waterbury, Connecticut, USA - Pentecost/Assumption 2011



It was at Harvard where I first found the faith again. I certainly never had intended in the first place to lose it, which survived more or less intact amid my transition from the ancestral Catholicism of suburban Waterbury, Connecticut, to Cambridge’s skeptical quadrangles. In college, I had expected to encounter challenges to the convictions of my earlier education, and not least of all from my classmates whose religious beliefs, when they existed at all, spanned the spectrum from secular Judaism to the vague Christianity of long-lapsed WASPs. Yet although I admitted, if only to myself, that I hardly could hope to answer even to my complete satisfaction all the objections to the grounds on which my faith stood, I did not doubt that ultimately Holy Mother Church, and not any Veritas that Harvard had to offer -- in the words of Archbishop O’Connell -- “possesses the whole truth, the real truth, the fundamental truth,” no matter how inadequate and inarticulate her human defenders may appear. That I thought, then, that I had nothing in particular to find made my discovery all the more surprising.


On Palm Sunday in 2006, I accompanied some friends to Mass in the South End of Boston at the Archdiocese’s historical German national church, Holy Trinity. From the outside, the church itself -- a simple gothic edifice, surrounded by an abandoned warehouse and a homely housing project, standing a block from where the Massachusetts Turnpike dips visibly below street level before it vanishes into the underground tunnels of the Big Dig -- seems like an anachronism, or at least a funerary monument to a bygone chapter of the city’s history. But inside it is vibrant. The congregation, which fills most of the pews, is an eclectic mix of Boston’s Catholic population, not only white ethnics but representative proportions of the more recent immigrant communities, elderly couples and young families and, on that day at least, a handful of students. The bell rings for the start of Mass, the organ heaves, and the priest with his retinue emerges from the sacristy. But when he reaches the sanctuary to say the first prayers, and the choir begins to chant the first Hosanna, the language is not the familiar English of the ICEL, but the ancient tongue of the Church. I had discovered, almost by serendipity, the traditional Latin Mass for the first time.

For someone of a certain cast of mind, the Church’s old rite of Mass holds an obvious and immediate allure. Unlike the contemporary Mass, which emerged in the years following the Second Vatican Council as the work of specialists attempting to reconstruct the customs of the primitive Church, the vast bulk of the traditional liturgy had been codified four hundred years earlier at the Council of Trent, and its essential features had been in place since at least the time of St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century. The Church’s authority, and the timeless truths which it proclaims, rest in no small part upon its successful maintenance of the apostolic tradition: no doubt its sacred liturgy, the centerpiece of Christian prayer and worship, having hardly changed in scores of generations, gave living testimony to that permanence.

The dozens of congregants at Holy Trinity that spring day may have been the only Catholics in Boston, and perhaps even the greater metropolis, to hear the Mass celebrated according to the traditional rite. Before 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio declaration liberalizing the use of the pre-conciliar liturgy, few parishes, in a few places across the country, offered the old Mass, and often only at the begrudging behest of the bishops. But while only a tiny minority of Catholics then could choose to worship this way, ironically I was struck by the Mass’s profound sense of spiritual community. This was the Mass to which many of the greatest saints had been devoted; the same Mass that had attracted such notable converts as Cardinal Newman and Edith Stein to the faith; the Mass for which many a martyred priest had risked rack and rope to bring it to persecuted congregations in barns and haylofts. This was the same rite that had succored my grandparents in a makeshift chapel at the YMCA some eight decades ago. On that Palm Sunday I had discovered something about the faith previously unknown to me, but something that formed part of a rich and truly inexhaustible patrimony that all along had been preserved.

This past March I again undertook a journey for the Latin Mass. As an undergraduate, a group of us would often brave the Sunday-morning commute on the notoriously unreliable T from Harvard Yard to Holy Trinity and, once the Archdiocese had at last suppressed that parish, to the more distant environs of Newton Upper Falls. This last time, instead, I had only the relatively easy drive up I-91 and the Mass Pike from New Haven; and the destination this time was not those Boston fringes rarely visited by Harvard undergrads, but the very center of campus. St. Paul Church, the Catholic center of Harvard Square since the 1920s and the current home of the University’s Catholic chaplaincy, was celebrating its first Latin Mass in several decades.

St. Paul Church sits amid campus a block from Harvard Yard on the corner of Bow and Arrow Streets. A massive red-brick edifice, done in Veronese Romanesque, with a campanile from whose height the bells toll each hour, it appears as a location visibly steeped in Catholic tradition. Inside, even, the remnants of an altar rail can still be descried and the sanctuary centers around the original marble high altar in the rear. The stained-glass windows that line the nave depict the great doctors of the Church -- Augustine, Aquinas, Anastasius, Anselm, Ignatius -- and on bas reliefs above the side doors is Saint Paul himself, on one side of the sanctuary, preaching to the philosophers of Athens and, on the other, burning the books of the magicians at Ephesus, a veiled reference to the once virulently anti-papist university up the street. An excellent boys choir, trained in the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School annexed to the parish, provides music for the principal Sunday Mass and most mornings during the week as well.

Yet despite these appurtenances, St. Paul’s until recently had been somewhat reticent in its embrace of the Catholic tradition it so aptly symbolized in its architecture and its history. The chaplaincy’s weekly student Mass conspicuously spurned the formality of the main altar for the much more casual chapel in the cellar, which lacked kneelers as well as permanent seating. A now-defunct parish group, founded while I was an undergraduate, hosted lectures in the church on topics purposefully designed to distance contemporary Catholicism from much of its traditional baggage. The previous pastor had even declined a request, from more than fifty students, for the traditional Latin Mass at St. Paul’s, despite the Pope’s warm encouragement in his motu proprio letter that the old rite be made generously available to the faithful who desire it.

The return of the Church’s ancient liturgy to Harvard Square and to St. Paul’s, given these circumstances, therefore struck me as something almost miraculous. The feast day that marked the occasion, the Annunciation, fell on a Friday of Lent and therefore the simple and reverent service provided a fitting celebration. A visiting priest from the outer Boston suburbs, with the gracious welcome and assistance of Fr. Michael Drea, the current pastor, said a low Mass -- the simple form of the ancient liturgy that dispenses with the incense and the Gregorian chant that, in the minds of many, represent the hallmarks of the older ceremony. At low Mass, just like at any celebration according to the pre-conciliar rubrics, the priest does not face the congregation but rather joins them to focus in the direction of the altar. Since there is little singing in this sparer ceremony, much of the Mass is said in silence; but even in the grandest Sunday high Mass, the older rite emphasizes the sacred mystery as much by what the congregation does not hear as what it does. Most notably, the priest says, with the exception of a few words, the entire Roman canon -- which, unlike in the modern Mass, is the only Eucharistic prayer -- inaudibly. The silence is interrupted only by the bells that signal the consecration and the successive elevations of the Host and the Chalice. With similar reverence, communicants approach the altar, in contrast to the custom observed in nearly every parish church today, not to receive the sacred Host standing or in their hands, but kneeling at the communion rail in the posture of a supplicant. And at the end of every Mass, the priest reads the same selection from the beginning of St. John’s Gospel and all genuflect briefly at those familiar words from the Angelus -- et Verbum caro factum est; and the Word became flesh -- that commemorate the Incarnation.

The emphasis of the old Mass on these often repetitive gestures, the many genuflections and signs of the cross, on the silence and reverence, strikes a distinct contrast with the casual, and sometimes conversational, style of many contemporary liturgical celebrations. Formality, in our age, can often seem stiff, distant, lifeless, while informality more genuine, welcoming, and accessible. Yet the Catholic liturgy, which for us faithful is the paramount expression of religious truth -- the memorial and reenactment, according to Our Lord’s command, of His redemptive self-sacrifice on our behalf -- reflects the eternal order, atop of which sits the throne of God that our understanding can perceive at best only dimly. Far from empty and lifeless forms, the symbolism of the old liturgy invites us, indeed challenges us, to contemplate these truths and mysteries from a perspective we are seldom afforded.

Harvard, of all places, would seem an unlikely venue for such contemplations -- a university founded by Puritans for whom the sanitized Protestantism of the Church of England smacked too much of “papistry,” and enthralled currently by intellectual notions at best antagonistic to Catholic teachings. It is certainly contrary, and perhaps even scandalous, to the spirit of popular enlightenment to invite collegiate intellects to adopt, for once, not the attire of self-confident rational inquiry but rather of reverent awe. But the Latin Mass -- the living, breathing inheritance of centuries of Catholic prayer and worship -- counsels just that. I had found this Catholic tradition and indeed rediscovered my own faith in such a circumstance both at Holy Trinity and again at St. Paul's on March 25, and -- Deo volente -- at future such celebrations at St. Paul’s, many more unsuspecting Harvard undergraduates might be afforded a similar opportunity.