The ringing of bells. Latin wafting high into the church rafters. Women’s heads draped in lace.
There is a solemn aura to 9 a.m. Sunday Mass at Saint Mary Mother of God, a D.C. parish on Fifth Street NW where hundreds of Catholics who long for ancient ritual gather each week to celebrate what is among the most traditional and complex of Roman Catholic rites: the Tridentine Mass.
The sounds are few and particular. Latin is the language of prayer, and the only ones who speak it during the service are the nearly inaudible priest and the Gregorian Chant Choir that performs on the third Sunday of each month. Robed altar servers — there are as many as 10 — ring bells several times during the hour-long service. Pews creak and shoes shuffle as some 400 people kneel and stand, kneel and stand.
But mostly there is a powerful silence, a seriousness created by the absence of contemporary church: no responsive readings, no guitars, no congregants walking to a microphone to read from Scripture or to make bingo announcements. There is just a centuries-old script, which dictates the near-constant, intricate movements of the altar servers — circling the altar, kneeling, pressing hands together, bowing — as well as the position of the priest, whose back is to parishioners. Together, everyone faces East, acknowledging that Jesus is the true dawn.
This scene is rare in the United States, as only a small percentage of Catholic churches have permission from their bishops to celebrate a Mass that was essentially set aside in the 1960s. That’s when the church council known as Vatican II decreed that Catholics pray in their local language rather than Latin. The decision opened the door to transforming a completely God-oriented rite that had been the standard since the mid-1500s to a modern service marked by audience participation and simpler choreography. To some, the shift symbolized the slide into liberalism and ambiguity.
Saint Mary is one of only five parishes in the Washington area allowed to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, and its services are packed with traditionalists who come from an hour away or more. The line for the confessional wraps into the foyer, and the pews are filled with women wearing chapel veils, shockingly quiet small children and prominent conservatives; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and commentator Pat Buchanan are among the regulars.
But in such a service, "there are no personalities," says Monsignor K. Bartholomew Smith, pastor at Saint Mary’s. No chitchat, no spontaneity. The purpose is to be removed completely from the mundane. And indeed, when the service ends and you step outside, onto a run-down Chinatown street corner, it does seem that you have just been in another time and place.