The Rev. John Echert began celebrating a monthly Latin mass two decades ago, a nod to a small group of Catholics yearning for the ancient rite that the Second Vatican Council modernized in the 1960s.
Today, about 800 of the faithful pack three Latin masses held each Sunday at the two South St. Paul churches he oversees, and up to 100 show up for weekday Latin worship.
While Echert sees the 16th-century rite as an important option for the faithful, Pope Francis said this summer he believes its proliferation has been "exploited to widen the gaps" among Catholics and "expose her to the peril of division." In July the pope reimposed restrictions for holding Latin masses that his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had relaxed in 2007.
Now Catholic bishops in Minnesota and across the nation are analyzing how to adhere to the pope's new rules without alienating the loyal cadre of generally conservative massgoers who prefer the Latin language rite.
Echert, like many other devotees, doesn't believe the Latin mass causes division.
"Many people like the quiet contemplative aspect of the Latin mass. It draws them in," said Echert, pastor of Holy Trinity and St. Augustine Catholic churches. "They're looking for stability, not innovation or change."
But some Catholic scholars say there's an undercurrent at work that threatens the stability of the Catholic Church.
"While many Catholics are attracted solely for spiritual reasons, the Latin mass has become a breeding ground for the anti-Francis movement," said Massimo Faggioli, a former theology professor at the University of St. Thomas who now teaches at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia.
"It's not just anti-Francis, it's anti-Catholic, anti-Second Vatican Council, often anti-vaccine," he said.
The phenomena has developed in few nations besides the United States, said Faggioli, who called Francis' order the most significant of his papacy.
Minnesota is home to an estimated 1 million Catholics, making up the largest faith group in the state. Latin masses are said seven days a week in the Twin Cities and offered by at least eight metro area churches serving several thousand Catholic faithful. At least a dozen churches outstate also offer Latin worship.
The Latin mass, also known as the Tridentine mass, harks back to the 1500s when it was codified by the Catholic Church. It's celebrated in Latin rather than the local language and features a highly formal ritual where the priest faces the altar rather than the congregation, and only male altar servers assist. Women and girls typically wear veils.
In the 1960s, a global meeting of Catholic bishops and leaders called the Second Vatican Council voted to allow mass to be held in the diverse languages and music of the faithful, opening the doors to greater congregation participation. The last time Latin masses were held generally in the United States was in 1964.
A solemn rite
Echert, a local pioneer in the Latin mass, has trained other priests on how to lead them. His South St. Paul churches are unusual for the sheer numbers of Latin mass attendees.
On a recent Friday morning, about 100 worshipers attended the Latin mass at Holy Trinity — young and old, single people and families, some with as many as seven children. Many women and girls were in dresses, and most wore long veils.
The mass began with the Rev. Robert Altier stepping to the altar. After reciting prayers in Latin, he delivered a blessing remembered by many older Catholics. "Dominus vobiscum," he said, turning to face the people.
"Et cum spiritu tuo," they responded.
The English translation: "The Lord be with you. And with your spirit."
Congregants knelt at the communion rail and received the host on their tongues from Altier. The mass ended with a prayer asking St. Michael the Archangel for protection against the devil and to "thrust into hell Satan."
Andrea and John Poeschl, among those heading out afterward, said the Latin mass was precisely the spiritual nourishment they craved each day. They'd driven from Plymouth — about 70 miles round trip — to attend the service.
"I find the liturgy to be more rich, more reverent," said Andrea Poeschl, holding a Latin-English mass translation she follows during worship.
"I like that you can go anywhere in the world and it's the same," added John Poeschl.
Mike Manders said he appreciated worship in both English and Latin, but preferred the latter. He and his wife, Mary, attend church nearly every day, and Manders said he's moved by "knowing that all my ancestors prayed the same mass, that the saints prayed the same mass."
Manders said he didn't think the Latin mass was creating division in the Catholic Church, and that he knew quite a few people who attended mass in both languages.
But Altier, the priest celebrating the mass that day, has not been a stranger to controversy. He's an outspoken and well-known cleric who delivered a sermon last year claiming COVID-19 was concocted in laboratories and that it was a "lie" that thousands were dying from it. Archbishop Bernard Hebda ordered him to halt such comments from the pulpit.
Such world views, evidenced in the social media storm following Francis' announcement, reflect an alignment of the Latin mass with certain cultural perspectives not endorsed by the church, said Steven Millies, director of the Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
"It's not just about the liturgy, but how the church meets and engages in the secular world," said Millies.
Latin masses have been fanned by a network of organizations that train priests in the Tridentine rite and encourage lay people to embrace them.
The national group Una Voce, which has a Minnesota chapter, provides lists of churches offering Latin masses and events such as a summer Latin mass retreat for men. The global Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter has promoted Latin masses since 1988; its priests administer All Saints Catholic Church in northeast Minneapolis.
The church best known in Minnesota for its Latin masses is St. Agnes in St. Paul, which has offered them for decades. Until recently, all its Latin masses were translations of the Vatican II liturgy. The church's pastor in the early 1960s actually attended the Second Vatican Council and supported its efforts to modernize the liturgy, said the Rev. Mark Moriarty, the current pastor.
Moriarty said he hoped St. Agnes will be able to continue its long tradition and believes the Latin liturgy offers something deeply meaningful. But he also sees a silver lining in Pope Francis' decree, because it gives bishops greater authority to oversee them.
"Pope Francis brings the bishops back in," he said.
The new rules require bishops to approve Latin masses; they can't be implemented simply because a priest or congregation says there is a need. And they must be a translation of the modern mass, not the Latin mass taken from the 1962 missal.
Hebda said he won't make any changes at this time, but no new Latin masses may be added without his written permission. He has created a task force to examine the scope and nature of the masses being held in the Twin Cities.
Twin Cities Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, who is leading the task force, said he views the debate over the mass as something that every organization struggles with, reflecting "legitimate diversity within the unity of the church."
Cozzens said he expects the task force on the Latin mass to issue a report in the weeks ahead. "We're certainly not going to shut it down completely," he said.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511