First published in the Catholic Herald - Subscribe and support!
The priest hole in England was the secret place built into a home, behind a staircase or fire place, where Catholic priests who were invited to celebrate the Latin mass were hidden from the authorities.
The Protestant Elizabethan state accused both the priests who celebrated the Latin mass and those who hid them of treason. The penalty was often death, by being hanged, drawn and quartered. So those who celebrated mass and those who faithfully received needed to be safe from discovery.
A whole culture of secret signs grew up. One of the earliest and most popular was a wax disc on which were displayed a lamb and a cross.
As the state grew more enraged at the Catholics who continued to celebrate the Latin Mass, priest hunters called ‘pursuivants’ were engaged to ferret out the clergy and the people who welcomed them discreetly and secretly into their homes.
The priest hole phenomenon in English Catholic Stately homes is a fascinating one. Some had double priest holes, so that of you discovered one, you might not find the one hidden behind the first.
The pursuivants developed skills at pacing out floors to double check the dimensions of rooms in case some secret paneling had been installed. Early intercom systems, holes in walls so that you could eavesdrop on conversations at the front door were installed. And all of this in order to suppress the Latin Mass.
It’s often wondered if history repeats itself. And though the answer is clearly, ‘no’, certain patterns do indeed get repeated.
What has come as some surprise to many, are the lengths that are being taken to suppress the Latin Mass once again, and the fact that it is the Catholic hierarchy who are playing the role the Protestant authorities.
No executions this time round of course, but we are seeing sanctions.
If the Traditional Latin Mass was dying out for lack of interest, or becoming a feature of liturgical antiquarianism, this might not be an issue. But the real surprise is that the TLM is the source of highly unusual and disctinctive church growth, particularly in the USA.
For a while, conversation about the TLM and its appeal to the young in increasing numbers has been anecdotal.
But anecdotes are often dangerous and unreliable, so it was helpful when the American Crisis Magazine initiated a survey of parishes that held at least one regular and advertised Traditional Latin Mass during a thirty-month period between January 2019 and June 2021 .
The facts they uncovered were that the the number of parishes offering it increased by 27%, and that the average number of parishioners at each TLM increased by 34%. Combining these figures it was established that the overall TLM attendance across all parishes over the time period increased by 71%.
It’s clear that reports of TLM growth was not simply anecdotal, at least in the United States. It has been in fact growing at rates unheard of in the modern Catholic Church in the West.
Two questions arise?
How is this working out in the wake of the Motu Proprio, Traditiones Custodes, and why should this be?
In America, the FSSP continue to have papal accreditation for their celebrations of TLM. Increasingly they have become the magnet for those discomforted by the restgricted liturgical diet of the Novus Ordo.
But diocesan priests find themselves in a different position. They have to ask permission of their bishops who respond in a variety of ways.
Anecdotally, for obvious reasons, it appears the priesthole is back. Laity are tracking down disused warehouses, or converting barns where TLM can be celebrated ‘off piste’ outside the parish buildings, and people are flocking to them. The internet means there is no need for a new semiology of wax discs on the doors, but the dynamics are similar.
And why in particular are young people pre-eminently flocking to it? Counter-intuitively this upsets the most basic cultural and theological assumptions of the elderly generation.
The answers are going to range from metaphysics to generation dissonance. But at the heart of it, not all young people are convinced by the assumptions and demands of progressive modernity. And when it comes to the search for the best means of finding sacramental access to God, have found the Traditional Latin Mass a preferred means of access.
Perhaps instead of concentrating on the clamorous demands of progress and relevance, those who order the liturgical provision of the Church might add a further refinement and adopt new criteria or depth, profundity and mystery?
Emerging from the waste lands of postmodernity and the desert of secularism, a new generation of Catholics are looking for counterweights to restrictions of a shallow cultural expressions of pseudo-immanence that have come to dominate our hierarchy of perceptions and values.
The incongruity of Catholics hiding from Catholics in order to celebrate the Mass that has sustained the Church down the ages until this last century, becomes as progressively painful as it does incomprehensible.