How many Catholics will hear disputed Good Friday prayer?
Given the discussion about the new Latin prayer to be read at Catholic Good Friday services in the Tridentine rite today, I’ve tried to find estimates for how many people will actually hear it. Jewish groups have expressed dismay that the new version of the prayer, which drops references to the “blindness” of the Jews but still calls for their conversion. The leader of Germany’s Jewish community said she could not fathom how the German-born Pope Benedict could “impose such phrases on his church.” The Vatican rejects this criticism and sources there say it could soon issue a conciliatory note. So there’s a lot of talk about this issue, but how much is actually happening on the ground?
Actually, the vast majority of Catholics attending Good Friday services around the world will not hear this prayer in Latin but a different one in their own native language. That prayer is based on a 1970 text without any explicit reference to the conversion of the Jews. There is no official number for how many will attend the Latin services in the older Tridentine rite that Pope Benedict promoted with a ruling last year authorising wider use of the old Latin Mass. But even ardent supporters of the traditional rite agree that the number is very, very small. Some have objected to our use of the term “tiny minority” for it, saying this was dismissive and implied the number was insignificant. It wasn’t, but it’s very hard to write about such a small amount without seeming to write it off.
Looking for anecdotal evidence, I first turned to the excellent conservative Catholic blog What Does The Prayer Really Say? (which just swept the 2008 Catholic Blog Awards). This was a logical step since its lively moderator, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (“Fr. Z”), had just taken us to task for writing “tiny minority.” I posted a question about how to describe the size of this group and several readers chimed in, suggesting words like “rare” (sounds like an endangered species), “relatively few in number” (too vague), “some” or “a few” (even more vague) or “small but growing minority” (that adds movement, but it’s still vague). Even the most neutral synonyms for “tiny” — diminutive, microscopic, miniature, minuscule, slight or wee (for my Scottish colleagues) — can be read as dismissive. How would Fr. Z put it — paupera lingua angliae?
One reader estimated there would be about 40 traditional Latin Good Friday services in the whole United States, compared to about 20,000 overall. There would be about 60 in France, the real centre of the Catholic traditionalist movement, he estimated.
I then turned to my colleague Nicolas Senèze from the French Catholic daily La Croix who has just published “La crise intégriste – Vingt ans après le schisme de Mgr Lefebvre” (The Fundamentalist Crisis — 20 Years after the Schism of Archbishop Lefebvre). He was not sure about Good Friday but said there were 124 parishes in France that celebrated the Tridentine Mass on the basis of the 1984 indult. Only about a dozen have been added to that total since Benedict’s motu proprio last year encouraging wider use of the old Latin Mass. “Based on the current rhythm of celebrations being organised, one can estimate the number of churches (in France) using the John XXIII missal should stabilise around 200,” he wrote in his book.
These are still exceedingly small numbers in the 1.3-billion-strong Catholic world. Fr. Z and several of his readers say they are rising, and I’m sure that’s true, but the rate is very gradual. We have also heard many bishops and priests saying there is little or no interest in the traditional Mass in their dioceses. We’ve been criticised on some blogs for reporting this, often by indignant readers who insist the traditional Latin Mass is so much more beautiful and prayerful than the usual vernacular services. That may very well be the case, but that is an internal Catholic matter. For the time being, we have to look at the overall numbers. This doesn’t mean we think that’s the end of the story. If this number rises steadily, we’ll revisit the issue at some point. But this is where it stands now.
Several traditional Mass enthusiasts have contacted us to point out that many young Catholics attend these services and ask why we haven’t written about this. Actually, we have written about it, back in 2005 when we first noticed this. If this continues to grow, watch this space. In the meantime, Happy Easter to all Christians, no matter which language they pray in this Sunday.