On a quiet weekday afternoon recently, Rev. William N. Seifert, pastor of St. Stephen of Hungary Church in Allentown, walked out of the church’s sacristy to a small crowd of devout faithful.
Located at Union and 5th Streets, the congregation is 100 years old this year, having once served a large ethnic Hungarian community that worked in the old Allentown Wire Mill- which was a major maker of barbed wire- and also other industries that once huddled under the 8th Street Bridge.
Its early services were held in the basement of Sacred Heart Church and a small church built in the 1900’s. The current church was built under early 20th century pastor Rev. Ladislaus Nagy.
In a way that would have been universally recognized in any Catholic church 50 or more years ago, Father Seifert begins to recite in Latin the ancient prayers and scripture that were adopted by Western Christianity in the third century when the language replaced Greek.
At the 16th century Council of Trent, called by the pope to help combat the Protestant Reformation, the Latin Mass was standardized and reinforced. As a result it is sometimes called the Tridentine Mass after Trent’s Latin name “Tridentum,” now Trento, Italy. It is in this form that it was known until the 1960’s.
Women, some in long, lacey headgear, others in simple scarves, and bareheaded men bow in prayer. Several clutch the aging missals that were standard parts of worship in the pre-Vatican II era. They watch Seifert intently as he raises the host and a server rings the bells in a rhythmic ritual.
It would be wrong to suggest that for these worshippers that if the Mass is not in Latin, it is not the Mass. There is no doubt that most could be comfortable in the vernacular mass that is standard since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s.
But it is a matter of preference, and, since both the late Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have allowed the Latin rite to be adopted, it has attracted both those who remember it and those who do not but simply are curious to learn about it.
Since October 8, 2006 the Diocese of Allentown has established St. Stephen of Hungary Parish as the Diocesan site for the celebration of what is officially known as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Today St. Stephen’s offers a sung Latin Mass on Sunday and a low mass at 12:10 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
It was on November 21, 1963 that Catholics in the Lehigh Valley became officially aware that the adoption of a vernacular mass had been approved by the Vatican Council. Called by Pope John XXIII to help update the church for the modern world, by 1963 it was under the direction of Pope Paul VI, who was selected as successor after John XXIII’s death.
On page 35 of the Morning Call that day, directly across from a brief story noting that President John F. Kennedy and his wife would be in Texas over the next three days to try and mend political fences in that state’s Democratic Party, an article on the Vatican Council noted a debate was going on over two important declarations: one denouncing anti-Semitism and another promoting religious freedom.
Almost as an afterthought, the Associated Press story noted, “the council paused in its debate to vote overwhelming approval of a series of amendments to a liturgy of public worship provision providing for use of modern languages in most of the Mass.”
It went on to say that “the overall schema on liturgy, for providing for many related forms in worship and church art is expected to be promulgated as the council’s first decree next week.”
On page 20 of the November 22, 1963 issue of the Call, a slightly fuller article, noted that the vote in favor the change had been 2,107 to 95 and that the “Canon or heart of the Mass, the Consecration of bread and wine plus prayers just before and after” would remain in Latin.
Understandably the assassination of the Roman Catholic President Kennedy that day drew much more attention of American Roman Catholics than anything happening in Rome. But gradually the new vernacular Mass began to take hold.
By 1967 the Canon was being used in the vernacular languages. It was in this form that it was accepted by the vast majority of Roman Catholics around the world.
In the following years the Catholic Church had to continually remind the faithful and a press corps not known for doing nuance well, that Latin had not been abolished as a liturgical language by the Second Vatican Council.
But by the 1970s, attempts by clergy on various levels to make the church more relevant to young people, such as guitar Masses, led to questioning by conservative Catholics that the church was sacrificing its tradition to appease a trendy and tacky form of modernism.
This argument found a willing papal ear in John Paul II. As early as 1984 he noted the importance of allowing those who wanted to worship using the Latin rite in Latin to do so. In 1988 he noted in an Apostolic letter, “respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition.”
This was followed in 2007 with an Apostolic letter from Pope Benedict where he claimed that both the Latin rite in the Roman Missal “promulgated by St. Pius V and reissued by Blessed John XXIII…must be given due honor for its venerable and ancient usage.”
Undoubtedly the vernacular Mass has taken hold and is here to stay. By allowing use of the Latin, the Catholic Church is recognizing a part of its past as a treasure for the future. For those who gather at St. Stephen it certainly is.