TYLER, Texas — Before January, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, had only attended a traditional Latin Mass once before and never had even said the words of consecration in Latin in the 35 years of his priesthood.
He changed all that in a dramatic way, celebrating his first Mass in the extraordinary form on June 11, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Church calendar followed by traditional Catholics.
His attraction to the traditional Latin Mass, he explained, was part of a “spiritual journey” that more and more centered his life on the Eucharist, and from this focus came his dedication of the year 2020 to the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Despite the challenges facing him, with his obligations as a bishop in a growing diocese, Bishop Strickland was determined to learn the traditional Latin Mass “from scratch.”
Known to be straightforward and outspoken, especially in his social-media engagement and his media apostolate, St. Philip Institute, Bishop Strickland explains the impact of this “spiritual journey,” sharing a profound grace he received during the Eucharistic consecration at his first Latin Mass and a message to the communities embracing the traditional Latin Mass.
I understand that June 11 was the first time in your priesthood that you celebrated the traditional Latin Mass. Why is that?
It’s a long story. I entered the seminary in 1977, at age 18; and by then, the Latin Mass had been all but relegated to history. The rite was not spoken of, not alluded to, not studied — just gone.
I grew up in a very small Glenmary mission church, and the first memory I have of going to Mass was in the City Hall in Atlanta, Texas, which we were using temporarily. … My first memories must be around early ’60s — probably ’63-’64 — so the liturgy, it was very informal. I have no memory of the Latin Mass.
I went to the seminary in 1977 in Dallas — a pretty solid Catholic university; and Holy Trinity Seminary — what was considered a conservative, eight-year seminary. I think I got a good basis, but never attended a Latin Mass.
Most of my years as a priest — a good deal of them — were spent right here at the cathedral in Tyler, and I only really began to understand the desire for the traditional Latin and the liturgy with Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum. I was working with my predecessor, Bishop Álvaro Corrada del Río, who, of course, knew of the Latin Mass. … Once the motu proprio was established and we were encouraged to make the Latin Mass available, we did this — his secretary was a FSSP [Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter] priest, so I know he was comfortable with the rite. He chose to bring the fraternity to establish a little community here, and, again, it was very foreign to me. So, when they would approach the cathedral — and this sounds so pejorative now — I found myself often saying, “Oh, here come those people.” Of course I was encouraged to be welcoming and inviting as rector of the cathedral. They later would establish their parish, St. Joseph the Worker, and one of the very first things I did as bishop was to celebrate confirmation for them in Latin. That was a little different for me, celebrating a confirmation outside the Mass — as is done in the traditional rite. They joked my Latin had a Spanish accent!
What changed? What prompted you to learn the extraordinary form?
I’ve been bishop seven and a half years, and we do have priests and seminarians who have expressed interest in the extraordinary form, along with families — young families — participating, going to the fraternity parishes. More and more, I found people expressing their desires to me to permit the Latin Mass — and, of course, I did, following the motu proprio. I found myself, more and more, becoming aware of the Latin Mass and the draw of the people to it, that it wasn’t this antiquated, negative thing that needed to stay buried. The writings of Benedict — Summorum Pontificum and The Spirit of the Liturgy, which I read — and honestly being caught up praying in [Eucharistic] adoration all helped me to deepen my appreciation. Adoration has become the center of my life as a bishop, in fact. I try to be in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the mornings and the evenings every day that I can, as much as I can.
Was adoration of the Eucharist what drew you to the extraordinary form of the Mass, then?
Absolutely. Praying before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament drew me to this rite. I find my spiritual life has skyrocketed since I became a bishop and especially as I have centered my focus on our Eucharistic Lord. You know, I try to have adoration twice a day, to accompany my morning and evening prayers — and the [Divine] Office can be pretty long. Yet I find that I now pray the Psalms as if I am talking to him. I have made the Psalms my own personal prayer.
What I experienced was that this rite focuses so much on him. Understand that, before January of this year, I hadn’t even read the prayers of the extraordinary form. I was literally starting from scratch. What prompted that was my earlier declaration that this year would be a “Year of the Eucharist” in my diocese. Honestly, all of this has been building for me, since I began being a bishop, but it was that declaration right as Advent started last year, and I encouraged the focus on the Eucharist in different ways, such as processions and adoration. I had already determined — really encouraged, because I never force, but encouraged that — on the feast of Corpus Christi to have Eucharistic processions. Most of the priests have done so, even with the craziness with the coronavirus. This may be considered “old school,” but look — it’s him. Why would we not want to celebrate him in the streets, in our lives, on his feast?
So, all through Advent, I was praying, and this desire kept growing. I wanted to do something to honor Jesus Christ. I kept thinking about trying to learn the traditional Latin Mass for the traditional feast of Corpus Christi. I kept saying to myself, “I can do this!” I later learned that if and when a bishop says the Latin Mass, it’s always a pontifical Mass, where the bishop always represents his people. It’s intense. If you knew “Joe Strickland,” a kid from the back country of Texas, you’d know that “this guy’s simple. He doesn’t like those complicated things.” Yet I see it and I desire it for him. It’s so clear that this liturgy is not about us — it’s fully about him. I want to honor him.
Walk me through how you began learning the rite and what you found most challenging. Did you have help?
So, originally, we were going to do the pontifical high Mass, but we just didn’t have the personnel — I had to rely on my priests and some of the seminarians to assist. To do it properly — and that is what I am insisting: We do this by the book, including right down to the shoes, the vestments, everything.
One of our priests, Father Joshua Neu, who was just ordained five years ago, is familiar with both rites. He tutored me from the beginning. He knew what we needed, and he even helped me with the very difficult Latin. To be honest — to you priests and even bishops out there considering, it is like taking an academic course at times; you’ll have homework. It takes concentration and effort at first, but you will find there is so much grace involved. It’s so worth learning.
There are many resources out there. I read this book, Treasure and Tradition — and it’s for everyone — and it takes you through the Mass in great detail. Father John Zuhlsdorf’s blog has many posts on learning the liturgy and certain prayers. I watched many YouTube videos, some put out by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. There are so many resources out there.
Were you ever overwhelmed by the complexity of rubrics and language of the traditional Latin Mass? If so, what would you advise to other priests and bishops who wish to learn?
Just like Father Neu and others said to me, I say to you: It’s okay to be a bit overwhelmed at first, but you can and should do it. I still needed help, and Father Neu had to help point out where I was at times; but, really, that’s also what these priests and deacons are supposed to do when they assist at Mass. I will say I am a bit nervous with saying the Corpus Christi Sequence, but Father even helped me by teaching me to say it using a tempo. It felt like a spiritual journey for me. I have always tried to say the ordinary form with reverence — slowly, purposefully. I wasn’t trained that way, but it was instinct. I have to say that it must be a grace, because even when I was young I really believed in the True Presence.
There is no reason that the ordinary form can’t be reverent — it’s him! There may have been manipulation in the past, but we can and must return to reverence because the Mass has never been anything other than about him. That’s really the mission that I am on, to bring both liturgies to the understanding of reverence and focus on the Eucharist. I think of it, in a sense, like music. The way that I describe it is that the ordinary form is like the “basic melody” of a symphony. It is recognizable. The extraordinary form is the same melody accompanied by the full orchestra.
It’s not so easy, probably, to describe. It continued to grow throughout the entire process, this sense of wonder and awe. I had, of course, heard many of the terms in Latin before, but I really didn’t know how they fit as deeply as they do in the extraordinary form. It’s almost like there were a few pieces in a puzzle that were missing, and I only realized they were when I finally said the Mass. The realization you get as a priest, of the deep meaning of these prayers, these words, I can understand now in a profound way. Like I said, this liturgy is all about him, about worshipping God. It’s about the Son of God coming down from heaven, descending to the altar to take the form of bread and wine — it’s all about God. You can see in it where the “melody line” of the Novus Ordo has been taken from, but you are caught up in the splendor, here, of the full “orchestra.” There’s nothing but awe. Just the beauty of the corporal and how the Host and the chalice are treated — and I have to say [long pause, filled with emotion] I could hardly say the words of consecration because I became so filled with emotion, so deeply struck by those words. Thank God we only must whisper them in this rite, because I am not sure I would have been able to speak above that whisper, so struck I was at the profundity. It was the first time in my life that I had ever said those words in Latin, and I could hardly get them out. It’s indescribable, really.
Do you have a message to the communities who embrace the traditional Latin Mass?
In my homily [June 11, I told the community present], we have to remember who we’re going to worship, who we’re going to [receive]. The Mass is moving towards meeting him, coming to us.
I encourage those who attend the extraordinary form … to consider going to a Novus Ordo Mass to provide a witness to the reverence to the liturgy and to our Blessed Lord in the Eucharist.
It’s my belief that the Church must get past these human-formed groups and sects, because, frankly, all of that has become a hindrance and distraction. The Divine meets us there, at the altar, but, meanwhile, we have been chewing each other up and ripping one another apart — and what are the fruits of this? This isn’t the Holy Spirit, this division.
I encourage those in the traditional congregations to remember why they love the liturgy, why and how the reverence points to him. … There is such a great opportunity for setting an example of simple, joyful reverence in the extraordinary form. That sense of awe that I experienced should be experienced by all. I understand it may be that for some who attend these traditional Latin Masses; the lack of reverence they have experienced [in the ordinary form] and even possible persecution from those within the Church for their reverence, has caused a reactionary response. But the fruits of discord, division, sectarianism, elitism, even spiritual pride: These cannot be from the liturgy — it is fully human, reactionary. I think this is where the devil seeps in, distracting this community from the focus on Jesus to a focus on the ritual, on legalism and even elitism. It’s a subtle deception.
It pains me to say this, but part of my hesitancy I believe in learning how to say the extraordinary form came from my experience of the community who attend. If I experienced this, I know others have, as well. I would encourage those in these communities to pray and ponder on St. Paul’s words to the Galatians, Chapter 5:22-23. Meditate, especially as they have so much of a treasure of grace to share, on what Jesus warned, in Luke 12:48. Ask yourselves, “Are my actions and words and attitude truly reflective of the fruits of the Mass of Ages, or could I be hindering others from desiring to know more?”
After what I have experienced, as bishop, I cannot help but encourage everyone towards meeting Jesus in wonder, within the beauty of the extraordinary form of the Mass.
Register correspondent Bree Dail writes from Rome.