Cardinal Stickler's Memorable Pontifical Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral (1996)

On May 12, 1996 - Mother's Day - a watershed moment happened for the renewal of sacred liturgy. That day the Austrian-born Alfonse Cardinal Stickler, age 85, sang Pontifical Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. The day marked the first time a senior prelate with the rank of cardinal had celebrated a Solemn Pontifical Mass from the throne at St. Patrick's in the Classical Rite since the days of Cardinal Spellman. A thirty year hiatus at the cathedral.  

The church was packed with an overflow crowd, and the event was covered on the evening news and made front page news the following day in the Metro section of the New York Times. The Mass was of such historic import it was talked about for years and is still today considered a crucial event for the restoration of the Roman Rite. The story was covered at the time by Roger McCaffrey's superb Latin Mass Magazine. A video from TV news reports can be seen here

Fr. John Perricone of St. Agnes parish in NYC organized the Mass and handled the PR for the event (he was 10 years at St. Agnes, a golden age in those years when the parish was a beehive of vibrant Catholic life).  The Mass was celebrated at the welcome invitation of John Cardinal O'Connor, who had been created cardinal along with Cardinal Stickler in 1985. Cardinal O'Connor allowed the visiting prelate to stay at the rectory and he kindly came out before the Mass to welcome all to the historic celebration (seen below). 

In the days leading up, Austin Ruse, a prominent Catholic layman on the NY scene, distributed press releases that caught the attention of the media, putting the Mass on the front page of the NYT two days in a row. And he attracted more than a dozen TV crews that showed up to cover the story. The Mass was not without opposition. The rector of the cathedral, Msgr. Anthony Dalla Villa, is said to have been opposed. When the collection was taken up during the Mass, it was reported over $65,000 was collected.   

Many familiar faces participated in the Mass for the fifth Sunday after Easter, with over 4,000 in attendance. 

Two papal knights walked in the procession of 50 clerics from NYC and beyond, including Fr. Bill Ashley of Canada. The MC was Fr. Timothy MacDonnell. Prominent laymen that packed the pews included Dr. John Rao.

The Cardinal donned a brilliant scarlet cappa magna - with proper train - a magnificent sight that added to the solemnity of the day (made special for the occasion by Fr. Perricone).  The orchestra and choir performed Mozart's Coronation Mass in the sublime Viennese tradition, with music by Liszt, Bruckner, and Gabrieli.  

One of the reasons the event was so important was because until then, the "accepted wisdom" was that the Vetus Ordo was for the elderly, for old people - a kindly concession to accompany them to their graves. The event showed a spontaneous response from lay Catholics of all ages, and especially younger Catholics, who took an interest, and liked it, while not having grown up with it. The following generations have shown an even greater interest, with no signs of the trend abating. For young clergy, too. 

Cardinal Stickler consistently defended the position that the Classical Rite was never abolished or suppressed and that it had full legitimacy in the Church. For many years the Cardinal celebrated publicly and privately in his house chapel in Rome the TLM, including Confirmations in the Tradition Rite. 

In conjunction with the Mass, the Cardinal spoke at a conference co-sponsored by Fr. Perricon's ChistiFideles and Howard Walsh's Keep the Faith, both excellent organizations that have made an enormous contribution to the revitalization of the Catholic Faith. 

Cardinal Sticker is further remembered for his historic Mass four years earlier on Feb. 22, 1992 at the church of St. Agnes Church in NYC, where he also celebrated Pontifical Mass from the Throne, the first time a cardinal had done so in the United States in nearly thirty years.

God reward Cardinal Stickler, once the Archivist and Librarian of the Holy Roman Church. He fell asleep in the Lord in 2007 and is buried at the Catacomb of San Callisto in Rome. May his memory be eternal and may he continue to pray for the success of the movement to restore the Classical Roman Rite.

As a side note, the Cardinal was nicknamed in Rome with affection "the world's shortest bishop with the tallest mitre" while being labeled a real "stickler" for rubrics. God rest his soul.

Meanwhile, the work remains for younger clergy and the laity to continue to take up the cause of sacred liturgy. It is important to aim for local accomplishments, given the tempest against the liturgical praxis of the Latin Church still unfolding in the life of the Church. 

Below is the New York Times article from the day after, May 13, 1996: 

Vocem jucunditatis annuntiate" -- 

"Declare it with a voice of joy."

With a choir chanting those Latin words, Alfons Cardinal Stickler, prefect emeritus of the Vatican Library, proceeded to the altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral to begin a Solemn High Pontifical Mass sung in Latin according to the traditional Tridentine Rite. It was the first such Mass to be celebrated in the cathedral in 35 years.

The words, taken from the prophet Isaiah, captured the spirit of the 4000 worshipers who filled the Cathedral last evening to exult in every magnificent detail of a form of the Roman Catholic Mass that has largely disappeared since the Second Vatican Council called for a revision of the church's liturgy in 1963.

"The liturgy in its fullest is supposed to convey something of heaven, God enthroned and adored by all his creatures," said Joaquin Redondo, a retired sales engineer from New Jersey. "This is that kind of reflection."

Worshipers were dazzled by the rite's precise choreography, beginning with the entrance by Cardinal Stickler, a tiny man wearing a brilliant red cappa magna, a silk cape with a 30-foot train. They were quieted in their souls by the rippling rise and fall of Latin chant and stirred by the Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus of Mozart's Coronation Mass.

"Pretty impressive," said a 37-year-old banker who did not give his name. Reared a Catholic, he had recently begun attending Mass again at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village.

The Mass was a special moment of triumph for a hard core of traditionalist Catholics who have fought, sometimes bitterly, to preserve a form of worship that they believe is an essential link to the Catholic past and the fullness of their faith.

"This is the restoration of our liturgical home," said one worshiper, Christopher A. Ferrara, a 44-year-old lawyer from West Caldwell, N.J., who heads a public-interest law firm that aids Catholics involved in anti-abortion campaigns and other public controversies.

"You can't go into someone's home and remove the furniture and everything else without disorienting everyone," he said, "but that's what happened with our liturgical home 30 years ago."

After the Second Vatican Council, the Tridentine rite was replaced by a new liturgy written to encourage the congregation's active participation. Local languages replaced Latin. Prayers that had been whispered or said silently were now said aloud, and ritual gestures that had been blocked from view now became visible because the priest faced the congregation across the altar rather than facing the altar with his back to the congregation.

The changes led to complaints that the liturgy's sense of mystery had been lost, and that the Catholic idea of the Mass as re-enacting Christ's sacrificial death on the cross had been swallowed up by the imagery of the Mass as a meal. Many Catholic officials agree that the change from one rite to another was carried out hastily and has sometimes produced unnapproved innovations that range from the banal to the nearly blasphemous.

But even these officials are angered by statements like Mr. Ferrara's, which they say misrepresent the changes.

For his part, Cardinal O'Connor welcomed last evening's worshipers warmly to what he called "this historical occasion," even as he stressed the unity of all Catholics. "I feel privileged that you have requested this Mass be celebrated here in what is your cathedral," he said in brief remarks before the Mass. "We are one body, one body in Christ."

For those devoted to the Tridentine Mass, fervor and faith at least temporarily dispelled the frustrations and angers of liturgical infighting as Cardinal Stickler and his attendants confessed their sinfulness at the foot of the altar with the ritual refrain "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" -- "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault."

Throughout the Mass the congregation sturdily sang the traditional Latin responses to Cardinal Stickler. And Mr. Ferrara prayed as intently as he could with four of his five young children squeezed next to him in the second pew.

In 1984, in connection with unavailing efforts to prevent Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in France and his followers from breaking with Rome over their desire to perpetuate the Tridentine rite, Pope John Paul II authorized bishops to allow its limited use if they wished.

More than 100 of 181 dioceses in the United States allow a few parishes to hold weekly or monthly Tridentine Masses, which draw an estimated 75,000 worshipers. Cardinal O'Connor has authorized three parishes in Manhattan and four in Westchester County to have such a liturgy weekly and a monastery chapel in the Bronx to have one monthly.

The Brooklyn diocese has one weekly Tridentine Mass, and Frank Vasquez, who had come with his mother and sister from Long Island, lamented that the Rockville Centre diocese had only one such Mass on the first and third Sunday each month.

But with advocacy of the old Tridentine Mass, even as an option, being so closely associated with cutting criticism of the new liturgy, it is not surprising that many priests and bishops resist more Tridentine Masses as a source of divisiveness.

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a New York priest and prolific neoconservative author on issues of religion and politics, worries that many traditionalists "are enamored of the Tridentine Mass as basically a protest against the Council, which they see as an aberrant moment in the church's history." This, he said, "puts them radically out of step with the present Pope."

On Saturday, at a reception in Saddle River, N.J., for advocates of the Latin Tridentine Mass, a woman began reminiscing. "It's all gone," she kept saying as she savored the details of the vestments and the ceremonies, "it's all gone."

"They think they can keep it alive," she said, glancing around the room, "but it's all gone."

Last night a cathedral full of worshipers would have told her: Not quite.

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