When the Sussmans of Brighton visit upstate New York or Quebec, they make sure to bring back some indulgences — the kind that, they and other Catholics believe, spares them from some of the suffering for their sins.
“When we visited the Martyr’s Shrine in Fultonville, N.Y., there are certain devotions you can say, and if you receive Holy Communion and go to confession within seven days, I believe it is an indulgence,” said Amy Sussman, 46. “When we go on a trip, we always take advantage of those opportunities. Every little bit helps.”
Many Catholics say they have never heard of indulgences, except for perhaps Martin Luther’s complaint during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century that clerics were corruptly selling them.
But more Catholics are embracing traditional forms of worship that had fallen into obscurity, including the version of the Mass said in Latin, frequent use of the ritual known as the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and some priests and seminarians are wearing cassocks, the close-fitting, body-length, black vestment that largely fell out of favor among American Catholic priests by the 1960s.
While some critics see a challenge to the modernity and openness forged by the epochal Second Vatican Council, which concluded 45 years ago, the Catholics who seek the time-honored practices say it is largely a matter of appeal and aesthetics — they say they simply experience a better, more vigorous practice of the faith in the more traditional rituals.
At a time of declining church attendance and surveys showing fewer Americans participating in organized religion, some Catholics say they may hold a key to a deepening of faith. While experts say no other denominations or faiths seem to be experiencing such a vigorous return to older rituals, the Catholic experience mirrors to some degree the dramatic growth of evangelical practices.
Stan Bloch, 60, says he remembers the practices of indulgences from his youth.
“They were something we spoke about when I was going to grade school, about 55 years ago, 60 years ago,” Bloch said as he prepared a bingo game for seniors in the parish hall at Our Lady Queen of Apostles in Hamtramck. “And, actually, for the last 20 or 25 years or so, you never heard anything about indulgences at all.
“I think some Catholics are starting to bring back some of the older traditions. There has been sort of a tendency for people to become a little lax about the practice of their faith. A lot of people don’t go to church on a regular basis. Perhaps it is the tenor of the times, and I think maybe, too, with the soft economy, the two wars, Pakistan becoming a hot spot, people are looking for a little bit of strength.”
Indulgences are a means of mitigating worldly suffering one may experience after sin, even if it has been forgiven by a priest in the sacrament of confession. The practice was expanded among Catholics recently by Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Adam Maida as part of the celebration of the birth of St. Paul 2,000 years ago.
More evidence of the embrace of traditional Catholic practices is the Latin Mass, which the Archdiocese of Detroit has allowed to expand in recent years. There are now at least 14 churches in Metro Detroit, up from just a few several years ago, that offer that type of service.
While ecclesiastic policy and issues of church and perhaps even secular politics are all implicated by the Latin Mass, many Catholics who attend say they enjoy it for aesthetic reasons and how it makes them feel about experiencing their faith.
“It just entered my mind that I was tired about the Mass being so much about me,” Matthew Hill of Ferndale, who attends Latin Masses at St. Josaphat, near the Detroit Medical Center. “There is a real sense that with the priest facing the people and with the need to be always responding to something or doing something that it’s very much thinking about myself and about us being here.
“And in the traditional Mass, as the priest faces the altar with his back to the congregation, that is all about God, not me. This is about worshiping God. This isn’t about navel gazing.”
Several churches hosting Latin Masses say attendance is rising. Some 150 people now attend the Masses at St. Josaphat, and about half of the congregation consists of young families and adults in their 30s and 40s.
Some Catholics who attend the more traditional rituals say they are quite progressive in outlook, willing to at least discuss issues like married and women priests and are more accepting of homosexuality than the Vatican, for example. They say their choice of forms of worship is not at all about the politics of the church. They simply find the traditional Mass aesthetically pleasing, with its Gregorian chants, use of the old term “Holy Ghost” instead of “Holy Spirit,” burning of incense, frequent ringing of bells to mark important junctures of the service and the formal procession of 10 altar boys, deacons and priests dressed in traditional cassocks and lace-embroidered surplices at the beginning and end of the Mass.
The Mass also includes the ritual of the Adoration of the Holy Eucharist, which is not often seen in many parishes. In the ceremony, a priest removes a large Communion host — which Catholics believe is the body of Christ — from a tabernacle and places it in the display case of a large, ornate, gold-leaf monstrance. The monstrance is then displayed on the altar of the church, while priests burn incense, chant prayers and the congregation prays in worship of Jesus Christ.
“For me, it started with an interest in traditional music, the Latin music, organ and choral tradition I first experienced when I was in college in Boston,” said Alex Begin of Bloomfield Hills. “That led me to the precision of the prayers and the rubrics of the Mass in this traditional form.
“The new version of the Mass is almost an abridged form,” Begin said. “But, the music — we are looking at a tradition of hundreds and hundreds of years of the world’s greatest composers who wrote for the Mass.“