November 29, 1964 is known in the Catholic Church as “the day Mass changed.” It didn’t take a day – more like five years - but by 1969 the vernacular “New Mass” had taken hold and the traditional Latin Mass, in place for 400 years, largely became a thing of the past. But as NHPR’s Sean Hurley reports, the Latin Mass is making something of a comeback here in New Hampshire.
For five years John Brancich fought fires in the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota.
“I had my life planned out,” he says, “I was going to be a forester. I was going to get married, have a family and we were going to live in the middle of nowhere, as far out west as possible, far away from people.”
If he could get over his fear of heights he’d become a smokejumper. He’d leap from planes and float down into fires no one else could reach.
But Brancich says, “Even if I got the perfect forest service job jumping from planes putting out fires in Wyoming, Montana, I know that there would be an emptiness.”
An emptiness expressed by a game he used to play when he was young. “I remember playing Mass after coming home from Mass on Sunday,” he says, “setting up a little card table and putting on an Afghan and you know being the priest. I wanted to be a priest when I was five years old.”
During his first year as a forester, Brancich heard that a nearby church was offering mass in Latin. “I was very interested because I had heard things about it,” he says, “but I thought it was something that was long gone, that was dead, that was even sinful.”
Curious, he began to attend the service. “It wasn't until I discovered the Latin Mass that that kind of early flame of a vocation was rekindled,” he says.
Over the next few years, his dream of being a smokejumper, of getting married and living in the middle of nowhere, began to dissolve. And in 1996, he entered the seminary. “That's the difference between my plan and God's plan,” he says with a laugh.
Father John Brancich was ordained in 2002 into the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. “We were founded to provide the traditional Latin Mass and all of the sacraments in the traditional rights,” he explains, “and so our priests are trained in that and that's what we do exclusively wherever bishops invite us in.”
The moment Bishop Peter Libasci arrived to oversee the Diocese of Manchester in 2011, the letters began to arrive.
“There were letters that came in from the west side of the diocese,” the Bishop recalls. “There were letters that would come in from the southern part. Every now and again somebody would come up to me at the cathedral and ask, ‘Will we ever have a Latin Mass?’”
Of the Latin Mass itself, the Bishop says, “It's always been around, it never went away - that I have to say. It never went away. It was never forbidden but it was in a sense suppressed.”
Until 2007 that is, when Pope Benedict the 16th issued the Summorum Pontificum reauthorizing the use of the Latin Mass.
And so - with official church sanction and a steady demand from parishioners, the Bishop invited representatives from the Fraternity of St. Peter to visit New Hampshire to find a suitable church that could be dedicated to the Latin Mass.
“On their second visit,” the Bishop says, “we offered them St. Stanislaus and they loved it.”
Next – a search to find the right priest.
“My superior called me in April,” Father Brancich recalls, “and said, ‘What do you think about moving across the country to the east coast and getting a new assignment?’”
Father Brancich visited the hundred year old church in Nashua. “When I first walked into the church I really had a sense of joy because it's a real church. It was built as a church. It looks like a church. It functioned as a church,” he says.
And on Sunday, August 7th, with 450 people in attendance, Father Brancich began his new job.
Bishop Libasci says St. Stanislaus will be devoted to the full 1962 experience of the Latin Mass. “You will not find English mass, English devotions, English funerals, English weddings, English baptisms in this church,” the Bishop says.
Father Brancich says that even seasoned Catholics might find the mass a little inscrutable.
“I tell people the first few times you come don't try to follow along,” he says. “Watch what's going on, the ceremony. Listen to the chant, smell the incense. The Mass appeals to our humanity which we take in through our five senses. And so it's designed to lift up our mind and heart if we let it.”
Bishop Libasci shakes his head when asked if this is a kind of nostalgia, or stepping back, for the church. “You know,” he says, “people will always say ‘Oh you are going backwards.’ And I have to say ‘No, we're not going backwards.’ We're always evolving and the beauty of the church is it must evolve. So what you would say is: this is part of our whole treasury and it's the most beautiful expression of the diversity of the church.”
John Brancich was going to be a smokejumper and live as far away from people as he could get.
“The irony,” the Father says, “is that here I am in the midst of a mob of people that need me and love me and it's where I'm supposed to be.”