'Zoomers want authenticity': These young Catholics are choosing a dead language over a modernising Pope (2024)

It's a freezing Sunday morning, and 23-year-old Catholic convert Llewellyn Beer has travelled nearly 35 kilometres across Melbourne to attend mass at St Aloysius Church in Caulfield.

He says it's worth the trip to attend the only Catholic church in Melbourne that exclusively holds services in Latin.

And he's not alone: by 10:30 am, every pew is occupied, many by young parishioners like him.

"Zoomers want authenticity more than anything, and I think you'll find it at a Latin Mass," Beer told triple j Hack.

Another young Catholic, 22-year-old Jacob Goicoa, agreed; he's also travelled for over an hour to be here.

"Definitely over half [are younger than 30]," he estimated.

'Zoomers want authenticity': These young Catholics are choosing a dead language over a modernising Pope (1)

"I don't think it really mattered how far it was, if it was an hour or two hours," he said.

"As long as it was Latin mass – that's all that matters."

Pope 'out of touch'

The traditional Latin mass, also called the Tridentine Mass, was codified in 1570, and it's starkly different to the standard Catholic mass conducted in English.

Priests face away from their congregation, chanting in Latin and burning incense, while during communion the congregants kneel and receive the hosts directly into their mouths.

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"It's divine and so uncompromising – you're witnessing something that's beyond your own feeble existence," 21-year-old Elisha Andres said.

"You can tell this mass is not about you, it's not about entertainment, it's really about the Lord."

Until the Vatican changed its policy to favour the new mass in the 1960s, Latin mass was the standard across the Catholic faith, but its celebration has been discouraged to a greater or lesser extent by successive church leaders since.

In 2021, Pope Francis imposed new restrictions on which churches could celebrate Latin mass, ultimately leading Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli to seek permission from the Vatican to continue the weekly Latin service at St Patrick's Cathedral, which was denied.

The cathedral celebrated its final Latin mass last week, and predictably, the news wasn't welcomed by the parishioners at St Aloysius.

"Everyone has a right to feel sad," 20-year-old Izabella Sensi said.

"It actually makes me want to continue and share this mass more because it is being attacked, basically."

'Zoomers want authenticity': These young Catholics are choosing a dead language over a modernising Pope (2)

Father Glen Tattersall, who led the Latin mass at St Patrick's and continues to do so at St Aloysius, was more blunt in his assessment of the Pope.

"I think he's out of touch," Fr Tattersall said of the Pope.

"I think he's kind of typical of his age and background – he doesn't understand that we're not stuck in the 1960s anymore."

"He's talking a lot about 'everyone is welcome in the church', but I'm sorry to say that a lot of Catholics don't feel very welcome at the moment in this pontificate."

Fr Tattersall is known as an outspoken conservative in Australia's Catholic clergy.

In 2017, he was quoted in The Australian newspaper saying "it's really the liberal-minded and their fellow travellers who have been wrecking the church over a number of years", and "there are many people who are saying we need to lighten up about same-sex marriage, and same-sex relationships generally, and yet they're railing against sexual abuse – that's sexual abuse, isn't it?"

Speaking to Hack in 2024, Fr Tattersall declined to elaborate on his views about Pope Francis' other reforms to Catholic doctrine, which include allowing blessings for same-sex couples and allowing transgender people to be baptised and become godparents.

'Keep morals separate'

Speaking after the mass at St Aloysius, Elisha Andres said her preference for Latin wasn't related to her political or moral beliefs.

'Zoomers want authenticity': These young Catholics are choosing a dead language over a modernising Pope (3)

"I do tend to keep morals, not divorced, but I guess separate," she explained.

"I think morals are shaped by my culture, you know, being Filipino as well, that's a different set of morals in itself."

Other young Catholics at St Aloysius expressed similar sentiments, saying they preferred the 'sincerity' and 'authenticity' of the Latin language and the ancient ceremony.

"Growing up, I didn't really feel it as much going to the English mass," Jacob Goicoa said.

"And then once [I attended] the Latin mass, it just blows you away. Once you get there, you just can't get back."

Nonetheless, the irony of rejecting Pope Francis' modernising reforms, which are intended to broaden the appeal of the church, wasn't lost on these young Catholics.

"I suppose from the outside looking in, it wouldn't make much sense," 27-year-old Catholic convert Zachary Dennis said of his preference for Latin.

"But once I had resolved to become Catholic, this to me was the only logical choice and I'm assuming those around me would also agree."

'Zoomers want authenticity': These young Catholics are choosing a dead language over a modernising Pope (4)

Harmless trend or brewing schism?

The number of Catholics attending Latin mass still remains small, especially compared to the hundreds of thousands of Australians who attend a vernacular Catholic mass every week.

Data from the National Centre for Pastoral Research, an agency of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, suggests around 3,400 Australian Catholics attended Latin mass each week in May 2021, a number that was likely affected by COVID-19 lockdowns.

Associate professor Joel Hodge leads the School of Theology at the Australian Catholic University.

He said there are a handful of parishes in each major Australian city that celebrate it weekly, but it remains a fringe group within the broader church.

"In Melbourne or Brisbane, where there are a couple of parishes that are more more focused on the Tridentine, we're talking about maybe a thousand people on a weekend," he said.

Father Shawn Murphy, the priest who leads St Aloysius' Young Adults group, said the parish regularly attracted "about 750" parishioners on a Sunday.

"Certainly, this has been recognised as one of the fastest-growing [parishes] by the Archbishop of Melbourne," he said.

'Zoomers want authenticity': These young Catholics are choosing a dead language over a modernising Pope (5)

That growth sets the Latin mass community apart from most Catholic churches in Australia.

Census data shows that while Catholicism is still Australia's largest single Christian denomination, the proportion of Catholics in the population has been falling steadily for decades, and the median age of an Australian Catholic rose from 33 in 1996, to 43 in the 2021 census.

Dr Hodge said there are a handful of theories for why young people might be attracted to the Latin mass.

"Young people are forming forms of belief in the modern context which has become very individualised, very fragmented, very difficult to know right from wrong," he explained.

'Zoomers want authenticity': These young Catholics are choosing a dead language over a modernising Pope (6)

"I think that's the key context: that secular, postmodern fragmenting, and young people are looking for ways to orientate their lives in the midst of that."

"You see it in these forms of traditional Catholic practice which have increased and you'll also see it in forms of Pentecostalism, evangelicalism, and, in its most extreme form, within certain forms of religious extremism or fundamentalism and jihadism."

Dr Hodge said this trend was causing friction within the church, particularly as Pope Francis advanced efforts to unify Catholics around the new mass.

"I think that the real challenge is: how does the church engage with these communities in a meaningful way that's going to satisfy what they're looking for and without alienating them?" he asked.

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'Zoomers want authenticity': These young Catholics are choosing a dead language over a modernising Pope (2024)
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