WASHINGTON -- Late in life, the mother of the Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., began attending mass at a Southern California church, the congregation of which soon became Spanish-speaking. Services were conducted entirely in that language, which she could not understand, yet she happily continued attending. When her son asked why, she replied: "It is just like the Latin Mass, I don't understand a word of it. It is even better, I don't understand the homily."
We have all listened to a speaker and wished: If only he were incomprehensible. As G.K. Chesterton said of Times Square, it would be beautiful if you could not read.
Mrs. Reese's son, now 64 and a senior fellow at a religious-issues think tank at Georgetown University, was raised experiencing the liturgy in Latin. He entered seminary in 1962, the year the Second Vatican Council convened. By the time Reese was ordained, the council had essentially proscribed the Latin Mass.
Having seen much change -- and much resistance to it -- Reese is relaxed about 2009's most intriguing development in Christianity, the Vatican's enticement of disaffected Anglicans. Rome is saying to individuals, and perhaps to entire parishes and even dioceses: "Come on over." It is trolling with rules, recently written, that will enable Anglicans-become-Catholics to retain some of their liturgy. The church will accept some already married priests, and perhaps married seminarians, but not bishops.
The Vatican says it is not raiding but merely answers to Anglican knocks on its door. Combined, however, with Pope Benedict XVI's having appealed to dissident conservative Catholics by removing most restrictions on celebrating the traditional Latin Mass, the courtship of Anglicans looks like an aggressive -- although not improperly so -- attempt to consolidate an expanded Catholicism.
There are 1.1 billion Catholics. Anglicanism is the third-largest Christian communion (Eastern Orthodox is second) but has just 80 million adherents, of whom only 2.3 million are Americans, and a mere 16,000 of them -- those in New Hampshire -- have helped to precipitate the Vatican's move. The election of a gay Episcopalian as New Hampshire's bishop was one brick over a load for conservatives, who think the Episcopal Church has become a Moveon.org at prayer -- liberal politics in vestments.
Half of all Anglicans are in sub-Saharan Africa. There and in Latin America, Anglicanism is culturally conservative, reducing conservatives' reasons for embracing Catholicism.