In matters of faith, the past is always with us.
The most tangible blessing of growing up Catholic was getting off from school the day after Halloween. Hung over from our candy bacchanal, we treasured Nov. 1, All Saints Day, even if we did have to go to Mass. Although it was entirely un-Christian of us to do so, we rubbed our freedom in the faces of our public school peers. Na-na-na-na-nah!
Cut to 1997. I was doing a weekly feature for KSHB-TV in Kansas City. Each Wednesday, I would be assigned a one-man crew, and we would go shoot some footage to back up my three-minute commentary for the week.
In 1997, Halloween fell on a Tuesday. Needing a feature for Wednesday, I recalled that there had been a revival of the Latin Mass, which had been all but banned since Vatican II. “Lapsed” though I was, I still thought that it might be worth a commentary.
Providentially that year, All Saints Day fell on a Wednesday. Being a Holy Day of obligation, there would be a Mass to record and congregants to interview. I visited with the priest in charge, Father Edouard DeMentque, newly arrived from France and wooed him with my half-assed French. All went well during the shoot, and the feature aired on the evening news.
That very evening, providentially once again, I found myself seated next to the very same Fr. DeMentque at a Protestant-run pro-life dinner. We bonded over our vain search for the wine steward.
Over dinner, we got to talking. I suggested that if his order, the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, ever held a con-fab in Kansas City, they might want to do a high-end video of a Solemn High Latin Mass. Sure enough, a few months later, the order did meet in Kansas City.
Working with my long-time partner, Michael Wunsch of Outpost Worldwide, we did a four-camera shoot of two masses, the first mass with a congregation and Gregorian choir, the second a “dry mass” with no congregation and all four cameras on the altar for close-ups.
When we started editing, I ran my 95 percent rule by Fr. DeMentque: make the video 95 percent as good as it could possibly be made as quickly as it could be made that good. No one, I explained, will notice the other 5 percent, and time is money. Fr. DeMentque offered his rule, the 100 percent rule. We compromised—on 100 percent.
Editing proved much harder than I thought. It turns out that when a priest sings, say, “Dominus vobiscum” before a congregation, he sings it more slowly and dramatically than without a congregation. Since we used the sound only from the first shoot, we had to recalibrate all the close-ups to make sure the lips synced.
The bottom line was I spent a lot more time and money editing than I anticipated. On the plus side, more people at the production facility were drawn to the haunting Gregorian music coming out of our suite. They would stop by, watch, and linger, mesmerized. More than a few asked why the Catholic Church would abandon such a moving and sacred ceremony. Even Fr. DeMentque did not have a good answer to that one.
Pleased with the final product, the Priestly Fraternity commissioned us to go to Rome in October of 1998 to shoot the ceremony surrounding the 10th anniversary of the reauthorization of the Latin Mass.
Mike and the crew flew out the day before I did. In this last moment before cellphones, we were to meet at the Vatican at noon the next day with a fallback time at 2 p.m. My flights hit one snag after another, and I arrived at Rome airport’s car rental facility at 1:15. “How long it would take to get to the Vatican?” I asked. Said the clerk, “45 minutes—if there’s no traffic.” Rome, no traffic—right!
I sped out of there. The ring road and the arterial were surprisingly modern, and I was making good time until the arterial ended, and I was dumped into the middle of a Fellini movie—a wild traffic circle with spokes leading out in about six directions.
In this primitive age before GPS, I leaned out my window towards a motorcyclist close enough I could smell his lunch and asked him the one Italian phrase I taught myself, “Per andare a San Pietro.” I could not begin to understand his answer, but like a good Italian, he used his hands a lot, and I followed where he was pointing.
I repeated this ritual at two subsequent circles, and just as I was about to give up hope, there loomed above me like a rogue planet, the magnificent dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. I sped towards it.
At the Vatican, again right out of Fellini, a dwarf beckoned me to a small parking lot he was tending. There was one spot open. I paid him and raced on foot toward my meeting with the crew, wondering all the way whether the dwarf really had anything to do with those parking spaces.
What followed were three days of shooting one glorious mass after another in one cathedral more splendid than the next. At one stop, Fr. DeMentque, whom we had taken to calling Cecil B. DeMentque, shanghaied a prominent cardinal named Josef Ratzinger, and I interviewed him one-on-one in my half-assed French.
Fast forward to April 2005. I was in Paris for an aviation conference and stopped by Notre Dame Cathedral. I wasn’t there 30 seconds when a large screen set up for the purpose switched from a French talking head to the balcony of the Vatican, where they announced, “We have a new Pope, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger.”
“I know that guy,” I shouted impulsively—well, I kind of did.
I found myself reminiscing about this adventure during a Latin mass on Nov. 1, 2022, and realized that the date was the 25th anniversary of my return from the desert. God does work in strange and mysterious ways.