Our Lady of the Angels Church in Arcadia

Father Charles Ward of Our Lady of the Angels Church in Arcadia. (Felipe Dupouy / For the Times)

It's hard to be an absolutist in the modern world—our society simply isn't set up for it. Boundless, diverse and brimming with energy, it's better at fostering a culture where anything goes than one obsessed with strict definitions of right and wrong. It's better at building a spiritual world where people customize their beliefs rather than demanding they adhere to rigid dogma. There is no black and white anymore. Most of us prefer our world in muddier-but-subtler, ever-evolving shades of gray.

So there's a certain otherworldly feeling you get when you walk into a tiny, plain church in the Santa Clarita Valley and sit down with a man of the cloth who's certain that certainty does exist. He's friendly and calm, and he explains his take on the world in a patient, soothing way—even as his words are unforgiving. "Just because we're in different times," he says, "it doesn't mean that right and wrong—true and false—change. Today nothing is sacred. Everything is open to reinterpretation. But if something is handed down by Christ, it shouldn't change."

You might assume your host is a Protestant fundamentalist, cousin to those evangelicals who preach salvation on the cable channels that pop up between MTV and HBO. If you took out the reference to Christ, he could even be an orthodox rabbi, admonishing his followers to keep the Sabbath and to follow the many commandments of the Torah to the letter.

But this particular man of faith is Father Dominic Radecki, a youthful-looking, 46-year-old Catholic priest who wears a standard-issue clerical collar and black suit, who sits rather informally on a plastic chair he's pulled up just a couple of feet away from yours, and who will later display an album stuffed with photos of the seminary he attended, as well as several of his scuba badges. It's an odd combination of old and new, rigidity and informality. And it's especially curious coming from a person you associate with Roman Catholicism—a religion that for the past 40 years has attempted to modernize, if not quickly enough for many of its devotees.

There is, of course, a catch: Father Radecki is not a mainstream Catholic—he's what's called a traditionalist. Traditionalists are devoted to the Latin Mass, and they have little but scorn for the modernizing innovations of Vatican II, the groundbreaking council called from 1962-65 by Pope John XXIII, who believed that the insular church needed to adapt in order to survive in a rapidly changing world. "I want to throw open the windows of the church so that we can see out and the people can see in," the late pope said. Vatican II resulted in—among many other changes—the introduction of a new Mass, outreach to other Christian faiths and this statement: "What happened in [Christ's] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today."

Since then, many traditionalists have not recognized the pope as their leader. And yes, they are strict fundamentalists. Traditionalists do not eat meat on Fridays. Their women wear skirts and cover their heads in church and are encouraged to stay home and instruct their children in the ways of upright living. In the traditionalists' world, there is black and there is white; gray was merely the color of the sky on the day Jesus was tortured and crucified.

There aren't a lot of traditionalists around—probably fewer than 100,000 in the U.S. And they might have retained their somewhat in-the-shadows identity had not the most famous adherent among them, Mel Gibson, decided to sink $25 million of his own money into a controversial feature film about the trial and punishment of Jesus—a film that has inspired accusations of anti-Semitism and inadvertently shined a klieg light on its director's fellow travelers.

"The Passion of the Christ" opens on Feb. 25—Ash Wednesday. It has been seen by only selected audiences, as Gibson has tried to control early criticisms of the movie. The controversy surrounds the film's depiction of Jews and the inclusion of a biblical passage that blames them for the death of Jesus, a line that reportedly was cut. Religious organizations, theologians and academics—Christian and Jewish alike—are distressed because the Roman Catholic Church has, since Vatican II, absolved Jews of Jesus' crucifixion. There are fears that Gibson's film will usher in a new era of anti-Semitism.

Depictions of Gibson's spiritual life have tended toward the sensational. As he prepared to shoot "The Passion" in Italy, a newspaper there reported that Gibson said, "I do not believe in the Church as an institution," and that he believes the Vatican is a "wolf in sheep's clothing." The independent chapel he has built near Malibu has been shrouded in secrecy.

Then there are the rather unsavory opinions held by his 85-year-old father, Hutton Gibson, whom the filmmaker has credited with providing "my love for religion." According to a story that ran in the New York Times Magazine last March, the elder Gibson has written books declaring the pope "the Enemy," and has claimed that the Al Qaeda hijackers had nothing to do with the events of Sept. 11. He also thinks that the Holocaust didn't happen.

The thing is, all the fuss over the Gibsons can distort what Catholic traditionalism is about. Mel Gibson is Southern California's only traditionalist star, but he isn't Southern California's only traditionalist. In some 20 or so chapels such as Radecki's, spread out from San Diego to Santa Clarita, hundreds of faithful congregate for the Latin Masses on Sundays and send their kids to traditional Catholic schools during the week. They're young and old, black and white, Latino and Asian, rich and poor. They are a fractious bunch—these are, after all, folks who have taken the radical step of breaking away from Rome—and they differ somewhat in their takes on the pope, the "conciliar church" (as they call mainstream Catholicism), and each other. At the same time, they're united in their disdain for the new Mass and for what they perceive as a grievously liberal Catholic Church.

It can seem like an unforgiving way to live, a lifestyle completely unsuited to our times. But the funny thing is, when you talk it through with people such as Father Radecki, you start to understand where they're coming from. Press accounts about Hutton Gibson notwithstanding, most traditionalists don't seem to be conspiracy theorists, or kooks. They're strict and rigid, but they're not nuts or hostile. They're just very traditional people who want to pray and live in a certain, just-so way. They find a way to make it work in the modern world.

"It's not like I don't believe in technology," Father Radecki says, displaying pictures of the recording studio he once worked in, producing religious music.

On another day, a different traditionalist priest plainly states: "Just so you know, we're not crazy people."

Still, they have an unyielding belief that theirs is the one true church, their faith encourages women to have large families, and, according to one leader, "we can't change history" regarding the role of Jews in the crucifixion of Christ.

It's a typical Sunday morning at Our Lady of the Angels Church in Arcadia. Mass is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., but by 9:45 the church's parking lot is already full, and parishioners have stationed their cars down Temple City Boulevard and onto the adjacent residential streets. The men dress in coats and ties, the women in modest skirts. Those women who haven't brought a hat or scarf take a small lacy veil from a rack just outside the sanctuary door and place it atop their heads. Even the youngest girls wear head coverings—little pink knit hats, little pink muslin kerchiefs.

There are lots of small kids at Our Lady of the Angels, which reflects the strict traditionalist ban against birth control. (During a recent service, the priest told his flock that a large family might cause financial pressure, but "faith will provide.") Some families show up with four or five children in tow. The kids sit quietly through the 90-minute service, only fidgeting occasionally. It's a remarkable sight. Church and synagogue can be hard to sit through under any circumstances, for adults as well as for youngsters. But Our Lady of the Angels does regular boring church one better.

Following the old Tridentine rites, Father Charles Ward performs the service entirely in Latin—except for the biblical readings and his sermon, which is lengthy and didactic, focuses intensely on Scripture and offers advice and guidance for good Catholic parents. The line for Communion is long. The choir sings for some time, too. And yet, throughout, the children sit quietly and behave, every hair in place.

Our Lady of the Angels is one of three chapels in the Los Angeles area run by the Society of St. Pius X, a worldwide traditionalist organization that was banished from the Roman Catholic Church in 1988 when its founder, the Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II. Lefebvre, who operated near Sion, Switzerland, had been battling it out with the popes and their cardinals ever since the close of the Vatican II Council in 1965. Even as the Latin Tridentine Mass was phased out, and eventually banished from use, Lefebvre stubbornly kept performing it.