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The Traditional Mass

March 30, 2009

One of the interesting things about being Rector of St Clement’s is that I get a lot of enquiries from Roman Catholics about our Liturgy. Many of the older ones remember a time before the Second Vatican Council when their own Mass was similar in structure to ours, and when they visit, they often say what a joy it is to see the Mass done “properly” again.

These are the kind of Catholics who will no doubt make full use of the Pope’s recent ruling, that the old form of the Mass (often called the Tridentine Mass) may again be celebrated in RC parishes. I am happy for them, because they have clearly felt that the new form of the Mass lacked much that they valued.

However, what they see and like in the St Clement’s version of the Mass is not really the old Tridentine Mass at all. If it were, the only part that would be in English would be the sermon, and that would be tacked on to the end of the Mass as an optional extra. Nothing much would be heard in Latin either, except what we already hear sung by the choir. Most of the rest of the prayers would be said silently by the Celebrant at the altar.

It was because the pre-Conciliar Mass was remote from the people that an unstoppable cry for reform went up, and sadly (as in so many other cases) the pendulum swung too far, so that wild theorists were allowed to take away all that was stately and beautiful in the Mass and replace it with irreverence to the Blessed Sacrament, tasteless vestments, sloppy ceremonial, to say nothing of balloons and guitars!

However, the worst reform of all was in the language, especially in English-speaking countries. The translations of the Latin texts were rendered in the most banal, pedestrian English. And this was often done quite deliberately by those who wanted the Mass in the language spoken by “the ordinary people”. It was argued that when the Mass was first allowed in Latin, it was because that was the language of the people, an argument which has been shown to be false. The Latin of the old Roman Mass is a fine literary Latin, easily understood by ordinary people, but far removed from the Latin they would speak in the market place.

The so-called linguistic experts (had any one of them ever written a poem, I wonder?) made the mistake all good teachers try to avoid, that of talking down to their subjects. From their ivory towers they assumed that common people couldn’t be expected to understand fine literary English, and (as ad nauseam in our own Diocesan councils) the needs of “the young people” were cited as decisive. These young people could not be expected to understand Church English with its special vocabulary, but would be turned off by it.The lunacy of this condescending approach can be seen in the eight year olds who can reel off the hundreds of names and biographies of their Poikemon card characters, or the teenagers who speak and write what to me sounds like outer-Mongolian, when discussing the latest programs for their computers or cell phones. Yet the mad liturgical scientists pontificated that words like consubstantial, co-eternal, vouchsafe, deign (not to mention thou, thee, thy and thine) were too much for modern youth.

So it is no wonder that many Roman Catholics will try to make full use of the new permission, and ask their parish priests to provide celebrations according to the old rite. As an Anglo-Catholic, I am sorry that they will not have the opportunity to experience the old rite in the English we use at St Clement’s. This is the English of the sixteenth century Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible (or the King James Version, as it is called in America) as well – rather surprisingly – the fine translation of the Roman Canon made by Monsignor Ronnie Knox. Apart from the private prayers of the celebrant, the whole rite is heard by the congregation. As one of our liturgical experts said to me: this is roughly what the Fathers of Vatican II thought they were voting for. But be that as it may, the Anglican compromise we use here is, to my mind, the most edifying form of the Mass I know, and I thank God for it.

I am afraid that Roman Catholics who try to “turn the clock back” (as they will be accused of doing) will rouse the rage of the liturgists. And they may well prove the old saying true: “The difference between a liturgist and a terrorist is that you can sometimes reason with a terrorist”!

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Derrick permalink
    March 30, 2009 11:22 pm

    Father, I think this is a great perspective. As a young person, I totally agree! Thank you for this.

  2. March 31, 2009 12:32 am

    I’m sure you’ve heard (And maybe even seen) that Roman Catholics are soon to get a new translation of the missal, complete with consubstantial, deign, vouchsafe, etc, despite the protest of certain American bishops. It isn’t close to the beauty of Prayer Book English, but it’s an improvement. Maybe in the future it will be further revised.

  3. Lath Grier permalink
    March 31, 2009 1:17 am

    Had any one of them written a poem ? Ha ! had any one of them even READ a poem ? Thank you, dear Father, for explaining so succinctly, with charity and clarity, the reason for the pendulum’s liturgical swings.

    It is a wonderful blessing for those of us (everyone outside Philly) who do not have a St Clement’s to attend to find springing up Extraordinary Rite celebrations and communities, which former I can find at a parish in Toronto under the care of the Oratorians.

    May the Holy Father create a personal prelature for Anglicans, as he is rumoured to be considering, so that we may all be reunited with the Chair of Peter, yet keep the rich fruits of the Anglican tradition which we have loved so long even as our national and diocesan churches have often shown contempt for us of conservative bent.

  4. Todd permalink
    March 31, 2009 8:18 pm

    Fr. Reid,

    I read Sean Tribe’s “New Liturgical Movement” faithfully and must say that the perspective you provide here is endouring and appealing to many young Anglo Catholics such as myself who long for a return to traditional worship.

    Keep up the good work, dear rector! You and your parish are in my prayers.

  5. April 1, 2009 4:39 am

    I’ve often thought that the liturgy as celebrated at S. Clement’s is the model for good liturgical reform in the Roman Catholic Church. There is just one problem, which is as enormous as it is simple: bad taste. Roman Catholicism is notorious for bad taste, particularly in certain countries, and it showed forth even in the old days with the Old Rite. Because of this, I think Thomas Day in his very famous book “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” has gotten closest to the heart of the matter: too many Roman Catholics just don’t know how to combine beauty and common sense. This dearth of good taste might well contribute to the various extremes which Roman Catholics embrace in the so-called “liturgy wars.” It’s a frustrating problem, because it’s so easy to diagnose, and yet very probably insoluble.

  6. Mr DG Fulton permalink
    April 2, 2009 5:06 pm

    “Nothing much would be heard in Latin either, except what we already hear sung by the choir.”

    This is rather the point of the Solemn Mass, namely that it is sung, not spoken.

    At a properly celebrated Mass, whether Low or Solemn, the vast majority of the Mass is sung or spoken aloud for the congregation to hear. The rubrics make this perfectly clear.

    Properly celebrated, only the private prayers and Canon are said in the low voice. The Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, collect(s), Epistle, Gradual, Alleluia/Tract, Gospel, Creed, Preface, Sanctus, Benedictus, Pater noster, Pax, Agnus Dei, Communion Antiphon, Postcommunion, and Benediction are all said or sung audibly.

    Sadly, clergy have long played fast and loose with the rubrics. The older clergy who said the Tridentine Mass before Vatican II tend to have the attitude of why bother saying the audible parts audibly if no one can understand the Latin. Had the Tridentine Mass been celebrated properly in the first half of the 20th century, the liturgical changes of Vatican II likely would have never occurred.

    • saintclementsblog permalink*
      April 2, 2009 5:41 pm

      You are absolutely right. If they had just had the audible parts in English, they might have left the rest alone.

  7. Paul Goings permalink
    April 2, 2009 7:06 pm

    I would add that any distinction between the celebrant’s so-called “private” prayers and the other texts is purely arbitrary and artificial. We have the canon aloud at S. Clement’s more often than not because we still labor under the yoke of Cranmerian Protestantism, and have not the courage of our convictions in their entirety.

    • saintclementsblog permalink*
      April 2, 2009 7:22 pm

      But surely you are not in favour of having what the previous comment deplores, namely old clergy who can’t be bothered to say the audible bits out loud! We are, after all, an Anglican church, choosing to use the traditional rite in Cranmer’s English.

      • Paul Goings permalink
        April 2, 2009 7:57 pm

        Indeed not, Father. Heaven forbid! I merely point out that the Canon was never traditionally considered to be one of the audible bits. The fact that we continue to emulate the practices of the various sixteenth-century heretics in this matter is grossly anomalous within the liturgical context which has been established at S. Clement’s since the time of Fr Joiner. Dr Cranmer was, as you know, very insistent that the entire rite should be conducted in an audible tone of voice. And this because he viewed the eucharistic sacrifice as a pedagogical exercise, and not as true re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross.

        The effect of this erroneous interpretation of the liturgical action is most jarringly evident at the Solemn Mass. After an hour or so of uninterrupted* sung intercourse involving the people, choir, ministers, and celebrant in their proper roles, we pause for a long and prosaic lecture, which completely overthrows the tone of the rite being celebrated, and–worse–at its very summit. I am continually baffled as to why anyone would think this to be preferable.

        *The responses after the lessons and the “communion devotions” are also, unfortunately, interpolated, following the practice of the various Prayer Books.

  8. saintclementsblog permalink*
    April 2, 2009 8:05 pm

    I see what you mean, Paul, but don’t agree. I think the prayers of the Canon are fine and should be heard by all. Of course, now and then we do have a silent Canon in the old style, because the music fits the timing of the prayers and was written for this. But even there, I often feel I should say the Words of Institution out loud. You are at least spared that further mixture of rites!

  9. Gina permalink
    April 2, 2009 8:12 pm

    I hope you don’t mind if I clear up a slight misunderstanding. At Low Mass under the old rite the Epistle and Gospel were repeated in English before the sermon. The Credo followed the sermon and then on to the Offertory. (in the 1950s, anyway!).
    Nothing wrong with the vernacular, I agree. Thanks for an absorbing post.

  10. Paul Goings permalink
    April 2, 2009 8:42 pm

    It is obviously no surprise to me that you disagree with the traditional approach to this question, Father. But it also seems obvious to then ask why this is so? It’s all well and good to say that the Canon should be heard by all, but this is hardly a real reason. That is, it’s an assertion without any justification, and so reveals nothing of what has gone into forming your opinion of how the question should be answered. That’s what I’m much more interested in.

  11. saintclementsblog permalink*
    April 2, 2009 8:57 pm

    I am no liturgist – and this is why I am willing to use all sorts of variations in the Liturgy. But when the Roman rite was first produced, most scholars are sure that it was said entirely out loud. One small indication that this is so is shown by the frequent “Amens” during the “silent”Canon. So in that sense I am being more traditional than you when I say it out loud.
    I have no wish to return to the mediaeval silent Mass where there was little participation by the laity. What we have at St Clement’s is , I think, a good mixture of old and not so old (i.e 1549 Prayer Book English and some bits of that year’s Mass). We also sometimes use the 1928 Prayer Book Eucharistic Canon, and I find that perfectly acceptable too. I am happy that we have the traditional rite and the traditional music, because I think the mixture we use works pastorally. If not, we should alter it.

  12. Bob Glassmeyer permalink
    April 2, 2009 10:37 pm

    Hello, dear Father.

    Sometimes I wonder why the Roman Church, after Vatican II, didn’t simply have the Mass similar to the way your parish celebrates it, in English, but without all the alterations of the hybrid missals, and all. I like the newer rite if it’s done properly and reverently, and I like other forms of the Holy Mass, too. Someday I’d love to experience the pre-1955 Holy Week Rites as you celebrate them, Father.

    Blessed Day of the Compassion of Our Lady tomorrow!

  13. David O'Rourke permalink
    April 3, 2009 11:18 pm

    Father, I think you greatly exagerate the silence in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Mass. With the exception of the 1928 Prayer of Consecration which is said aloud at St. Clement’s (usually)and the Confession and Absolution (which is an insert not found in the Roman Rite) everything that is audible in St. Clement’s High Maas was audible in the pre Vatican II High Mass.

    I speak here from experience as I was raised a Roman Catholic and was heavily involved in the liturgy including Pontifical events and also, in those days pre Vat II days, devoured almost everything that was printed by The Liturgical Press from St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville Minn.

    Sometime after the Novus Ordo came out I became an Anglo-Catholic and not only have I visisted St. Clement’s often but I am honoured to have my initials DMO painted into one of the jewels on the collar of one of the sleeping wiseman in the painting over the north door from the church to the narthex. Low Mass was another matter (though even here not always).

    I agree with you whole heartedly about the quality of the English (it is said the English RC bishops were afraid of sounding like Anglicans) and I agree about North american RC’s as tending towards bad taste but my learned friemd Paul Goings is right about the Canon (of which the 1928 Prayer of Consecration is a poor shadow at best)and traditionally this has always been silent. Wioth respect, Father, your appeal to the “Amens” in the Canon doesn’t make you a traditionalit but rather an antiquarian. Mr. Going’s comments savour more of a hermeneutic of continuity on that score.

    In anycase, you have a beautiful liturgy at St. Clement’s Fr. and I dare to hope that despite the ravages of Bishop Bennison and now Mrs. Schori you are still a (sometimes lonely) bastion of Catholic orthodoxy.

  14. Mitch permalink
    April 3, 2010 5:36 pm

    With so much variation and choices from parish to parish, not to mention the abuses not authorized, haven’t we done everything to undermine one of the main points of Trent? Which was to codify a rite specifically to be used throughout the Church. We are now back to where we were before Trent, to a place where we have almost different rites in every parish from town to town. Latin was a unifying element and so were the strict rubrics. That has been lost and should be recovered.

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