There was quite a full house yesterday evening for mass at my Catholic parish church, St Gregory's here in Cheltenham: the celebrant was Fr. Tom Smith, the parish priest's assistant, ordained three years ago. In his homily, after a few words on the readings, he told us he had spent last week in residence at Merton College, Oxford. An anonymous donor had, he said, paid for him to attend the Latin Mass Society's course on learning to say what I once knew as the Tridentine mass. (I note the fee was £150 for the week – which is itself acknowledged on the Society's website as being "heavily subsidised".)
Clearly, the course had made a great impression on our young priest. He spoke at length about the beauty of the "extraordinary form". Further he announced that he had, immediately upon his return to Cheltenham, sought (and obtained) the parish priest's permission to celebrate the old mass publicly this coming Saturday. He urged us to come.
Any priest making such a significant statement and plea will no doubt influence his congregation. Plenty of people are, therefore, likely to be there on Saturday. But I will not be one of them.
I grew up in the Catholic faith, and in about 1950 became an altar server. I learnt by heart the Latin responses, rattling them off, as did any good member of the Guild of St Stephen in those days. At school I studied Latin up till A level, so came to understand and appreciate the words for their meaning – not just as mantras.
Vatican II coincided with my university years: thanks to a remarkable chaplain, my generation of undergraduates became rapidly familiar with its teaching, and in particular its liturgical reforms, which made good sense. Moving to London, I was in parishes with priests who likewise embraced those reforms.
In the Seventies, I found myself in a small, rural parish, with an Irish priest still saying mass with his back to the congregation. I struggled to understand how this good old man's ways could help us interpret for all The Church in the Modern World, let alone Populorum Progressio. I read the magazines he left at the end of the church, published by the Society of St Pius X, and found them full of vituperation. Many times I recalled my grandfather's words: God works through very human instruments.
My Sunday sadness was alleviated when a new priest took over. We became encouraged to take a part in the decisions affecting the parish, including the way its liturgy was celebrated. A generation has since passed, and I can't conceive of a return to the blessed mutter of the mass (as it is in its extraordinary form). Attendance at (I could not call it "participation in") the funeral mass of a Tridentine stalwart last December confirmed me in my opinion.
The Archbishop of Birmingham's address to last year's Merton College course included these words: No matter the language of the celebration, no matter the form … the liturgy must be set forth clearly. The celebrant, acting in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church, needs to ensure that his actions enable the souls in his care to participate in this saving mystery, to take part in each of its steps. This participation has to be profound, spiritual, informed by understanding – an active participation and not passive, not ‘leaving it to the priest to celebrate the Mass for us.’…The Tridentine mass remains the extraordinary form of the celebration of the Mass, for, as Pope Benedict says, its use ‘presupposes a certain degree of liturgical formation and some knowledge of the Latin language; neither of these is found very often.’
From next month the two St Gregory's priests will be responsible, not only for our large town parish, but also for the adjoining St Thomas More's parish – also large, with its own distinct and very considerable social problems. For years, our priests have been too busy to visit parishioners, or offer house blessings. The degree of ecumenical – let alone inter-faith – activity in Cheltenham involving its clergy is negligible. There is no Justice and Peace activity, and no apparent concern to address as a Christian challenge the environmental crisis facing our world today.
I am forced to ask, how is it that a priest of my son's age comes to decide to take the time needed to study and prepare for regular celebration of mass in the extraordinary form, when there is so much else that needs doing?