Monday, 4 August 2008

Pictures fail me

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?


Alan Crickmore said...


It takes some courage to write in these terms. The Tridentine Mass can be a source of comfort but does create a celebrant/observer situation. Nevertheless it has its place but not, in my view, as a substitute for the modern mass. I see from the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that the Vatican has approved some new words for the mass but not yet their use. The aim seems to be to clarify and bring up to date some phrases. This seems to be a further dissociation from the Tridentine Mass.

What parishioners find hard to understand is why parish clergy seem to be so unavailable for home visits and personal evangelisation. Parishioners wonder what takes up the priests' time. Better knowledge would lead to better understanding and, perhaps, a greater willingness to help shoulder the burden of pastoral care e.g. by parishioners volunteering to train as Eucharistic Ministers. Perhaps the parish web-site should show a diary of commitments!

Alan Crickmore

Bob Daniels said...


I have some sympathy with your point of view about trying to re-establish the Latin mass on a regular basis. I too remember clearly the pre Vat II mass and was an altar server. Although I regret the loss of some aspects of the Latin tradition, for example the music, I feel the changes have been for the better by a long chalk.

On a recent visit to NZ we attended a Latin mass at the Cathedral in Christchurch, not by choice. It just happened to take place. It was a complete re-enactment of 65 years ago - everything: vestments, altar turned round, music, an altar rail for communicants etc. No sound system was used and the priest was inaudible. Communion was only given in the mouth. One lady put out her hands for the host which were knocked aside. She either received it as offered or not at all. My wife and I felt that a stronger case for the vernacular mass could not have been made.

I would support a very occasional Latin Mass for nostalgic reasons in the same way that one might watch a black and white film.

Perhaps I could point out that Sacred Hearts has an active J & P group. I cannot speak for St Gregory's.

God Bless


Robin Molières said...

I read your blog of 4th August with interest and was left with much the same questions. What is lacking in the liturgical lives of young priests today which encourages them to look to forms they cannot know, for sustenance. Is it the same hunger for something different and exotic that drove The Beatles to seek enlightenment in India in the 60's? Or is this, too, a movement of the Holy Spirit? We shall have to wait and see.

Best wishes to you and your parish,

Martin Davis said...

Thanks to those who have left Comments. I have had a number of other views expressed to me, which I'll set down here, without attributions.

"You are not the only one who has said there are higher priorities."

"I have just read your very well worded blog. As a non-Catholic (I despise that term!) I feel it is awkward for me to express my thoughts, but I agree so fully that there are so many things to do and we seem to find it so hard to get anything off the ground. I’ve just read an interesting document about community cohesion with regard to schools (a Government and Diocesan imperative) and I just can’t marry what’s in that document with Tridentine Masses!"

"I was so heartened to read your thoughts on Fr. Tom's sermon, as I was afraid I was the only one leaving the church that evening feeling dejected and that we were taking a step backwards. I so agree with everything you say and the comments made by the three people below your item. We can still enjoy our Latin heritage at the 11.15 Sunday Mass and on special occasions, without going back to the Tridentine Mass. We have moved on from that, or so I thought."

One friend went to the extraordinary form mass this morning and wrote: "About 100 turned up - 90 plus anyway - from St Gregory's (not just 11.15 faces), some people I recognised from Sacred Hearts, and others I didn't recognise. Young, old and middle-aged. I have to say I was sad and disappointed when I read your blog. You're obviously entitled to your opinion. And I know - from what I've read and people I've spoken to - that people do feel very strongly about it, one way or the other. The tone and content was very rude to both Fr. Tom and Fr. John, and to the priesthood. It was very disrespectful."

Martin Davis said...

Comment from a friend who is a classical scholar, the product of a Catholic upbringing (but no longer practising): "I was particularly interested in your views and the subsequent correspondence on the Latin Mass. My own view is that the only justification for retaining it, or re-introducing it, would be to add a little sublimity. But this would only benefit those who understood Latin and these same people would also (I imagine!) agree that the quality of the Latin of the Mass, and also of most of the Vulgate, is by and large pretty indifferent."

Another (Catholic) friend writes about mass in the extraordinary form: ...I am left wondering why anyone would want to attend one. To quote St Luke (9:62) “No one who sets his hand to the plough and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.”

Anonymous said...

Fr. Tom celebrated my father's funeral Mass last month and I can't commend him enough for both his pastoral ministry and the beauty with which he offered the Mass.

Are you sure you're not judging him unfairly? Why can't there be accommodation for both forms of the Liturgy without having to wage war like sullen and disobedient children?