Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Liturgical conflict in Bristol

There is an interesting letter in the Catholic Herald this week (12th August), by a certain Brendan McBride, rejoicing in the loss of the Church's liturgical traditions.

'I was born and brought up when the priest said Mass with his back to me in a language I did not understand. Women covered their heads in church and no girl altar servers were allowed. To receive Communion I had to kneel at a barrier between me and the sanctuary and stick out my tongue. In those days the priest and the people inhabited different sacramental worlds; thank God such days have gone.'

He goes on to describe the Mass he attends in Bristol (ie presumably Clifton) Cathedral. Of the celebrant:

'We see his smile when calling us to prayer, and he sees ours when we respond. The altar is wide open and at Gospel time the younger children scamper up the steps to sit beside him--he is wonderful with children--while he tells them Bible stories...'

There are altar girls and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. The writer practices intinction: 'I take the Host in my hand and dip it in the chalice wine.'

It's all down to Vatican II, which 'recovered for us all the simplicity of the communial meal that He institured, one in which He gathers His friends to Himself as He did the night before He died. Communion with Him is not an occasion of adoration, nor one calling for "an atmosphere of focus, solemnity and mystery", but for intimacy and the happiness it brings.' He is very grateful to Bl Pope John XXIII, surprisingly, since the poor man would have been even more horrified than most of the Council Fathers at the liturgy Mr McBride descibes.

Not everyone in Bristol is taking the love-feast so well. This week's Universe (14th August) carries a letter given the title ' 'Unpleasantries' of the Sign of Peace', from A.W. Whaits, Bristol.

Whoever dreamt up the sugary sign of peace seems to have been naively oblivious to some unpleasant practicalities.

In my church, one elderly widower tours the pews 'making a meal'; of his license to to make contact with female bodies. ...

When the 'feel good' moment arrives, they approach me expectactly, but I ignore such cheap, shallow, bonhomie. I have often felt like adding 'a little peace before Mass would not have gone amiss.'

One man's 'intimacy, and the happiness it brings' is another man's invasion of personal space. I wonder if these two individuals have ever sat beside each other in the pew, and what happened at the kiss of peace.

Leaving aside the question of liturgical law, the real problem with Mr McBride's liturgy is that it depends, for its success, on a number of things which are not widely available.

First, architecture. Clifton Cathedral is famous for its modernist architecture; it was built for the liturgy McBride describes, but very, very few Catholic churches were. So while Clifton Cathedral is not to everyone's taste it has a coherence and integrity which few Catholic places of worship have, once they have been smashed up and rearranged in an attempt to create an atmosphere for which they are utterly unsuited.

Second, clergy. The Dean of Clifton Cathedral is 'wonderful with children'. That is very nice to hear. 'Wonderful' implies 'far above average'. Half our Catholic clergy are, by definition, below average in their ability to deal with children. (Only children themselves have the privilege of being 100% above average.) So what are they supposed to do? The liturgy described by McBride clearly depends on the Dean's remarkable personal qualities. Without them, it would fall flat.

Third, the faithful. Bristol is a populous city and the Cathdral's distinctive liturgy no doubt draws a good congregation from accross the city. People who like it must seek it out. I am happy for them. But what about priests who have to serve all the Catholics in their parishes? Not just the smiley ones who love touchy-feely services, but the curmugeons like A.W. Whaits. Even Clifton Cathedral's Dean might find his talents stretched to inject enthusiasm into a congregation made up, like the general Catholic population, 50% people coming out of habit, with little clue about what is going on, 30% curmudgeons going with gritted teath, and 20% liberal enthusiasts. We've all seen priests try to deal with this kind of congregation, and it can be a painful experience for all concerned.

The hyper-liberal liturgical experiment is something which by the very nature of things can work (at least superficially) very well in certain settings, but simply cannot be replicated across the country. The attempt by bishops and individual priests to impose it in the wrong conditions has had disasterous consequences. But in the liturgical orthodoxy of the last generation, they had nothing else to try.

But now things are changing.

2011 05 22_9600
First Mass of Fr Matthew McCarthy FSSP in the chapel of the Carmelite Convent of Jesus Mary & Joseph at Valpariso, Nebraska. More photos. The Chapel and convent are new; the priest is newly ordained, the chapel is full of families with young children, the convent is full of young nuns, all committed to the Traditional Mass.

Just for fun, here's a taste of the kind of liturgy Pope John XXIII used to preside over.


  1. Fr Ray Blake8:20 pm

    John XXIII not only presided over this liturgy, he rejoiced in it. His diary entry for the day of his Coronation is brief, something like: Trumpets, fans - glorious!

  2. Joseph Shaw8:47 pm

    Indeed! I've read also that he was reining in liturgical experimentation in his various posts before he was Pope with considerable zeal - Mass versus populum, for example.

  3. shane8:04 am

    Mass verses populum was IIRC counselled against by the Synod of Rome, on the eve of the Council.

    John XXIII also incorporated elements of the pre-reformed Holy Week.

    I think it was Cardinal Heenan who said it was a good thing that the pope died when he did so he didn't observe the way things developed.

  4. " So while Clifton Cathedral is not to everyone's taste it has a coherence and integrity "

    I must disagree; first with the idea that the 1970 Missal was designed to be celebrated like that, and secondly with the idea that Clifton Cathedral is anything other than a mess. Even the Wigwam is better-designed

    "The hyper-liberal liturgical experiment is something which by the very nature of things can work (at least superficially)"
    Again, as a convinced Novus Ordo-goer, I must disagree strenuously. It doesn't work anywhere. Clifton Cathedral and the kind of liturgy it depends on is a disaster.

    "I've read also that he was reining in liturgical experimentation in his various posts before he was Pope with considerable zeal - Mass versus populum, for example."
    If he was doing this in Rome, then he was in error. Mass versus populum - at least in the great Roman basilicas - is a venerable tradition.

  5. On the last point, it was his actions as Nuncio to France and as Patriarch of Venice which really show his preferences on such topics. The issue of vs. pop. celebration in the Roman bascilicas is a quite separate one - see the FIUV position paper:


    Your other points would be more interesting if you gave reasons for your views.