Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Spirit of '58

There is a very interesting discussion over on Rorate Caeli about the participation of the faithful in Traditional Low Masses. In the rules in force in 1962, reference is made to a document of 1958, Musica Sacra, which gives a series of options for different forms of participation, not only in terms of music but also in terms of the faithful making responses at Low Mass. The difficulty is that these recommendations were new, in 1958, and were overtaken by events only a few years later. They can hardly be presented as the timeless wisdom of the Church, indeed, they are clearly experimental. Many people attached to the 'former liturgical traditions' in the English-speaking world have a very strong preference for the most basic option, which was the norm before 1958 (at least in the English-speaking world): silence from the congregation. The dialogue is conducted by the priest and the server alone.

In my (considerable) experience of the Latin Novus Ordo, I was always conscious of the limitations on what the congregation could really manage: the odd 'Amen' is fine, but asking them to say 'Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium de manibus tuis, ad laudem et gloriam nominis sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque Ecclesiae suae sanctae' (which the rubrics of the Novus Ordo does ask them to say) is just silly. They simply can't do it. Even if they knew the words, which few of them do, or were comfortable reading Latin aloud, which few of them are, a block of text as long as that recited by a good number of people might start together but will sound like a swarm of bees long before the end. The only way to avoid this would be to do with the congregation what we do with the servers: drill them.

Musica Sacra goes further, however: the most advanced option includes the congregation reciting the propers (the changing parts of the Mass, such as the Introit) as well as responses (in Latin, obviously). The idea that they could declaim these even longer texts, which are different every day, is absurd, unless, in a seminary or monastery, the congregation is again seriously drilled.

Do I need to point out that drilling people in their responses (said or sung) at Mass is patronising, embarrassing and lame? If they can't pick them up naturally, perhaps with the help of a handout, forget it.

The less advanced options allow the congregation to say only the simpler responses, but at this point the whole thing becomes complicated. Which responses? Are there natural distinctions between the parts of the Mass in which the congregation is responding and parts in which it is not? (No. The longest is the Confiteor, which comes in the middle of a lot of easy ones.) Is the distinction marked in missals? (No.)

It is obviously true that the 'dialogue Mass' can function when people have got a handle on what is expected of them, and that itself can be established by custom. It takes place in many parts of the world and people seem content with it. Like the document Musica Sacra itself, however, it does embed the unfortunate idea, which is at the heart of the debate about 'participatio actuosa', that the interior participation of members of the congregation is aided by them making a conscious effort to perform an outward task connected with the Mass. It is an unfortunate idea because it has a certain plausibility, but is false. It seems plausible to suppose that if the congregation is saying aloud 'Et cum spiritu sancto' or singing the Gloria they haven't gone to sleep but are actively engaged with the progress of the ritual. It is false, however, because (unless, perhaps, it has become second nature) reading the responses or the music from a book or sheet or for that matter remembering them is an intellectual task, and this task is not the same as the spiritual task of engaging in the Mass. As such it is a distraction from real, that is interior, participation.

To see that this is so consider the more involved kinds of participation, that of serving or singing at Mass. I know from my own experience, and it is certainly not only my experience, that trying to avoid making a mistake in serving or singing requires concentration. What you are concentrating on, as you kneel by the priest as a server, is 'Is it time to lift the chasuble?' 'Is it time to ring the bell?' 'I must stand up and go to the credence table in a moment'. If you are not concentrating on those things you will make a mistake. When you are singing you are focusing intensely on the music, listening to your fellow singers, looking at the conductor, and often keeping an eye on what is going on in the sanctuary. Either that or, again, you are going to make a mistake. In each case you have to fit your spiritual participation in round your ritual or artistic task.

Singing and serving are wonderful ways to assist at Mass, because they are ways of 'assisting' in the most obvious English sense. The intellectual or artistic effort you are making is something necessary to the Mass and you are offering it to God for His glory. It is a great privilege to be able to make this kind of contribution to the sacred mysteries. From the point of view of spiritual participation, of offering oneself with the Body and Blood of Our Lord offered by the priest to the Father, they are, however, distracting. Few servers and singers don't prefer, from time to time, to attend Mass as a simple member of the congregation. In the old days people would routinely attend Low Mass before attending Sung or Solemn Mass on a Sunday; you would be able to participate in different ways at each one.

It is just my opinion, but I agree with those criticised as 'neo-trads' who prefer the silent Low Mass. Don't try to make the congregation do what trained singers and servers do: let them participate in their own way, in their own time, and if they prefer with their own, interior, words.

Here's an aposite quotation from C.S. Lewis.
There is really some excuse for the man who said, "I wish they'd remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks."
2006 02 21_0676
Low Mass at the Holy Name, Manchester, celebrated by Fr Ray Matus. (More photos.)


  1. David Forster11:09 am

    A good rule of thumb might be that anything introduced in the 1950s - with very limited exceptions - was an experiment on rats rather than food for sheep. Organizations like the LMS were set up to promote the Traditional Latin Mass, not the TLM with 1950s experiments, and at least until recently were very aware of that fact.

  2. Alan Robinson11:19 am

    David,  When you say "TLM with 1950s experiments", would you include the New Holy Week of the 1950s, the New calendar and rubrics of the 1950s and 1960s ? The Latin Mass Society along with other witnessing Catholic groups and priests used the integral (pre-Pius XII/John XXIII) Tridentine rite in the earliest days as did the Society of S.Pius X and its precursors.  Is it a good time to get back "to basics" ? Could we all unite under such banners as the St Lawrence Press Ordo and the ideas and teachings of Dom Gueranger's Liturgical Year et al and get back before the incessant softening up changes of the 1940-1962 period ?

  3. David Forster11:44 am

    Personal opinion only: Yes, I would agree that the new rubrics, calendar and Holy Week of the 1950s appear in retrospect to be early examples of Bugninization - far better off without them. I'm very aware that the LMS was set up to promote the traditional liturgy - pre-1950s changes - rather than 1962 or 1965 versions. Perhaps what we need is a "Real LMS" or "Continuing LMS"? (Note to humourless puritans - you don't necessarily have to take that last comment as serious).

  4. Multum Incola2:10 pm

    Mass is about the only time I can sit down and be quiet and not have to worry about doing anything to impress anybody else. When I'm in the congregation, I resent having to do stuff. All that activism is profoundly irritating and distracting and takes away the brief moments of peace in the world away from din and busy-ness. (for those who don't know me, let's keep it that way but this post isn't the work of some grumpy old git, I'm in my early 20s)

  5. Joseph Shaw2:19 pm


  6. Alan Robinson9:40 pm

    Imagine the advertisements in the Catholic Herald for the "The Real Old Rite Latin Mass Society"

  7. Simon Platt10:08 pm

    Jolly good post.  I agree with it entirely (sorry).  But if I might add my two penny worth . . .

    It's hard enough for two servers at low mass to respond in unison.  I know that some prefer to serve alone for that and related reasons. I'm not sure that's a good thing, because servers still outnumber low masses, but I have some sympathy with the point of view. When I get to serve a solemn mass I'm very happy to concentrate on doing my own job, keeping my mouth shut and letting the MC or sacred ministers respond as they should.

    As for the faithful in the pews, I always thought there were (and should be) no rubrics, no demands beyond that of respecting the sacredness of the space and the action; of good manners towards God and his other faithful.  I think the rule (using "rule" in its looser sense) should be straightforward: say nothing at low mass, sing according to your ability at sung mass.

    It seems so obvious to me.

  8. Simon Platt10:09 pm

    I love the "no drilling" signs, by the way.

  9. Mulier Fortis1:23 am

    FWIW I wrote about my own thoughts on active participation here.

  10. Peter2:11 am

    Thanks for that post. It is all rather well put.

    "They can hardly be presented as the timeless wisdom of the Church, indeed, they are clearly experimental."

    Alas! This can be said of so many of the changes from 1955 to 1962. For those of us dedicated to preserving the traditional Roman rite in its full glory - and not just a piece of transitional committee work - we should hope for the restoration, for example, of the old Holy Week and so much else that was scrapped in the years leading up to Vatican II.

  11. Ttony1:56 pm

    I wrote this recently: I asked one of the priests - the youngest, actually - I serve for in the EF why he didn't allow a dialogue Mass.  Quite a few of those who attend know the responses and were keen to join in but he has stopped them.  His answer illuminates another of the problems with the OF.  He wants people to pray the Mass, to unite themselves with what he is doing at the altar, and not to be constantly doing things, or preparing to do things, or to be working out when they'll next have to do things.  "That's what the server's for."