Tuesday, February 12, 2019

What are Side-Chapels for?

Our Lady of Sorrows, appearing to gesticulate in horror at the sculpture deposited in her chapel.
The famous Jesuit Church, the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, in London, is richly decorated, and boasts many exquisite side-chapels. One can imagine Lady Julia Flyte popping in to one of them to pray before her chat with her Jesuit spiritual director in Brideshead Revisited, as many Catholics must have done over the Church’s 150 years of use. In one of these, dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, I found, on a recent visit, a life-size park bench rendered in bronze, and on it, an equally brazen blanket covering a sleeping figure. This “Homeless Jesus” sculpture, of which there are copies in cities around the world, has found its way there because Westminster Council refused permission for it to be installed near London’s Houses of Parliament.

Whatever one thinks about this object as a sculpture, a striking fact about its current London home, where it has now been blessed by the Nuncio, is that it makes it impossible for Mass to be celebrated in this chapel. It suggests that the Jesuits of Farm Street have no idea what to do with their side chapels. They are not alone. If they are not simply neglected, one finds them in many churches cluttered with information displays or used for storage. Almost nowhere are they used for Mass.
Why, one might ask, were they built in the first place? To make possible the celebration of private Masses simultaneously by different priests. This would naturally happen in a church served by several priests, when two or more of them did not have a public Mass to say on a given day. They will, obviously, wish to celebrate Mass, and may well wish to do so at the same time, say before breakfast. That would be natural, wouldn’t it?

That was the old way, but priests’ attitudes to the celebration of Mass underwent a revolution after the Second Vatican Council. Since 1967, to be exact, priests living together have been encouraged to ‘concelebrate’: say Mass together. The practice of priests of ten centuries, during the time that private, ‘low’, Masses have existed, of celebrating their own Mass each day, was in this way set aside for something entirely new: of priests, not with their bishop but amongst themselves, acting as simultaneous celebrants of one celebration. This is an example, and sadly not the worst, of the liturgical rupture which followed the Second Vatican Council.

When several priests concelebrate Mass, only one Mass is celebrated; when we are told that this is officially preferable to three or more Masses being celebrated, it is not surprising that many priests have inferred that in the absence of pastoral need there is little to be lost by not celebrating Mass at all.

Pope Benedict XVI found it necessary, therefore, in his 2007 Post-Synodal Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (80), to remind priests that daily celebration of Mass (to which they are not bound by the Church’s law), is a good idea, even in the absence of the Faithful, since “it fosters the priest’s configuration to Christ and strengthens him in his vocation”. This would be the case with concelebration as well as with private Masses, but other points indicate the advantage of a priest celebrating on his own, notably ‘the objectively infinite value of every celebration’, and ‘the Mass’s unique spiritual fruitfulness’.

Mass is celebrated for the living and the dead, in union with the whole Church: it is not something of significance only for those who happen to be present. Two Masses for an intention are better than one, just as two Rosaries, said with equal fervor, are better than one. It is not just a matter of a Mass’s infinite intrinsic value as the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary, but of its finite extrinsic value: the value contributed by the appropriateness of the prayers, the holiness of the priest, and so on.

Although these considerations apply to Masses celebrated without the Faithful, the traditional practice in reality had pastoral advantages as well, in creating a supply of short early morning Masses for those wishing to attend before the day’s work, and in creating a demand for altar servers which led to many vocations.

I have had the privilege of seeing multiple Masses in progress at side altars, at the Priest Training Conferences organized by the Latin Mass Society in England. It is a truly edifying sight, a glimpse of the reality of the ceaseless prayer rising up from Masses being celebrated all over the globe. Where priests live together, in larger parishes, in seminaries, clergy residences, and other institutions, it is time that the clutter was removed from side chapels for them to function once more as their builders intended, for the good of the priests, and for the living and the dead.

Low Masses at Prior Park during the Latin Mass Society's Priest Training Conference.

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  1. Thank you for this reminder, Prof. Shaw. I was received into communion with Rome in 2012, and at first was able only to attend Mass solely in the Ordinary Form. Later, we were blessed with an FSSP-staffed parish in our area. I remember the first time there were two Masses being said simultaneously. At first it was a bit disconcerting, but later it made sense. It was a useful reminder that Mass was not all about me, but that I was privileged to part of a vast work of the ages. Deo gratias!

  2. One of the great pleasures of visits to Rome is to go early to St Peter's where, before the arrival of hordes of tour groups at around 9 am, most of the side chapels, along with those in the crypt, are in use by priests saying their private Masses. It is a particular joy to be there at 7, to see priests and servers streaming out of the sacristy on their way to say Mass.

  3. Whilst on a visit to London last November; I got exactly the same impression when I visited Westminster Cathedral vs Brompton Oratory. At the Cathedral, other than the Lady Chapel and Blessed Sacrament Chapel, the reminder were stripped of Candle sticks etc.and looked quite bleak in contrast.

  4. What chance do side altars have when even the main altars are bereft of Masses? Here in our diocese, at least two parishes have now done away with one of their daily Masses since the new bishop came. Another parish even did away with one of their Sunday Masses. And you can't blame the priest shortage, because there are sufficient priests in residence at these parishes to say them (two or more). One of these parishes even had one of its priests in residence volunteer to always offer the 7 a.m. Mass. Nonetheless, his Pastor did away with it. Looks like the new boss is not merely maintaining the status quo here, but apparently furthering the decline.

  5. “When several priests concelebrate Mass, only one Mass is celebrated; ...”

    This is what I thought, and yet I was recently informed - by a priest - that each concelebrant can accept a stipend to offer the self-same Mass for quite distinct intentions. I believe in the commercial world this would be described as a rip-off.