The Tridentine Mass has made it to the front cover of the British Catholic weekly The Tablet, but what sad reading this article makes.
‘The Rolls-Royce of Masses’
Devotees of the Tridentine rite are buoyed up with a new optimism. The Tablet’s reporter went to see and was amazed by the style. But what about the substance?
AN UNSEEN woman with a wonderful voice is singing in Latin. A young priest in gold vestments and a biretta is sitting listening at the side of the sanctuary, altar boys and men in scarlet and white are in attendance.
This is the old-rite Mass on Trinity Sunday at St Bede’s Catholic church, Clapham Park, south London, an ordinary suburban church in an ordinary suburban street. There is a Tridentine Mass here every Sunday, but once a month there is a choir and regulars bring food and have lunch together in the parish club next door. They have been welcomed to St Bede’s for eight years and come every Sunday from miles around. Controversially, the church was the scene last month of the first public old-rite confirmations in Britain for over 30 years.
I arrive 15 minutes late and for the first half an hour I am clueless about where we are. The readings are being sung and the wonderful music goes on and on. Then the priest stands up and makes some announcements before delivering the sermon. It is the first and only time I hear him speak in English during the Mass. By way of reminder, he says the Eucharist can be received only by Catholics who are in a state of grace and who have fasted for one hour. At this Mass “it is given kneeling and directly on the tongue”.
There follows the kind of sermon that could have been delivered 100 years ago or more. The priest quotes the Athanasian Creed and St Augustine. The tone is formal. The strange theatrical quality of this Mass continues. Apart from the sung Nicene Creed, the congregation seems to have little to do apart from a few brief responses. They do not exchange a sign of peace. The priest meticulously performs the rituals leading up to Communion. It is at the consecration that the most striking difference with the modern Mass is apparent. In this Mass, the priest has his back to the people throughout. And there is lots more music. The overall effect is that of a very fine concert. I do not feel part of what is happening on the sanctuary.
But then, as members of the Latin Mass Society and their supporters are only too eager to explain afterwards, people like me have much to learn about the old rite. It is, they tell me, our link with the memories of the Apostles, the Real Thing, the Mass of Palestrina and Bach, the Rolls-Royce of Masses, one of the great works of art of human history, the Mass of ages that Pope Pius V told the Council of Trent must never be changed yet was harshly put down by Pope Paul VI in 1969.
Of all these assertions, the most striking is that the old Mass is a living historic link to the first days of Christianity. In abrogating it, Pope Paul VI took the view that the new rite marked a return to the Church’s roots. As he said at the time, of the new rite: “We have rediscovered the most ancient and primitive tradition, the one closest to the origins. This tradition had been obscured in the course of centuries, particularly by the Council of Trent.”
But interest in the old rite is growing, particularly among those too young to remember it the first time around. “It is like learning a different language”, says Gilly, a woman in her 20’s who says she appreciates both the old and new rites. “There are different forms of spirituality. The old rite fosters an extremely profound spiritual sense of the Church as the Mystical Body.”
But, from what I could see, the congregation appeared to be detached from the proceedings, with long periods listening to music or prayers in Latin. When I put this point to the choirmaster, he explained by making an analogy. “Opera is the secular equivalent of this Mass. When you go to the opera you are united in everything that goes on emotionally”, he said.
Why did the priest have to have his back to the people at the consecration? “The priest is facing God and we are facing east, which is traditional. When the priest faces the people he is turning away from God. The old rite is God-centred rather than people-centred”, says Yvonne Windsor of the Latin Mass Society. Several people told me that during the long sung prayers and readings, they were closely following the prayers in their missals. Their concentration, they felt, was aided by the commentaries in the old missal that, unlike the new one, provided profound theological insights.
The regulars at St Bede’s portray themselves as faithful Catholics who are simply pleading for diversity in the liturgy. Such sensitivity stems from the possible confusion with the Society of Pope Pius X - another group which is attached to the old rite but is out of communion with Rome. The Latin Mass Society, which recently celebrated the first Tridentine Mass in the crypt at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome for nearly 20 years, is very much within the Church. As for the new rite, the old-rite aficionados accept it as a fact of life but are critical of the abuses they feel have crept in. One young man mentions a regular weekday Mass he attends in another parish that lasts, he says, just 10 minutes.
An elderly woman who comes regularly to Clapham from Bromley complains about priests who change the words of the liturgy. “It is offensive. It is not part of the Mass. Priests are doing their own thing”, she says. Another woman tells me of one recent occasion when a new-rite Mass was “a shambles”.
“Such little reverence and respect was being shown. There was little awareness of the sacrifice. I was scandalised and distressed”, she recalls.
The stress on sacrifice goes to the heart of these traditionalists’ perception of the Mass. They feel this dimension is often lost in the new rite in favour of the idea of the Eucharist as a shared meal. They point out that the Pope in his recent encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, made the same point.
According to Yvonne Windsor, there is nothing in the documents of the Second Vatican Council that contradicts the old rite. For her, it is all a matter of interpretation. But what about collaborative ministry? Under the old rite there are no lay readers or eucharistic ministers. Windsor believes the job of lay people is to support the clergy in the parish. She says turning everyone into what she calls paraclerics devalues them all. She has, she says, noticed that a sort of pride affects lay people who distribute the Eucharist.
“In traditional monarchies you have intermediaries to approach the king. We have priests as intermediaries. We are a hierarchical Church. You don’t have to be involved in the sanctuary to be a proper Catholic. In the old rite where you have lay people they are very much assistants. Their job is to support the clergy in the parish”, she says.
Women are not allowed on the sanctuary in the Tridentine rite. Any lay men admitted must wear clerical robes. No female altar-servers are allowed. As one man explains it, barring girls from serving at the altar is a way of strengthening the priesthood. He assures me they are not breaking any rules. “There is no general permission to allow girl servers. There is a misconception about this. Girls are not allowed unless a bishop says specifically that they may exist”, he explained.
He goes on to give a lengthy explanation about the mystical marriage of Christ to his Church, with the priest representing the bridegroom and the bride the Church, while the altar-servers are attendants of the groom. Someone else tells me that servers were originally seminarians: this is now impossible in most places, but men rather than women are used because there is the possibility they will become priests. “These signs require teaching, otherwise it is easy to misread them as sexism or the denigration of women”, he warns.
I must be singularly wilful because I am unable to read them any other way. Nor could I understand their reasons for downplaying the importance of the sign of peace during the Mass. Windsor felt it was a terrible distraction in its place before the Eucharistic Prayer and caused people to lose their concentration.
Wasn’t it important as a symbol of community? “Your sense of community comes after the Mass”, said Gilly.
We move on to the subject of children at the Mass and I am introduced to an American parishioner who with his wife is educating his six-year-old son at home and plans to do the same with his four younger children. This St Bede’s regular is a member of the Traditional Catholic Family Alliance - a group of 50 families who live in the south of England and who educate their children at home. He says they made the decision after looking at the RE programmes of local Catholic schools.
But, I ask him, are you not worried that your children will not feel part of the local Catholic community? He responds with another question.
“What is more important? That they feel part of their community or they pursue their faith? At the time of Roman persecution, the Christians hid in the catacombs.”
I point out that we are not in ancient Rome now.
In the American father’s view, we are not far from it.
It is impossible to pigeonhole the St Bede’s old-rite congregation. They include the deputy editor of the Spectator, Stuart Reid, who says the Mass gives him a feeling of historical, spiritual and cultural continuity with the rest of Europe. By no means all of the regulars remember the old rite first time around. There are quite a number of young families, many of them French or Belgian. There are also Africans, West Indians, Poles and Filipinos.
The priest himself is French. One parishioner tells me Fr Armand de Malleray FSSP is the most handsome priest in England. The claim is not far-fetched but more to the point, Fr Armand, 31, is the only priest incardinated in the traditional order in England. He was trained in a seminary in Bavaria run by the Fraternity of St Peter, which has a special dispensation from the Pope to confer the sacraments in the old rite. He has never celebrated the new rite and says it is not part of his charism to do so.
Fr Armand decided to become a priest after completing his studies at the Sorbonne. He says he spent some time seeking out a seminary that was “doctrinally reliable”. Though already a conservative at that point, he had been brought up in the new rite and was not aware of liturgical issues. He discovered the fraternity through a friend who had converted to Catholicism and was immediately drawn to it.
“Comparing the new and old missals, I found that the formulations expressed our Catholic faith with more precision, first of all, and linked that with more strength and more beauty than the missal I had been brought up with. So long as the Church lets this tool be used for the safety of my soul and as a time-proven means to save souls in the Church, we should use it.”
Archbishop Michael Bowen of Southwark allows the old rite at St Bede’s and other churches in his diocese. The Latin Mass Society is lobbying hard for other bishops in Britain to show the same level of tolerance. It senses a resurgence of interest in the Tridentine Mass and can quote the encouragement given to devotees by the Pope himself. In addition, the fraternity’s seminaries in Bavaria and Nebraska are both full. Yet several people at St Bede’s tell me there are parts of Britain where it is impossible to find “their” Mass.
Fr Armand makes a special plea. “Different tools are allowed by the Church. I think the old rite is very reliable. Many priests and laity have found it hard to change to the new rite and many have left the Church. We should respect the sensitivity of those that remain. People should not feel threatened by it. In this country, I would like more bishops to listen to the Holy Father and allow more generous application of the motu proprio”.
He is referring to the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, issued by Pope John Paul II in 1988, which asked bishops to give “wide and generous” application to 1984 directives allowing the old rite to be celebrated in Catholic dioceses.
On the face of it, to deny Fr Armand appears churlish and unkind. That is certainly the view of St Bede’s parish priest, Fr Christopher Basden, who feels the Church should be big enough and inclusive enough to keep these traditionalists inside. Were the preference for the old rite to be merely one of taste and style, I could agree, but the liturgy with its rituals have potent meanings that hark back to days gone by. The Tridentine Mass looked and sounded splendid, but it was a blessed relief to go to my usual service the following Sunday.