Mass in the Age of COVID
‘Introíbo ad altáre Dei – but not in person until the Sunday Obligation is restored’ may be the attitude to Mass attendance held by some Catholics at the present time (reminding us of St Augustine’s request ‘Make me chaste, but not yet). Some of them, especially those with underlying health conditions, may be unwilling to return to church until the risk of catching COVID-19 – even with the advent of vaccines – is considerably reduced. But others may take this view because of what is on offer liturgically at their local church. They are people who wish for transcendent liturgy, and who are equally happy with it being in either the Extraordinary Form (the Traditional Roman, or Tridentine, Rite) or the Ordinary Form (the Novus Ordo, or Missa Normativa either in Latin, English, or a combination of the two languages).
Yes, churches offering one or both of these options are easily accessible in most major cities, certainly in England and Wales. But what of the Catholic who, for one reason or another, cannot travel easily on a Sunday or wishes to maintain that day as one of rest rather than endure a reprise of the working weekday commute with all its strains and stresses? They may be tempted to put off returning to Mass for as long as they legitimately can.
Here we are dealing with two separate but related issues: style and contents.
First, style. It’s tempting to think of liturgical sloppiness as a product of the post-Vatican II reforms. This is not true. It existed in the pre-conciliar era. In Chapter Nine of his book Fashions in Church Furnishings 1840-1940 (Faith Press, 1960) Peter F. Anson, when discussing Edwardian ecclesiastical aesthetics, wrote that: ‘To persons of refined taste, including the better educated converts from Anglicanism, assisting at Mass or Benediction was more of a penance than anything else’.
But lest this appear as inverted snobbery on the part of Anson, we should remember that in his book Footnote to the Nineties; A Memoir of John Gray and André Raffalovich (Cecil and Amelia Woolf, 1968) Fr Brocard Sewell reminded us that the Edinburgh-based priest (and former associate of Oscar Wilde) Canon John Gray was regarded as ‘that high churchman’ by the clergy of a religious order in that city noted for its carelessness of liturgical detail, presumably because of his standards of liturgical perfection. He went on to remind us that Canon Gray’s ‘genuflexion at the Et incarnatus est in the Creed was a lesson in reverence’.
This being said, the strict rubrics of the pre-conciliar Roman liturgy helped to reduce the opportunities for its celebrants’ possible eccentricities and carelessness invading the sanctuary. But the manner in which the post-conciliar reforms were constructed and executed, with their pluralities of options and minimal rubrics, arguably reduced the liturgy’s orderly framework of celebration and opened the gates to inexactitude.
Second, contents. During the Mass celebrated at Wembley by Pope St John Paul II during his pastoral visit in 1982, he exhorted the clergy to ‘open for your people the treasures of the Church’s liturgy’, but, with some exceptions, they remained, to put it kindly, half-opened. Clergy who had been (re) trained to regard the celebration of Mass not as an opportunity to receive Christ, fill the mind with grace, renew the memory of Christ’s Passion and receive a pledge of future glory continued to celebrate it in a style refracted through the prism of an informality that was supposedly a hallmark of the Early Church’s worship. (Arguably, lessons could have been learnt from the austere beauty of pre-conciliar Cistercian worship in how to implement the ‘noble simplicity’ called for in Sacrosanctum concilium, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. That opportunity was missed, as was the chance of Catholic liturgists learning from the way Anglo-Catholics – the successors of the Oxford Movement’s originators – had pioneered a vernacular liturgy which employed Catholic ceremonial.)
This situation has not been confined to Catholics. In the Forward to Part 1 of Sir Ninian Comper: An Introduction to his Life and Work by Fr Anthony Symondson SJ and Stephen Arthur Bucknall (Spire Books, 2006), the late Dr Gavin Stamp, writing of the way the work of that master of Anglican ecclesiastical art architecture has been regarded by Anglican clergy in recent years, stated that ‘Many clergymen, indeed, now seem to regard Beauty as a wicked snare and a delusion’. And Fr Symondson immediately goes on to write that ‘And the same may be said, with rare exceptions, of the Roman Catholic Church in these islands’. In addition, the desire for liturgical dignity can seem rather precious, especially in a society like ours concerned to eradicate anything smacking of so-called elitism. Any priest or layperson who expresses the desire for a modicum of holiness to be expressed through beauty is risking the damning invitation to check their liturgical privilege.
Given this situation, it is unsurprising that Catholics seeking reverential liturgy may eagerly avail themselves of the chance to experience reverential online Masses, such as those from the London and Oxford Oratories, or Westminster Cathedral. At the latter the celebrants wear Roman vestments (with the stole worn in the traditional cross-over style) or occasionally Gothic ones, and the original high altar remains in use (versus populum, however) along with the chalice burse and veil.
What of the future? The new English translations of the Mass issued by Pope Benedict XVI have brought some improvement to the liturgy in terms of both doctrinal accuracy and reverential expression. They may help to encourage a revision of how the clergy approach the liturgy but the process will take some time. Work is needed at the seminaries to inculcate the need for the sacred in liturgical celebrations, especially among seminarians who may not have experienced much of it at parish level.
It is also needed among the laity, especially in parishes where liturgy groups still living in the heady days of post-Vatican II liberalism hold sway or – more seriously – where some parishioners feel that any resacralising of the liturgy is a prequel to restoring the more negative aspects of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, complete with clergy who rival some of James Joyce’s less pleasant clerical creations, financial secrecy and mismanagement, and suppressed sexual scandals. As regards not only the use of Latin but also the return of transcendence in general, the advent of his motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum has been of great encouragement.
Whilst Sunday afternoon Benediction may be a rarity, weekly Exposition is now on offer in many churches. But in numerous parishes, the liturgy of the Mass can seem to be lacking in any deep feeling of the numinous, especially where the utterly unnecessary ‘hymn-sandwich’ format is celebrated, exacerbated by the fact that Catholic congregational singing is often half-hearted (to put it politely). Doubtless clergy who favour this form of celebration would argue that St Augustine said that ‘he who sings prays twice’. Maybe, but they might well consider taking on board the points made by Thomas K. Day in his book Why Catholics Can’t Sing: Catholic Culture and the Triumph of Bad Taste (Crossroads Publication Company, 1992) before continuing with it.
Meanwhile, let’s end on a positive note. We should rejoice in the signs of improvement which now exist with, as might be expected, the Oratorians leading the way in both the execution of liturgical standards and the commissioning of architecture. The work of the architect Anthony Delarue whose work can be seen in, among other places, the recently-restored interior of London’s Corpus Christi Maiden Lane, now the Westminster Diocesan shrine of the Blessed Sacrament – itself arguably a sign of recognition of the importance of liturgical dignity – may point the way to a school of architects emerging who see the need for transcendence in worship and thus in their work.
And let us not forget that, during the first lockdown, the English Catholic bishops placed no restriction on the parish clergy celebrating the liturgy online from their churches whereas clergy from at least one other ecclesial community had to make-do with using their living-rooms instead. The bishops recognised the importance of sacred worship being celebrated in a sacred space. Perhaps careful lobbying can build on that fact. With the end of lockdown in sight, let us savour the online liturgies available at present and – respectfully but firmly and knowledgably – argue for their examples to become the norm of parish life.
Latin Liturgy Bulletin No. II: Lent 2021
Although the Association is still prevented by the pandemic from firmly planning public liturgies, talks or chant days, members of Council continue to work behind the scenes. Good progress is being made with the second volume of the Graduale Parvum – the Communions – and the next edition of our journal Latin Liturgy is well in hand, waiting for our printer to re-open when the current lockdown is eased. Council has met, and will continue to meet, on Zoom.
The meeting at Mayfield School postponed from June last year will, I’m afraid, have to be further postponed, until 2022. This is because, even after the Prime Minister’s latest announcements, it’s impossible to be certain how much freedom of movement there will be in the second half of this year, and how willing members will be to use public transport to get to East Sussex, to meet in close proximity, to eat lunch together, and so on.
The lead-in period to any of our open meetings is very long: among the things that have to be done are booking a church or chapel, rooms for rehearsals and talks, caterers, a speaker, a celebrant and assistant clergy, servers, choirmaster, singers and organist, all of which has to be done months in advance. The pandemic, by its very nature (not to mention the government’s somewhat uneven record in its forecasts) is inevitably hostile to long-term planning of this kind.
For the same reason it’s again unlikely that this year we’ll be able to stage physically the AGM and Elections to Council. So when the time comes we shall publish the annual reports and the list of candidates for election or re-election to Council, and allow a substantial period for members to send in their views. The idea of holding a live virtual AGM on Zoom has been suggested by one or two brave souls, but the potential technical hazards that an on-screen gathering of such a large number would generate are somewhat too formidable, even for your intrepid representatives!
One piece of good news is that our friends in the Benedictine community of Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland now live-stream many of their Masses and offices. We strongly recommend this service to all our members and associates. Go to: https://www.pluscardenabbey.org/live.
For the last year many, if not most, of our members will have been participating in the Church’s liturgies mainly, or even exclusively, online, and we would very much like to hear how that has been for you. There is a lot that both clergy and laity will need to learn from the whole long experience, and what has happened to the celebration of Mass, in particular, will affect us and the Church profoundly in the long term. When this is all over, it’s unlikely that things will be just as they were up to the early months of 2020.
So we would very much to hear how the partial exile from our churches and the experience of live-streamed liturgies have been for our members, and to publish their views on our website (with a selection in Latin Liturgy). I understand that you might wish to write such an account, but not be identified, so whatever you write can appear anonymously if you prefer – just let us know. Please write to me – details on the ‘Contact’ page.
With the best wishes of those on Council for a holy and profitable Lent, and in due course for a joyous Paschal season.
Christopher Francis [Chairman, Association for Latin Liturgy]
Latin Liturgy Bulletin No. I: Advent 2020
In this most unfortunate of years, the Association can consider itself fortunate in one important respect: in September last year, when the word ‘coronavirus’ was for the most part still only being uttered by medics and epidemiologists, we celebrated our splendid Golden Jubilee liturgies, enjoyed a fine, convivial lunch and listened to an outstanding address which surveyed the entire liturgical scene since the Council. What a good thing it was that we weren’t founded in 1970! If we had been, this would have been a sad year indeed for us.
As it is, we had to postpone both of our planned days of liturgy and music, at Mayfield and at Aldershot. In a spirit of hope, the day at Mayfield is now on next year’s calendar for 5 June 2021. It is hard to have absolute confidence in these matters, but it is our expectation that by then the majority of our members will have been vaccinated and that we will be singing again, so that we will be able to go ahead with the Mayfield day. Please put it in your diary now anyway, and we will keep you informed of developments.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Paul Henriksen, a member of Council, two sung Latin Requiem Masses were celebrated in November by priest members of the Association and streamed live on the internet. Both these Masses were offered for deceased members of the Association for Latin Liturgy and for all those who have died from coronavirus. The utterly minimal physical attendance at both Masses was of course due to the government’s month-long lockdown which had been imposed shortly before.
The first of the requiems was sung by Canon Peter Rollings on November 7th at the church of Our Lady of the Annunciation, King’s Lynn. The proper and ordinary were sung by Paul Henriksen. The organist, Philip Adams, played Bach’s Erbarm’ dich mein, o Herre Gott BWV 721 before the Mass, and part of Pachelbel’s Ciacona in F minor afterwards. At the Offertory the hymn ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say “Come unto Me and rest” ‘ was sung to the tune associated with the folk tune Dives and Lazarus, in the English Hymnal arrangement by Vaughan Williams. Apart from the readings and the bidding prayers (the latter in English with the response te rogamus audi nos) the Mass, ad orientem and with black vestments and six candles burning on the altar, was entirely in Latin, with the Roman Canon.
The second Requiem Mass was streamed from St Joseph’s Church, Sheringham, Norfolk. As at King’s Lynn, there were three or four cameras; in this case the first showed the altar, pulpit and reredos (altar frontal, tabernacle veil and lectern hanging were purple) the second an oblique view from above the altar, and the last a long view from the west gallery, looking towards the very fine rood and reredos. For the Eucharistic Prayer (II) there was a close-up on the altar. The celebrant, Fr James Fyfe, was joined by Fr Denys Lloyd acting as Deacon. The organist was again Philip Adams, who played Parry’s chorale prelude on Martyrdom before Mass and Bach’s Jesu Christus, unser Heiland after it. The Proper of the Requiem Mass was sung, again by Paul Henriksen. The readings were in English, interspersed with the Latin chants. Unusually for an Ordinary Form Requiem, the Dies Irae was sung.
Mass was celebrated versus populum (or whatever the Latin is for ‘facing the cameras’). The assistant priest and the server were masked, but the celebrant was not. There was a very short, but heartfelt and affecting, sermon pointing out how the Requiem Mass in England before the reformation was offered constantly, predicated on prayer for those who had died, a practice that the new protestant order completely rejected. Fr James quoted Dr Johnson to good effect in this context.
Next, I’d like to commend to you an excellent new book Ceremonies of the Sarum Missal by Richard Urquhart, a member of our Association. The Use of Sarum was based in Salisbury Cathedral and was the foremost liturgy used in England in the late Middle Ages before its destruction in the Protestant Reformation. The book is structured like Fr. Fortescue’s Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, and provides a practical guide to the Sarum ceremonies for priests and MCs; but it also comes with carefully-directed notes which should prove useful for the serious student of medieval liturgy. It will appeal to those interested in Catholic heritage, history or liturgy generally. The book is published by T & T Clark, and a substantial discount is available if you use the order form.
Finally, in this time of apprehension and uncertainty, the members of the ALL Council wish you a holy and tranquil Christmas.
[Chairman, Association for Latin Liturgy]