Monday, May 3, 2010

Those were the days.... (ii)

Now crawling round the blogs of the traditional world you occasionally come across reports of horrendous liturgical abuses that have been the 'straw that broke the neo-con's back' and sent them hurtling into the twilight zone of the traddie. Tales of abuses from the other end of the liturgical pendulum, certainly on liberal blogs, are as rare as a black tabernacle veil- or at least I thought so until I came across this anecdote from a contributor on the  Benedictine Fr Anthony Ruff's blog Pray Tell.

..... but I remember a now-senior priest friend telling a rather unflattering story of the monsignor/pastor of his first cure. At High Mass, it seems that when the good monsignor had finished reciting the Gloria at the altar and returned to the sedilia, he’d pull out his nail-clipper and start his weekly trim while the choir went to work. “He’d get the left hand done before the Collect, and then finish up the right hand during the Credo.

Now it would be obtuse not to recognise that abuses did occur, even in the good old days, and it was these abuses that partially contributed to that aspect of the liturgical reform that actually wanted to clarify and make quite clear what was quite acceptable. To the anecdote above  I could add the account of a priest who admitted that he used to leave out all the 'unnecessary' bits before the changes of the 1960s. I didn't dare question him any further- the way he celebrated the new rites seemed to continue his earlier principles. The great Adrian Fortescue was not really that interested in the Roman Rite and his own celebration of low Mass, was by some accounts....  shall we say charitably, could be slightly confused. In more recent times I remember one Anglo-Papalist friend waxing eloquently that the servers at her church ('San Marco') always affected rather worn running shoes in imitation of what went on in the local Catholic Church ('Tutti Santi').

Now there is a difference between the abuses of the past and those of the present. It is certainly far more difficult in the traditional rites to commit an abuse intentionally. I suspect also that the abuses of the 'good old days', whilst opening the question of licitness, rarely opened the problem of actual validity. The danger was recognised however and the main dangers were actually included in the Missal as sort of a warning.

Back to the 'good old days'. It would be ridiculous to think that the traditional rites are not subject to varying interpretations certainly as to the question of rubrics. All involved need to take a reality check and accept that local custom did apply in the 'good old days'. What was perfectly normal in one place, for example the places where bells were rung, was just unheard of in other places. 'Dialogue Mass', apparently almost the norm in some places, didn't exist in other places. All of this within the one Catholic Church using the Latin Rites. We have to be very careful, as Mrs Malaprop might have said, before casting asperges.

There is however the danger that an attitude in some corners of Catholicism that an old problem may prevail- actually this applies to all ends of the spectrum. There is a 'fear of excellence' in many quarters. The old chestnut 'If a things worth doing it's worth doing badly' should not be the automatic fall back position for all things liturgical. How many quite acceptable altars are defaced by the presence of the ubiquitous, and often thirsty, 'spider' plant? How many quite acceptable buildings are cheapened by what can be best described as 'transitory' art work in the form of posters advertising whatever happens to be the theme of the day? It seems that some sort of 'guilt complex' towards balance and beauty continues to undermine clear judgement.


  1. You're quite right to remind us that there were abuses, and variations in local practices in the 'good old days'. My mother regalled me of endless tales of her parish priest growing up in Tasmania, who amongst other things managed a twenty minute mass (including sermon) on Sundays - but who would start again from scratch if anyone came in late, no matter what point he had reached in the liturgy.

    But (with some notable exceptions) I don't think most 'traditionalists' are really advocating a return to an idealised past - rather they are seeking a new and better ideal in reaction to what they see elsewhere.

    Some certainly do get carried away about trivial (and perfectly legitimate) variations in practices like bells, how many candles, etc etc.

    But there is some genuine 'creativity' out there in traddy land that goes a bit beyond that and I think has real and detrimental consequences....It is all a matter of balance.

  2. I have been at pains to point out to certain people too young to have experienced them, that the ‘good old days’ were not necessarily all sunshine and light - liturgically or rubrically. While you correctly point out that ‘creativity’ was not really an issue or easily embraced (Latin may have had a little to do with that), variations did exist – and not just in pronunciation! I recall a church in Dublin (Whitefriars Street, if I’m not mistaken) where a gong was always used in place of a bell during Mass. I don’t believe Fortescue covered that, but it was not considered a major deviation and in fact provided a certain variety and solemnity. It was also easier to ‘sound’ for very small altar boys who might have had trouble with a bell (some of them were quite heavy...).

    But, apart from some exceptions as noted, I don’t think priests back then went out of their way to deviate from the norms. There was a sense that the rubrics were there for a reason and it wasn’t up to you to try and ‘improve’ upon them. Better men than you put them there and if you followed them – without undue scrupulosity – you wouldn’t go too far wrong. Speed was usually the biggest distinction between priests of those days (“Father X can ‘get done’ in 15 minutes!”). The old admonition that the celebration of Mass should not be “too hasty so as to cause scandal, nor too long so as to be burdensome” was always subject to interpretation.

    But the laissez faire attitude to rubrics in past decades has made the peccadilloes of the past into the mortal sins of the present. And while peccadilloes merely lead to Purgatory, mortal sins lead to Hell…

  3. I would like to point out that the abuse of the "20 minute mass" is by no means confined to a low mass in the old rite. God only knows how many new rite masses I have attended that were done in less than 20 minutes.

  4. It's the the difference between the two parish churches nearest to my parent's house. In one, the dreadfulness is ideaological - that is, things are changed or missed out because the PP thinks it better that way. In the other, the PP just wants to get Mass out of the way.

    I prefer the latter, my mother the former; I think we sufferred different kinds of liturgical abuse in our respective youths :)

  5. I can recall a priest coming down from the altar to distribute Holy communion saying, "Hurry up now or I'll get the ferrets out to ya!"

    Please God the 'Good Old Days' are here now.

  6. I think post-V2 abuses of the new mass and pre-V2 abuses of the old, have different motives and significance, which ought not be ignored. (For ease of reference I will call the former "new abuses" and the latter "old abuses".) I realize that I am generalizing; I'm doing it on purpose but with awareness that exceptions exist in both cases.

    New abuses grew out of a period of experimentation during the 60s, in which people had the idea that everything was up for grabs, not only liturgically but also doctrinally. Abuses were then, and still are, accompanied by a deliberate intention to undermine orthodoxy and tradition (to one degree or another).

    Old abuses were done mostly out of laziness, lack of reverence, even in some cases lack of genuine faith.

    Both are bad in their way, and the causes of each are bad. But they're different. Personally I would prefer the occasional lax priest to a deliberate, widespread movement to "liberalize" orthodoxy.

  7. Hmm, I'm not really sure which does most damage, indifference/laziness/lack of reverence or deliberate liberalisation. In the end, surely they can pretty much have the same effect on the congregation?

    At the same time, I'm not sure I know what the post is getting at in terms of 'fear of excellence'? The kinds of things you allude to are certainly a hazard in OF parishes, but I haven't seen them in traddieland. In Australia at least, I don't think the problem is generally quite the reverse, where some seek to go beyond the legitimate variation you refer to, and take on any tradition, whether or not it belongs to the Roman Rite (as opposed to monastic/Eastern rites) or within the range of things possible while adhering to the rubrics and justify these choices in the name of beauty.

    Unless of course you mean excessive devotion to the low mass?

  8. Terra:

    Can they have the same effect on the congregation? Maybe. But on the other hand, one is an actively destructive force while the other is not.

    A lazy pastor will tolerate both orthodoxy and heterodoxy. But one who positively desires to undermine orthodoxy will encourage bad doctrine while suppressing good doctrine. And the same with liturgy. It seems to me the latter will do more damage in a shorter amount of time. Which helps explain how far we fell, and how fast, after V2.

    Before V2 there were, of course, liberals and modernists. But at least they somehow felt a need to keep it under wraps, for the most part. What changed in the decade or so after V2 was that they could shout their heterodoxy from the rooftops, with little danger of repercussion or even contradiction from superiors.

    Post-V2 liturgical abuse is not *just* about disregarding the rubrics. It's a part of a larger theme.


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