The Traditional Mass
One of the interesting things about being Rector of St Clement’s is that I get a lot of enquiries from Roman Catholics about our Liturgy. Many of the older ones remember a time before the Second Vatican Council when their own Mass was similar in structure to ours, and when they visit, they often say what a joy it is to see the Mass done “properly” again.
These are the kind of Catholics who will no doubt make full use of the Pope’s recent ruling, that the old form of the Mass (often called the Tridentine Mass) may again be celebrated in RC parishes. I am happy for them, because they have clearly felt that the new form of the Mass lacked much that they valued.
However, what they see and like in the St Clement’s version of the Mass is not really the old Tridentine Mass at all. If it were, the only part that would be in English would be the sermon, and that would be tacked on to the end of the Mass as an optional extra. Nothing much would be heard in Latin either, except what we already hear sung by the choir. Most of the rest of the prayers would be said silently by the Celebrant at the altar.
It was because the pre-Conciliar Mass was remote from the people that an unstoppable cry for reform went up, and sadly (as in so many other cases) the pendulum swung too far, so that wild theorists were allowed to take away all that was stately and beautiful in the Mass and replace it with irreverence to the Blessed Sacrament, tasteless vestments, sloppy ceremonial, to say nothing of balloons and guitars!
However, the worst reform of all was in the language, especially in English-speaking countries. The translations of the Latin texts were rendered in the most banal, pedestrian English. And this was often done quite deliberately by those who wanted the Mass in the language spoken by “the ordinary people”. It was argued that when the Mass was first allowed in Latin, it was because that was the language of the people, an argument which has been shown to be false. The Latin of the old Roman Mass is a fine literary Latin, easily understood by ordinary people, but far removed from the Latin they would speak in the market place.
The so-called linguistic experts (had any one of them ever written a poem, I wonder?) made the mistake all good teachers try to avoid, that of talking down to their subjects. From their ivory towers they assumed that common people couldn’t be expected to understand fine literary English, and (as ad nauseam in our own Diocesan councils) the needs of “the young people” were cited as decisive. These young people could not be expected to understand Church English with its special vocabulary, but would be turned off by it.The lunacy of this condescending approach can be seen in the eight year olds who can reel off the hundreds of names and biographies of their Poikemon card characters, or the teenagers who speak and write what to me sounds like outer-Mongolian, when discussing the latest programs for their computers or cell phones. Yet the mad liturgical scientists pontificated that words like consubstantial, co-eternal, vouchsafe, deign (not to mention thou, thee, thy and thine) were too much for modern youth.
So it is no wonder that many Roman Catholics will try to make full use of the new permission, and ask their parish priests to provide celebrations according to the old rite. As an Anglo-Catholic, I am sorry that they will not have the opportunity to experience the old rite in the English we use at St Clement’s. This is the English of the sixteenth century Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible (or the King James Version, as it is called in America) as well – rather surprisingly – the fine translation of the Roman Canon made by Monsignor Ronnie Knox. Apart from the private prayers of the celebrant, the whole rite is heard by the congregation. As one of our liturgical experts said to me: this is roughly what the Fathers of Vatican II thought they were voting for. But be that as it may, the Anglican compromise we use here is, to my mind, the most edifying form of the Mass I know, and I thank God for it.
I am afraid that Roman Catholics who try to “turn the clock back” (as they will be accused of doing) will rouse the rage of the liturgists. And they may well prove the old saying true: “The difference between a liturgist and a terrorist is that you can sometimes reason with a terrorist”!