Old Mass had to go Charterhouse Chronicle
THE OTHER DAY I attended the funeral of a friend who had been a member of the Latin Mass Society. At his request the service was a Sung Mass of Requiem according to the old Missal (of Pius V) to a mixture of music from Missa pro Defunctis in the Vatican Gradual and Faint's Messe des Morts. Everything (except the panegyric) was in Latin: we were provided with printed translations of the prayers and readings. Let me say at once that, besides being what my friend had asked for, it was a very beautiful occasion and a noble example of liturgy. I trust that every priest would do his best to provide something like it if asked to do so in a will, or by a family.
Yet, beautiful though it was, it set me wondering whether I should welcome the chance to return to that kind of Mass as my regular or invariable opportunity for worship. I am afraid I have come to the conclusion that there were features of the "old" Missal that I would find it hard to put up with. (The Roman Missal as it had existed since the days of the Council of Trent was in fact subject to continuous revision; most recently there were new editions in 1955 and 1963, but I have decided for the purposes of this article to look back to things as they were when I was a boy; that is, I suspect, what people are really wanting when they talk about "the Tridentine Mass".) The treatment of the Penitential Rite was very strange to our way of thinking. Mass began with a Preparation, which was an inaudible dialogue between the priest and server(s), which was not originally part of the Mass at all, and in which the congregation had no part to play — indeed, at a Sung Mass it was said while the Introit was being sung. It included (on most days) a very long psalm Indica me; the chief difficulty in getting servers, in those days when saying Mass without a server was frowned upon, lay in teaching small boys to learn that psalm by heart. Much later in the Mass, while the priest was receiving Holy Communion, there was another confession, by the congregation this time, if Holy Communion was going to be distributed, which was by no means always the case. This was led by the server, and the priest turned to give Absolution at the end of it, after his Communion.
We should nowadays find the choice of readings very limited. The lectionary, though it went back to very ancient times, did not contain a generous selection of Holy Scripture. Only a handful of passages from the Old Testament were read; there were in all not much more than 100 readings from the Epistles and 100 Gospels; these were repeated year in, year out. In Lent there was a full provision of readings for every day; but at other times the priest was expected to read, and the congregation to listen to, the Sunday readings on Monday, Tuesday and throughout the week. In order to escape from the tedium of this provision, it was customary to say Votive Masses instead, on fixed days of the week; on Monday, of the Holy Trinity; on Tuesday, of the Angels; on Wednesday, of St Joseph, and so on. The result was that ordinary lay-people, who tended to come on set days of the week, were subjected to exactly the same readings every week. Of course, I suppose this didn't really matter, as everything was in Latin, so that only the most well-educated (or those who had brought a bi-lingual Missal) could understand what was being read in any case.
The same consideration applied to the priest's prayers at the Offertory, with the additional advantage that they were mumbled quite inaudibly. In the course of them the unconsecrated bread was referred to as hanc immaculatam hostiam and the unconsecrated wine as calicem salutaris, expressions that would be entirely appropriate after the consecration, but which needed a good deal of explaining away when used before it. Once the decision had been taken in principle that everything must be in the vernacular, and everything must be audible, these prayers had to go. A strange fate had overtaken the Fraction, one of Our Lord's four actions at the Last Supper that were imitated at Mass. It took place almost in secret, amidst a great many signings with the cross, in the course of a prayer about something completely different mostly about the intercession of Our Lady and the saints. I have already referred to the dislocation of the penitential rite.
The ending of Mass was a curious muddle; it was as if they couldn't bear to finish. After Ite, missa est (words which have a certain finality to them) or the Benedicamus Domino which on certain days replaced them, came the Blessing; then, at the north corner of the altar, the Last Gospel, which was always the opening verses of St John except on certain days when it was something else; then the priest, at Low Mass, knelt at the foot of the altar and said prayers "for the conversion of Russia" — these prayers were richly indulgenced, to give people, it was said, an incentive to stay till the end of Mass! On Sunday, at the end of the principal Mass, these prayers were replaced by a prayer for the Sovereign. Finally, the priest and server(s) were allowed to depart.
At the time we had all sorts of arguments to justify these exotic practices; I am sure there was a time when most of them had been rightly followed. That time is not now. As I have often made clear, I love the opportunity of hearing Mass in Latin; but, if I were to be offered the chance of reverting to the old Missal for keeps, I should have to turn it down.