As an undergraduate, seminarian, and Anglican priest I often attended Mass in Roman Catholic churches on both sides of the Atlantic. It was not remotely like the “Rolls-Royce Mass” described last week by Elena Curti in her excellent article. Mostly silent, the few Latin parts which could be heard were so gabbled and garbled that they might have as well have been in Mandarin Chinese. The vernacular prayers at the end, “For the conversion of Russia”, were so rushed that the priest was often well into them before one realised he had switched to English.
The Mass itself was often taken at breakneck speed. A local lawyer with six years of Latin in the St Louis secondary school founded by Ampleforth Benedictines recalls being scolded by priests for not saying the Latin responses fast enough. His experience was not unusual. The man at the “Rolls-Royce Mass” who professed himself scandalised (as he should have been) at 10-minute new-rite Masses is too young to recall members of his grandfather’s generation boasting about priests who could get through the considerably longer Tridentine rite in a quarter of an hour or less. And as for the woman interviewed by your reporter who found a new-rite Mass “a shambles”, that is exactly what I witnessed many times over in Catholic parish churches five decades ago. “Such little reverence”, she said, “I was scandalised and distressed.” My sentiments exactly. Only at the conventual Mass in Benedictine and Trappist monasteries did I find the dignity, reverence, and beauty I craved. And such liturgies were available, of course, to few.
I really do think that everything Hughes says in this piece is spot-on. For those of you who are not slavishly devoted to following the intricacies of my own thinking (and I hope that includes everyone), let me just clarify that on this issue, again, I am not an advocate of the Tridentine liturgy except for those who want it. I never went to Mass until after VII, and am an historian with a devotion to reality, and my experiences and studies have taught me that Hughes is correct in his determination not to romanticize the past. My only question on this score that I've raised over the past weeks is the sign-value of language in conveying catholicity and unity, especially in diverse cultures, and I think that is a very valid point that needs to be discussed, and discussed in a way that is shorn of nostalgia and understands that our most fundamental unity is in Christ, through Word and Sacrament. But what I'm saying is that language is not irrelevant in this specific corner of the discussion.