Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Commonweal on November 10, 1967, and is republished here by permission of the Buckley Estate.
In January of this year my sister died, age 49, eldest of ten children, and mother of ten children, the lot of us catapulted into a dumb grief whence we sought relief by many means, principal among them the conviction, now reified by desire, that our separation from her is impermanent. It was the moment to recall not merely the promises of Christ, but their magical cogency; the moment to remind ourselves as forcefully as we knew how of the depths of the Christian experience, of the Christian mystery, so that when one of us communicated with her priest, we asked if he would consent to a funeral Mass in the manner of the days gone by, which request he gladly granted. And so on Jan. 18, in the sub-zero weather of a little town in northwestern Connecticut, in the ugly little church we all grew up in, the priest recited the Mass of the Dead, and the organist accompanied the soloist who sang the Gregorian dirge in words the mourners did not clearly discern, words which had we discerned them we would not have been able exactly to translate, and yet we experienced, not only her family but her friends, not alone the Catholics among us but also the Protestants and the Jews, something akin to that synaesthesia which nowadays most spiritually restless folk find it necessary to discover in drugs, or from a guru in Mysterious India.
Six months later my sister’s oldest daughter — the first of the grandchildren — was married. With some hesitation (one must not be overbearing) her father asked the same priest (of noble mien and great heart) whether this happy ritual might also be performed in the Latin. He replied with understanding and grace that that would not be possible, inasmuch as he would be performing on this occasion not in a remote corner of Connecticut, but in West Hartford, practically within the earshot of the bishop. We felt very wicked at having attempted anything so audacious within the walls of the episcopacy; and so the wedding took place according to the current cant, with everybody popping up, and kneeling down, and responding, more or less, to the stream of objurgations that issued from the nervous and tone-deaf young commentator, all together now, Who Do We Appreciate? Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Je-zus — it was awful. My beloved wife — to whom I have been beholden for 17 years, and who has borne with me through countless weddings of my countless relations, who was with me and clutched my hand during the funeral a few months earlier, whom I had not invited to my church since the vulgarizations of 1964, so anxious was I that, as a member of the Anglican communion, she should continue to remember our services as she had known them, in their inscrutable majesty — turned to me early in the ritual in utter incredulity, wondering whether something was especially awry. Hypersensitive, I rebuked her, muttering something to the effect that she had no right to be so ignorant of what had been going on for three years; and she withdrew in anger. She was right, I was utterly wrong. How could she, an innocent Protestant, begin to conceive of the liturgical disfigurations of the past few years? My own reaction was the protective reaction of the son whose father, the chronic drunkard, is first espied unsteady on his feet by someone from whom one has greatly cared to conceal the fact. Let it be objected that the essential fact of the matter is that the sacrament of matrimony was duly conferred, and what else is it that matters? My sensibilities, that’s what.
The Bentham Barometer
They do not matter, of course, in any Benthamite reckoning of the success of the new liturgy. Concerning this point, I yield completely, or rather almost completely. It is absolutely right that the vernacular should displace the Latin if by doing so the rituals of Catholic Christianity bring a greater satisfaction to the laity, and a deeper comprehension of their religion. There oughtn’t to be any argument on this point, and there certainly isn’t any from me — though I cherish the bodkin Sir Arnold Lunn so deftly inserted in the soft-tissues of that argument: “If it is so,” he said, arguing along with Evelyn Waugh and others for one (1) Latin Mass each Sunday in the larger churches, “that the Latin Mass is only for the educated few, surely Mother Church in all her charity can find a little place even for the educated few?” Indeed when a most learned and attractive young priest from my own parish asked me to serve as a lector in the new Mass I acquiesced, read all the relevant literature and, to be sure warily, hoped that something was about to unfold before me which would vindicate the progressives.
I hung on doggedly for three years, until a month ago when I wrote my pastor that I no longer thought it appropriate regularly to serve as lector. During those three years I observed the evolution of the new Mass, and the reaction to it of the congregation (the largest, by the way, in Connecticut). The church holds 1,000 people and, at first, four hymns were prescribed. They were subsequently reduced to three, even as, in the course of the experiment, the commentator absorbed the duties of the lector, or vice versa, depending on whether you are the ex-commentator or the ex-lector. At our church three years ago perhaps a dozen people out of 1,000 sang the hymn. Now perhaps three dozen out of 1,000 sing the hymn. (It is not much different with the prayers.) That is atypical, to be sure — the church is large, and overawing to the uncertain group singer, i.e., to most non-Protestant Americans. In other Catholic churches, I have noted, the congregations tend to join a little bit more firmly in the song. In none that I have been to is there anything like the joyous unison that the bards of the new liturgy thrummed about in the anticipatory literature, the only exception being the highly regimented school my son attends, at which the reverend headmaster has means to induce cooperation in whatever enterprise strikes his fancy. (I have noticed that my son does not join in the hymn-singing when he is home, though the reason why is not necessarily indifference, is almost surely not recalcitrance, is most likely a realistic appreciation of his inability to contribute to the musical story-line.)
If clarity is the desideratum, or however you say the word in English, then the thing to do is to jettison, just to begin with, most of St. Paul, whose epistles are in some respects inscrutable to some of the people some of the time, and in most respects inscrutable to most of the people most of the time.
I must, of course, judge primarily on the basis of my own experience, but it is conclusive at my own church, and I venture to say without fear of contradiction that the joint singing and prayers are a fiasco, which is all right I suppose — the Christian martyrs endured worse exasperations and profited more from them than we endure from or are likely to benefit from the singing of the hymns at St. Mary’s Church. What is troublesome is the difficulty one has in dogging one’s own spiritual pursuits in the random cacophony. Really, the new liturgists should have offered training in yogi, or whatever else Mother Church in her resourcefulness might baptize as a distinctively Catholic means by which we might tune off the fascistic static of the contemporary Mass, during which one is either attempting to sing, totally neglecting the prayers at the foot of the altar which suddenly we are told are irrelevant; or attempting to read the missal at one’s own syncopated pace, which we must now do athwart the obtrusive rhythm of the priest or the commentator; or attempting to meditate on this or the other prayer or sentiment or analysis in the Ordinary or in the Proper of the Mass, only to find that such meditation is sheer outlawry which stands in the way of the liturgical calisthenics devised by the Central Coach who apparently judges it an act of neglect if the churchgoer is permitted more than two minutes and 46 seconds without being made to stand if he was kneeling, or kneel if he was standing, or sit — or sing — or chant — or anything if perchance he was praying, from which anarchism he must at all costs be rescued: “LET US NOW RECITE THE INTROIT PRAYER,” says the commentator: to which exhortation I find myself aching to reply in that “loud and clear and reverential voice” the manual for lectors prescribes: “LET US NOT!” Must we say the Introit Prayer together? I have been reading the Introit Prayer since I was 13-years-old, and I continue unaware that I missed something; e.g., at the Jesuit school in England when at daily Mass we read the Introit prayers all by our little selves beginning it perhaps as much as five seconds before, or five seconds after, the priest who, enjoying the privacy granted him at Trent, pursued his prayers, in his own way, at his own speed, ungoverned by the metronomic discipline of the parishioners or of the commentator.
Ah, but now the parish understands the Introit Prayer! But, my beloved friends, the parish does not understand. Neither does the commentator. Neither does the lector. Neither, if you want the truth of the matter, does the priest — in most cases. If clarity is the purpose of the liturgical reform — the reason for going into English, the reason for going into the vernacular — then the reforms of the liturgy are simply incomplete. If clarity is the desideratum, or however you say the word in English, then the thing to do is to jettison, just to begin with, most of St. Paul, whose epistles are in some respects inscrutable to some of the people some of the time, and in most respects inscrutable to most of the people most of the time. The translation of them from archaic grandeur to John-Jane-Gyp contemporese simply doesn’t do the trick, particularly if one is expected to go in unison. Those prayers, which are not exacting or recondite, are even then more galvanizing when spoken in unison? LET USE RECITE THE INTROIT PRAYER. Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy; deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man. Judge-me-O-God / And-distinguish-my-cause-from-the-nation-that-is-not-holy / Deliver-me-from-the-un just-and-deceitful-man / — Why? How come? Whose idea? — that such words as these are better spoken, better understood, better appreciated, when rendered metrically in forced marches with the congregation? Who, thinking to read these holy and inspired words reverentially, would submit to the iron rhythm of a joint reading? It is one thing to chant together a refrain, Lord deliver us / Lord save us / Grant us peace. But the extended prayer-in-unison is a metallic Proscrusteanism which absolutely defies the rationale of the whole business, which is the communication of meaning. The rote-saying of anything is the enemy of understanding. To reduce to unison prayers whose meaning is unfamiliar is virtually to guarantee that they will mean nothing to the sayer. “Brethren: Everything that was written in times past was written for our instruction, that through the patience and encouragement afforded by the scriptures we might have hope. I say that Christ exercised his ministry to the circumcised to show God’s fidelity in fulfilling his promises to the fathers, whereas the Gentiles glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: ‘Therefore will I proclaim you among the nations, and I will sing praise to your name.’” These were the words with which I first accosted my fellow parishioners from the lector’s pulpit. I do not even now understand them well enough to explain them with any confidence. And yet, the instruction manual informs me, I am to communicate their meaning “clearly” and “confidently.” And together the congregation will repeat such sentences in the Gradual.
Our beloved Mother Church. How sadly; how innocently; how — sometimes — strangely she is sometimes directed by her devoted disciples. Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you . . . The Lord is with who! Thee to you, Buster, I found myself thinking during the retreat when first I learned that it is a part of the current edification to strip the Lord, his Mother, and the saints, of the honorific with which the simple Quakers even now address their children and their servants. And the translations! Happy the Humble — they shall inherit . . . One cannot read on without the same sense of outrage one would feel on entering the Cathedral of Chartres and finding that the windows had been replaced with pop-art figures of Christ sitting-in against the slumlords of Milwaukee. One’s heart is filled with such passions of resentment and odium as only Hilaire Belloc could adequately have voiced. O God O God O God, why has thou forsaken us! My faith, I note on their taking from us even the Canon of the Mass in that mysterious universal which soothed and inspired the low and the mighty, a part of the Mass — as Evelyn Waugh recalled — “for whose restoration the Elizabethan martyrs had gone to the scaffold [in which] St. Augustine, St. Thomas à Becket, St. Thomas More, Challoner and Newman would have been perfectly at their ease among us,” is secure. I pray the sacrifice will yield a rich harvest of informed Christians. But to suppose that it will is the most difficult act of faith I have ever been called upon to make, because it tears against the perceptions of all my senses. My faith is a congeries of dogmatical certitudes, one of which is that the new liturgy is the triumph, yea the Resurrection, of the Philistines.