The Mass and the People in Irish Parishes (1961)
The following paper was read by Bishop (later Cardinal Archbishop) William Conway to the eighth annual Irish Liturgical Congress at Glenstal Abbey in April 1961. Bishop Conway was then an auxiliary of Armagh, the Irish primatial see. He served as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland from 1963 until 1977.
I think it is always useful, in beginning the kind of enquiry with which we are concerned this morning, to ask ourselves the simple question: what are we aiming at? What is the target? What, in the present instance, is the object of the vast effort being made throughout the Church to promote what is called “the participation of the faithful in the Mass”? It is extraordinary, or so it seems to me, how often in matters of this kind one can be slightly mistaken as to where the target really lies, how a vast movement can arise, and gather momentum and roll along, without those engaged in it raising their heads very often to have another look at the final objective; how easily we may end up by mistaking an important intermediate goal for the final goal — mistaking ends for means, in other words — or directing our energies towards an objective that is slightly to the left or slightly to the right of the goal for which we originally set out. I do not think that this has happened as yet in the matter with which we are concerned today; but it could happen, and in any event it is a useful exercise to check the sights from time to time and, where necessary, to make minute corrections.
In the case of participation in the Mass I do not think that it is difficult to identify the final end. It is Catholic teaching that in the Mass much more happens than the changing of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Our Lord. The Body and Blood of Our Lord, newly come upon the altar, are offered in sacrifice to the Heavenly Father and that sacrifice is one with the Sacrifice of the Cross “sola ratione offerendi diversa”. Moreover, as the encyclical Mediator Dei teaches, the faithful “in their own way” participate in the offering of that sacrifice; “they offer the sacrifice through the priest and…in a certain sense, with him”.
Now it seems to me that the final object of the apostolate of participation is to give the faithful, particularly when they are at Mass, a clearer realisation, a deeper apprehension, of the fact that they are sharing in the offering of a sacrifice that is one with the Sacrifice of the Cross. The final object is to achieve a more conscious and intimate participation of the individual person in the Mass — a more conscious participation not merely at the level of explicit intellectual apprehension but also at the deeper levels of consciousness to which the liturgy, in all the solemnity and majesty of its sacred forms and symbols, speaks so powerfully. In other words — if I may use the word “mind” to signify the consciousness at all levels — we might say that the final end of this apostolate is located in the minds of the faithful, although ultimately, of course, the aim is to secure a participation which, because it is more conscious and fervent, is therefore supernaturally more fruitful. To put the point in another way, I do not know that very much would be gained if a particular congregation were to answer a dialogue Mass perfectly every Sunday, if they remained no more conscious than they are now that they are sharing, as a community, in the offering of the Sacrifice through and, in a certain sense, with the priest. It might be said that it would be virtually impossible for them not to be more conscious of this, if they are now answering the responses together, and I readily concede that this is so. But this really emphasises what I have been saying, that the making of the responses by the people is not an end in itself, still less is it the final end; it is a means, a potentially very powerful means, of keeping before the minds of the people the fact of their supernatural participation.
That being the end or object of this apostolate, it may be useful to make one or two preliminary observations before considering how that object may be most effectively achieved in the circumstances of present-day Irish parishes. And the first of these is this: that we must begin by considering carefully and minutely the present condition of things in Ireland in these matters. In other words, if I may so put it, having considered the terminus ad quem we must carefully examine the terminus a quo. I do not think that anyone will quarrel with the view that what must be contemplated in this whole matter is a process of development and growth rather than a sudden leap forward. The process must be one of natural growth, encouraged but not forced along certain lines.
And the second preliminary observation is this: that there are a great many means by which our people may be educated — using that word in its etymological sense — towards the end we wish to achieve and that it would be a mistake to neglect any of them or to concentrate almost exclusively on one or two of them. The first and most obvious means, it seems to me is instruction, instruction in the dogmatic truths I have referred to: the sacrificial nature of the Mass and the part of the faithful in it. These are truths which they know already but which perhaps they are not as conscious of, do not realise as vividly, as they might. The first and most obvious means to achieve this is surely continuous and reiterated instruction over a long period. Another obvious means is the use of the Missal and particularly familiarisation with the Preface and Canon of the Mass — the great eucharistic prayer which expresses these very truths with such beauty and strength and power in practically every paragraph. Another means is the celebration of Mass by the priest in a manner which will make it easy for the faithful to keep their minds and their prayers linked with what is happening at the altar. Finally a most powerful means is the encouragement of the faithful to make the Latin responses either at a Sung Mass or at a Low Mass. I think it is obvious that this could be a most powerful means for achieving the objects we have in view. It would be a mistake to regard it as the only means — still more so to regard it as an end in itself or to restrict the meaning of the term participation to this particular external means of achieving the deeper and more conscious internal participation, which is the real final end. But it does seem reasonable to suppose that this kind of external assistance would serve powerfully to reinforce and keep before the minds of the people some of the most important truths with which this apostolate is concerned.
What I propose to do in this paper, having already briefly considered the terminus ad quem, is to take a closer look at the terminus a quo and then consider the relevance of the various means I have listed to present-day Irish parishes.
It will certainly not be considered necessary for me, speaking to an audience of Irish priests, to consider at length the present attitude of the Irish people towards the Sacrifice of the Mass. And yet there is one fact of which we are all aware but which I think it is worthwhile to remind ourselves of at this stage. It is that there is in Ireland — all over Ireland, in the cities and the towns as well as in the country — a sense of the unique sacredness of the Mass that I imagine may be unparalleled elsewhere in the world. It is not just that the Irish people, like Catholics everywhere, realise that the Mass is the great central act of the Catholic religion.
I think the consciousness of the Irish people goes beyond that, that they have a sense of the sacredness of the Mass, a sense of its unique sacredness, a devotion to it, a reverence and an awe for everything connected with it, that is something over and above what one finds among Catholic people generally. And I think that this is something which goes back very far in our history and that that history itself may have helped to burn it into our souls, something, therefore, which is a most precious part of our heritage from the past. You can already begin to see it in the records of the early Irish Church, but I imagine that it is something which owes a great deal to the centuries when the Mass was proscribed and the people had to risk their lives to hear it, that it is partly the result of the powerful impact on the soul of the nation of ten thousand Masses heard in secret places and in fear, of ten thousand consecrations when the silence seemed to pierce the heavens and transport the faithful into another world from the world of suffering in which their daily lives were cast. In any event it is something very deep in the religious consciousness of the Irish people; it is seen reflected in the extraordinary fidelity to Sunday Mass in Ireland, in the vast crowds at midday Masses on weekdays in Dublin and other Irish cities and, perhaps most revealingly of all, in the odd little phrases of everyday life which say so much — like that common Irish expression which a person will use when he has been distracted, say, by a fidgeting child, at Mass. “That child”, they will say, “I didn’t get the good of Mass with him”. That simple phrase, I think, says a great deal about what the Irish people think about the Mass.
It is worthwhile reminding ourselves of all this in the present context because it means that we start off from a particularly advantageous position. We do not have to convince our people of the uniquely sacred character of the Mass — they know it already; and they know it not merely as a matter of doctrine, as all Catholic people do, they realise it in the deepest consciousness of their being. They are therefore ready, in an altogether special way, to receive further instruction as to why this is so, why the Mass is so sacred, why attendance at Mass is such a rich source of grace for them. Such instruction will only be bringing into sharper focus something they have always been deeply conscious of; it will simply be unfolding the fuller riches of a doctrine they already know and love. The seed will be falling on good ground.
This brief analysis of the terminus a quo indicates that, as I have said, we start off from a particularly advantageous position in Ireland. It also means, I think, that we have more to lose than other countries if we take our decisions without a sufficiently careful examination of the ground.
This brings one naturally to the first and, it seems to me, the most important means of the apostolate of participation, namely: instruction. If I may put it quite simply, I think it is true to say that while the Irish people are deeply conscious of the sacredness of the Mass, they are not as conscious as the Church would like — as indeed I imagine no people are — of the reasons why the Mass is so sacred. They are not as conscious as we would like of the part which they themselves, as a matter of dogmatic truth, have in that sacrifice, They have indeed learned of the sacrificial character of the Mass at school, and often in the pulpit; they know it but it is not as prominently in the forefront of their minds as the fact of transubstantiation at Mass. If you were to ask them “What happens at Mass?” quite a large proportion of them would reply that “the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Our Lord” and stop there. As I say, they know that the Mass is one with the Sacrifice of the Cross so that the problem is not one of teaching them something they have not heard of before. It is, in a sense, the more difficult problem of increasing their awareness of these truths so that they will be vividly present in their minds when they are at Mass. For that reason it seems to me that what is called for is the continued reiteration, in school and in the pulpit, “in season and out of season”, and in simple terms, of a few basic dogmatic truths: that in the Mass not merely are the bread and wine changed into the Body and Blood of Our Lord, but that that Body and Blood are offered in sacrifice to the Heavenly Father, that that sacrifice is one with the Sacrifice of the Cross, an extension of Calvary, as it were, through time and space to their church on this Sunday morning, and that they themselves are not merely present as spectators or onlookers but that they actually are involved in what is happening, that they take part in offering the sacrifice, through and, in a certain sense, with the priest. There is indeed need for care in stating this last truth in terms that are both simple and accurate and which do not exaggerate the part of the faithful. The late Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, emphasised on more than one occasion that not only is the act of transubstantiation something which pertains exclusively and entirely to the priest but that the actual oblation of the sacrifice also — since it is transubstantiation which effects the sacrifice — pertains to him in an altogether unique way. It is only a validly ordained priest who, strictly speaking, can offer sacrifice. But the same pope also emphasised that the people also offer the sacrifice, in a different way, in a less strict sense; their offering of the divine victim is different in kind from that of the priest, who is the minister of Christ, but it is a real offering nonetheless.
What I suggest is that the simple and frequent reiteration of these basic truths — that the Mass is a sacrifice, that it is one with the Sacrifice of the Cross, that the people are not merely onlookers but participate in the offering of the sacrifice in their own way — that the reiteration of these simple truths in a vivid and concrete way over a long period will eventually make our people as a whole as profoundly conscious of the sacrificial character of the Mass as they are at present of its sacred character in general, will bring these truths, which they already know, into the forefront of their minds, will gradually but profoundly deepen and enrich their apprehension of them and will thus make their participation in the Mass more conscious and intimate and therefore more fruitful. And one might also say that a realisation of these truths will help them to see the reason for the Church’s encouragement of certain external forms of participation and so render these forms more acceptable.
I do not think it is necessary for the priest in the ordinary pulpit sermon to go into various theories as to the nature of sacrifice in detail or to discuss in detail the ways in which the various elements of a sacrifice are verified in the Mass. The fact that these questions are dealt with rather fully in theology classes does not mean that it is necessary to discuss them in detail in the pulpit. The people know what the Sacrifice of the Cross is: they know that on Calvary Our Lord gave His life for the salvation of the world — and when they are taught to realise that what happened on Calvary happens also at the consecration of the Mass but in a different manner they gratefully accept this truth and that is enough.
Instruction in these simple truths, the repetition of them and their illustration in concrete terms in season and out of season, seems to me to be the first and most obvious step towards fuller participation — in the deeper sense of the word — of the faithful in the Mass.
Closely linked with this is the second means which I have already mentioned — the focusing of greater attention on the Preface and Canon of the Mass. There is no need to emphasise that here again one must be realistic. Large numbers of our people assist at Mass most devoutly by reciting their own prayers or meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary and it would be wrong to discourage them from this. But a large and growing number of people use the Missal and it is of these that I am thinking in the present context. Because one does get the impression that not all of those who are using the Missal derive the benefit from it that they should — that they concentrate rather a lot on getting the right Mass or getting the Collects correctly, and that the core of the Mass, the great eucharistic prayer which is the Preface and the Canon, does not speak to them as it should. If that is so it is a great pity because nothing can compare with the simple strength and beauty of this prayer, whose roots go back to the earliest centuries of the Church, for bringing home to the faithful the sacrificial character of what is happening and the fact that the plebs sancta are participating in it. The wonderful prayer of the Preface which soars like the flight of an eagle up to the very throne of God where the Cherubim and Seraphim are singing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, the profound bow of the priest at the Te Igitur now that he is standing before the altar of God, the simple opening words of his address: “Most Merciful Father, we humbly beg and beseech Thee…to please accept these gifts, these offerings, this holy unspotted sacrifice”, the prayer for the Church “throughout the whole world”, the calling on the heavenly court, the stark poignancy of the petitions of the Hanc Igitur: “arrange our days in Thy peace; save us from eternal damnation; number us among the flock of Thy chosen ones” and so on. Nothing, I think, can compare with the simple beauty and dignity of this ancient prayer whose ipsissima verba must have fallen from the lips of Saint Patrick when he celebrated Mass here and which have been uttered by every priest who has said Mass in Ireland since his time. Nothing can surpass the simple and ineffable way in which it teaches the great truths we have been speaking about and applies them to the very action which is taking place — the notion of sacrifice and the plebs sancta who are participating in it are threaded through every paragraph and that in a language which the people can easily understand: “Therefore O Lord, we beseech Thee, to please accept this sacrifice from us Thy servants and from Thy whole Family…” And yet, to very large numbers of our people this prayer is virtually unknown.
There are, I think, a number of reasons for this. For one thing, although the Latin is transparently clear, it is very often translated in Missals into rather stilted and archaic language (one version in a popular Missal speaks of “all true professors of the Catholic and apostolic faith”). Again it is often unattractively printed in a single narrow column, with nothing to make it stand out in prominence as it should and with little assistance to the eye in reading it intelligently. Lastly it is a prayer which requires some little explanation; the architecture of its various parts, the sequence of its ideas, are not immediately obvious (although they are there and very beautiful) and some of the references in it (like those to Abraham and Abel) may not reveal their full significance to the ordinary faithful. I think there would be a great deal to be said for having a clearly and attractively printed version of this prayer, in language which reflects the limpid freshness of the Latin, made out as a text for study in the schools. It is difficult to believe that people would not grow to love it and use it always at Mass if once they really came to know it. And I think too that there would be something to be said for having it, along with, perhaps the offertory prayers, printed separately for the use of people who perhaps feel somewhat overawed by the Missal itself. Something like that used to be done in the old-fashioned prayer-books and one feels that many people who never used a Missal, knew and loved the Canon of the Mass, without recognising it as such, in a way that some people who now use the Missal do not.
With regard to the third means I have mentioned — the manner in which the priest says Mass — I need not say very much. Considering it simply from the point of view of helping people to participate internally, there is no gainsaying the fact that Mass can be said in a way and in a tone of voice that is at once supremely reverent and at the same time makes it easy for the faithful to keep their attention on what is happening at the altar, to realise the uniquely sacred character of the action. Part of the difficulty is that even a conscientious priest can get into the habit of saying the prayers — the Preface or the Pater Noster, for example — with unbecoming rapidity without apparently having the slightest idea himself that this is so and that even when he does realise it he may find it exceedingly difficult to correct a habit that has become deeply engrained. But there is no need to stress that the matter is exceedingly important and that a proper manner of celebrating Mass can be a most powerful means of helping the people to keep united in thought and prayer with the liturgical action at the altar.
We now come to the final means, about which so much has been talked and written in recent years — the making of the Latin responses by the congregation either at a Sung Mass or at a Low Mass. To conclude this paper I should like to deal with these two questions separately — first the Sung Mass and then the Missa lecta.
With regard to the Sung Mass, either High Mass or Missa Cantata, I do not think there is much difficulty in reaching the general conclusion that it is desirable that there should be at least a Missa Cantata in parochial churches very frequently, if not every Sunday, and that the people should be encouraged to sing the responses: Amen; Et cum spiritu tuo; Gloria Tibi, Domine; Habemus ad Dominum; Dignum et iustum est; Sed libera nos a malo and Deo gratias. I stress these responses because it is they which give visible expression to the nexus between the celebrant and the congregation — perhaps more so than the more difficult Gloria and Credo in which the element of dialogue is lacking — and also because there is little difficulty in teaching the congregation to make them. As time goes on the congregation may learn to sing the Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei but I think it is a mistake to imagine that there cannot be vocal participation in a Sung Mass unless the congregation are equipped to sing these longer chants. The 1958 Instruction contemplates the singing of these responses as the first stage of this form of participation and there is little doubt that this degree of participation, slight though it appears to be, could have a great impact on the people. It is worth recalling here the effectiveness of the participation of the faithful in the new rite for the Easter Vigil although it is confined to the recital of the Pater Noster and the renewal of baptismal vows. Here, I suggest, is a form of vocal participation which gives rise to the minimum difficulty in learning, which is likely to meet with much less psychological resistance (because it does seem true that people are less “shy”, so to put it, about singing these responses than about reciting them aloud) and which does seem capable of strongly reinforcing that sense of participation with which we are concerned. Moreover it is worth noting that the 1958 Instruction uses more definite and positive language about this, the first degree of vocal participation in a Sung Mass, than it does about any of the other degrees of vocal participation, either in a Sung Mass or in a Missa lecta. “Omni cura adlaborandum est“, it says of the sung responses “ut fideles omnes, ubique terrarum, haec responsa liturgica in cantu reddere valeant“. And later on it says: “Optandum est, ut dominicis et diebus festis, Missa paroecialis vel principalis sit in cantu.”
One suggestion I should like to make. It is that the people be particularly carefully instructed in the meaning of the priest’s words and the responses before the Preface, especially Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro and Dignum et iustum est, and that it be explained to them that this marks the beginning of the great central sacrificial prayer of the Mass. They will pray the Preface and Canon with increased fervour when they themselves have sung aloud their answer to the celebrant’s call: “Gratias agamus.”
With regard to the congregation’s answering the responses in a Missa lecta, we are on more difficult and uncertain ground. It does seem indeed that this form of external participation could be a most powerful means for bringing home to the congregation, and keeping strongly before their minds, the fact that they are taking part with the priest in the offering of the Mass and that they are doing so also as a corporate group — presupposing, of course, that they are already well instructed in these doctrines. (If they are not the significance of their external participation will entirely escape them.) At the same time experience shows that this kind of external participation is in a Missa lecta the most difficult to implement as far as ordinary congregations are concerned. The difficulty is not that of having the people learn the responses in Latin — they can learn them surprisingly quickly. The real difficulty appears to be of a more intangible character. It is a certain psychological absence of enthusiasm — or at least of continued enthusiasm — a certain awkwardness or shyness which appears very tenuous but is in fact very strong and resistant.
I think it would be an over-hasty judgment to decide immediately that this psychological resistance is a sign that this form of external participation is unsuited to Ireland, that it does violence to our traditional ways of hearing Mass. For one thing we must not exaggerate the number of people in the average Irish congregation who are absorbed in personal prayer during Sunday Mass: here again we must be realistic. For another, the same kind of psychological resistance has been experienced in other countries which have not our traditions — in most other countries in fact — so that it may be, in part at least, simply the natural resistance which we all have to new ways of doing things when the old ways have become engrained into us. When we have grown accustomed to doing something in a certain way for years — in this case assisting at Mass — we tend to feel awkward and self-conscious and uncomfortable when we begin to do it in a new way, and we may easily disguise these feelings to ourselves as a conviction that the old way is better. I do not want to be taken as discounting all objections of the kind I have mentioned — as I hope to make clear in a moment. All I am saying is that I do not think that an initial lack of enthusiasm — or a sudden falling away of enthusiasm after the first few experiences — does, of itself, prove very much.
At the same time it is well to remember that we are to some extent in the dark as to the suitability of the various forms of the dialogue Mass to Irish congregations and it would be a mistake to be too aprioristic about exactly how beneficial they would be. We can never be absolutely sure in advance about all the effects and side-effects of changes like this. It is the mind of the Holy See that these forms of external participation should be prudently encouraged, but with due regard to local circumstances and traditions, and that seems to be the voice of wisdom.
What practical conclusion does all this lead to as far as Ireland is concerned? I think it indicates firstly that the children in the schools should be taught both to sing and to recite the responses in Latin, with the exception, possibly, of the Psalm Iudica, and that the meaning of the responses, with particular emphasis on those preceding the Preface, should be explained to the senior classes. I have already suggested that a good translation of the Preface and Canon should be studied in detail in the schools. It seems clear also that the children should be given plenty of experience in singing or reciting the responses at children’s Masses. The psychological resistance about which I have spoken does not appear to exist with them — quite the contrary in fact. In this way, and in a very short time, a generation of young people will grow up who are quite accustomed to and at home with the external forms of assisting at Mass. We must remember that the children in the senior classes will be young men and young women in six or seven years.
The dialogue Mass might also be introduced — weekly or monthly rather than daily perhaps — in those communities and circumstances which seem to be particularly favourable for its success — religious communities, boarding schools, special Masses for particular groups such as Teachers Conferences, University Students Retreats and so on.
This gradual beginning of various forms of external participation which I have outlined: the regular parish Mass where the congregation sings the responses, the children’s Masses, the Masses in religious communities and boarding schools or for special occasions — such a programme would, I suggest, achieve two things. Firstly, the idea of vocal participation will gradually lose its newness and strangeness so that such psychological “resistance” to it as may be due simply to its novelty will tend to lessen. And at the same time we will be able to gather precious fruits of experience as to the possibility or advisability of the extension of vocal participation over a wider area. We shall be feeling our way as to how best we may strengthen and enrich our people’s devotion to the Mass while conserving the precious heritage which we already have.
In conclusion, perhaps I might summarise the points I have been trying to make in this paper. I suggest, firstly, that it is most important that we should keep clearly before our minds the fact that the final end of this apostolate is located in the consciousness of the faithful, that what we want to do is to help the faithful to realise, more clearly and more vividly and in the depths of their consciousness, what is happening when they are assisting at Mass and what part they have in it. Secondly, I suggest that we must take full and careful account of the present consciousness of the Irish people with regard to the Mass to see how best that may be developed and deepened rather than changed. Thirdly, I suggest that the most immediate means to achieve this are: vivid and concrete and reiterated instruction in the great dogmatic truths about the Mass which are expounded in the encyclical Mediator Dei, the focusing of greater attention on the beautiful prayers of the Preface and Canon, and the reverent celebration of Mass by the priest himself. With regard to external forms of participation, it seems obvious that potentially they are a very powerful means of driving home, and keeping before the minds of the faithful, certain very important dogmatic truths and it therefore seems obvious that, in accordance with the mind of the Holy See, we must prudently endeavour to find out from experience what benefit — and it may be very great — they are capable of bringing to our people in Ireland. But we must do so in a way which will conserve and strengthen the great riches which, by God’s grace, we already have.