Individual Participation in the Liturgy

The following is an extract from a letter published in The Furrow in February, 1973, by JF Foyle.

“When things were in Latin, we followed the words in the vernacular in our missals, often pausing to reflect even if that meant not being in line with the priest’s words, though we made sure to be in line for the three peaks — offertory, consecration and holy communion. Sometimes we filled in, in between the peaks, with Rosary-reciting, favourite prayers (often from prayer-books or leaflets).

Reading, informal praying and reflecting, in between the peaks, played dominant parts in our Mass participation. We had tremendous scope for using our own individual initiative to fill the in-between spaces. The vernacular changed all that and what was designed to increase our participation in the Mass has, in fact, made it awkward for us to participate to our satisfaction.

We were suddenly left without missals and expected to attend to the priests’ words all the time. This ruled out reflecting, as we were kept going keeping up with the words the whole way through Mass. Also, we had little to reflect on — we are far from expert in catching a series of sentences while they are flying. We were virtually forbidden to switch off the words (to reflect or pray via reading or thinking parallel to the priest). It was uncomfortable deliberately switching off, anyway, since the words, being in English, kept obtruding in snatches, something that didn’t happen with the Latin (except with some students of the language, and then only when words were said specially loudly). We felt obliged to attend to English words, whereas it was optional with the Latin. We felt inferior at being unable to attend, whereas we felt superior when we succeeded with the Latin.

This was, and is, a far from pleasant Mass experience. It also resulted in the three peaks ceasing to be peaks in the Mass — they are just parts of the series of words, almost, often (especially the middle one) passing unnoticed, as our minds wander.

What this suggests is that the liturgists equated the scope for being aware of what was being said with scope for participation. Apart from the Latin allowing for similar awareness (even for illiterates), the equating erred in wrongly estimating the strain going with non-stop listening. It did not allow gaps for reflecting, nor for having another look at the words for that purpose. Nor did it recognize that participation is very much an individual matter, made-up around the priest’s Mass words but not rigidly tied to them. The Latin facilitated such individual participation. The vernacular hinders it.

Liturgists ought to have been aware of such effects of the change-over, since they were predictable from awareness of how those in the pews participated in the Mass. […] Those in the pew automatically, now, mind-wander most of the time when subjected to amplified voices in churches or halls. Their recall of things said in the liturgy of the word, for example, is nearly nil most of the time, just as their recall of newscasts and radio-television discussions is very fuzzy.

Further, Mass is now attended with very little forethought about the theme of the liturgy and even less afterthought about it. There is little time for thinking about religion, anyway, and seldom is a special attempt made in advance of Mass. Getting there quickly by car lessens the scope for forethought, too. Watch the aftermath — as everybody rushes for cars and papers to provide food for some other kind of thought. The Mass words are part of the pattern of information flow which envelops us daily. They get even less attention than the other words, since so few have them in print for fore and after thought. This has contributed in no small away, I find, to very, very little reading about things spiritual. The taking-away of the missals (or their too slow replacement, which amounts to the same thing, in effect) broke the habit. And it is well and truly broken, now.

[…] Those of my generation who believe in the power of the Mass, and in it being a mortal sin not to participate in Sunday Mass, keep going on that account. It is in spite of the vernacular, not with its aid.

[…] The Rosary beads and the devotional prayers could have a place, again, for individual participation between the peaks. […] All the amplified talking of the introductory rite, liturgy of the word and the homily is a nuisance, when we could be reading and reflecting quietly. Let the Bible readings be relayed to us, maybe, and let the rest be read silently or, at least, with the amplifiers turned off. That way the homily (unamplified) will have a chance of getting attention, too. Let the rest of the Mass be silent mainly, apart from the three peaks and ‘Our Father’, say, relying on us in the pew to participate in our individual ways, reading and reflecting.”

Posted on March 15, 2011, in Devotions (miscellaneous), Irish History, Liturgy, Mass, Rosary, The Furrow. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. This article captures vividly how it looked from the pews, and is therefore a contribution to the historical record of how it was and what happened to the liturgy in the post-Vatican II reform. Thank you for posting and thereby preserving it. Also, this reflection from the past explains well the apparent irony now in the greater sense of prayerful participation in the EF Mass observed by many who attend both the extraordinary and ordinary forms today.

  2. Thanks Henry. It’s long before I was born so I can only imagine how painful the liturgical reforms were for many people at the time, especially the elderly. And despite it all being done in the name of the laity, very little consideration was shown to those lay people (a majority perhaps?) who seen no need for change.

  3. Lay people who saw no reason for the change were treated as non-persons. I converted to Catholicism in 1983. Catholics at Novus Ordo Masses seemed like zombies to me. The whole experience of the New Mass was so dreary I almost didn’t convert. Nevertheless the Catholic press was still full of the glories of the liturgical reform, with not even the slightest suggestion that it was not completely successful. Reading the Texas Catholic Herald was like reading Pravda. I remember vividly once admitting to a priest that I didn’t like the Novus Ordo. He looked at me like I was a dangerous lunatic who might come at him with a knife at any moment. The sense of intense protectiveness about an obviously failed experiment made no sense to me then and it doesn’t now. How do Novus Ordo Catholics fend off reality? I wish someone could explain it to me. I’ll stop ranting now. But the re-prints on this blog just bring back the sense of frustration that the church I would have loved was stolen from me before I was even born.

  4. Ron, while I’m a cradle Catholic I know how you feel. Reading back issues of Catholic publications from about 1965 onwards is an extremely depressing experience. I also do know quite a few converts who go to the TLM because they can’t stand the NO. I can’t even begin to imagine how an Orthodox Christian convert (or even a high church Anglican) must find the NO.

  5. Shane, you are doing a real service by these posts, no matter how readers may evaluate the opinions expressed in some articles.

    I grew up with the Old Mass. I’ve been to an EF Mass only once since I was ordained, in St Paul’s Arran Quay, the first church built in Dublin after Catholic Emancipation and the church where my parents were married. My experience – this was late in 1990 or early in 1991 – was of being at a re-creation of something from the past in a museum. But I was also very conscious of the full and prayerful participation of those at the Mass. There were many young people there. I don’t think I would have a ‘museum’ experience now.

    I was caught up in the newness of everything at the time. There is nothing wrong with that per se. But Joseph Foyle is right about the words distracting us. Often as a celebrant I must confess that if I haven’t read it beforehand I sometimes don’t even hear, far less remember, the first reading. And my eyes sometimes glaze over at the responsorial psalm, even though I am aware that this is the word of God.

    On the other hand, I have found 40 years of the new Lectionary to be something positive, especially in bringing the Gospel to the people through the three-year Sunday cycle and the yearly cycle on weekdays for the Gospel.

    For the past two or three years I have observed silence most weekdays and some Sundays at the Offertory. That is the ‘default’position, something I hadn’t averted to before.

    It is important to recognise that the OF has already produced one Blessed: Chiara ‘Luce’ Badano (1971 – 1990), beatified last year.

    It is very evident in Ireland that there is far less participation in Mass now than there was 50 years ago because probably a majority have stopped going to Sunday Mass, as few as two or three percent in parts of Dublin, as Archbishop Martin recently pointed out, not for the first time. Yet this same thing had already happened in much of Western Europe, eg, France, long before Vatican II and the OF. There are many factors involved in this. However, I’m inclined to think that the way Mass is sometimes celebrated is one of them.

    I still see some people, in Ireland and here in the Philippines, praying the Rosary during the Mass. I’m not sure it’s a great idea but it is clear that for Joseph Foyle and many others the Rosary helped them truly participate in the Mass and still does some.

    One thing I remember vividly growing up in Holy Family Parish, Aughrim St, Dublin, was the ‘proclamation of the mystery of the faith’ after the second Elevation. It wasn’t in the rubrics nor was it announced. But the ‘communal cough’ was as vivid an expression of faith as any I have experienced. It was an expression of awe and adoration. I’m not sure how widespread it was.

  6. Thanks again for your very interesting comments, Father.

    The pre-conciliar liturgical movement was clearly nowhere near as advanced in Ireland (or English speaking countries as a whole) as on the continent. Did the dialogue Mass ever become popular in Ireland, can you remember?

    I’m not sure I agree with you about the new lectionary. I personally prefer the readings to be kept ‘short and sweet’ and easy to digest. I don’t think it has made Catholics more familiar with the scriptures. People today have a very limited attention span (to a much greater degree than 50 years ago). It doesn’t help that in English speaking countries the Jersualem/New American Bible are awfully dry and unpoetic.

    If you wouldn’t mind, I’d be most interested to read how you experienced the liturgical reforms and what you thought of them at the time.

  7. First a comment about the new lectionary. The RSV version is also approved for Ireland, for England and Wales and, probably, for Scotland. However, the Jerusalem Bible seems to have won out. I remember on one occasion in a parish in Dublin maybe in 1991 where I had been invited to celebrate one of the Sunday Masses on Palm Sunday. The Passion was being read in dramatic form with three readers including the priest who speaks the words of Jesus. We were using missalettes, which should never be used by the priest or readers. However, I was a visitor and that was what was available. I quickly realised that at least one of the readers was out of synch – an knew immediately what the problem was. Two of us were using one version (RSV or JB) and the third the other. I asked the readers to stop until we all got the same version and then continued.

    My experience of the new lectionary as a positive thing applies especially to the reading of the gospel. It has certainly helped me over the last 40 years.

    The ‘Dialogue Mass’ wasn’t used in parishes anywhere in Ireland, as far as I know, but was widely used in England and Wales. I don’t know about other countries. However, it was used in St Columban’s, Dalgan Park, every day and was a new experience for me when I entered there in 1961.

    At the time I welcomed the liturgical changes, especially the introduction of the vernacular for the readings introduced in 1965. I remember that Archbishop McQuaid specified that the Canon was to be said silently by the priests of the diocese ‘for the sake of uniformity’. It had always been said silently but the revision allowed for it to be said aloud. It was still in Latin. I remember thinking that he was being somewhat reactionary, though it wasn’t really an issue with me. (Our ordination on 20 December 1967 was transferred at the last minute from Dalgan Park in the Diocese of Meath to the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin because of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain and strict quarantine regulations introduced in Ireland for people visiting farms, and Dalgan had one. Archbishop McQuaid graciously welcomed us but specified that we were to wear Roman vestments and not Gothic ones, which were widely and legitimately used throughout the Church.)

    I went to the USA to study in September 1968 and went through real culture-shock at many levels, including what was happening in the Church. I was there less than two months when one of the Sisters at the college where I was studying and was also a chaplain asked me if the congregation could join me in the Canon at a weekday Mass. By then the whole Mass could be celebrated in the vernacular but the Roman Canon was the only Eucharistic Prayer. I declined and during my homily explained the different roles we have at Mass. I thought I was being positive. However, after the Mass the Sister who had made the request told me I had been very negative. Another Sister, who was always ahead of the rest in terms of modifications to the habit, never spoke to me again. Being less than a year ordained and less than two months in the USA I was deeply upset about this.

    When what we now call the OF was announced in 1969 I’m afraid that on at least one occasion I jumped the gun and used one of the new Eucharistic Prayers, all of which had been printed in the New York Times.

    If I may backtrack to the partial introduction of the vernacular in 1965, a classmate
    from the Kerry Gaeltacht told us of an old man trying to say the Gloria. He got confused and said ‘H-anam an diabhail, tá mé caillte!’ ‘In the name of the devil, I’m lost!’

    After what we now call the OF was introduced I heard various ‘horror’ stories fo what was happening in some places. On one occasion a groups of young people asked me if I wold celebrate Mass using Coca-cola. I declined. At the time various people were suggesting that the food and drink of the people should be used rather than bread and wine, especially in places where these weren’t staples.

    The last time for years that I celebrated Mass ‘with my back to the people’, as I and many others saw it for years until I read Cardinal Ratzinger’s book on the liturgy and realised how wrong that was, was in a rural parish in Missouri where I was visiting friends. It was the day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. At the time I was struck by the contrast between the ‘old-fashioned’ practice in the church and the modern world that was emerging so dramatically. (Last year I began to celebrate Mass ad orientem from time to time and find it helpful).

    Being young, I basically welcomed the changes in 1965 and in 1969. I have never celebrated the OF as a priest, though I would be happy to do so if the opportunity arose. When I was ordained we had a modified version of the OF.

    When the OF is celebrated observing the rubrics it is reverent. I have celebrated it publicly a number of times in Latin, in Iceland at the Carmelite Monastery where, at the time the nuns were Dutch – they were later replaced by Poles- and in a sisters’ retirement home near Munich, In both places the nuns/sisters were delighted to sing the Gregorian chants and did the readings in their own languages while I read the gospel in English. I occasionally find myself celebrating Mass on my own and normally use Latin.

    The priest should be almost ‘anonymous’ when he celebrates Mass, whether in the EF or OF. I have always found that people are uplifted by a reverent celebration. I have shuddered on some occasions attending Mass, not always because of deviations from the rubrics. Some years ago I found myself attending a Sunday Mass in rural Ireland. during the homily the priest was ranting about the bigotry of Ian Paisley, which had no connection whatever with the readings, but was revealing his own bigotry. I was tempted to walk out but didn’t as I was fulfilling my Sunday obligation.

    Another phenomenon I have noticed over the years is that many priests, perhaps a majority, don’t avail of the choices the Missal offers, eg, in Eucharistic Prayers. I use I, II and III regularly and IV occasionally, plus the two for Reconciliation, which the Ordo recommends especially for Lent.

    So many people seem to know only the first acclamation after the Consecration, ‘Christ has died . . .’ The irony is that this isn’t in the original Latin. I follow a four-week cycle, echoing that of the Breviary. The people I celebrate weekday Masses with are familiar with the four.

    I’ve gone beyond my ‘remit’. I basically welcomed the changes when they came. However, I see an urgent need to get back to a sobriety in the celebration of Mass, something I have noticed to some degree in travels in recent years in Australia, Canada, the USA, England and Ireland as well as here in the Philippines. However, many priests are ‘trapped’ in the liturgical culture that has developed in the last 40 years and change will be slow.

    I also believe that poor liturgy is one of the factors, though not the only one, in the loss of faith in Ireland, Canada, the USA and other countries in the last 40 years. But the priests who took a mile when given an inch in 1969 and the 1970s and who left the priesthood in droves were all products of the pre-Vatican II Church and of the EF. Dublin had a priest known as ‘Flash’ because he got through Mass in 12 minutes or something like that. This raises questions. John Waters of The Irish Times has suggested that the ‘tree’ was already rotting inside back then.

    Thanks for inviting to add this somewhat rambling comment.

  8. Father thank you so much for such a fascinating contribution.

  9. Great post which eloquently describes many of the problem with true participation in the NO Mass vs the traditional Mass.

    I think also that it is much easier not to be participating in the Mass with the NO liturgy and not be forced to notice that one is not really and truly participating because of all the outward action and so much listening (or at least being talked at), responding, singing of hymns etc. If one is not participating at the traditional Mass, it does not take too long before one is bound honestly to face that fact and try to do something about it.

    To be honest, I think that might explain the problem some have with the traditional Mass if they do not immediately quite get it. There is little of the outward action directed at the congregationto which they are accustomed to catch the attention and one is left with the silence of one’s own inner self not engaged with reaching out to God at the level one should aim at in the Mass. Which, if one recognises it, is a spur to try to participate fully and deeply. I know there was a while after I had first got hooked on the traditional Mass (which pretty much happened at the first TLM I assist at), during which I felt a bit frustrated at being somewhere between the thrill of discovering a liturgy which made such deep sense and being comfortable enough with it not to be distracted by my own attempts at keeping up and not being used enough to praying with it in the proper manner. This was not made any easier by the fact that the licit traditional Masses where I lived at the time where few and far between. However, I had the advantage of being absolutely convinced of the superiority of the old liturgy and how it made so much more sense than the NO. I rightly suspected it was the emptiness of my own participation which was the matter. For a person who does not become enamoured at that first encounter, it may be difficult to persevere beyond that point. Not that I would claim that I succeed in deeply participating at the Mass or even participating to a reasonably satisfactory level at every traditional Mass, but I know the deal and I am extremely grateful at being given the chance to try actively and fully to participate without constant enforced distractions. It is quite hard enough to avoid the distractions produced by my own mind.

    Now I find it harder to participate to a satisfactory degree at the NO Mass than before. I guess because I know what the liturgy can be like and what active interior participation can be like. This is not helped by such things as dull hymns with absolutely no relevance to the liturgy of the day per se or even music which is outright inappropriate for liturgical use.

    In fairness, I should say that I know people who really do appear to understand the main point of the Mass (as the Mass independent of liturgy) and who do seem extremely prayerful and whom, though I am not privy to the degree of anybody else’s true interior participation, I strongly suspect are able to participate much more prayerfully and truly at Mass than I am, and whose first encounter with the traditional Mass did not tempt them to repeat the experience. I certainly do not mean to imply that nobody is truly participating at the NO Mass and that it’s just that they are not really forced to face that fact. However, I cannot in any manner explain or understand why a prayerful person and interiorly active person should not take to the traditional Mass like a duck to water. It happens, I know, but I cannot quite fathom why. Except perhaps that they may be too busy trying to follow the Mass in exactly the same way as they would follow the NO liturgy and so are too busy with that to grasp the orientation and structure of the traditional liturgy and have no reason to wish to repeat the experience until they do. I really don’t know. But I am absolutely convinced that the traditional liturgy is better suited to foster, and more effectively allows for, an active and full participation.

  10. Of course, I should say that I am comparing mainly to the NO liturgy as normally celebrated. Much could be done to bridge the gap, I’m sure, by celebrating the NO ad orientem and using dignified and appropriate music or none at all. I have never experienced the NO celebrated as similarly to the traditional Mass as possible and so I cannot really comment too much on that.

  11. Catholic of Thule, I completely agree with you and can empathize with your experience, particularly about getting addicted to the old Mass on your first encounter with it. Like you, I found it hard to follow at first (particularly Low Mass). It took me about ten attempts to really get used to it. The more I went, the more I felt a strong sense of grievance (and indeed anger) that I had been deprived of my heritage. Having been born long after the Council, I couldn’t comprehend (and still can’t!) the rationale for changing the liturgy. The Novus Ordo (or at least how it is celebrated in most parishes) has never been the same since and now requires formidable endurance on my part.

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