The Dialogue Mass in Ireland: Letter of Fr. Clifford Howell, S.J. to Alfred O’Rahilly (1953)
The following letter was sent by the noted liturgical scholar Fr. Clifford Howell, S.J. to Irish Catholic academic (later Monsignor) Alfred O’Rahilly, then recently retired president of University College Cork. It is dated 22nd December, 1953.
Dear Professor O’Rahilly,
Many thanks for your letter. That is good news indeed, that the Archbishop of Dublin has given permission for the dialogue Mass. And I hope very much that His Lordship of Cork will follow suit in due course.
It occurs to me to add a few points that might be of use to you later on. (It would be too precipitate to attempt them at once.) The real value of dialogue Mass is that it restores externally to Mass that social nature which is intrinsic to it but which, with the present Low Mass liturgy, has been totally obscured. De facto the Mass is the sacrifice of all; in appearance it is a one-man show. But when the liturgy was devised, before the accidents of history had petrified it, the Mass was in appearance also a social sacrifice. Moreover its social nature was visible according to the intrinsic nature of the sacrificing community which is hierarchic. The community consists of members of different rank: priest, deacon, subdeacon, acolytes, schola, people. In High Mass all these still have different and mutually subordinated functions (though the matter has become obscured by the priest doubling-up on jobs which are not his — for he now recites what the choir sings, what the deacon announces, etc. etc.) The goal in dialogue Mass is, I maintain, the restoration of this social and hierarchic form by differentiation of functions within the community. And at the same time to make it intelligible so as to give to the worshipping community the spiritual riches which the liturgy enshrines.
On these principles the full and most developed form of it works out as follows: the people do the people’s parts (all responses, plus Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). There should be a choir to do the choir’s parts (speaking, of course, since it is a Low Mass), i.e. Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion. There should be someone to read the Epistle (subdeacon’s part) and someone else to read the Gospel (deacon’s part). The priest, of course, reads his own parts (Oratio, Secret, Eucharistic Prayer from beginning of Preface to end of Doxology, Postcommunion); but as he is unintelligible in Latin (or inaudible in the Canon) the people need translations of the Ordinary of the Mass that they may follow by personal reading in the silent parts. But in the out-loud parts it seems to me logical to give the priest a ‘translator’ (Oratio, Secret, Postcommunion).
So, when I do things in style (which is possible only in certain dioceses, and with a well-trained ‘community’ such as students at the end of a retreat) I have on the sanctuary, all vested in cassocks and surplices, (a) on the right, three functionaries; priest’s translator, deacon’s translator, subdeacon’s translator, (b) on the left; choir’s translators, i.e. a group of four to six fellows who have been provided with punctuated texts of the Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion, and practised in reading them together. Then during the Mass, as each part is reached, the appropriate functionary(ies) rise(s), facing the people and read(s) that part in English while the priest mutters in useless unintelligible Latin. Success in all this is quite impossible unless one has a celebrant who is thoroughly collaborative, willing to regard himself as the minister (servant) of the community by acting as their head and leader in public worship; i.e. adapting his speed and tone of voice to their needs. The normal type of priest who ‘rushes ahead regardless’, behaving as if the people just did not exist, will wreck the whole show. Unless you can raise the right type of priest it is better to do nothing at all. The people, of course, do all their parts in Latin which — I maintain — is not (or should not be) unintelligible for the simple reason that it is always the same and they can know what it means. (If they don’t they ought to!) It is the Proper which the people cannot understand unless it be translated to them. If they derive its meaning (as normally happens at Low Mass) from merely reading it ‘to themselves’ from missals, the social nature of the Mass is in no way displayed. It is only by the functioning audibly of the hierarchically graded officials of the community that the social aspects appears and makes its due and profound effect.
The whole thing gives the atmosphere of being alive; it grips attention from beginning to end, and is highly effective.
But, as I said earlier, it would be precipitate to introduce all this at once. First let the people get used to their parts — and have perhaps one person to read out the Epistle and Gospel in English. Later on that same person can read out Oratio, Secret and Postcommunion. Later still the speaking choir can be added for the Intriot, etc. Finally the ‘one person’ should be separated into his three constituents of translator for priest, for deacon, for subdeacon. Then the whole thing is complete.
(Of course further developments are possible in the sphere of Offertory Procession…but it will be a generation before Ireland is ready for that sort of thing!)
Hoping that all the above may be of interest, even if not of immediate use, and with all seasonal greetings,
Yours sincerely in Christ,
Clifford Howell, S.J.