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.


Posted on March 13, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. 1955
    …./..while the priest mutters in useless unintelligible Latin…/…

  2. Pepe, sorry I should have written 1953, not 1955. My mistake.

  3. This is the great value of your website, Shane, that you show what was actually happening behind the scenes in the “golden age”. The unquestioning rush to abandon tradition that came in barely 10 years after this now becomes all the more clear. That he should refer to a “one-man show” reveals the lack of understanding of the true dimension of the Mass and the feeling that unless everyone is “busy” doing something then there’s no true participation. And we’ve seen the fruits of that mindset for the last… yeah, ’nuff said.

    I wonder what he made of “Veterum Sapientia”? Well no, I don’t wonder. It’s pretty evident. His ideal Mass strikes me as a recipe for a total mess. Boys let loose in the laboratory. No wonder we are where we are. This was the foundational thinking.

  4. Thanks Jaykay!

    Alas, Fr Howell’s views were pretty common in the Liturgical Movement at that time, hence the mess the Roman liturgy is in.

  5. I LOL’d reading about the “priest’s translator, deacon’s translator, subdeacon’s translator,” and “on the left; choir’s translators.” It sounded exactly like the Kenrick-Glennon Seminary class of 2007’s parody “Seminarians of the Third Millennium,” purported to be a 1957 film predicting a future in which the Second Tridentine Council would authorize a sub-subdeacon to “whisper the prayers in the vernacular to the people while the priest whispers them to God in Latin”: .

  6. Dawn, thanks for that. Very amusing!

  7. I don’t recall any dialogue Masses in Dublin from 1953 onwards. Perhaps they had them in Clonliffe College and some religious houses. My first experience of it was when I entered Dalgan Park in 1961. We had a daily , Low Mass, which was a dialogue Mass. Each of us used our daily missal. It was orderly and there were no ‘translators’ but then we had all studied Latin in secondary school.

    As far as I know, dialogue Masses were common in England and Wales. I never heard of one with all of those ‘translators’.

    • Father, they seem to have been fairly rare in Ireland before the Council but Canon Gerry McGarry (then editor of The Furrow and Professor of Pastoral Theology at Maynooth) wrote in The Furrow in June, 1956:

      “Dialogue Mass is known in Ireland in many communities, in some colleges (e.g. St MacNissi’s College in Garron Tower and in Glenstal) and in some parish churches (e.g. Ardee and Borrisokane). A Dialogue Mass for students of University College Dublin is held in University Church, St. Stephen’s Green, each Friday.”

  8. Interesting, very interesting. I too thought that Fr. Howell’s ‘translators’ a disaster in the making. I can see where he was coming from – the desire to reconnect what the people were doing with what the priest was doing. “Mumbled Latin”, etc., was the experience (though it does indicate both ignorance of the history of the Liturgy and a prejudice about it). The hope that such theatrics would actually work in practice indicates a fair amount of ‘ivory tower’ thinking.

    What is most interesting is that he does not seem to think that restoring the sung mass as the norm to be the solution. The parts are there but their read. It is amazing that a liturgical scholar could be so blind to the role of song and of actual choirs in the renewal of the liturgy. Perhaps it indicates to what extent the ‘low Mass’ was actually seen as the true and original form – Mass without frills so to speak.

    Thanks for all this scanning – a valuable resource!

  9. Fascinating stuff! the bit that strikes me is that, whatever Fr Howell intended, this is the beginning of the age of the priest as performer, star act in fact.

  10. Ttony, I agree. The dialogue Mass was a deeply regrettable innovation.

    • I have no great objection to the dialogue Mass – saw it in action in the Oratory church in Toronto last week and participated “actuositer” 🙂 – although I never actually took part in one back in the day… given that I was 7 when the last vestiges of Latin vanished in 67 or so. I know that it never featured in the experience of either of my parents, both of them missal-readers and very keen on good liturgy. However what pains me is that all the splendid opportunities that were there in the 50s and early 60s via education of kids in the primary schools to really learn and appreciate the Latin responses seem to have been totally ignored.

      What I mean is that they were flogging Irish into kids at a huge rate. Good God, some of us even liked it! Well, a bit, depending on the teacher. Would that they had devoted the same energy to a true appreciation of the Latin liturgy, at a time when all the opportunities were there.

      • Not sure I’d agree, the 1950s were a very interesting decade in terms of liturgy in the Irish Church, full of hopes and dreams. I’ll put up Cardinal D’Alton’s lenten pastoral from 1960 soon, I think you’ll like it.

  11. Fascinating stuff indeed: it seems that the present crisis had been planned from long ago, and built towards with demonic patience and subtlety before really breaking cover and becoming evident…

    • Indeed Ben, here’s a dialogue Mass from 1960 celebrated in Canada by Mgr. Émilien Frenette, Bishop of Saint-Jérôme:

      • The perils of commenting “on the hop” on a mobile! Never time to develop the thought. I honestly think that we missed so many opportunities back then when there was the chance to do very much, when we had a genuinely devout (not a very popular adjective nowadays) people. Let’s face it: the Church was in control of Catholic schools. You’ve shown this on the site, as to what was there in terms of initiatives on chant etc. My feeling is: why was this not built-on and developed ? Why did this suddenly collapse in the 60s? People only needed proper education, catechesis, all that. We had all the advantages circa 1965. Yet the confidence (belief?) seems to have vanished like snow off a ditch. I’m still searching for the answer.

      • Jaykay, unfortunately the same happened pretty much everywhere in the Latin Church in the 1960s, not just here. People were told by ‘experts’ that Vatican II decreed x and y…even when it said no such thing.

        It’s interesting to ponder what would have happened if the Council had never been convened, and what shape the Church in Ireland would be in now.

  12. I wouldn’t agree, Shane, that the dialogue Mass – without the ‘translators’, something I never experienced and hadn’t heard of until now – was a ‘disaster’. My experience of it in Dalgan Park was very positive. The whole congregation was giving the same responses as the altar-servers were. We had High Mass on Sunday, as a second Mass. We all wore our surplices and birettas and sang all the chants.

    Like jaykay, I wonder why so much collapsed in the late 1960s and in the 1970s. The rot must have been there already, as John Waters said some years ago in one of his columns. I’m not quite sure what that rot was and what caused it. Was there a hubris among Irish Catholics, boasting about our ‘Catholic empire’ instead of the profound sense of faith as a gift from God that St Patrick expresses in his Confessio? Each generation has to live with its own opportunities and make its own choices, with each individual making personal choices.

    • Father, given that you lived through those decades (when I wasn’t even born) you’d obviously be much more familiar with 1950s Irish Catholicism than myself, but I personally would hesitate before drawing a line between the defects of the religious culture then and the collapse of later decades. Pre-conciliar Irish Catholicism certainly had some unsavoury characteristics but I don’t think they adequately account for what happened after the Council. After all, the undoing of Irish Catholicism is far from unique: the same mass secularization can be observed in every other traditionally Catholic country. I think the vacuum and confusion inaugurated by Vatican II was decisive. Overall my view of Irish Catholicism on the eve of the Council is broadly very positive (though I was once much more negative). The fact that Catholicism in Ireland held up a lot longer than, say, Quebec or the Netherlands (where the collapse was virtually overnight) I think says a little something about the inherent strengths in Irish Catholicism before the Council.

  1. Pingback: The Mass and the People in Irish Parishes (1961) | Lux Occulta

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: