Some thoughts on Irish Catholicism and Liturgical Reform


Photo above from 1946 in Cork’s Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Anne: Aloys Fleischmann, distinguished musical scholar, conductor, musicologist, and professor, was organist and choirmaster.

The period from the beginning of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 up until the promulgation of the Novus Ordo almost a decade later, was characterised by an extremely rapid rate of liturgical disintegration, unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church. However if we look at the state of the Irish Church just on the eve of the Second Vatican Council – i.e. in the late 1950s and the early 1960s – what actually did occur subsequently was far from inevitable or in any way pre-determined.

Throughout the first 60 years of the twentieth century there was an ever increasing consciousness in Ireland of the need to ameliorate and elevate the standard of liturgical worship; serious and industrious efforts were made in this direction. Interest in the liturgical movement in the Irish Church particularly takes shape after the Second World War and the primary stimuli by which this interest is aroused are: the release of Mediator Dei in 1947, the continued activity and progress of diocesan liturgical festivals, the founding of The Furrow and Doctrine and Life in 1950 and 1951 respectively, the inauguration of the Irish Liturgical Congresses in 1954 and the increasingly extensive impingement of continental and American influences on Irish Catholic culture. The necessity for progress in liturgical standards is enjoined in several episcopal statements, directives and pastorals, right up until a very late date. For instance, in 1959 (the year in which Pope John XXIII announced his intention to convene an ecumenical council) Bishop James MacNamee of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise used his lenten pastoral to exhort an advance in the liturgical standards of his diocese and chastises the reticence of some of his priests, who view congregational participation as superfluous:

It may be objected that it would be impossible to teach all this [i.e. the responses of the third degree – Shane] to children, especially as they must be said in Latin, and that it would be still more difficult to teach them to understand the meaning of the words they are required to use. The answer to this is that if a choir of boys or girls can be taught both to read these prayers and to sing them, it ought to be possible for at least the higher classes in our primary schools to recite them and understand them, and it should be still more easy for pupils of vocational and secondary schools. It is really a matter of considering the task worthwhile and then of settling down to it patiently and earnestly.

I have previously referred to the excellent paper read by the then Bishop (and soon-to-be Cardinal Primate) William Conway, auxiliary of Armagh, to the 1961 Irish Liturgical Congress as a heart-breaking example of ‘what might have been’. He showed himself entirely oblivious of what was just around the corner, reflecting a widescale ignorance in Irish Catholicism of the impending revolution. Commenting on Conway’s paper in 1963 (Irish Independent, 7th September, 1963), just three months before the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Louis McRedmond (who later reported on the Council for the Irish Independent and wrote a book on it) observed that:

Dr Conway’s point is that understanding must precede fuller participation. He plots a neat strategy by which we may be lured into accepting the new idea: in brief, hasten slowly. Some of the shorter responses, which are easily explained, should alone be required from adult congregations at first. The practice might be begun with Sung Masses. Meanwhile in the schools the children could be brought through the various stages. Thus, by acting over ten or fifteen years instead of overnight, we should achieve an enormously beneficial liturgical renewal without the strain on tradition felt in England and, apparently, on the Continent too.

Cardinal D’Alton’s lenten pastoral of 1960 – which in the course of an obituary Fr. Gerry McGarry (then editor of The Furrow and professor of Pastoral Theology at Maynooth) deservedly praised as “the finest document of the Irish liturgical movement” (Catholic Herald, 8th February, 1963) – treated at length the theological basis underpinning ‘participatio actuosa’ and envisaged a regular Missa Cantata in every parish of his Archdiocese. It was the fruit of considerable study beforehand: in the winter of 1959, he set himself the task of studying the proponents and sources (including Jungmann) of the liturgical movement.

It’s interesting to note that many of those who originally championed liturgical reform in pre-conciliar times were disillusioned by the liturgical reform that followed. In April 1974, Fr. P.J. Brophy, President of St. Patrick’s College, Carlow, wrote an article in The Furrow asking ‘Whatever Happened to Our Liturgical Dreams?’ In the 1940s and ’50s, he had been one of many Irish priests who dreamed of a revivified liturgy in Ireland and took inspiration from the pace of developments that he witnessed in local parishes during his Summer vacations to France. He tried his efforts with local communities of nuns in Carlow but encountered distrust and a lack of enthusiasm among practical-minded priests. He identifies the period 1954-1964 as a decisive decade of change. However, while he praises Sacrosanctum Concilium, the application of the liturgical reform did not live up to his expectations. For him the ‘hackneyed hymns’ and the aesthetical mediocrity of the reformed liturgy are a betrayal of the original intent of the liturgical movement.

In 1979, Fr. Eamonn Bredin, lecturer in Sacramental Theology at the Institute of Religious Education, Mount Oliver, Dundalk, wrote a four-part series in The Furrow on the progress of liturgical reform in Ireland since Vatican II. His criticisms of the new liturgy savour almost of traditionalism, criticizing it for its inherent artificiality and lack of beauty. He welcomes the transition to the vernacular as an obvious benefit, but laments the loss of sacrality which the Latin language had provided. He notes that older people are unenthusiastic about the new liturgy and pine for the past.

Seán Mac Réamoinn was arguably the most influential lay exponent of liturgical reform – even before Vatican II. In June, 1956, he wrote a quite scary article in The Furrow (and also in the Irish language magazine Comhar) welcoming the new order of Holy Week and speculating that it was prelude of things to come. Implausibly, James S. Donnelly cites him in an article in History Ireland (Autumn, 2000) to support his contention that “liturgical renewal inspired by Vatican II was generally a success in Ireland”:

Against the odds, however, Irish Catholicism did accommodate itself to some of the injunctions of Vatican II, though in other areas the response was incomplete or sadly deficient. Liturgical reformers had relatively little about which to complain. Writing in 1985 [in an essay in ‘Freedom to Hope: The Catholic Church in Ireland Twenty Years After Vatican II’ – Shane], the broadcaster and cultural commentator Seán Mac Réamoinn could declare expansively, ‘On the face of it, liturgical renewal has been the success story of Vatican II in Ireland’. From the beginning, Mass in the vernaculars (English and Irish) was thoroughly accepted. Mass attendance rates remained remarkably high overall (well above 80 per cent), especially in comparison with the rest of Europe. In addition, the participation of Mass-goers in the liturgy was generally much better than in the pre-council era. As Mac Réamoinn observed, ‘the days of the silent congregation are numbered, if not over, and the people’s voice is heard, even—mirabile dictu—in song!’ Common all over the country by 1985 were lay scripture readers, lay ministers of the eucharist, and communion in the hand.

That does not fully encapsulate Mac Réamoinn’s views. He certainly had more than “relatively little about which to complain.” In the same year the Sunday Independent (24th November, 1985) quotes him as mourning the ‘lost dimension of mystery’ that resulted from the liturgical reforms. (The same article quotes another writer’s view that one negative result of the Council was “the despoliation of the liturgy”.) Here is an extract from his Laylines’ column in Doctrine and Life of April, 1996:

An old friend who died last month had made it clear to his family that he wanted a sung Requiem in Latin for his funeral. Fortunately, with more than a little help from the Dominicans, his wish was granted. And I know that all who were present were considerably moved by the liturgy. For many of us it was a reminder not just of old ways, but of the power of plainsong to shape our worship. And for those to whom it was a new experience it was, I believe, no less affecting, if at times more obscurely so…

Some of us who joined in the singing were out of practice, to put it very kindly. I hope we didn’t damage the ensemble too seriously. And I believe we didn’t for, though the Gregorian discipline demands as much careful respect, if not more, than other musical forms, it can cover a multitude of imperfections…

[L]ast month’s experience was a sharp reminder of what we have lost, or rather mislaid or thrown aside. I have written here before about the appalling philistinism which has allowed us to neglect so much of our western Catholic heritage: it is as if the Orthodox world had suddenly decided to embrace iconoclasm as a way of living and praying, and thrown all those images — which are plainsong’s rival in their deep and direct communication of the spiritual — on the ecclesiastical scrap heap. And I shudder to think what the more enthusiastic among them would have adopted as substitutes, what glossy meretricious essays in neo-sentimentality would have paralleled some of our recent hymns, post-modern effusions of sentimental pietism…

When we ignore plainsong, or for that matter, classical polyphony, to the point of banishing this great music from our churches and denying it to our younger people, we are depriving them and us of a spiritual enrichment whose value is more, far more, than aesthetic — important as that may be. It reminds me of nothing so much as the pathetic way so many of our great-(great-) grandparents believed that they must not pass the Irish language on to their children….such was the crazy logic of the time, they thought that a knowledge of Irish and of English were mutually exclusive. We now realise, or at least I hope we do, what an injustice was done in those days, from the best of motives.

Mind you, it is harder to see what has been the motivation of ‘getting rid of the oul’ Latin’ over the past thirty years or so. How can anyone have possibly seen such stupidity as an aid to liturgical renewal? Certainly the composition of vernacular settings was, and is, to be encouraged, but not to the exclusion of work of a standard which it would be difficult to emulate or approach overnight. And interestingly, the simple O’Riada Cúil Aodha Mass seems to be the most generally popular of all the new settings, not least among congregations who would be hard put to it to provide translations of the texts…The ‘poetry’ seems to get through, in spite of any verbal problems. Is there a moral here?


Posted on August 25, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Pope St. Pius V warned everybody what would happen if his Mass was done away with. Paul VI dumped it. Now we must all pay the consequences: Apostasy of the Church, World War III, Antichrist’s World Government, Satanic Religions United and the End of the World.

  2. Good stuff!

    It might be worth further exploration of the development of thinking that changed reform of the way in which the Mass is celebrated and reform of the way in which the faithful partivipate in the Mass, to reform of the Mass itself. My guess is that many of the reformers, including Pius XII were aiming at the former, but the radical shakeup of Holy Week in 1955 made it possible to start thinking seriously about achieving the radical revisions one or two of the key reformers had been dreaming about.

    • Thanks Ttony, I think the two main impulses behind the liturgical reforms were: a desire for the Church’s liturgy to be ‘pastoral’, in order to meet the needs of modern man, and also to return the Roman liturgy to a romanticized pristine simplicity, by removing what were seen as medieval accretions. Of course some of this was based on scholarship which was questionable and has since been revised.

      • Yes, point taken that this is what the Germans and French were trying to do. But how was this translated into Ireland? How did the pastorally-minded priests of the 40s and 50s take to being told that their Mass was pastorally insensitive?

      • Ttony, the Irish liturgical congresses in the pre-conciliar period were addressed by most of the main figures in the liturgical movement from the continent (including Jungmann in 1959, he also spoke at Maynooth and Holy Cross the same year) and the ideas were discussed in journals like ‘The Furrow’ and ‘Doctrine and Life’. I imagine many priests in the 60s were unhappy about liturgical reform, but went ahead with it out of a sense of obedience.

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