“…led by Curiosity and good Company I strolled away to Mother Church…”

From a reader:

Good morning, Father.  Reading your comments on the importance of revitalizing the liturgy put me in mind of the comments of John Adams, who later became the second president of the United States.  Adams was rather a Puritan, I’m afraid, and did not at all like the Catholic Church.  However, in a letter to his wife Abigail, he describes a visit to a “Romish Chapel” in the company of George Washington.  The question that he asks in the last paragraph is astounding.  Like him, I also wonder how “Luther ever broke the spell.”  Part of the answer, perhaps, is that the liturgy had deteriorated in Luther’s day, like it has for us.  Note that I came across this passage in the great biography of John Adams written by David McCullough.  Sorry I don’t have the exact citation. 

 
The letter, which I have read before, is online.  Here is the quote from John Adams:
 

Phyladelphia Octr. 9, 1774

This afternoon, led by Curiosity and good Company I strolled away to Mother Church, or rather Grandmother Church, I mean the Romish Chapel. Heard a good, short, moral Essay upon the Duty of Parents to their Children, founded in justice and Charity, to take care of their Interests temporal and spiritual.

This afternoon’s entertainment was to me most awful and affecting. The poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood, their Pater Nosters and Ave Marias. Their holy water – their crossing themselves perpetually – their bowing to the name of Jesus wherever they hear it – their bowings, and kneelings, and genuflections before the altar. The dress of the priest was rich with lace– his pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar piece was very rich – little images and crucifixes about – wax candles lighted up. But how shall I describe the picture of our Saviour in a frame of marble over the altar, at full length, upon the cross in the agonies, and the blood dropping and streaming from his wounds.

The music consisting of an organ, and a Choir of singers, went all the afternoon, excepting sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted– most sweetly and exquisitely.

Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination. Everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and the ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.

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15 Responses to “…led by Curiosity and good Company I strolled away to Mother Church…”

  1. ThomasM says:

    I guess you can count me in as “simple and ignorant.” However, on the positive side it made a real impression on John Adams. If he were alive today and walked into a standard suburban Novus Ordo with banal music he’d probably shrug and not even note it. Tom

  2. If he really went to the chapel, per se, he went to little old St. Joseph’s on 4th and Walnut St. (I guess there’s a big church there now.) If he was using the term loosely, it might have been St. Mary’s, which had been built 11 years previous.

    Either way — Philadelphia was a very rich city, so it’s probable that it was set pretty nicely for altar stuff and vestments. But it couldn’t have been very large or dizzying or super-impressive. Intimate, more like.

    I notice that the “Assembly chanted”, and that the priest isn’t really described as a person or performer. The closest we get is a description of the sermon. The priest must have been in the “stay out of the way of Jesus” style.

    You also notice the assumption that the people couldn’t possibly understand the Latin, even though Philadelphia was full of educated people, French people, Italian people, etc. who could be expected to know at least some Latin or be able to understand the gist of what was being said. He had learned that they couldn’t understand, and didn’t question it. (Adams himself was a scholar, of course.)

  3. http://www.oldstjoseph.org/history_essay.htm

    The Philadelphia parish has a history page with interesting info.

  4. “But how shall I describe….”
    http://www.oldstjoseph.org/images/photo_interior_larger.JPG

    It’s possible that this wasn’t the picture in question, but I bet it is. It seems to have been there since the new church was built in 1839, after all.

    A lot of 18th century descriptions of paintings are like this, even when they refer to pictures which seem pretty restrained to us. Less can be more, of course, but Adams wouldn’t have been used to seeing full length paintings of the Crucifixion, back in Braintree.

  5. “The music consisting of an organ, and a Choir of singers, went all the afternoon, excepting sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted—most sweetly and exquisitely.”

    But, but, I thought the congregation never got to participate in the Mass! How could NCR be wrong?!

  6. Great, great article! And if you didn’t already, George was doing something right.

    This website seems comprehensive and says this:
    In the eighteenth century Our Lady imparted prophetic visions to Saint Veronica Giuliani, Saint Anne Catherine Emmerich, and, quite possibly, the father of our country – George Washington as we will see in this installment. No matter the age, Our Lady has been imparting the same message: “Pray! Pray! Pray!”

    http://www.dailycatholic.com/issue/July/jul22age.htm

  7. Agnes says:

    May that “spell” never be broken!

  8. maynardus says:

    I’ve always been struck by his thoughts, espcially: “Everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and the ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell”.

    One can read it as perhaps he intended it, as smug remarks made by one of the “elites” of his day. And only a brief reflection is required for one to see the same attitudes which governed the work of the liturgical revolutionaries of the 1960′s and 70′s.

    Consider this instead – what is liturgy (or worship, if you prefer) “about” if not… Love of God? Is it a bad thing for one to be “charmed” or even “bewitched” by the One he loves? Should one not seek to cast aside earthly caution and reserve, and seek instead to multiply his intellectual assent to the Truth of God by the factor of an emotional bond with Our Creator and Savior?

    THIS IS WHY I ATTEND THE TRADITIONAL MASS!

  9. TC says:

    I heard an author interviewed on C-SPAN (forget the name) who stated the in his retirement Adams took to reading the early Church Fathers and his margin notes show he was infuriated to find them loaded with “Romish” fallacies. (There’s a clue, John!)

    He’s still one of my favorites — invincibly stubborn.

  10. mpm says:

    I’m not so sure that “smug” describes what Adams is really trying to express. After all, his formation had been entirely of the Non-Conforming type.

    I think the same attitude of distrustful love (almost like an “attraction to sin”) was depicted in the anecdote of a Catholic priest convert from Anglicanism which he related in an interview with Marcus Grodi (just now, I can’t remember his name, a senior moment on my part) as part of the latter’s British Isles shows.

    He described his young self as a smarty-pants young man, who loved to find the contradictions in what his elders said, and gloried in pointing it out to them. He was raised in the US in Tennessee, and his grandmother lived in one of the cities, Nashville or Memphis I think. She was very disapproving of Catholicism. On one extended visit with her, he was in his room reading a book, and heard Gregorian chant coming forth from the TV. So he went to the living room, and found his grandmother wrapt in watching the funeral of John XXIII. After watching for a while, he asked her: “I thought you didn’t approve of Catholicism?” Her reply, I think, was in line with Adams reaction: “Yes, dear, but it’s soooo ooooold!”

  11. Boots says:

    “Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination. ”
    John Adams restates simply St. Thomas’ arguments that we learn through our senses.

    I like the use of the word “awful” in the sense that we use the word “awesome” today.

  12. Sedgwick says:

    John Adams was a Freemason as well as a Puritan, was he not?

  13. Agnes of Prague says:

    “The music consisting of an organ, and a Choir of singers, went all the afternoon, excepting sermon Time, and the Assembly chanted—most sweetly and exquisitely.”

    But, but, I thought the congregation never got to participate in the Mass! How could NCR be wrong?!

    Comment by Jeffrey Pinyan

    Hmm. If it took place in the afternoon, perhaps it was a devotional service, rather than a Mass? Rules used to be very strict about when you could have Mass and I don’t think that would have included afternoon. So perhaps some combination of a sermon, some devotional songs, a public rosary, Vespers, or Benediction?

  14. ssoldie says:

    “Here is everything that can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination”. And he was speaking of the ‘Gregorian Rite Mass’ Amen.

  15. Rachel says:

    On the other hand, an excitable Protestant in England checked out a Catholic Benediction service in the 1800′s, and his extensive critique was unintentionally hilarious, especially when fisked by Cardinal Newman. See section 5 of this page.