I was alerted by a reader to a piece on the site of The Guardian.
The following was written by a non-Catholic who seems to be stuck in the externals. My emphases and comments.
The mysteries of the Latin mass
At a Latin mass, the congregation are more witnesses than participants
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 3 May 2009 11.00 BST
Location: Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London
Service: Sung mass of the Tridentine rite (Latin mass)
Texts: 1962 Missal
Age range and numbers: The youngest members of the congregation are in their 20s, but most are older; numbers gradually increase as the service continues, reaching about 30 people in total
Architecture: A small gothic revival church built in 1874
At Vatican II, the great reforming conference [writing with secular terms, at least non-Christian] of the Catholic church at the beginning of the 1960s, sweeping changes were made to the way people worshipped. Use of local languages, rather than Latin, was encouraged, [permitted…at least in the documents…] ritual was made less elaborate and less deferential; [I am not sure what he means by that. But consider the juxtaposition of "worship" with "less deferential".] the overall aim was greater involvement and understanding by the congregation.
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI "liberated" the pre-reform 1962 version of the mass. This horrified many progressive Catholics, but was just what a lot of conservatives had been (quite literally) praying for – a return to a more formal, more reverent mode of worship. [This time we juxtapose "more formal" and "more reverent".]
Up to that point, members of groups like the Latin Mass Society had lobbied for the liberation of the old mass – now they encourage its use and provide services for those who want to experience it. I found Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, where a mass is held in Latin every Monday, through the society’s website.
[The writer isn’t very knowledgeable, but in a way that makes his impressions more interesting.]
Arriving early, I take my place towards the back of the church, [a typically "Catholic" thing to do… come early and get a place in back!] a slightly dingy, late-Victorian space whose main appeal is it’s complete lack of presence on the street – you’d never guess a church was hiding behind the Peabody-esque facade, and that lends it a kind of secret charm. (An aside: I was slightly surprised to find, among the name plaques screwed into the pew in front of me, one for Radclyffe Hall, the lesbian novelist. Next to her was a "Lady Troubridge" – whom later googling reveals to have been Hall’s partner. So Corpus Christi, as well vying with for the title of "actor’s church" with St Paul’s Covent Garden, could also lay claim to be the spiritual home of London’s Christian lesbians.) [I think many people have the impression that the Catholic Church claims to be the Church of the pure, of the perfect. Nothing could be farther from the true. The Church is more like a hospital ward for ailing souls than it is a fashion runway for flawless saints.]
Already a few older women, wearing their mantillas, and piously reading from bibles or missals, [Piously? Either he reads minds or… the image brought something of piety to mind. ] have gathered in the pews in front. The mantilla is a strange thing – if you’re used to chilly northern Protestantism, it gives the whole experience a Mediterranean flavour: exotic, oriental almost. [Something out of the ordinary… in this context, something quite Catholic.] Since this is a sung mass, there is a choir in the bay to the left of the altar. All men, they sing beautifully, without accompaniment. As the service gets underway a bell sounds and the priest enters, wearing a biretta, amid elaborate choreography. The myrhh roasting in a censer being swung around in the chancel moves slowly down the nave towards us.
There is, of course, a lot of Latin. Some of it whispered by the priest, much of it sung by the choir, a little intoned by the congregation in answer to the blessing Dominus vobiscum ("Et cum spirtu tuo"). To the devout Catholic, this mass is no doubt as clearly signposted as the evensong I attended a few months ago. But to me, it feels like I am witnessing a series of inscrutable – and therefore, rather powerful – rituals. I’m reduced to the level of an illiterate medieval peasant: [Watch this….] all I can do is wonder at the mystery and beauty of the spectacle. [Exactly.]
Gradually it becomes clear that all the ceremony I’ve seen so far has been geared towards a single moment – towards making it more solemn, more obviously the crux of the mass. This is the point at which the bread and wine are consecrated and transubstantiation is believed to occur. It is marked by the ringing of hand bells, echoed by the bell of church, heard faintly from outside. [I would not discount the moment of Communion.]
I visited this Corpus Christi twice. After the first time, I found that I could remember few of the details [interesting] I thought I needed in order to get a clear idea of the service across: who stood where and when, at what points incense was used, when the sign of the cross was made and when the priest and acolytes kneeled or bowed. So I went again, and it was just as difficult. Of course, the precise running orders of the various versions of the Tridentine rite mass are easy enough to find online, in all their complex glory. But I began to wonder if my sense of the mass as somehow inaccessible was significant. [Well… yes and no. No, in that you can learn with more experience. Yes, in that you are having an encounter with mystery.]
I didn’t go up to take communion of course, and were I Catholic, that would have been the really important element of participation. [Above, he saw the consecration as the climax.] But even so, with all the action happening in the chancel, the priest often talking inaudibly, the language alien, there must be (even for the seasoned churchgoer) a stronger sense of witnessing than of joining in. [This is where he goes off the rails. One can understand why he says this, at his level of experience, but he got this point wrong. Witnessing and participation are not contradictory.] Does that breed unthinking religion? [Wow… no.] You go to church, you see the mystery repeated in front of you, you’ve done your duty. In some, it might, and I can see why many at Vatican II thought it necessary to try to reinvigorate worship. Going further back in time, I can also understand how, for the more pedantic mind, this comfortable spectator sport wouldn’t have satisfied: perhaps this is why a split, and the rise of more indivdualistic churches, was always inevitable.
The writer’s strong suit is clearly assessing first impressions. When it comes to analysis, he seems to lack some necessary tools.
Still… there are a few points of interest here. He groped his way to the all important encounter with mystery.
I wonder if he won’t go back some day….