Holy Mass “free of time or geography”

In Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortune of War Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin are prisoners of war in Boston.

At one point, Stephen goes to Sunday Mass, though he is running a bit late!

He hurried into his clothes, but even so the priest was on the altar by the time they reached the obscure chapel in a side-alley, and crept into the immensely evocative smell of old incense. There followed an interval on a completely different plane of being: with the familiar ancient words around him, always the same, in whatever country he had ever been (though now uttered in a broad Munster Latin), he lived free of time or geography, and he might have walked, a boy, into the streets of Barcelona, blazing white in the sun, or into those of Dublin under the soft rain.

Reason #3 for Summorum Pontificum.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Lighter fare, Linking Back, O'Brian Tags, Our Catholic Identity, SUMMORUM PONTIFICUM and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. ghp95134 says:

    “…with the familiar ancient words around him, always the same, in whatever country he had ever been…”

    Alas, were that statement true today!

  2. JKnott says:

    Beautiful!!! The consolation of our Holy Mother Church and then…..
    “rupture”, like the separate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered all about. :(

  3. keithp says:

    The TLM in my diocese moved from San Luis Obispo to my home town of Santa Cruz and the Shrine of St Joseph (OSJ). My wife and I attended the past two Sunday’s EF. It really was ‘extraordinary” I felt a much closer connection to my faith and the history of my faith thru this experience.

  4. Sublime. I have read only the first two of O’Brien’s series. I shall have to remedy that.

  5. buffaloknit says:

    This is very beautiful. Someone should collect other such literary observations about the Mass. Thank you!

  6. VEXILLA REGIS says:

    I loved that passage when I first read it! Patrick O’Brian was a superb writer and so very perceptive in so many ways -including the worship of Almighty God and the great realities of life. Thanks Father for bringing it back to notice. I’ve said yet another Memorare for your Intentions this morning.

  7. Glen M says:

    My father-in-law has a both beautiful and frustrating immigrant story. He arrived in Kitchener, Ontario from war ravaged Germany at the age of eighteen. Already a tool and die maker, his first full day in Canada was overwhelming: different language, units of measure (Imperial vs Metric) detached from his parents, friends, culture, everything. He was homesick. The next day he went to Sunday Mass. Upon walking into church – in his words – he was home. It was a church just like any in Germany: same structure, style, devotions, reverence, look, feel. He was a gifted singer so made his way up to the choir loft to volunteer and met the girl who would become his bride. When Mass began it was the same Mass he attended the Sunday previous: universal, timeless. Tears well in his eyes at this point in the story.

    Twenty years later, as a respected member of the community, he left that church for a new one (spirit of V2 design) introduced guitars to the Novus Ordo, and today I can’t get him to the local Extraordinary Form. Excuses include: ‘we can’t go backwards’, ‘people need to hear Mass in their own language’, ‘no one understood the old Mass’, etc. Of his five children, only my wife makes her Sunday Obligation.

    We’ve lost so much, yet those who were there are so oblvious to the causes and results.

  8. marthawrites says:

    We have been attending the TLM six mornings a week for the past year and a half, a blessing which is about to end with the reassignment of our one friar who could offer this. Imagine our chagrin (not surprise) when we traveled in Europe for two weeks recently and could not understand a word of Portuguese or Italian during the Masses. The only prayer we could actually recite and understand was the Regina Coeli which was sung at the end of all Masses in both countries.

  9. AnAmericanMother says:

    I remember so vividly, when we were small children, traveling all around the Caribbean and Central America with my family. We usually traveled at Christmas and Easter (school holidays), and we would often be on a Dutch, or French, or Spanish island where no Anglican service was offered.
    We went to Mass in that case, and it struck me even as a youngster how wherever we went, the Mass was always the same.
    That was a sad loss, at least for those of us who travel.

  10. Maltese says:

    immensely evocative smell of old incense

    Nice, I like that!

  11. Former Altar Boy says:

    Even as a child growing up in the pre-Vat2 Church, the good Sisters taught us that we could go to Mass anywhere in the world with our missal and understand everything that was happening, except maybe the sermon. It added to our understanding of a “universal” Church. What a treasure to give up for the cheap trinket of “the venacular.”

  12. aurora says:

    I’m about to go on land with Lucky Jack and the good doctor in book 11 of the most prodigious Aubrey/Maturin series. Can’t wait.

  13. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Doncha know that is why daily Mass goers never seem to age? They spend all that time in suspension!

  14. Mariana says:

    Holy Mass “free of time or geography”

    Yes, please!

  15. Faith says:

    HEY!!! I take exception to “uttered in a broad Munster Latin”.

    Faith from Boston

  16. Joseph says:

    Mass was always the same.
    That was a sad loss, at least for those of us who travel.

    All of us are traveling!

  17. rfox2 says:

    There followed an interval on a completely different plane of being:

    I feel like that every time I hear the David Haas and Marty Haugen hymns sung at Mass. Except, it’s not heaven I’m experiencing, but hell.

    This is a fantastic passage and captures the essence of what it means to have a universal ecclesiastical and liturgical language. I envy Dr. Maturin!

  18. An older member of my family is a bitter-ender about the wisdom of every jot and tittle of the “reforms” associated with the Pauline missal. I once shared with him a story similar to the excerpt, about the former universality of the Mass, and it made him pause, almost wistfully. It’s a very effective argument.

  19. Jonathan says:

    A similar theme was emphasized by Cardinal Zen in his homily on Sunday morning at Old St. Mary’s in DC. He spoke of the Tridentine rite of Holy Mass connecting us to the many centuries of Catholic faithful, and to the latin language, the language of the Catholic Church, connecting us to all Catholics around the world. He did so especially in the context of the Church in China, asking for our prayers, that the weak might be strengthened, and the strong sustained.

    Pictures of Cardinal Zen’s surprise visit to old St. Mary’s may be seen on the website of the Paulus Institute at http://thepaulusinstitute.org/Cardinal%20Zen.htm

  20. RichardT says:

    Father, I read that just a couple of weeks ago, and thought of you.

    I’ve read similar things in memoirs by immigrants or refugees, that the Mass is the one thing they can be confident will be the same wherever they go.

    No longer, alas. And what strange timing, to give up that universality just when people started travelling again and would benefit so much from it. For all their supposed modernism, the opponents of the Old Rite just look parochial and provincial, when compared to the universal majesty of the Latin.

  21. Jason Keener says:

    “At 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve I was twiddling the knob of my radio. Unable to get out to Midnight Mass I wanted to at least bring it to my fireside. And as I switched from one European station to the next I tuned in to one Midnight Mass after the other. Belgium, France, Germany, Eire, yes, even behind the Iron Curtain, Prague. It seemed as though the whole of what was once Christendom was celebrating what is potentially the most unifying event in man’s history. And the important thing was that it was the same Mass. I am a newcomer to the Mass, but I was able to recognize its continuity as I went from station to station for it was in one common language. This aspect of Catholicism is but a single one, and maybe not the most important. But I have a strong feeling that it is precisely the Catholicism of the Catholic Church which may prove the greatest attraction, and will meet the greatest need, for my dillusioned generation.”

    —Douglas Hyde, former Communist and convert to the Catholic Faith in 1948

  22. Wayne NYC says:

    The town is half awake; the nave, the choir,
    Are dark, and all is dim, within, without ;
    But every chapel fringed with the devout ,
    Is bright with February flowers of fire.

    At Mass, a thousand years ago in Rome,
    Thus Priest, thus Server at the altar bowed;
    Thus knelt, thus blessed itself the kneeling crowd,
    At Dawn, within the secret catacomb.

    Thus shall they meet for Mass, until the day
    The glory of the world shall pass away.
    And beauty far away from human reach,

    And power, and wealth beyond all mortal price,
    And glory that outsoars all thought, all speech,
    Speak in the whispered words of sacrifice.

    Maurice Baring ( 1909 )

  23. Rachel says:

    I was briefly a member of a religious community that spoke French, which I didn’t. Even though I couldn’t follow the conversations at recreation, I felt right at home at Mass, because it was in the Extraordinary Form.

    I loved Cardinal Newman’s novel “Lost and Found” about an Anglican who converts to Catholicism. The description of Catholic worship in the 1800’s is thrilling because it’s still the same today… if you know the right parishes to go to. :) My friends and I have taken long road trips just to visit such places.

    For the depressed, Michael Dubriel’s book “The How-t0 Book of the Mass” is about the Novus Ordo, and emphasizes the continuity of the NO with the past, using St. Justin Martyr’s description from A.D. 150 as an outline. Sometimes it’s good for me to dwell on what *hasn’t* been lost, especially here in Los Angeles where we still don’t have a licit daily TLM.

    I’ve just finished a book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s private letters, and he wrote this advice to his son: “Make a habit of the ‘praises.’ I use them much (in Latin): the Gloria Patri, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Laudate Dominum, the Laudate Pueri Dominum (of which I am specially fond), one of the Sunday Psalms, and the Magnificat; also the Litany of Loretto (with the prayer Sub tuum praesidium). If you have these by heart you never need for words of joy.”

  24. WaywardSailor says:

    There is no doubt that Stephen Maturin would have been able to attend Mass regularly in Boston in 1812. The first Catholic church, the Church of the Holy Cross, was built on Franklin Street in 1803. But the priests pronouncing the Latin would have been either Bishop Cheverus or Father Matignon, both refugees from the French Revolution. It appears that Irish priests did not begin to serve in Boston until 1816, when a group of missionaries arrived to assist with the evangelization of New England. Regardless of that minor detail, O’Brian nails the universality of the Mass as it was and as it should be.

Comments are closed.