Low Mass

I found A liturgical abuse… very interesting on my old friend’s blog. As usual, Patrick is a tad categorical. He sees it from the point of view of a layman, and myself from the point of view of a priest who rarely has anyone at Mass. That leads to another issue, on which I have already written in Mass without a congregation. Anglicanism since the Reformation banned it and Roman Catholic canon law has only loosened the ban since the new Code of 1983. Before then, a priest who was on his own like Fr Charles de Foucault had to apply for an indult to say Mass without a server.

Should Mass be forbidden unless there is everything required for High Mass with music and full ceremonies? That would be excessive. Most of the masses I celebrate are solitary. I have the cruets on the altar and make my own responses. It isn’t ideal, but daily Mass helps me to maintain a priestly identity, however minimal, as well as being the sacrificial prayer to God of the entire Church including the saints and the souls of the departed. Should I stop saying Mass? I have already answered the question, and that answer is largely determined by the place where I live.

The subject is this article is really the use of a specific “low mass” model when celebrating Mass with a congregation with or without a server. The problem goes back a long way to the various late medieval scholastic theories of the distinction between the one Sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the application of that sacrifice through the sacrifice of the Mass. The more Mass is celebrated, the more the Redemption is “effective”. I frankly find the subject boring, but can recommend Fr Joseph de Sainte-Marie, L’Eucharistie, Salut du Monde, Paris 1981. I am sure that an English translation exists of this work.

During the period after the Council of Trent, churches in towns put on as many low masses as they had priests and one high mass (capitular, conventual or parochial). People could freely go and receive Communion at the side altars if they were at peace with their consciences, and lay Communion was rare until the beginning of the twentieth century. There arose a tendency for some people to prefer low mass to high mass for reasons of expediency or because they preferred quietness for their devotions to a liturgical service with ceremonial and music.

I touched on the “low mass ideology” when I wrote my mémoire at Fribourg University, but found I had little to add to the usual dialectics between traditionalists and those promoting pastoralism and modern liturgical forms like Mass facing the people. Rocks and hard places, Scylla and Charybdis, you name it. During the time I spent with the traditionalists, I found the medieval theories and practice perpetuated – the “blessed mutter of the Mass“, high mass ceremonies as something added to the “primitive” form. If we study the Tridentine ritus servandus, we will see the essential structure being a priest saying low mass with the sacred ministers “adding ceremonies”. This was the greatest defect of the Tridentine codification, and it went unnoticed. When I did my research in Fribourg University Library (no internet in those days), I discovered the collusion between late medieval scholastic theory and practice and those of Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and others. I wrote:

The Mass came to be regarded as an occasion of private and subjective devotion: such an attitude would lead inevitably to the protestant conception of the Eucharist. The logical development would have been to remove the external action, leaving the individual to his devotions.

Looking at my footnotes, I referred particularly to Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, London 1945. Dix quoted the English Puritan divines as having said:

The minister is appointed for the people in all publick services appertaining unto God, and the Holy Scriptures both of the Old and New Testaments intimating the people’s part in publick prayer to be only with silence and reverence to attend thereunto.

That is a direct consequence of the “low mass mentality”, even though the rites were mutilated and emphasis was placed on community, communion and memorial. This quote expresses an even greater degree of clericalism than in the medieval Church! It is true that such a notion led to the drab and dreary services of the eighteenth century or the average Roman Catholic parish since the 1970’s. Mass facing the people alone would not reverse this underlying mentality.

What about my own experience? Most of the masses I say are celebrated by the priest alone and without music, though I do make the effort for some feasts to use incense and sing the ordinary and proper of the Mass, either in Latin or English. Whatever I do, I either have no one in the chapel or occasionally my wife and mother-in-law (for whom I say Mass in French according to the best translation I have compiled myself from other sources). It is still a low mass. The only difference is that it is something imposed on me rather than something I have chosen for theological and spiritual reasons.

This is not confined to my own situation, but also to many other places or worship and priests who are struggling with practically nothing. It isn’t the ideal, but we do what we can.

I wouldn’t sail the Atlantic in my twelve-foot boat – if you get my meaning. But, I would do it in a ship with the right skills and crew. That is something else…

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9 Responses to Low Mass

  1. As I commented over at Patrick’s blog, being present at low Mass can be deeply moving, as it was hundreds of times for me as a traditionalist seminarian. From my own experience as a father of five, however, is that the low Mass is a pastorally terrible thing! A proper liturgy with ministers and processions and chanting and incense can keep the little ones focused and can allow the easily distracted parent the ability to come in and out of the liturgical drama that is going on before him.

    I object to the “low Mass mentality” that turns the Mass into the private devotion of the priest. The laity have their beads and prayer books, the clergy have their Mass and breviary. Two castes, clericalism at its finest. For a priest to say “my Mass” annoys me to no end.

    Take a look here: http://icrsp.org/IMAGES-APOSTOLATS/IMAGES-2010/Gricigliano/Chapitre/Diverses/page_9_copie(4).htm

    I’ll stay silent on the matter, but I think Patrick would cry, “Popish superstition!”

    • I remember that lovely chapel in which Cardinal Palazzini ordained me a deacon in 1993. We had inward-facing stalls like in the new chapel (converted from a wine-making workshop). It seems quite grotesque to find it full of altars and priests celebrating at the same time. Perhaps it is a little more seemly in a big monastic church where the distances are greater.

      When I am with my Bishop, I attend his Mass (usually as organist) and receive Communion. We don’t have concelebration except for ordinations, like in the pre-Vatican II RC Church. I celebrate Mass, even when alone – otherwise I would not have Mass at all.

  2. J.D. says:

    I don’t much care for Low Mass but in your own situation, or the situations of priests in prison or in places without a congregation I can understand that it’s the only thing one can offer. I never enjoyed driving 45 minutes to the local FSSP outpost for a 30 minute mumbled Low Mass. It was often bizarre, with the priest with his back to the people mumbling his Latin while us congregants daydreamed or fingered our beads.

    If Low Mass was the norm in the pre conciliar parish church I can see why versus populum, vernacular liturgy and congregational singing became the norm after Vatican II. The Low Mass with a congregation is barren, sterile and quite frankly, boring.

    That being said I can imagine that for some people it’s beautiful, because they love the simplicity and the silence of it. I don’t care for it but I prefer it to a High Mass with polyphony. I actually can’t stand polyphony in the liturgy or the high church opera music of modern Russian Orthodoxy. Give me plain chant or some Byzantine or Znammeny ( like the monks of Valaam) anyday over ostentatious polyphonic music. I guess at heart I’m more Old Believer or Cistercian in my sensibilities.

    It might sound sacrilegious to some trads but I prefer a spoken Mass of Paul VI done versus populum in the vernacular with the correct Propers to the Low Mass.

    For you though Father, I can see how it can help you feel connected to your priestly identity. To each his own I suppose.

    • I speak from experience. It does help to say Mass (Sarum) in English (though I sometimes use Latin) and say the prayers in a clear voice. As I mentioned, I make the effort to sing on feasts even when alone. Since my Gricigliano days, I reverted towards a “Dearmeresque” medieval aesthetic and notion of more sobriety than some of the baroque excesses. It seems subjective, but the ethos is clearly different from the excesses of late medieval and post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism. For masses with a congregation, it is essential to make everything audible and sing at least something, and celebrate in the language of the people (though some musical settings are in Latin). Also, there is nothing heretical about turning to the people to read the Epistle and Gospel, and this is something I have picked up from French “pastoralism”.

      Since the 1980’s, I notice a movement towards accepting the Novus Ordo and everything as has been done since the 1960’s. Perhaps that is the way to go, and I have to realise that my priesthood (or my participation in Christ’s priesthood) is not an absolute. Over the same period of time, people have had to learn to be “spiritual but not religious” which can be a euphemism for crass and hypocritical materialism or living according to aspirations to transcendence that they fail to find in churches.

      Pearls hang by slender threads, and I again express my gratitude to my Bishop for my new priestly life and hope in the service of our little Church.

    • Stephen K says:

      I prefer a spoken Mass of Paul VI done versus populum in the vernacular with the correct Propers, to the Low Mass.

      I feel the same, J.D.. I also prefer the chant to polyphony, although I do not fail to derive a different and pleasurable or moving kind of sensation hearing or singing a part in, the latter.

      And I prefer simple chanted psalmody (i.e. the Office), in the vernacular or in Latin, to Mass of any kind.

      • J.D. says:

        Stephen K-

        I feel the same way regarding psalmody as you. I absolutely love the Office. In the time I spent as a “home aloner” Catholic I was sustained by the rhythm of the Office. I learned to chant by listening to the Norcia and La Barroux monks online.

        Here where I am one of the local new rite Catholic parishes actually has a spoken or chanted Liturgy of the Hours pretty much every day. While I prefer older forms of the Office it’s nice to see people gather together to pray the psalms.

  3. Jim of Olym says:

    As a college student I, an Anglican, once attended a low (spoken) mass at San Miguel Mission in California. only a few congregants were there. A Franciscan priest celebrated, one of the brothers served. The entire service was in Latin of course, but audible, and very reverent. it has stuck in my mind for over 50 years now. Of course I prefer my Byzantine liturgy as I’ve gotten used to it but still……

  4. Dale says:

    I also commented on this issue, and have commented on it here as well some time ago. I am opposed to the main Sunday mass being a “low” Mass, but for the daily mass and office, in small parishes, there is usually no other possibility other than a spoken, or dialogue Mass. What I am opposed to is large, mostly Roman Catholic parishes, with hundreds if not thousands of families who, in a church packed to the seams on Sunday used to offer a quickly said, completely silent Mass at the altar with the only “noise” being the ringing of the sanctus bell.

    But spoke services have allowed us in the Anglican tradition to have something that does not really exist in the Byzantine world, a daily round of mass and offices, often with very few in attendance, whilst the Byzantines often only offer Sunday services (in the United States, where I now live, even the Saturday Vesper service is rare).

    I agree with Jim, I have often, when church visiting stumbled upon a priest with a few believers offering a quietly said, but moving, Mass. It is indeed very moving.

    I also agree, very strongly, with J.D. about worship as a public spectator sport with an operatic choir, this is especially true in the Russian tradition, but not limited to them, whilst everyone simply stands around. I would prefer a dialogue Mass to Mass as opera.

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Am I right in thinking “the sacrificial prayer to God of the entire Church including the saints and the souls of the departed” offered by priest-hermits has been a common and widespread practice throughout the greater part of the history of the Church?

    Would it also usually have been sung? (I enjoyed The Shape of the Liturgy, but do not recall if this was stated, there – or in Pius Parsch’s book on the Mass.) As well as the Office?

    It also come to mind that in the 12th c., it was the practice of St. Gerlach, a lay hermit whose hermitage was half-way between Maastricht and Aachen, to walk to Maastricht daily for services and to Aachen on Sundays – but I have no idea if something like that was not uncommon – or quite uncommon.

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