Monday, 5 August 2013

A server's view of the Traditional Mass

Recently, after Mass at the Cathedral, I was asked “What attracted you to the old Mass?”

A good question, and answered in the first instance by "Ummm...." It's a deceptively simple question at first glance, but it took me a moment to marshal my thoughts.

To put the question into a little more context, the question really amounted to "You're nowhere near old enough to have experienced it first time round, so after 32 years attending nothing but the Novus Ordo and 24 years serving nothing but that, how did you come to have been in the sacristy having just served Mass in the Usus Antiquior?"

Well….. I suppose it all started in 1985, when I made my first appearance east of the Altar Rails. Or, I would have, if there were any. Back then, there used to be two weekday Masses each day at the Cathedral, and over the week eight servers were rostered in pairs to cover them, with spares. We were allowed out of school for that- it’d be hard to believe that happening these days - and we were even let out to serve at funerals too. Over time, as servers move on, you find yourself moving up the pecking order, until eventually I ended up being the one at the back of the gaggle of servers on a Sunday Morning and directing the proceedings, and I found that all of a sudden, those bits of red text in that Very Large Book on the Altar were actually quite important! Say the Black, Do the Red, and all that.

Now, once you start looking into what we have to do, you start having to think about how we’re to do it, and why. For a while, the “we've always done it like that 'ere” line of reasoning will satisfy, but if you know that there was something else before, you have to cast your eyes further back in time.

Around that time, a certain Rev. Stephen Cross appeared in our parish, wearing a cassock, a biretta, and complete with chalice veils, burses, amices, Latin and a whole load of other things not seen for many years. I realised over a period of time that it’s possible to be entirely faithful to the Novus Ordo while still still being faithful to the care and reverence of the Usus Antiquior, but his obvious passion for antiquity lead to me being more aware of the fact that what went before wasn't that different after all, and what we have now is clearly derived from that, and so treating that like "the elephant in the corner" will only leave you adrift in a sea of speculation. My assistant and I used to have a phrase for it. "Liturgical Innovation". (NB this is a very useful phrase in another context. We don't make "mistakes", we have "Liturgical Innovations". Not that we ever get anything wrong, of course...)

A little more reading around on the subject will certainly give you an insight into it, but out of context it all seems a little unreal, like pictures in an illuminated manuscript.

However, one Sunday morning many years later, I found out two things:
  • Bob Latin (well done, that man) had arranged that there was to be a Mass in the Usus Antiquior in our parish in Morecambe;
  • There was space in the sanctuary for me if I fancied a go.
Of course, I said yes. So, it came to pass that Fr Cross said Mass, and Bob and I served under the watchful eye of The Oracle that is Michael Massey.

And there it was, real, actually happening, and there in front of me. We didn't do badly for a first try either. Since then, I've repeated the feat a few times, at Hornby, Lancaster and also in the chapel at Sizergh, and I've also served Mass on my own a couple of times. I still get caught on the hop by “sed libera nos a malo” though.

So, back the the question “What attracted you to the old Mass?”

Well, some of it is of course a matter of personal preference, but over the years I served Mass at the cathedral (18 years of it) I saw some weird and wonderful things at various functions, a number not very relevant, some completely trivial, many indulgent and very few reverent. It’s ironic, isn't it - traditionalists are often accused of being inflexible, intolerant and set in their ways, and yet when we attend the Novus Ordo we take a deep breath, let it pass and get on with it, but if you suggest singing the Gloria in Latin, well…..! Anyhow, after a lifetime of liturgies where, as someone once said “the only thing missing wur t’pantomime ‘orse!” several things struck me.
  • There was a lot less “going on” with everything done in a neat and timely way. No excessive “extras”, but when something needs doing you simply do it - none of this business of the Priest hanging around waiting while the Missal is solemnly carried out to read the collect!
  • It’s “Something” rather than “something derived from something else” and it wasn't so different that you watched, clueless and confounded.
  • The focus really is towards the altar, the tabernacle and God, and everything is directed towards that, not us.
I think it’s something I've realised through sitting to the side of the altar for many years, but that space between the altar and where the altar rails used to be (where you’d read the gospel at High Mass and carry out multifarious activities at Easter in the Usus Antiquior) has become physically the focus of things; sanctuaries have a large empty space - the people face it, and so does the priest, albeit over the Altar and the focus is…. nothing, while with the Usus Antiquior there is a progression ever more eastward and upwards, approaching God. Approaching, but never surpassing: even the priest is to the west of the Altar and after the consecration to the west of the Blessed Sacrament. Closer than the servers and congregation, but on the same side. On the other hand, facing each other over the Altar raises a question…. Are we on one side and the Priest on the other, or is the Priest on one side and we’re on the other? Which side is better? Does it make a difference which side we're on? Have we got God surrounded? (“Stick’em up, cowboy! We got ya surrounded!”….. I think not !) And then, you have the Blessed Sacrament on the Altar in front of the Priest, and in the Tabernacle behind him! And, as we all know, you never turn your back on the… Oh never mind….

You don’t get that ambiguity in the Usus Antiquior!

And really, I think that’s it, we’re doing what people have done, nothing less, and nothing more, with the same end and with the same focus: God , not us. What more is there? Liturgical Dancing anyone? No…?

John Rogan

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