The Latin Mass and labelling: perspectives and dilemmas of a newbie

This post should be subtitled ‘in which I upset and offend everyone.’ Plus ca change.

Not snapped outside Brighton Pavillion...
Not snapped outside Brighton Pavillion…

It says much that I am writing this post with much trepidation as nothing seems to cause so much division and animosity on the Catholic internet as the topic of Mass in the Extraordinary Form.

I abhor this whole business of labelling people, but in order to give readers some idea of where I’m coming from, I guess the most accurate label one could give to me in terms of my faith is that I’m a Neo Con, I generally support the reforms of Vatican II but believe them to have been widely misapplied to the liturgy and would advocate a reform of the reform. Interestingly, I find myself far more closely aligned to the traditionalist wing on the internet but contrary to popular belief, I am not a traddie with a capital T and despite my blog header, don’t have pretensions to swan about Oxford clutching a stuffed Aloysius. * see note

But in any event, this whole business of pretentious trads with a capital T, completely eludes me, every time I’ve been to the local Latin Mass I’ve not worn a mantilla (I don’t possess one), I’ve worn normal clothes usually consisting of jeans and a top in which I can discreetly breastfeed and a coat if it’s been winter. To be honest, given that the service is in the evening, I count it as something of a bonus if my clothes don’t have unidentifiable stains on them deposited by at least one child. No-one has ever looked at me askance in disgust or in shock and neither have I felt as though I stuck out like a sore thumb. I’ve always been taught to cover up inside a Church, no bare arms, no acres of cleavage or thigh and so would apply this rule regardless of the type of liturgy. Now in all probability I ought to procure a mantilla and probably will at some stage, but not possessing one or not dressing like Lady Mary Crawley (I wish, maybe when I’ve stopped having children) or a member of the Amish, has never led to me feeling uncomfortable.I’ve never experienced post-Mass naval-gazing from fellow parishioners either. Any conversation has revolved around how adorable my children are, (naturally) or generic chit-chat along the lines of ‘how is your husband’ or what do you think of ‘xyz in the media this week’ from those who know me.

Is going to the EF making a political statement with which I feel uncomfortable? No, not really. One of the reasons I go is that sometimes my daughter is away on a Sunday, misses Mass, comes back in the evening and thus the local EF is the only one which either of us can take her to. Or it might be that the children have led me a right merry dance in the family Mass in our parish, I’ve spent the entire service trying to stop one toddler from demolishing the candle stand, the other from escaping up the aisle, whilst giving a nine year old the glad eye if she’s getting distracted, all while jiggling a baby. Put quite simply it’s nice to take one or maybe two manageable children to a Mass where I can get a little bit of piece and quiet and a chance to focus on the Lord on the altar.

No doubt there are places where it’s all terribly formal and I’d get the lips pursued like a cats backside for not wearing a mantilla and the fact that my children are often woefully noisy and I struggle to control them (hey, you try a 9 year old, a 3 year old, a 2 year old and a baby on your own) but it’s not something I’ve noted and I’m not (ahem) known for having skin like the hide of a rhinoceros.

Actually I tend to get the black stares as a result of the children, no matter where I attend Mass and I guess this is really my main barrier to attending the EF, in that the silent canon means that the children can’t get away with much. It is so hard with multiple young children, particularly when often they are the only ones there, no longer are children expected to be seen and not heard and so getting them to suddenly pipe down for Mass is a Herculean task, although to be fair, the three year is slowly beginning to improve. I think this is one of the greatest barriers to the EF for many newcomers with children, because not only does one have to get to grips with an entirely new and admittedly foreign way of worship (even though deeply contemplative and spiritually enriching) but there’s the issue of the noisy and multiple children.

So, if I’m being brutally honest (and don’t flame my comments to tell me what a heretic or how misguided I am) I prefer the NO, simply because a) it’s what I’m used to and b) it’s easier with the children. But there is a huge dilemma or dissonance here because intellectually, having read all of the many many learned and erudite liturgical blogs, I am increasingly convinced of the importance of regularly attending the EF and ensuring my children have access to it also. But if I don’t take them, then how on earth are they ever going to get used it? I’ve experienced firsthand how children, right from before they are even born, soak up the sights, sounds and smells of Mass, all of mine used to kick wildly in utero whenever the organ sounded or something was sung in Church. They know the format of the Mass, what happens, what is said and done in what order and what is going on. The three year old, as happened with the eldest, will seem like she’s in a world of her own, ensconced in a book or trying to empty out the lady in front’s handbag, then all of a sudden will join in with a known prayer or response. At moments like that, your heart leaps, you know that the formation that you are attempting to give them is having some effect. The two year old will happily point to Our Lady and say “Mary” (and to St Therese of Liseux but never mind the thought counts) and she can also identify and regularly point out Jesus, although I’m not sure “Naughty Jesus, naughty step” is the exact response one would hope for.

So just as I still feel uncomfortable in the EF, not 100% sure of what’s happening or what I should be saying or doing at any given moment, then how on earth can I expect my children to have the foggiest in terms of what’s going on? It’s something of a vicious cycle. And the EF, the Latin is important, because if nothing else, it is mine and their patrimony.

It’s better if I don’t go into an extended rant explanation of my woeful lack of catechesis at school Catholic education, suffice to say, despite attending a Catholic boarding school, I emerged never having learnt how to pray the rosary, without a word of Latin outside of GCSE that had passed my lips in a liturgical or prayerful context, we had five years of being called to urgent choir practice because Christopher Walker had sent Sister Mary Mark his latest chant or setting, five years of Inwood, Go Tell Everyone and so on. To put things into context (apologies if I’ve said this before) our school chaplain was one Fr John Glyn of I watch the Sunrise fame, who used to lean his guitar against the altar. Lovely jovial chap who spent his entire time smiling and singing.

Now all that’s fine, I like smiley priests, we should after all be joyful, it did come as something as a shock on attending our first school Mass to my sister and I who had, up until that point been regularly worshiping at the C of E church where my father was the organist. I remember the occasion clearly, Sister Mary Francis impressed my mother by launching into her best Joyce Grenfell ‘come on gels’ act and coaxed everyone into a bouncing and effervescent rendition of Our God Reigns. We lost the plot. My sister started making the funny big hand gestures of Kenny Everett’s Evangelical preacher character and my father held his nose and belted out “down the drains” before collapsing into loud hearty guffaws.

Amusing though that might be, we were also mightily embarrassed. We were English, worship didn’t look like this loud happy clappy business, it was all serious hymns sung in a serious fashion. Then my mum said ‘this is what Catholicism is now, it’s rather jolly I suppose, we have to get used to it and Sister Mary Frances is rather great’, being carried away by the undoubted charisma that the former headmistress possessed. Because my mother hadn’t really been to Church regularly for twenty years, aside from our regular holidays to see my Nana who lived in Devon and worshipped weekly at Buckfast where the community had kept pretty much to plainsong and incense, this was all a massive shock to both her and my father. And it didn’t seem to be confined to school either, if on the odd occasion we did visit the local Catholic church exactly the same type of thing seemed to be going on there.

So little wonder, as soon as we left our Catholic school where we attended Mass on a weekly basis, my mother lapsed too. What’s interesting about this, is that my mum is what one might call a typical post Vatican II Catholic. She won’t mind my saying that she regards herself as Catholic, gets into long fruitless and heated debates with my father over whether Elizabeth or Mary was the worst monarch, but she doesn’t avail herself of confession and feels that the Catholic Church is entirely wrong/misguided about the issue of both contraception and abortion. And before we all lay into my mum, (none of that on here thanks) it’s because like many she was led to believe pre Vatican II, pre Humanae Vitae that everything would change; rules on celibacy, contraception, all of that was up for grabs. And when it didn’t happen, she’s found it extremely difficult to reconcile.

But the great thing (and I’m getting to the point here hopefully, these tangential rambles satisfy me even if no-one else) is that since my Nana died in December, the whole experience of organising a Catholic funeral, burial etc as well as the prospect of having a Catholic priest as a son-in-law (how many women think that’s every going to happen) seems to have awoken something and she’s started going back to Mass on a weekly basis. So. Baby steps here. But the REALLY interesting thing (unless I’m over-egging this) is the way she has repeatedly been saying how nice it is that suddenly everything is returning back to being sung in Latin, at her parish. Of course this could be nostalgia, but it shows that there is, even in quite lapsed Catholics, this yearning for the solemn as well as the familiarity. My parents regularly go to France and so to Mass at St Malo Cathedral and have reported the sea-change there also. Whereas apparently ten years ago, all the Masses were all in the vernacular, again all the commons and some of the Propers are now back to Latin and chants have made a return. Which in turn pleases my dad, who for all his “Martin Luther was the finest man to walk the planet” bluster, adores a bit of Gregorian plainsong.

This certainly tallies with what I am seeing in most parishes (and I’ve worshipped at quite a few over the past few years) is that there is most definitely a grassroots revival and this is good. I still feel quite cross that I was robbed, I’ve had to learn basics like the Salve Regina from scratch as well as the Ave Maria and Pater Noster and so we are singing and saying these regularly with the children, in order that they become everyday, familiar and trusted, not some alien old gobbledegook. My preference would still I think be for the NO, but with all the commons in Latins and the priest Ad Orientem at least for the Eucharistic Prayer, and I suspect this would be more in keeping with the reform of the reform.

Where it leaves me with the EF I don’t know. It’s this ever-decreasing circle of wanting to go, wanting to be familiar, wanting my children to be familiar and happy and yet unless I regularly go, it’s never going to happen. My spirituality is, I’ve discerned of a more mystic, sensual nature, the bells, the smells, the richness, the contemplation, but it all seems like something of a pipe dream until the children are older.

I said at the beginning I was writing this with some trepidation. (If you’ve got this far, well done. Brevity can go hang). That’s the most telling thing. Nothing seems to cause so much angst as the subject of the EF, which to this onlooker seems crazy. Most of it seem to emanate from what I can gather from the jolly rousing hymn camp who seem to be terrified that the Extraordinary Form is suddenly going to be imposed at will on everyone again, by a bunch of crazed red trouser wearing young Traddies. Most of the jolly hymn brigade, it needs to be said, are ageing, the last time I saw someone muttering, pointedly leaving Mass and sadly the parish as a result of the Latin, he was in his seventies and wearing a hearing aid.

Everything seems to be borne out of fear, the ‘liberals’ being scared that they will be forced to have the EF imposed on them and the Traddies are very defensive (and they have been very unfairly demonised and pilloried, I know through having been accused of being one just through expressing an interest in Home Ed) and terrified that the reforms of Pope Benedict and Summorum Pontificum arbitrarily rescinded and the grassroots revival reversed. Again, I think that’s unlikely, despite the casual liturgical style of Pope Francis – he’s got bigger fish to fry than to be alienating a vast new swathe of Catholic youth and born-again reprobates like me. Although obviously there appears to be difficulty in terms of access to the Latin Mass for those who desire it. If a group of people feel a pastoral need for the EF, then provision needs to be made for them.

Which really sums up the entire issue for me. Why can’t people from all sides accept both the NO and the EF are equally valid and allow them to peacefully co-exist? Why do we need to perceive a mission creep from either camp in terms of reforming the liturgy? The Benedictine reforms seem to be taking root and flourishing at grass roots. No doubt the New Translation has helped. But ultimately our children deserve their patrimony and solemnity, they should at the very least experience both forms on a regular basis. Whether the NO or the EF Christ comes to us in the Eucharist. Why can’t we all focus on that instead, and the rest should surely follow?

But those wanting to see more flourishing of the EF need to court those like me, parents of young children, who have been failed by 30 years of dire dismal banality. That’s the key to breaking out of the whole labelling issue or perceived perverse desire to be counter-cultural. Somehow a way needs to be found to ignite the interest of those in their 20s, 30s and 40s who were denied their heritage, to extend the appeal of the traditional, aged and sacred so that it no longer appears to be an insular cult. How that is done is another matter. The reintroduction of Latin has to be a starting point. But those serious about lasting liturgical reforms have to look to assisting my generation to reclaim and be enthused to pass on to our children. That’s the real challege of Summorum Pontificum.


*(Actually if anyone is interested in the reasons behind the header, it’s as banal as the fact that when my eldest child was newborn, I had hours to kill sat in my nursing chair feeding her. As any breastfeeding mother will tell you, those breastfeeding marathons can get rather monotonous and in the era before smartphones, I decided to catch up on reading those classics that I had never previously got round to. Brideshead Revisited was one such tome, I was too young for the iconic Thames TV series when it first came on, but my father was always urging me to read Waugh and so I decided to give Brideshead a whirl. When I read the closing moments, it was literally my Damascene moment. Tears were pouring down my face, I had a deep longing and thirst to reconnect with my discarded faith that I’d never previously known much about, thought that I was a miserable sinner, that it was too late for me to be saved but I was going to jolly well save my daughter from my miserable damned fate and determined that I was going to get her baptised, regardless of the fact I’d not been to church since leaving school. So I started attending baptism classes and my journey began).


Lost liturgical heritage

I was minded to look at the newsletter from my old school earlier and have taken the inevitable trip down memory lane. One of these days I really should knuckle down to writing a pseudonymous autobiography, however what jumped out at me was the invitation to attend an Easter celebration at the school, for an “afternoon of creative liturgy and sharing of the Paschal journey”.

This sums up my liturgical background quite neatly and why, unlike some Catholic bloggers, I rarely write about the liturgy, because put very simply, I am liturgically illiterate, for a variety of reasons.

Although technically a cradle catholic, my grandfather was a benefactor of and greatly involved in the rebuilding of Buckfast Abbey, where he is buried and where I was baptised. My mother is a lapsed catholic; she is of the generation who was misled by the press and her priests and felt a great deal of hurt and disappointment when Humanae Vitae was issued. My father was, although he claims he is now lapsed, a staunch Anglican and a fierce admirer of Martin Luther, “one of the greatest men who ever lived”.

Thus my upbringing or Christian formation was far from conventional, religion was barely mentioned, let alone practiced at home, apart from the regular arguments between my parents as to who was the most wicked of the Tudor monarchs and whether Mary or Elizabeth numbered a higher heretic body count, when both would become amusingly tribal. I have a vague memory of asking why lying was wrong and being told that “Jesus doesn’t like it”, which meant nothing and later on in my teens, repeating in an RE essay, my mother’s mantra that the Pope was really very wicked owing to his stance on condoms, in the attempt to be the cool kid and stir up a bit of controversy. But other than the Pope being wrong on contraception, Smithfield bonfires and the merits of Martin Luther, religion didn’t feature at all in our house, unless it came up in the context of school.

My father is rather a fine organist and played for 30 years in our local C of E parish church as well as leading the choir, hence my sister and I were both recruited to join when I was seven and we regularly attended the morning service and Evensong (complete with a copy of the Enid Blyton to read during the boring bits). Evensong seemed to consist of lots of old tone deaf people warbling, hurried putting down of a book, standing up, turning 90 degrees, singing “Glory to the Father and to the Son, And to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and shall be forevermore Amen”, before settling back down to the book again, before another bout of singing. Not to mention burning fingers on the hot water pipes underneath the choir stalls where the books were quickly stowed.

I had absolutely no idea whatsoever that I was a Roman Catholic, or what that meant, until my sister started secondary school, at the local private Catholic boarding school. I remember the night before she started, her hurriedly being taught how to make the sign of the cross, in true nuns on the run style. My mother literally told her, “my father used to have a funny rhyme, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch”, before dissolving into peals of laughter. She was instructed to take communion, simply by joining the queue and copying what everyone else does. When we went to the obligatory Masses on Parents’ weekends etc, I was horrified. Though my parents were totally charmed by the Headmistress in full Joyce Grenfell swing during the pre-Mass warmup of hymn singing “C’mon gels, give it some welly”, it all seemed very evangelical or Pentecostal to me. I equated Catholics with Gospel choirs and the Kenny Everett character with the big pointy hands.

My father was torn between abhorrence, embarrassment and hilarity. He chose the latter. One of the things that I’ve always admired about my father is that from an early age, he always taught me to think for myself and not to give two hoots about what anyone else ever thought. He never does. So during Mass he would literally hold his nose and belt out “Our God Reigns – Down the Drains” or “Jubilate Have a Chapati” as loud as he possibly could, before cackling evilly adding “utter tripe” in a not-so-sotto voce.

When I started at the school, my sister and I were summoned to a meeting at the Rector’s house one Saturday morning. He made the point that given we were both baptised Catholics, yet we regularly attended his church, a decision really needed to be made as to what denomination we were going to be. I was happy to stay as a C of E, the music and weirdness of the nuns at my school frankly terrified me, I had absolutely no interest in being a Catholic whatsoever, but obviously a decision needed to be taken about confirmation. We came home rather confused, told our parents that we had been told to choose, whereupon my mother, who has an inbuilt terror of nuns and consequences of not doing what we were told, rushed off to Sister Mary Francis, who decreed that we absolutely must be Catholics and therefore attend Mass with the boarders every Sunday morning.

So that’s what happened and subsequently I became a boarder. I never had any catechesis or took First Holy Communion, I simply lined up and copied what everyone else did. Genuflecting was never explained, it was just something that we all did in rows upon leaving the school chapel, and it took me years to work out what ON EARTH was that funny thing people did at the start of the Gospel. Why did everyone scratch their nose, chin and neck. I copied doing a funny thing with my thumb without having any idea what it was I was supposed to be doing and hoping that no-one would ever notice. I don’t think that they did.

Despite being an ostensibly Catholic school, there was absolutely no catechesis whatsoever. We all had to take Religion as a compulsory GCSE, but no talk of sacramentals whatsoever. The nuns seemed to do their own thing, so long as everyone went to Mass every Sunday and on Feast days that was it really. I don’t really remember much teaching on Catholic ethics either. It did feature as part of the GCSE, we covered abortion and euthanasia, but that was about it. Contraception was certainly talked about and covered in great detail. We had several informative talks from the local FPA clinics, we all knew about the methods that were available then, about condoms, the pill and the signs and symptoms of STDS, but no-one ever told us not to go and have sex, or that sex was evil, dirty and wicked, contrary to common perceptions about Catholic schools.

The liturgies were chock full of Taise, Farrell and Christopher Walker. We weren’t averse to the odd bit of liturgical dance. Once, as a punishment, from what I recall, a group of us were recruited to join Mr Reece’s Morris dancing club, in which we had to learn to Morris dance in time for the Christmas Carol service. I can never again hear “O Little Town of Bethlehem” without chanting rhythmically “step – caper” at the end of each line. Yes, Clare P and I danced, complete with strap-on bells, jangley sticks and waving of handkerchiefs in the Sanctuary in front of the altar. As did the modern dance group during the Good Friday liturgy. Nobody knew any different.

I could relate various anecdotes for hours, one of these days there is an autobiography dying to be written, but needless to say it was guitars galore. At Easter, everyone, day-girls included, had to stay for the entire weekend, engaging in various Easter activities, from baking Easter chicks with the hard-pressed kitchen staff, to desert island discs in Poles’ common room. (Sarah Askew very daringly brought along Madonna’s Like a Prayer, radical rebel that she was, and I thought it was cool and hard to bring It’s a Sin, by the Pet Shop Boys). There was some bizarre bonfire type activity as part of the vigil, involving people dancing around it in a manic fashion, pretending to be drunk on mulled wine and singing “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is Our Song”. I cringed, wore a black spotty shirt from Kensington Market on top of a Cure t-shirt and pretended I was cooler than the rest of them to hide my embarrassment.

So, given all of that, the fact that I am now a practicing Catholic, is something of a surprise. This is not a post for conversion story, but amusing reflection and reminiscences aside, I actually feel really rather cheated. I appreciate all of the intellectual arguments around the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, but I find it really hard to “get into”, probably because a trendy Novus Ordo is all that I am used to. The demands of young children don’t make this any easier, it is hard enough to concentrate, focus and pray at ANY form of the Mass, when you have 3 children to be keeping an eye on, and because my eldest isn’t used to the extraordinary form either, she finds it terribly boring. I am normally too self conscious about noisy babies and toddlers ruining the silence for other people, to get into the habit of attending. It’s one of the things, I have promised myself I will seriously explore when the children are a little older.

Though I have largely outgrown the happy-clappiness and charismatic music of my schooldays, I prefer the commons all sung and preferably in Latin, this has been an acquired taste, as has plainsong, which has as much to do with my father’s own musical tastes, than any Catholic upbringing. There are many Catholics of my age and older who have experienced, if not as zany, a similar liturgical upbringing. The Novus Ordo is what we are used to, and the Extraordinary Form, just seems alien. Pope Benedict has done much in terms of liturgical reforms, however it isn’t all filtering down to Parishes. The sung vigil Mass on a Saturday night in my parish is an altogether different and more preferable experience to the Sunday morning service which is tailored to families and seems to feature the same four hymns.

It’s a very hard balance, “One more step along the way I go” may be a crowd pleaser, but the problem is, for people who are brought up solely on this stuff, they are missing an important part of our cultural heritage as Catholics. It is not for nothing that we are part of the Latin rite. I am fortunate, in that unlike many I did Latin GCSE at school and hail from a musical family, so the chants are not unfamiliar, my father is also an aficionado of plainsong and high church liturgical music which was passed down to us as children, but for many, “If I were a butterfly” seems a perfectly reasonable thing to be singing in Church.

At the moment there seems to be a rather unnecessary divide between those who would prefer the EF Mass and those who are terrified that it’s going to become compulsory and must be stopped at all costs. I’m not sure that I understand it. In my world it would be horses for courses, those who want the EF should be able to access it as they wish, equally the Novus Ordo should not be spurned for those of us who have grown up with it and can’t quite get to grips with priests facing away from us, a silent canon and lots of incomprehensible gestures. But what we do need to ensure, is that non of our culture, none of our rich liturgical heritage is done away with. Having the Mass in the vernacular is one thing. Holding hands around the altar whilst singing the Caribbean Our Father quite another.

Rather than polarise the two camps, it seems sensible to keep the EF, but also gradually reform the Novus Ordo in order to more properly reflect the changes of Vatican II and get rid of the liturgical abuses that sets everyone’s teeth on edge. In that way, the EF may become more accessible to many and seen as complement, not a threat. The Lord is equally present through the sacrament at both kinds, even though the Heavenly Host may not be singing Colours of Day.