In Newman's (insufficiently read but brilliant) novel Loss and Gain, a young Ritualist clergyman called Bateman is trying to reclaim for the Church of England a fellow Oxonian, Willis, who has become a Roman Catholic. "Do tell me, just tell me, how you can justify the Mass as it is performed abroad; how can it be called a 'reasonable service', when all parties conspire to gabble it over, as if it mattered not a jot who attended to it, or even understood it?"
Willis explains that Catholicism and Protestantism are essentially two different religions. "The idea of worship is different ... for, in truth, the religions are different. Don't deceive yourself, my dear Bateman: it is not that ours is your religion carried a little further - a little too far, as you would say. No, they differ in kind, not in degree: ours is one religion and yours is another".
This is an important perception today, when much misunderstanding is caused both in ecumenical dialogue and in the subject called 'Comparative Religion' by those who fail too realise that religions can have radically different structures; their fundamental grammar may be wholly different, not just their superficial features. As so often, Newman is a thinker and an analyst very much for our time. But let us follow Willis's explanation:
"To me nothing is so consoling, so piercing, so thrilling, so overcoming, as the Mass, said as it is among us. I could attend Masses for ever, and not be tired. It is not a mere form of words - it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth. It is, not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal. He becomes present upon the altar in flesh and blood, before whom angels bow and devils tremble. This is that awful event which is the end, and is the interpretarion, of every part of the solemnity. Words are necessary, but as means, not as ends; they are not mere addresses to the throne of grace, they are instruments of what is far higher, of consecration, of sacrifice. They hurry on as if impatient to fulfil their mission".
In other words, for classical Protestantism, the Eucharist is an acted word; it is a sermon dramatised; it is intended to instruct the witnesses and draw their heart to that saving faith which justifies. But for the Catholic, it is an opus operatum; an action which by the powerful and indefectible promise of Christ is objectively (not merely subjectively and in the heart of the believer) effective. So the celebrant is not in the business of moving or instucting or edifying or converting the viewer - if such may be the the by-products, even useful ones, of the action, they are not its intrinsic purpose. The priest's intrinsic purpose is to confect and offer the Body and Blood of the Redeemer in sacrifice for the sins of men. Failure to realise this is at the heart of what is wrong with so much modern and 'relevant' liturgy; and, to judge from my own reading and experience, the error is just as pervasive and deep-rooted inside the Roman Communion as it is outside it. .
"[The words of the Mass] hurry on as if impatient to fulfil their mission. Quickly they go, the whole is quick; for they are awful words of sacrifice, they are a work too great to delay upon; as when it was said at the beginning, 'What thou doest, do quickly'. Quickly they pass, for the Lord Jesus goes with them, as he passed along the lake in the days of his flesh, quickly calling first one and then another; quickly they pass ... " but I invite the reader to get and read the book; in these weeks leading up to the Beatification, I can think of no better way of getting into Newman's mind than by reading this semi-autobiographical novel.
In terms of rhetoric and apologetic, it might seem that Newman has cleverly (no wonder Protestant England considered him dangerously sinister in his cleverness!) justified 'gabbling' the Mass. But his purpose is deeply theological. I would put it like this (I am borrowing the illustration from Eric Mascall's section in Corpus Christi where he explains the logic of 'Private Masses'). If a Protestant went into a Catholic church and saw half a dozen side-altars, and at each of them a priest murmuring a 'private' Mass, his reaction would be likely to be 'Why are all those Ministers taking separate services, each of them with no more than one person to watch? What good does it do? Actors don't put on Hamlet to empty theatres just for the sake of it. It's pointless'. But the priest knows that offering the One sacrice for the sins of all the world is the most worthwhile thing a man can do, whether his congregation is thousands ... or no-one. It is not a performance to impress.
Naturally, Doing This each day takes hold of a man and changes him. To quote Newman again, "You, who day by day offer up the Immaculate Lamb of God, you who hold in your hands the Incarnate Word under the visible tokens which He has ordained, you who again and again drain the chalice of the Great Victim; who is to make you fear? what is to startle you? what to seduce you? who is to stop you, whether you are to suffer or to do, whether to lay the foundations of the Church in tears, or to put the crown upon the work in jubilation?"
May this great Doctor of the Church watch over his children, both Anglican and Catholic.