14 May 2010

Gabbling the Mass

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.


Theodore of Sykeon said...

Father, a post (with the same title, perhaps unsurprisingly) on a very similar theme can be read here: http://massinformation.blogspot.com/2008/01/gabbling-mass.html

Scelata said...

Father, this is really superb.
I can't express how grateful I am to have found your blog, to be able to read your insights.
I truly believe that after his canonization Newman will be named a Doctor of the Church.
Pax et bonum,

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

Carlos Palad said...

So, in you estimation, how long should a Tridentine Mass (or a decent Novus Ordo Mass) take? I'm writing an essay on the proper length of Holy Mass -- how it should neither be too long nor too short, neither slipshod nor dragged out -- and I'd like your input.

Michael McDonough said...

Your paragraph, beginning "In other words, for classical Protestantism..." is excellent!

However, it would not be easy to convince me that Catholic parishes where the Pastor is Catholic (in Newman's sense), even if the congregations appear to function on the Protestant principle of worship (didacticism, chapter and verse of the Bible, etc.) are not deep-down really Catholic. Just yesterday, I was chatting with our Pastor (a Catholic, in Newman's sense) who after the English-language NO Mass (of the Ascension), led the parish in the Leonine Prayers (in English). I asked him how long he had been doing that. His reply, with a smile, was "Oh, for a few months now; I only do it at the weekday Masses as of yet, but I hope eventually to say them after all the Masses. At first, there were questions, but no objections; now they expect it; in a few months they'll say, He's always done that! It's a good way to help them pray a thanksgiving after Mass, and I think they like that."

There's a lot to be said for doing without commenting on exactly what one is doing (cf. Ambrose, de Mysteriis).

Patricius said...

Newman was a clever clogs, but I tend to agree with my old tutor (himself an eminent Church historian and formerly of the Oratory) that were Newman alive today, he'd have long since converted to Orthodoxy.

As for a Protestant walking into a Catholic Church and witnessing a host of priests saying "private" Masses at side Altars, as a Catholic myself I agree with the Protestant - that it is rather strange. Give me one High Mass a decade than daily Low Mass for a century. If the august Sacrifice is so perfect and mind-blowing then It is a pretty boring miracle at Low Mass...

St said...

Carlos Palad: I believe Pius V legislated that Low Mass should not take less than 20 minutes, nor more than 30. Sorry I can't give a reference.

Peter said...

I think there is a problem with your RSS feed.

GOR said...

”…the error is just as pervasive and deep-rooted inside the Roman Communion as it is outside it.”

Great article, Father! And as to how far we have fallen in much of Catholic Liturgy, you’re right. Once the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ crowd got going on the Mass as merely a meal, things went downhill and the true sacrificial meaning of the Mass was lost for many people – not to mention many clergy. The Mass became a ‘performance’ with Father ‘Cool and with-it’ the prime actor and center of attention.

The Holy Father dealt with this decisively in his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy” where he noted that while the Mass (“the new reality”)was established within the framework of the Passover Meal, it was not the meal as such that he commanded us to repeat, but the new reality. He blamed the turning around of the altars for making the celebrant, rather than Our Lord, the center of attention.

We have lost much. We have much to re-gain!

C. Wingate said...

Actually, on one level this Protestant has no problem with a more-or-less private mass. For a year I would arrive at the dreary west chapel at UMCP, and Wofford Smith and I would wait for the third person to arrive for eucharist. On All Saints the third person never arrived, and we bent the old rules a bit and did it anyway. "Whenever two or three...."

But one need not "gabble" even on so small a scale; one can do it "decently and in order". What is decent and in order for two or three may cease to be so when done for two or three hundred. I am tempted at least to insist that if circumstances allow for production values to be raised, then they should be raised; but in no case is there justification for slovenliness, and that is what, I'm afraid, too many Catholic defenders of "gabbling" end up supporting in practice.

tonsure said...

Father, many thanks for your posts. I have enjoyed reading several of them this evening and it is refreshing to read catholic theology and sentiment expressed lucidly and without apology. I have just finished training for the priesthood and am somewhat weary of the trite, lightweight works that are supposed to equip us these days. Many thanks