Last night, I attended a kind of liturgy which has (in all probability) not been conducted in Australia for forty years: a “solemn pontifical mass” for Maundy Thursday at St Aloysius’ Church in North Caulfield, the home of the Catholic Community of Blessed John Henry Newman, aka the Latin Mass or Extraordinary Form community here in Melbourne.
The celebrant was Bishop Basil Meeking, the 81 year old retired bishop of Christchurch in NZ (yes, the place where the dreadful earthquake took place recently). Interestingly, I discovered this morning on the net that he was once the under-secretary for the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity in the Roman Curia. He was here for World Youth Day as the ecclesiastical patron for Juventutem, the society for young people with an attachment to the EF. Someone else might be able to tell me more about why he retired the See of Christchurch early (appointed by JPII in 1987, resigned in 1995 considerably before his retirement date (which should have been 2004). In any case, I understand he spends much of his time these days travelling the world supporting EF communities such as our local community at Caulfield. (Nb. He participated in our local Chrism mass here on Tuesday as a guest of our Archbishop).
Any way, back to the mass. Pictures are not yet available on their website (when they are, I will post them). I had been planning to go to the Good Friday ceremonies at St Aloysius this year, but I learned from Joshua’s blog that he was flying over and that the mass last night would be a Solemn Pontifical Mass, and so I changed my plans and decided to meet him there.
I arrived quite early, as I wanted to get used to the place and familiarise myself with the order for the night and spend a bit of time in prayer. I took a pew half way back in the church so that I could “sit back” and observe the natives. But I was approached by the sacristan who asked me if I would like to be one of the “twelve men” to have their feet washed. I was very happy to accept, and so was shifted up “to a higher place” in the front pew. I was thankful, however, that when Josh arrived, he too was invited to be among the chosen viri, so he was able to sit with me and guide me through the mass (and answer all my dumb questions like: why do they genuflect to the altar when the sacrament isn’t there?; and: why has the bishop changed mitres a couple of times during the mass?).
The music was provided by a a small schola singing gregorian and polyphonic settings and a minimal use of the organ. No hymns, except those in the liturgy such as Pange Lingua.
I can’t really describe the mass very well to give a clear impression of my experience. I had had some experience of the EF, having once or twice attended a low mass in Adelaide. I had also, in my seminary days, a habit of attending the liturgy at St Mary Magdaline’s in Adelaide, which was the Anglo-Catholic parish, and St Peter’ Eastern Hill here in Melbourne. But nothing quite this scale, and never before had I been to a Pontifical mass, ie a mass with a bishop, celebrated in this style. What it most reminded me of was the various big Eastern liturgies I have been too. Eastern liturgy can seem very foreign to people brought up on post-Vatican II worship, but after last night’s experience, I could see that there was a much closer relationship in terms of liturgical “mindset” between the solemn Extraordinary form and the Eastern liturgy. It is worth remembering that the Eastern Church never developed anything akin to the Western “low mass” and that probably many Catholics in Australia prior to Vatican II only rarely if ever experienced a Solemn liturgy, let alone a Solemn Pontifical liturgy. So what I was experiencing last night was something truly extraordinary, even by Extraordinary Form standards.
Nevertheless, it did occur to me that such a liturgy as I experienced last night really isn’t possible unless the people who are conducting it believe with all their hearts in the serious significance of what they are doing. This isn’t people playing games, as is sometimes snidely said. It requires a deep attention to detail, but also a belief that the detail matters. Matters for whom? you might ask. Well, obviously not “matters to God” such that if a mistake in following the incredibly convoluted rubrics were made he would have them for toast in hell tomorrow. And obviously not “matters to the people” in the sense that I would have known if they had made a mistake. But “matters” in the sense that, for a master stonemason, a little bit of stone decoration high up on the roof of a cathedral where no one will ever see it except the birds “matters” even though no-one will ever see it. I think some of my orthodox Jewish friends understand this “matters” in a way that we don’t. We confuse it with “legalism” or “rigidity”, and that’s wrong. It is a sense that this is important, and doing it right is a way of saying that it is important.
That’s about as close as I can get to describing the experience and my impression of it as a whole. All in all, if this is the kind of thing that the Holy Father meant when he suggested that the revival of the Extraordinary Form may have an effect on how we celebrate the Ordinary Form, I am all for it.