As Good As It Gets: Solemn Pontifical Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St Aloysius

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.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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14 Responses to As Good As It Gets: Solemn Pontifical Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St Aloysius

  1. Matthias says:

    You are right Schutz about the belief of people in the serious significance of the particular form of Liturgy that people hold dear and is the way that they worship the Living Gody. sad that blood has been spilt over this .
    I experienced this am a Baptist “Liturgy” and although it ahd Stations of the Cross and then Communion,i felt that there was something not complete . Incidentally I was talking to one other person afterwards and he was heavily involved in the Charismatic movement in the Anglican Church,then he ,although an Anglican ,helped Catholic Charismatic Renewal. He was full of praise for the late Bishop grech and spoke highly of Bishop Proust.

  2. Peter says:

    Bishop Meeking was here for Holy Week last year David.
    My sacristan duties at St Benedicts don’t allow me to get to any of the main Holy Week liturgies at St Als but I am just about to head off to Tenebrae which,like everything else at St.Als will be top shelf.

    • Schütz says:

      Ah. So not the “first in forty years” then. Ah well. Still fun, and a great privilege to participate in it.

      • Peter says:

        As I predicted,Tenebrae on Friday night was just wonderful.
        Two hours of gregorian chant entirely in latin had me virtually floating out of the church.
        David,when you referred to Thursday night being probably the first solemn pontifical mass for forty years,were you referring
        specifically to an EF mass for Maundy Thursday or solemn pontifical masses in the EF in general?
        We are approaching the 20th anniversary of what was then the first solemn pontifcal mass in the EF for about 20 years.
        It was offered by Cardinal (then Bishop) Pell at St.Patricks one
        Saturday morning in either June or July 1991.The cathedral was well over half full and it was a great occasion.

  3. Stephen K says:

    Your comments, David, on the seriousness with which attention is paid to litugical details reminds me of a joke that I heard many, many years ago (a “seminarists’ ” joke), which went something like this, from memory: “What is the difference between a liturgist and a rubricist? A liturgist is one for whom the most sublime moment of mortal expiry would occur immediately after the singing of the Exsultet; a rubricist is one who would insist “Yes, but you’d have to extinguish the Paschal Candle first!”

    Seriously though, the “matters” of which you’re speaking can be understood as the same “matters” with which any person ought to take care towards one’s work, whatever that is; viz, to do a job, it’s worth doing well.

  4. Christine says:

    David, neither my father nor my husband would have understood one iota of what you are describing here. Prior to Vatican II there was only ONE mass, whether “high” or “low”. This was the “mass of the ages” and was attended by one and all, whether “serious” or not.

    Speaking of which, my husband says back in the day (and he attended the “Latin” mass, which is actually a misnomer, it is the rite that matters, not whether or not the mass is celebrated in Latin which can be done with the novus ordo as well), there used to be a joke whenever a non-Catholic came to mass and said “but the priest does everything” to which the Catholics would say “Well, that’s what we pay him for!”

    Your observations come across as those of a “stranger in a strange land” with your comments that you hope that the “extraordinary” form affects the celebration of the novus ordo. It is of the utmost irony in the Roman church that what was once “ordinary” should now be “extraordinary.”

    Blessed Easter to you and yours.

  5. Tony Bartel says:

    “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. ”


    From an Eastern perspective it is more the difference between a Solemn mass and a Low Mass than the pre-Vatican II/post Vatican II split which represents the departure from the traditional liturgical worship. It is only a small step from a Low Mass with Hymns such as “Soul of My Saviour” to a Mass with guitars and “Make me a Channel of your Peace” It is a huge step from the Solemn Mass to either of the other two.

    The issue is not so much the use of Latin as it is of celebrating the traditional liturgy as it was meant with its chant and all its ceremonies and celebrating it in an unbroken tradition. I believe that the Roman Catholic Church, but not the Eastern Catholic Churches, had for all practical purposes lost that link well before the changes of Vatican II. I long ago came to the conclusion that a Low Mass is not traditional liturgy, no matter what traditionalists might argue.

    There is a small movement in Orthodoxy to use Western rites such as the traditional Roman Rite. I am not a fan of this as I see it as a reverse unia. The argument is that Western liturgy is more familiar to Western Christians. However, as you point out, traditional liturgy is foreign to most in the Western churches, even those in the Roman Catholic Church. To do a traditional Western rite would be equally as foreign as doing a traditional Eastern rite. Why, I wonder, not just introduce people to the traditional Eastern rite which has an unbroken tradition.

    Anyway, that is my two bobs worth.


    • Stephen K says:

      Yes, Tony. I understand your point. A book called “The Banished Heart” traces the history of the Roman Liturgy and compares it to sources and events affecting the various eastern liturgies. The author argues that, as you say, the Low Mass was always a truncated form of rite that represented the same kind of liturgical pragmatism as he considered the Novus Ordo.

      But his central thesis was that liturgical devolution of all kinds and the imposition of the Roman rite were two aspects of a mindset that was juridical and legalistic, not spiritual and organic, as he thought liturgy was originally, should be and was preserved by the Eastern Church. As I understand his thesis, the root problem was the wrongful appropriation by successive Popes of an authority over liturgy, which he thought predisposed people in the Church to ultramontanism and acceptance of whatever the Pope said, which bore its ultimate fruit in the replacement of the Tridentine Mass. He likened such appropriation to the debacle over the filioque, and thought the areas were parallel. His position thus seems to be sympathetic to Orthodox understanding. [Although I appreciate his argument so far as it goes, it rather assumes that Liturgy can only develop in one direction historically, but rather contradictorily, makes it difficult to see how it can ever change or modify coherently and consistently by top-down decree.]

      From the point of view of his and your view of Liturgy, and carrying it to a possible logical conclusion, I’m inclined to suggest that a more tradition-grounded position would be to prefer a solemn, sung Novus Ordo Mass to a Low Tridentine Mass.

    • Schütz says:

      Okay, let’s leave “Soul of my Saviour” (which is a very nice hymn, btw) out of this, and just look at the low mass itself. For a start, what you write, Tony, seems to be a little at odds with Christine’s opinion above. She argues (technically correctly) that “Prior to Vatican II there was only ONE mass, whether “high” or “low””. Yet to the casual observer, the two modes of performing this single form of the rite are vastly different. And what you say would suggest that to Eastern minds, the “low” mode is already a departure from the tradition in that it omits all chant and many of the ceremonies of the full “solemn” form of the rite.

      I find that an interesting observation, in light of aim after Vatican II to do away with the “low” and “high” distinction all together for only one mode of celebrating the mass which could be done with more or less chant, singing and ceremony as the circumstance required. Was the “low mass” the true progenitor of the Novus Ordo? I simply wonder.

      My few experiences of the Extraordinary Form “low mass” have left me with mixed feelings. I haven’t done quite as much reading into this as I would like, but it seems to me that “low mass” and the development of daily mass in the West are closely related. It seems to have arisen out of a need for a simpler rite than “solemn” or “high” or “sung” mass (not sure of the proper distinctions here) for daily purposes where only one minister was available. (Although, I wonder, was mass ever celebrated daily in the East? Or only in monasteries? More info, anyone?) The simplicity of this form of the mass recommended it for the parishes.

      Unfortunately, whatever the ancestory of the common manner of celebrating the Novus Ordo (or Ordinary Form) of the Roman Rite, it does seem that the low mass with the participation of the people – the “dialogue mass”? -was the model which became the norm for parish celebrations. There does seem to be a move today however, to infuse the Ordinary Form with more of the riches of the solemn or sung mass of earlier years (witness the small but steady revival of gregorian chant). This seemeth to me to be a good thing.

      As for Eastern use of the Western liturgy, yes, it does smake a little of “reverse unia”, as you put it. Nevertheless, it also says to me that the East can recognise as valid at least the form of the Roman Rite we now call “Extraordinary” in its solemn or sung form. These are possibilities that I would like to see explored more. For instance, what changes are made to the Western rite by Easterners when they celebrate it?

  6. Tony Bartel says:

    Hi David.

    Yes, my point is exactly that the Low Mass is a departure from the tradition and the source of the liturgical problems in the Western Church (now there are plenty of liturgical problems in the East, but that is another story).

    I am reminded of the story of an Anglican priest who was telling an Orthodox priest how similar their Churches were and how much the Anglicans had borrowed from the East. He invited the Orthodox priest to come to a weekday service which was, of course, entirely spoken. The Orthodox priest said, “Is same as Roman Catholic.”

    For many Orthodox the “Ordinary” form of the Mass would be problematic no matter how much Gregorian Chant was used, because the organic link has been broken with the liturgical tradition that went before.

    There are Orthodox parishes where the Divine Liturgy is celebrated daily. They usually have enough chanters to be able to guarantee that they can do so.

    The Western Rite liturgies omit the filioque and the reference to the merit of the saints in the Canon. They use leavened bread (and indeed some have little leavened hosts which look like the regular unleavened hosts). They also do not pray for the Bishop of Rome.

    More problematic is that they usually add an epiclesis to the Roman Canon. However, as Saint Nicholas Cabasilas (fourteenth century) pointed out the Supplices Te Rogamus is an ascending epiclesis. Adding a Byzantine style epiclesis means that there are two in the Canon. Some Orthodox have notes that this is odd (

  7. Gareth says:

    Thanks for posting this.

    I have attended the TLM or Extra Ordinary Mass in my own Diocese on an irregular basis for close to ten years now. The irregular part is partly due to the Mass being offered on a monthly basis in my relatively small Diocese.

    After ten years, I would say I am one of the peculiar one’s that certainly likes and enjoys the TLM, but in no way would I say that I am a one-eyed fanatic about it either like some members that I know of.

    Neither would I be one of those that has absolutely no time for it either or are totally dismissive of it without even giving it a ‘try’. I am genuinely in the middle.

    I like what you have to say here and agree that certain aspects or rubrics of the extraordinary Mass could well served the mainstream Catholic population well and has something to offer the wider Church larger than being regulated to one parish per Diocese.

    Incorporating some of the rubrics into everyday Sunday Mass could only be a positive thing and I think most Catholics would be better served if they had such a positive attitude towards this as you have demonstrated.

  8. Gareth says:

    May I add that I personally enjoy a Low Mass every now and then because it allows me or the everyday person who has never attended before to ‘feel’ like they are particpating a bit more, helps them pick up more of the Latin and allows them have some sort of common relations with the ordinary Mass.

    I am not advocating TLM Low Masses every week, but every now and then would certainly help.

  9. Susan Peterson says:

    My Byzantine Rite Catholic parish (Ruthenian) has daily Divine Liturgy, not daily, but frequently. (Not during Lent, however.) It is chanted just like the Sunday Liturgy. The priest chants the deacon’s part as well as the priest’s part, as he usually has to do on Sunday also. However the people have a large part in the DL, and the few people there resolutely chant their parts. One man chants the readings. I don’t think the priest could celebrate without at least one person to make the responses. I know Latin rite priests do, and I don’t know for a fact that ER priests don’t, but I don’t see how. I understand that the Ukrainian rite does have a spoken “low mass” DL, but I have never experienced it.

    Orthodox monasteries may have a daily DL, but orthodox parishes usually have married priests, and since they do not have intercourse the night before they celebrate the DL, they understandably do not have daily DL. They usually have a daily chanted service of Matins or Vespers instead.

    Susan Peterson

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