Fr Damian McCaughan, who celebrates the monthly Mass at St Therese Church, writes about how the Extraordinary Form of the Mass has helped him and many other younger people to appreciate our Catholic heritage.
As a child growing up in St Malachy’s Parish, Coleraine, I remember being intrigued by the church building. I loved the chance to light a candle, to look up close at the different statues of the saints, or to say a prayer at Our Lady’s altar. One thing confused me though – why was Our Lady’s altar attached to the wall? How could a priest ever have said Mass there?
In the 1980s we were only twenty years after the reforms of the liturgy in the years after the Second Vatican Council. But already people had begun to forget aspects of the Catholic tradition that had once seemed so natural. I didn’t know as a child that Mass had, for centuries and until fairly recently, been celebrated with the priest and people usually facing the same direction. That was why so many old altars, like our altar to Our Lady was attached to the wall!
It wasn’t until I lived in England as a student that I saw Mass being celebrated regularly with priest and people facing the same way (the early morning Mass at Leeds Cathedral where the priest celebrated at the beautiful Lady chapel altar designed by A.W. Pugin). Later in Rome as a seminarian, I saw historic altars regularly in use in the great churches and basilicas. Mass “facing the people” might be normal now, and it can be a very effective way of drawing people into the mystery of the liturgy, but it isn’t the only way – and we would be missing a major part of our Catholic tradition if we forgot about the alternative.
The Importance of Heritage
In the wider society, there is now a much greater appreciation of our heritage than there was in the years after the Second World War. We are astonished now at how easily historic buildings were demolished to facilitate high rise flats or ring roads. Nowadays we want to celebrate our history. Here in Northern Ireland there is a real revival of interest in the Gaelic and Ulster Scots traditions that have been sidelined or hijacked by politics for so long.
But in our religious lives we have been slower to embrace our heritage. Older people who lived through the changes from Latin to English liturgies and who saw (and paid for!) expensive and sometimes controversial re-orderings of churches can now be reluctant to look back to the past. Those who were young in the period of the Second Vatican Council rightly feel a special pride in all the positive change that they were a witness to and that they participated in. They can be wary of any attempt to “go back”.
But for younger Catholics like myself, there seems to be an increasing desire to discover what was good and beautiful in our tradition. Just as we want to give the Irish language its place in our modern culture, so too Latin still deserves a place in our liturgical life. To celebrate Mass with priest and people both facing the same direction can be difficult to get used to at first, but after a while many find it a powerful reminder that the whole Church is on pilgrimage together towards the Risen Christ. The solemn and sometimes complex rubrics of the old Mass, the different feasts, the chants and gestures, the mysterious silences: wouldn’t it be a shame if these things were all lost in our lifetimes? Wouldn’t it be sad if we were the first generation in a thousand years unable to even recognise the Creed when it is sung in Latin?
I think that’s why so many young people have become interested in the extraordinary form of the Mass since Pope Benedict called for its greater use. It’s not nostalgia – none of us were alive in the 1960s! But there is a curiosity to find out how past generations prayed, and that curiosity often leads to a real appreciation of the richness of Catholic tradition.
When we understand and celebrate our Catholic heritage we are in communion with the generations who have gone before us. We can recognise the liturgical actions depicted in medieval paintings or the illustrated plates in old Family Bibles. We can understand what St Louis de Montfort means when he offers three meditations for the Domine, non sum dignus at Mass. We can be inspired by the same scripture readings and the same Mass propers that moved St Catherine of Siena to write a prayer on the Quinquagesima Sunday of 1379. We can sing Tantum Ergo as loudly as our grandparents. We can recognise an old marble Lady altar attached to a wall and know why it was placed there!
Looking to the Future
And when we understand our heritage we are better equipped for the future too. If we are to embrace the call to holiness at the heart of Vatican II, perhaps we could still learn something from the traditions that sustained our ancestors in difficult times. Familiarity with where we’ve come from can also help us to see more clearly the direction we want to go. We can better understand how the reforms of recent years should build on our traditions, helping us to participate more deeply in the Eucharist and to be more evangelical in our outlook. As a priest, I celebrate the ordinary form of the Mass daily (in English and facing the people!) with a greater insight because I’m informed both by what is good in our heritage and what has been reformed and revivified in the present.
The great convert Blessed John Henry Newman wrote “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” He knew that the more we understand of our Christian heritage, the stronger our Catholic faith becomes. We Catholics have a rich and profound heritage of spirituality, prayer, liturgy, music and art. But it is often unknown – locked in a past that we’re increasingly unfamiliar with. The extraordinary form of the Mass can be a key to unlock that heritage so that we can be like the householders Jesus describes who bring out from the storeroom treasures new and old.