Thursday, August 2, 2018

Remembering Low Mass

I am not a musician. So I am not a regular reader of the blog, Views from the Choir Loft.  I did, however, recently encounter this interesting post called "Remarkable Quote About Low Mass" -

Its author (a choirmaster at an FSSP parish in Los Angeles) had apparently come across what he considered some "pretty disturbing" customs connected with how Low Mass may have been celebrated in some places prior to Vatican II. Specifically, he cites a  magazine article, according to which:

DURING A LOW MASS, THERE IS USUALLY TIME for four hymns—one from the beginning of Mass up to or through the Gospel, but certainly to be finished by or before the end of the Gospel Reading, so as not to interfere with or delay the making of announcements or the preaching of the sermon. A second hymn can be started at the Credo; another after the Elevation, and the last one during Communion, to end with the last Gospel for the prayers after Mass.

The author's reaction? "Yikes! A Mass offered like this must have taken no more than 25 minutes. And how inappropriate to say it's okay to 'sing over" the entire Mass... just don't delay the announcements!" 

He concludes, "it's sad to know that Mass was offered like this in some places."

Now what I found interesting about this is not that Mass was offered that way in some places, but that anyone interested in liturgy didn't know that and/or is surprised by that. It seems to me that those who appreciate what they think of as traditional liturgy should also be aware of what ordinary people's actual experience of that liturgy was - not the refined and rarefied beauty of dignified and solemnly sung celebrations of the pre-conciliar rite but what most people typically actually experienced at that time.

While the solemnly sung liturgy was theoretically the norm, Low Mass was the normal reality most American Catholics experienced in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. If a Low Mass had no sermon and few or no Communions, it could easily be over in 20 minutes. Sunday Mass - with a sermon and Communion administered by extra priests starting right after the Consecration and finished more or less by the time of the priest's Communion - would take a little longer. Growing up, I seldom experienced hymn-singing during Mass, that being particularly popular in certain parts of the country and among certain ethnic congregations. But since such hymns were simply sung over the actual mass parts, they did not add to the length of the Mass. And, rather than detracting from the celebration, my guess is that they were widely seen as enhancing its dignity and solemnity.

My point is not to celebrate or criticize such pre-conciliar practices, which had their own context and were perhaps no more or less conducive to sanctity than those of any other time or place. Personally, I loved the old sung liturgy and often attended the Sunday High Mass.. But, again, although every parish was supposed to have a Solemn Mass or at least a Missa Cantata every Sunday, it think it safe to say that the most widespread experience for most American Catholics at that time was a Low Mass of a length like the one referenced in that 1937 article.  Understanding what it was actually like may help one to understand why the liturgical movement arose in the first place!

That is not to say that what actually happened in the post-conciliar liturgy fulfilled the original goals of the liturgical movement - or even the expectations of those who voted for Sacrosanctum Concilium. Those are all legitimate questions to consider, of course, but are not my concern here. 

My concern here is simply that what passes for "traditional" liturgy nowadays is in its own way really something new and itself a consequence of the liturgical movement. In any case it is more than likely much more dignified and solemnly celebrated than anything those earlier generations typically experienced or ever expected.. 

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