Tuesday 8 May 2012

Welcome Back Again

After reading the Bishop's letter at my Masses on Sunday, I commented to my congregations that "I wondered if a proper analysis of what had gone wrong had been done."
Of course, there were changes in the social mores of the 1960's and 70's, which affected church members almost as much as anyone else, but I want to concentrate on the changes in the Church itself.
As I said in my last post, I consider 1970 to be the pivotal year of change, give or take a couple of years.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Church was in an excitable state. In 1967 or 1968 we were given permission to turn our altars around and celebrate Mass in English. It may have been noted that altars facing the congregation only applied to new churches, but that didn't matter - we all did it. All manner of temporary altars were constructed, and, if I remember rightly, there was at first no official translation of the Mass which we should use.  I remember that Goodliffe Neale brought out a loose leaf version of the Missal to which new sections were added at intervals. By 1970 Rome brought out an official Roman Missal which we started to use, and which was promptly withdrawn after a couple of years because the GIRM, the General Instruction at the front of the Missal, was heretical (I think someone has missed out the sacrificial aspect of the Mass altogether). A new Missal was produced, which has been in use until very recently.
But by then a new and radical understanding of the Mass was taking root - it is a celebratory meal in which we take pleasure in each others company while communicating with Jesus - the congregation is an audience. I have to admit that I bought into this idea, at least in part - we had to energise the audien - sorry - congregation into singing and responding to the celebrant and shaking hands, and generally behaving in ways that the congregation had never done before.
One question which I was constantly being asked by parishioners in those days was, "We were brought up to believe that the Mass was unchangeable and could never be changed; why is it changing? And if the Mass can be changed, what about the rest of the Faith?" Good questions, and the answer is not so simple!
Soon it became acceptable to receive Holy Communion standing because forward-altars had removed altar-rails. And then we began to hear that some places were giving Communion in the hand in disobedience to the general rules for receiving Holy Communion.  Eventually, our Bishops petitioned Rome to allow us to continue with this new way because it was by now so entrenched that they would not be able to stop it. I feel sure that many Catholics stopped attending Mass because of some despair and disillusionment at the way things were going in the Church.
And the result of all this turmoil can be seen in our diocesan statistics for practising Catholics.  From 1970 until the present day, an average of 2000 souls a year has ceased to practice the Faith by attending regular Sunday Mass. In 1970 42% of the Catholic population attended Sunday Mass, by 1986 that had dropped to 34%, and by 2009 the percentage was just over 20%. In 1970, the actual recorded number of Mass-going Catholics in our diocese was 119,115; by 2010 (the latest figures) the number was down to 38,485.
I remember reading a slim booklet by Father Schillebeeckx , a Dutch theologian, who was looking forward to a smaller Church because it would be much more devoted and dynamic. We now have a smaller Church, but more devoted and dynamic? Or are we just managing the decline?  What do you think?


  1. Dear Fr. This recounting of events is so, so painful. So true, yet so painful.

    I am eternally grateful to His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, for giving us back the Usus Antiquior Mass.

    May God continue to bless you, Fr. Your love of the Mass is truly edifying.

  2. May I say, first of all, that there is no point whatsoever in inviting people to return if the reasons for their disenchantment are not being acknowledged and addressed. It is a futile gesture.
    Secondly, you state that after the Second Vatican Council, the Church was in an excitable state. Can I make the point that it was not the Church that was in such a state but the clergy; the lay people were bewildered. Week after week in the mid to late 1960s we were being told that this change, and that change, was being introduced, so that we didn't know if we were coming or going. Unfortunately, many were going - and didn't return.
    You then say that in 1967 or 1968 you were given permission to turn our altars around and celebrate Mass in English. I wonder who gave this permission because it has never been authorised by any council, pope, or Roman congregation, and is still not lawful. You will know that the new Missal of 1970 instructs the priest to turn and face the people at various points in the Mass, so priests should obey the rubrics and revert to celebrations facing the east.
    You are correct in saying that the emphasis of the Mass has been changed from the holy Sacrifice of Jesus to His Father, into a celebratory communal meal. Bishop Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, said in 1550: "The form of a table shall more move the simple from the superstitious opinions of the popish Mass unto the right use of the Lord's Supper. For the use of an altar is to make sacrifice upon it: the use of a table is to serve for men to eat upon it." This is what has happened, and the introduction of reception from the chalice has placed further emphasis on the communal meal. After all, if it is a meal, then we must eat AND drink.
    What we want is not a general invitation to return but leadership. It would be a start if an instruction (not a request) was given to all the priests of the diocese to comply with the rubrics, to abandon personal creativity, to reduce the extraordinary ministers to the absolute minimum (if not getting rid altogether), to wear appropriate vestments, to preach Catholic sermons and explain the faith, to get rid of guitarists and suchlike, and to show more respect to their congregations by not ad-libbing because they themselves do not approve of the new translation. I must emphasise that these comments do not apply to all the priests in this diocese, many of whom are doing sterling work under difficult circumstances, but they do apply to too many.