I have said the Traditional Latin Mass for all of my many years of priesthood. Back in the late 1980s, only a few priests were “permitted” to do so and there were few resources available to learn it. About the only visual help was the Fulton Sheen film from the 1940s describing the Mass. So, I trained under a few older priests during my seminary years. I moved from being part of the schola in the choir loft, to serving as sub-deacon, then deacon, and finally as priest-celebrant. Solemn High Mass was my specialty; I only learned the low Mass later. Most of us who celebrate the traditional Latin Mass exhibit great care in observing the rubrics and norms and have great esteem for its beauty.
During my training, I asked the older priests why they and their generation got rid of such a beautiful form of the Mass. They often replied that though they came to lament its loss later, at the time it was not always celebrated so beautifully; they spoke of hurried masses, cursory gestures, and mumbled Latin. They indicated that the Solemn High Mass (the form with a priest, a deacon, a sub-deacon, and a bevy of acolytes) was quite rare in Washington, D.C. Even the Missa Cantata (in which some of the parts are sung by the celebrant, but without the deacon and sub-deacon) was limited to one Mass, and many places didn’t even have that. Homilies at weekday Masses were rare and even a good number of Sunday Masses had minimal preaching.
With all the horrifying abuses associated with Masses after the liturgical changes, these problems may seem mild, but in any case, things were not as ideal as I had imagined—at least that was picture these older priests painted for me.
I recently came across a letter from the 1920s in our parish archive that confirms this generally perfunctory quality. It is a lament on this situation from Archbishop Michael J. Curley of Baltimore and is directed to his priests.
At that time, the Archdiocese of Washington was still part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Thus, the Archdiocese of Baltimore covered a very large area, stretching from the Delaware border in the east, through Washington, all the way to the western panhandle of Maryland. It contained large city parishes from Baltimore and Washington, a growing number of suburban parishes, and numerous small ones from the large expanses of rural territory.
Regarding the city parishes, remember that the immigrant Church of that period was expanding rapidly and vast numbers of newly immigrated Catholics from all over Europe were filling the pews. One of the needs was thus to schedule numerous Masses to accommodate the numbers. In addition, in those days all Masses had to be finished before noon. All of this led to a hurried morning schedule in which some of the liturgical principles suffered as a result.
And now we proceed to the letter itself. It is hard to imagine a bishop of our times being so informal and blunt, yet those were days in which many bishops and local pastors were known for their large, colorful personalities. Enjoy some excerpts of this colorfully blunt letter, which focused on encouraging priests to be more liturgically minded. I include some brief remarks of my own in red text.
July 9, 1929
Reverend and Dear Father,
Confusion worse confounded has arisen during the past few years in the matter of our Sunday services. An inter-parochial competitive system has ended in chaos and not a little distant disedification. We must now return to sane normal conditions. Hence the following mandatory regulations will be effective Sunday, October 6.
The High Mass (Solemn or Missa Cantata) must be the last of the parish masses and may not be an hour later than eleven. Every church in Baltimore, Washington, and Cumberland is expected to have a High Mass. The same is expected of all parishes outside the above cities where a choir is possible. The choir does not have to be an adult choir. It may be composed of school children. In country parishes where heretofore there has been no High Mass, I desire the pastors to work towards a High Mass. The Missa parochialis must be kept in its honorable place. … Let the well-prepared sermon be short and practical; let the music be strictly liturgical and let the liturgy be carried out with dignity and correctly.
We see that in certain areas, the low Mass (recited and whispered) had come to be the only type celebrated. High Mass, with the priest and choir singing significant portions, was becoming too rare. This afforded less possibility for the faithful to interact with the Liturgy. Further, it excluded a vast repertoire of chant, polyphony, and classical music from the Mass. In response, the Archbishop insisted that at least one parish Mass should open this treasure to God’s people.
The epistle and gospel should be read at all the masses. … A short discourse (of even five-minutes duration) should be given at each mass. The work of instruction should be supplemented by the recommendation of pamphlets as reading matter. No parish church should be without a pamphlet rack.
A significant problem in that era was that the readings were proclaimed in Latin by the priest at the altar. Because few if any of the laity knew Latin, the proclamation of the Word mostly fell on deaf ears. A common solution was that the priest would go to the pulpit and repeat the readings in the vernacular, but this lengthened the Mass. Some priests evidently skipped this altogether and merely continued on with the Mass. Some even skipped a sermon of any sort at certain masses. The Archbishop was surely not pleased and insisted that teaching the faith was an essential purpose of any liturgy.
Some of our younger parish clergy read their sermons. This should not be done except for some very special reason. The priest who is not capable of preparing and delivering a brief, clear instruction on Catholic teaching to his people is not fit to be in parish work. The people as a rule do not want to listen to a sermon reader. The reader is usually a poor one and his matter many times is poorer. We do not expect every priest to be a Lacordaire or a Bossuet. We do expect every priest however to be a teacher of God’s word, an intelligent and intelligible one. We have heard splendid eloquence on the subject of card parties, bazaars, church support, etc. and then mental confusion in many cases when the time came for the sermon. Our work as preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ is of infinite importance. It ought to be done with prayerful preparation. The sermon should be delivered in such a manner that our people can hear, understand, and take away with them a better knowledge of their faith and at the same time feel moved to live that faith and more practical way. If the priests of a parish wish to hold her people’s loyalty to their parish church, they cannot do it by competition in the matter of late hours for masses, unbecoming a hurry in the celebration of divine mysteries, or curtailment of devotional church practices.
Tough, but well said.
In some parishes of the cities there is no evening service. The reason given is that the people will not come. If the pastor will only give the people a chance to come, they will come in sufficient numbers to Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. They will come gladly to hear a course of sermons during Advent, Lent, novenas, etc. They will not come to hear the rosary and litany recited in a marathon style. They leave their parish church and go to one where there is devotion in the sanctuary.
We have completed our building program. The brick-and-mortar work is almost over. Let us now apply ourselves to the more important work of gathering our people around the sanctuary in order that we may build Christ our Blessed Lord into their hearts and lives. We have, thank God, many parishes where liturgical functions are carried out with inspiring dignity, order, correctness, and consequent impressiveness. … But where there is a tendency to starve the people spiritually, the priest soon realizes a reaction that, to say the least, is neither healthy nor pleasant.
Let us then in God’s name begin with enthusiasm a new era of order in matters liturgical October 6th.
Sincerely, + Michael Curley Archbishop of Baltimore
I hope this provides you with a little picture of liturgy and parish life form the late 1920s. The problems of that time are nothing compared with the disorder often evident from the 1970s through today, but surely the human condition will always require that we battle the perfunctory observance of the sacred liturgy.
This video clip from the beginning of the movie True Confessions shows a beautiful depiction of the Traditional Latin Mass. I first saw it in 1981 and was amazed at the beauty of the Mass. I set about learning this form of the Mass well before it was more widely allowed. Although Solemn High Mass was not unknown in larger city parishes, its celebration complete with all the details was rarer than I thought. Low mass, recited and whispered, was more the norm. This situation led to Archbishop Curley’s request that at least one high Mass be sung in every parish each Sunday. Amen, Archbishop!