Thursday 8 August 2019

Embracing my Novus Ordo Past

Every once in a while I read an article by a new convert to Tradition who is seething with fury because he or she has been to a Traditional Latin Mass and now feels like "I was ROBBED!" Frankly, I don't think this is the best response to the sacred liturgy myself. I'd go with joy and gratitude although really my first response to the Edinburgh TLM was confusion, disorientation and awe.

Having been trained by the Novus Ordo to ponder the People of God, I was very aware of the People of God all around me, and they were all concentrating like mad on the altar. Thus, I was awed by the congregation more than by the liturgy, but that was my first time (as an adult) at the TLM, and perhaps that's to be expected. The congregation's attention was pointing to the central reality, just as Our Lady points to Baby Jesus in paintings.

I was really happy to have found the TLM when I did because I was so tired of ordinary Sunday liturgies that I had taken up going to the local German Mass. This was a result of my highfaluting theological education, which involved an unusual amount of Aquinas. Inter alia I intuited somehow that the language used at Mass should not be the language of ordinary life, and German fit the bill. (My German was much better then.) I had also become very precious about homilies, both in terms of intellectual rigour and of orthodoxy, and the great thing about German homilies was that if they were dumb or heterodox, my German wasn't good enough to know. The only phrase I remember from a Toronto German homily is "Grandma's apple pie." He was a lovely priest.

The majority of people who attended the German Mass 11 years ago were elderly and devout. They prayed in reverent silence, but their choir's pre-War voices were no longer in good singing order. My brother Nulli, who has perfect pitch, would have been in agony. Probably B.A. would have been too. Despite all attempts, I am not particularly musical, but even I was a bit ...

Okay, enough about the German Mass. What I want to do is express gratitude for the Novus Ordo-based catechesis of my childhood and teenage years because I am tired of being ashamed of it.

Benedict Ambrose is a convert from Scottish Episcopalianism and was an old-fashioned Anglican choir boy, so naturally he drank Coverdale's Psalms like Iron Bru and knows the Book of Common Prayer backwards and forwards and, no doubt, inside out.  The Anglican choral and liturgical tradition is objectively beautiful, and so he is very fortunate to have it all still coursing through his veins.

I used to feel very embarrassed before Anglicans, especially Anglican suitors flirting with Catholicism in an attempt to please me, because in my golden youth I knew just enough about music and art to know that contemporary Catholic music,  prayers, art and architecture were terrible compared to the High Anglican tradition which, I eventually realised, was a homage to mediaeval Catholicism.

However, the most embarrassing thing of all--until now--is that all that late 20th century music, prayer and art is actually part of me.  If ever I am languishing in prison for 'misgendering' or some other thought crime, I will not be meditating on the Psalms in Latin or the Coverdale translation but on the hymns of my youth.

"Looooord be my shep-heeeeeerd, let meeeeee be your sheeeeep!" 

There is no point crying "Wah! Wah! Robbed!" It's a fact. It's what I got. When I am a very old lady (or washing laundry in HMP Edinburgh), I will  remember being in the choir during an elementary school gym mass and watching my blonde little sister in the congregation doing the hand-gestures for "I Will Sweep Away Your Transgressions."

I will sweep away your transgressions like a cloud
And your sins will be to Me like a mist dissolved.
So return to Me; I will heal you, for I love you. 

After a promising start, catechesis in Religion Class was so negligible by Grade 8 even I knew it and complained to my mother, who mentioned it to a priest. We had some good and solid parish priests (two of them very probably crypto-trads), so I managed to learn the faith anyway. Just as influential, however, was the school music teacher, who beat a form of Catholicism into our heads via song. Is it worth mentioning that one of the first songs he taught my kindergarten class was "Havah Nagila?"

The most exciting part was:

"Uru achim belev sameach,
Uru achim belev sameach,
Uru achim belev sameach.
Uru achim! Uru achim!
Belev sam-e-e-e-e-ach!"

To this day, I have no idea what this means but, come to think of it, I wish he had taught us the dance, too.

It is now fashionable to rail against the St. Louis Jesuits, and Hagan and Haas, and all of those chaps and chapettes, but the truth is that I loved their songs when I was a child. I loved those songs when I was a teen. On Eagle's Wings made me cry.  I Am the Bread of Life did too. I was horrified when, in later life, I made a jest at the expense of the SLJ, and one of them emailed me a sharp reproof.

Mixed in with all these 1970s and 1980s hymns (and Godspell) was the Good News Bible, with its cool cartoons, and felt banners, but also exhortations from the pulpit to say the rosary; being enrolled in the Brown Scapular by, I now realise, Fr. Gruner himself; nativity plays; warnings against the SSPX; the Pope being shot; modern-day martyrs (killed in Latin America or Communist countries); modern-day confessors (priests imprisoned in Canada for pro-life work or in Communist countries);  resounding hymns composed by ancient Lutherans; and the whole half-new, half-old Catholic marinade which pickled at least some of us for life.

There is no reason to be ashamed of any of this, for those of us who grew up in it had very little say and the teachers and priests who plunged us in it were doing what they thought was God's will. Meanwhile, I have dozens of happy memories of trying to sing the Three Hymn Sandwich as loudly as my mother--who loves jolly church tunes--and cannot help to contrast them with the dirges we trads sing on Corpus Christi while trudging around the parish car park.

(No, but really. Could Scottish Catholics have been singing "Lauda Zion" to that tune throughout the 19th and 20th centuries? Surely not.)

There were, of course, divisions even in the 1980s. Of my two childhood churches, one had female altar servers and one did not. Both had Guitar Masses, but only one rang with "God Save the People." (My mother was and is strongly pro-union, but she drew the line at "God Save the People".) One was terribly left-wing, it turned out, and the other was decidedly Marian (and probably crypto-trad).

Meanwhile, there was the Cathedral, whose Novus Ordo was even more solemn than that of our Marian parish, and featured proper boys-and-men's choirs, thanks to the post-Vatican II survival of the Cathedral's choir school. Both my brothers went to that school, and naturally I was sad and resentful that there was no place there for girls. (It was not, however, an entirely joyful place for boys.) The choirs sang actual Latin hymns composed men with odd names like Palestrina and  Victoria. Tourists wiped away tears of gladness, and eventually I realised that this music, reserved for boys and boys alone, was the Quality, noble survivors from a liturgical shipwreck nobody ever talked about. 

England's Cardinal Heenan famously said that the experimental Novus Ordo he saw in 1967 was just not going to cut it with men. "At home, it is not only women and children but also fathers of families and young men who come regularly to Mass. If we were to offer them the kind of ceremony we saw yesterday we would soon be left with a congregation of women and children," he said.

Clearly he know what he was talking about. The Edinburgh TLM is one of the only Masses I have even been to (outside monasteries and seminaries) where men outnumber women 2 or 3:1.

But, you know, I was a child--a woman-child to boot--so yes, I loved the Novus Ordo and the Three Hymn Sandwich. They sank deep into my bones. As much as I like to think I would be singing the Credo in Latin when ISIS chopped off my head, it is more than likely that at that stressful moment, the only song I will remember will be "Loooord be my shep-heeeeerd, let meeeeee be your sheeep!"


  1. I will always remember something I read somewhere about a convert in Indonesia. I think he was Hindu or lapsed Moslem, but either way he had wandered away from his family tradition.
    He was wrestling with the usual issues that seekers do, and passed a mosque. He heard loud chanting in Arabic from inside, and thought to himself, 'Doesn't God speak Bahasa?' It was instrumental in getting him to accept Catholicism. I can't help but wonder what he would have thought if he'd heard Latin chanting coming out of the church.
    I think one of the reasons why God allowed the old form to lapse was that it's a barrier to personal encounter. As a teenager, the High Mass we had at Easter left me cold. It was like Opera or classical music, I could appreciate it, but it didn't move me.
    At the same time, there were guitar-backed hymns sung by trained voices which stuck with me for the whole weekend (we attended the Saturday evening mass), and were instrumental in my first conversion experiences. There was one hymn called God Answers Prayers, which I clung to as an awkward adolescent.
    Perhaps the important thing is to have well-trained voices?

  2. someone who has gone almost every Sunday to the Traditional Latin Mass, I would have to quibble with the suggesting that God allowed the old form to lapse. He didn't. I don't think a day has gone by since Trent in which the Tridentine Mass has not been said somewhere. I don't think the TLM is at all a barrier to personal encounter, for God seems to speak more loudly in silence (or in breezes) than in any other way. There are lots of silences in the TLM. What I'm trying to say here is that the Novus Ordo and all the artefacts that went with/go with it didn't kill off my Catholic faith or tempt me (much) to become an Anglican. But I do know a very devout Catholic convert whose entrance to the Church was delayed because of really tasteless liturgies, etc. So just as the Indonesian probably was delighted to hear Mass in Bahasa, this convert was overjoyed to hear Mass in the official language of the Church.