Thursday 13 October 2022

Consolations during the Ordinary Form

Random photo of Pope Francis I took.

Sometimes I go to the Ordinary Form of the Mass, a more pleasant expression than "the Novus Ordo," words rarely typed with fondness. For me temptations to go to the OF instead of finding a Traditional Latin Mass usually involve convenience. There is an OF 15 minutes from my house and when travelling in rural areas it is much easier to find an OF than the TLM. The OF is also celebrated earlier in the day, and sometimes on Sunday evenings, or on Saturday evenings, so one is not tied to the time allotted to the TLM. 

Everybody who goes to the TLM knows this, and the time and money spent getting to the TLM is a considered a worthy sacrifice. However, sometimes a Catholic feels compelled to sacrifice going to the TLM for some reason: to reserve the time to make a lunch for friends, to go on holiday. But sometimes I'm not sure that one's attendance at the TLM should be sacrificed to anything else, especially when going to Mass is thereby reduced to fulfilling an obligation. 

The Prodigal Brother

One Sunday not too long ago, I elected to go to a local NO to give myself time to cook for a Sunday lunch party. Benedict Ambrose and our guests were all going to be at the Ordinariate Mass (aka the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in Scotland). Therefore, I went to the local OF, enjoying the short walk. I slipped into a pew rather near the back and cast an eye over the congregation. I was happy to see I was not the youngest person present. There was a man in his 30s, and I seem to recall two little children and maybe a few teens. The man closest to me was in his 80s, if not his 90s.  

The Gospel was about the Prodigal Son, and the homilist's non-Scottish accent was so thick I--born and raised in a city of diverse accents--could only rarely understand him. It seemed no attempt had been made to encourage him to learn to pronounce English in a way intelligible to his flock. I did understand, however, that he felt that the real Prodigal Son was the unloving Older Brother and that the parable would have been different had the Sons' Mother been in the picture. He did not seem to say this as a Marxist critique of Our Lord's storytelling, but as forelock tug to feminism, or mothers, or women in general. Certainly the Older-Brother-was-the-real-Prodigal was a hat tip to current anti-tradition prejudices, not to mention a total pastoral deafness to the universal child's cry of "It's not fair!" The Father in the story, I recall, did not rip a strip off the hardworking, loyal, and hurt Older Brother but told him all that he had was his. 

The hymns, with the shortbread tin exception of "Amazing Grace," were banal, childish, dated, and sung with great devotion by the elderly people around me. These were the hymns of their youth, I understood, and I shut my eyes and listened to them. I found this--not the songs, but the singing--consoling. 

37 years of the Ordinary Form

I went every Sunday to the Ordinary Form from the Sunday after my birth until I met Benedict Ambrose, and it fostered my love of Catholics ourselves, the crowd to whom the priests spoke, and the crowd that answered the priest together. As the critics of the Novus Ordo point out, the congregation who faces the priest and the priest who faces the congregation create a closed circle, the Blessed Sacrament (and therefore God) shunted off to a side chapel or behind the priest's back. This is a terrible thing, but there is a silver lining: it fosters the congregation's affection for the priest and it fosters affection in the community for the community. As a romantic adolescent, I would beam at the slowly moving communion queue, for those people, friend and stranger alike, were all the Body of Christ. 

It wasn't until I was in my twenties that the drawbacks of the Ordinary Form were pointed out to me--by an Anglican, who knew nothing of the Old Mass. I occasionally--and very much in the spirit of post-Vatican II Catholicism--joined this Anglican friend at one of the most beautiful, Oxford Movement inspired Anglican liturgies in the city. It was humiliating, but I digress. 

My point is that just as people who go to the Ordinary Form (which is most of the minority of Catholics who go to Mass) take great pleasure from singing the hymns of their youth, I can find consolation in listening to their devotion. I recommend this to people who prefer the TLM but find themselves in an OF, an OF that they find distinctly unedifying. 

If the priest tempts you to join the Donatists and there is no silence in which to redirect your attention to God, then throw yourself back into the love of those around you and into the admiration for their fidelity. Can there be any word but "faithful" for those who, Sunday after Sunday, scandal after scandal, return to their local church to pray privately in the brief silences, laugh together at the presider's jokes, repeat together the 50+ year old (or less) formulae, and sing the same--often terrible--hymns. At any rate, even if you argue with that, you must admit that these faithful are faithful to churchgoing. 

There is a limit to how much consolation you can get from the congregation, however. Some Masses are celebrated so badly and with so much focus on the priest at the expense of God that it begins to feel like a sin not to have made the effort to get to the TLM. 

"Is that enough?"

Catholics must go to Sunday Mass on pain of mortal sin. Most Catholics don't believe skipping Mass is a mortal sin--those would include the majority who do so every Sunday. However, I suspect a majority of the minority who DO go to Mass are propelled there, on some level, out of a sense of obligation, which is why liturgical abuse is also abuse of the Catholic laity. We are, as it were, a captive audience.  

I think Steve Skojec, whose argument with the Church can be found elsewhere online, would agree with that. And the helplessness of the Catholic laity in our obligation came into my mind after the last Ordinary Form Mass I attended, which was in a small Scottish village. 

Benedict Ambrose and I were on holiday and were, in fact, grateful that there was any Catholic church there at all. We walked to it in the splendid, sunny morning and sat down in a pew near the middle, making us the front row. Nevertheless, I did a quick scan and saw that there were many people younger than us, and eventually three children or so. At the front, to the right, was an elderly couple with a guitar, and it was quite easy to imagine that they had come there, Sunday after Sunday, since 1970 and to see them as 20 year olds overjoyed by "Pope Paul's Revolution."

The priest was late, having driven a fair distance from a city to substitute for the absent pastor. He processed up the aisle singing the hymn and told us from the altar that he was "Father [Diminuitive of Christian Name]" and then launched into an anecdote about his first visit to the region and how odd he had found the local dialect. He followed this up by mentioning his more recent and important connection to the district, and I will say this for him: he was perfectly comprehensible. I doubt anyone had to strain to understand him. Indeed, the problem was tuning him out. 

The Gospel was about the Ten Lepers. The TLM community had this Gospel just a few weeks ago, and our priest, a noted scholar of the New Testament, had some very interesting and illuminating points to make about it. Sadly, I could not remember them all, so I hoped Father X would jog my memory with his own remarks. 

Unfortunately, Father X was not particularly interested in the Gospel at all, aside from saying that one should not always go with the crowd and that Our Lord was a "majority of one." Instead, his stream of consciousness took him to an exciting family anecdote about the Second World War (in which, incidentally, his soldier-relation had intended to loot a private house) and then to Pope Francis and the (hopefully and reportedly untrue) story that the pontiff had, immediately after his election, repulsed the "ermine" mozzetta with the words "The carnival is over."  

Father X was highly delighted by these words, which he evidently took as Gospel, and despite the look of horror that passed over the faces of the short front row in the middle, continued on to tell us about Pope Francis's delightfully savage remarks. Pope France had not, as Pope Benedict had, given Christmas presents to the Curia and slapped them on their backs (his words), but told them about their faults. Father X exulted in the many and various ways in which the pontiff had insulted these men, and then assured us he wasn't having a go at the hierarchy. He talked and talked, rambling, pausing for approving laughter, and I felt worse and worse. I attempted prayer, but Father X's delivery was such that prayer was impossible.  

"Is he drunk?" I whispered to B.A.

B.A. thought and charitably whispered back that he thought Father X might be in the earliest stages of dementia.  

And so it went for some time, until Father X, dentures flashing into a grin asked, "Is that enough?" 

The congregation laughed politely, and Father X went to the altar to listen to the petitions of the faithful before putting his personal spin on the Liturgy of the Eucharist. 

It was extraordinary. The words "Is that enough?" suggested that Father X really was just "filling in" for the absent pastor that that his homily was "filling in" what would otherwise have been dead space. By telling us his personal anecdotes and then what he thought were funny and improving anecdotes (and not, in fact, painful scandals) about Pope Francis, he thought he was doing us--or the missing priest--a favour. This leads me to the horrible thought that we, too, by going to the nearest Catholic church, were also just "filling in" what should have been our first consideration.  

But there was in fact a consolation in that Mass, which was the sight of a quarter of a Sacred Host between the priest's fingers. The priest was neither quiet nor humble, but the Host was quiet and humble. The Host was patient, and the Host suffered Himself to be held by that ninny (for whom He had died) and the Host later suffered Himself to be placed on the unconsecrated hands of the faithful who queued up to receive Him. 


By the way, there are edifying examples of the Ordinary Form to be found in Scotland. It is possible to hear a very good homily, and one is given enough silence to pray, at Edinburgh's Saint Mary's Cathedral. 


  1. I note that this may not be published, just to moderate my own expectations.

    It’s interesting to me that if one reads criticisms of the OF, one reads, over and over again, accounts of unpleasant or shallow personal experience. (There are usually some arguments from authority thrown in to “prove” the critic’s point.) I am also interested and confounded by the absolute refusal, across my 25-ish years of thinking/talking about Catholic liturgy, to even acknowledge experiences of the OF that are not unpleasant – experiences that edified the subject.

    I spent my first 28 or so years in a parish that, at the time of the liturgical reforms started offering the then new missal in Latin, readings in the vernacular (English.) The hymns of my youth were the simplest chanted responses “Deo Gratias, Laus tibi Christe, (not chanted but as teenager, it moved me deeply) Benedictus Deus in saecula”, and Missa Orbis Factor (and other chant settings of the Mass.) These are forbidden me, as a lay person, in the EF, unless I chant them against and over the prayers of the priest.*

    I share my experience not in opposition to the unpleasant experiences of others’. I’ve had unpleasant experiences, too, and I have to assume there were people in my first parish who had different a completely different experience of the same parish/community/liturgy. I share my experiences because I think any productive discussion (of anything, really) has to at least acknowledge the range of experiences out there. I’m also immensely grateful for those experiences, which provided the tether that kept me with the Church, and gave me the foundation for a prayer life that I otherwise could not have acquired on my own. I really wish that people who critic the OF in terms like you do would be willing to reckon with those of us whose experiences don’t bear out their criticisms, mainly because I suspect good fruit would come of it.

    *(A generalization – I know the responses to readings are often chanted and how the offeratory was changed, etc.)


  2. Sorry, should be "Offertory" above - typing too fast. -EA

  3. Well, as you see, I give full marks to the Ordinary Form at St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh.

    1. Sorry that's me, Mrs McLean. I point out also that I was striving to find consolations in the OF. One TLM-goer question is how to fulfil one's obligation at the OF without losing it. My response is to sit in solidarity with the lovely people around.

    2. This was not, by the way, a critique of the OF, per se, but of a certain pastoral shortcoming that the OF makes possible. The constant emphasis on the priest's personality--the introductions, the jokes, the ad libs, the self-referential or rambling or nakedly self-serving homily, etc--is a problem unless the celebrant is unusually self-effacing.

  4. Yes, you are right re: the Cathedral. I struggle with pushing through my words to my own point. I was trying not to respond with negative experiences of the EF, because it seems to me like too much of the discussion in the Church is unhelpful and unnecessary criticisms of Catholics whose tastes/opinions we don’t share. So, I’ll content myself with saying that the EF is no protection against terrible homilies, in my experience, nor does it, again *only* in my experience produce/attract self-effacing, humble priests. It does, however, seem to direct the brunt of priestly quirks/personality at the acolytes, rather than the congregation. - EA

    1. I.e. I don’t buy (and you’re not the only one making this argument) that there’s some sort of “emphasis on the priest’s personality” built into the rubrics of the OF (with which I am very familiar.) That stands in opposition to my lived experience. Which is what I suppose I was trying to say with entirely too many words above. -EA

    2. Yes, I can well imagine that the altar servers might have much to bear, depending on the celebrant. Meanwhile, I believe Bishop Barron told Shia LeBeouf that they were taught to celebrate the OF in that hearty, personal fashion. It’s not the rubrics per se (although scholars like Kwasniewski point to the Choose-your-Eucharistic-Prayer aspect as giving the priest too much control to shape the Mass to his preferences). —Mrs. McLean

  5. Well, if not the rubrics of the OF enabling priestly misbehavior then I wonder what it is about the OF that is supposed to do so? I was old enough to be aware of 5 pastors at my home/first parish (early 80’s- mid 2000’s) and none of them engaged in the offensive behavior you describe. At all, that I can remember. (Sorry, and I hope neither my parents nor in-laws read this - he is popular with devout boomers!- but I don’t trust Bp Barron farther than I can throw him.) Albeit, the second pastor of that church did have exactly 3 jokes, 1 of which he would trot out in homilies/speeches from time-to-time: he would so-and-so had complimented him on his “beautiful Irish accent.” He was an immigrant having fled Communism in Eastern Europe.

    1. For all questions about the technicalities of the OF (let alone what was left out when it replaced the TLM almost everywhere), I highly recommend the highly readable work of Peter Kwasniewski. There must be something also on the New Liturgical Movement blog. But really my object here was not to attack the Ordinary Form but to advise others who are made unhappy during an OF Mass how to find consolations there. I went exclusively to the OF for most of my life, so of course I know very good OF priests in more than one country and am fond of the ones who were my classmates in my Canadian Jesuit school. --Mrs. McLEan

  6. Sorry, didn’t sign comment. That’s me above. -EA