Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, July 07, 2008

A Sub-par Extraordinary Experience

(Warning: Catholic inside baseball ahead.)

This weekend we had to attend Mass at a different time than usual. Our options were a) the Spanish Mariachi-flavored Mass, or b) the Extraordinary Form down at the Cathedral. Now, Darwin's Hispanic heritage does not extend to the more vernacular forms of Mexican musical expression, and neither do I love me some mariachi, so we opted for b. As we were driving down to the Cathedral, Darwin said, "I feel like we should go down to the Tridentine Mass every so often because I keep thinking that it will get better."

"What's the definition of insanity?" I asked.

Both Darwin and I are of a traditional bent of mind. We've read the 1962 Missal, and we appreciate the richness of the language and the clarity of the rubrics. We love Gregorian chant and own a Graduale. Both of us learned basic Latin responses such as "Et cum spiritu tuo" from our parents, who remembered saying them at Mass as children. So we're predisposed to like the Extraordinary Form. We want to like the Extraordinary Form. And yet every EF Mass we've ever been to has left us wondering, "Is this really what it's all about? Why is anyone attached to this?"

Our Sunday Mass was completely in keeping with our experience of the past five years. It began with a hymn, not the introit (Holy God, We Praise Thy Name -- which I don't have to go to an EF to hear done well on a regular basis), and then... what? I was unclear where exactly the Mass started, since the Mass booklet provided wasn't exactly clear either. Since the vintage priest was inaudible and absolutely unintelligible (in Latin and in English) there was no way of following where he was in the Mass. Nor was it possible to match up his postures to the little pictures in the missal, the which I assume were included to orient those who had no way of following the Latin. We knelt for a long silent stretch, enough time to read several pages several times over while still being unclear what was going on. Darwin, in back with the baby, assured me that faintly through the speakers came the sound of the priest saying the first words of the Confiteor. I thought I heard "Gloria". The children, who had nothing either visual or aural to focus them, began to wiggle and squirm.

There was very little clear consensus on which parts were to be said by the people. Some congregants responded to some things, some to others, some said nothing at all throughout the Mass. The responses that were said were mumbled in such a low and disorganized fashion that I had trouble recognizing them. The sound system had been turned so low that even the readings, read at the lectern, were extremely difficult to follow. (This must be a choice made by the mass group, because at other Masses at the Cathedral we've been able to hear just fine.) During the long sermon I couldn't hear, due to the under-utilized sound system, I pondered the stereotype of the little old lady who said her rosary during Mass and realized that had I a rosary upon me, I would be that lady. At least then I'd have some knowledge of what prayer I was supposed to be saying when.

There is a certain desperation in attending some ritual event or ceremony in which everything seems slightly off-kilter. The sense of a familiar routine being altered in some subtle way that you can't understand or follow becomes disorienting and eventually suffocating. The girls gradually abandoned their efforts to be still and quiet when it seemed like nothing was happening, and I couldn't even show them in the missal where we were and what was going on, since I was floundering myself. Between the deteriorating behavior (which crossed the line, as children's behavior always seems to, right before communion) and my increasing frustration with being unable to align myself with what was going on, we had to drag everyone out directly after Communion -- something we have seldom ever done. (Everyone under seven promptly received a lecture and spanking, from daddy, in the car.)

On the way home, we shook our heads once again over the definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.

When the Motu Proprio was issued, we were excited. Pope Benedict's encouragement of one great sacred tradition of the Church inspired us to delve into other traditional forms of worship. Darwin worked hard to form a group to say Vespers, bought books himself, and even typed up one page sheets for each day of the week when the books proved difficult for beginners to navigate. I accosted our associate pastor on his first Sunday at our parish and asked him to use his experience with chant and sacred music to found a schola. We followed blogs and websites devoted to the "reform of the reform", which were bursting with avid devotees of the Extraordinary Form all extolling the pre-Vatican II Mass as the pinnacle of Catholic worship, and triumphantly predicting that as more people experienced the riches of the old Mass, there would be an upsurge in demand for it.

And yet... every time we actually attend the Extraordinary Form we're underwhelmed and disappointed. Perhaps we expect too much, but our expectations are based on the text itself of the 1962 missal. The text suggests an inherent drama and beauty to this form of the Mass that has not been born out by any of our actual experiences of the EF. Oddly enough, our experiences don't jibe with those of our parents and grandparents, who remember the old Mass as celebrated as the norm by parishes. It's as if our local EF Mass is formulated to accommodate those who long for a distant musty past -- as opposed to the way a living parish works, where a priest who strives for liturgical beauty and tradition must be scrupulously excellent to stave off the inevitable complaints from people who don't like "that sort of thing".

Conversely, the few times we've been to the Novus Ordo celebrated in Latin have been wondrously reverent and marvelously beautiful. Perhaps that's because we're attuned to the rhythms of the Novus Ordo and so can immerse ourselves in the richness of this form of worship. But also, the careful planning and preparation and clear love of the form and the language have shown through in the attitudes of the priest and the choir and the congregation. The worship aids have been clear and concise so that even someone who had never attended any mass, let alone a mass in Latin, could follow the prayers and respond appropriately. The same has been true of the few and various Byzantine Divine Liturgies we've attended -- even in a completely unfamiliar language, with an unknown structure, we didn't feel at sea because both the priest and the faithful were unambiguous about what they were doing, and what role each played.

It's enjoyable to click around to various websites and look at the pretty pictures of vestments and gorgeous churches and the inspiring image of the elevation with the priest surrounded by the deacon and the sub-deacon. Darwin can appreciate the richness of the Latin text, with its elevated vocabulary and the layers of ancient solemnity. I love the inherent drama of the ritual gestures and postures, and the spiritual elevation of Gregorian chant integrated into the Mass. But we've never seen these things in person. Some detractors of the Novus Ordo say that although they've heard that the new Mass can be reverently and beautifully celebrated, they've never seen it. For us, it's the other way around.

We'll probably go back to the EF Mass, even though it's unlikely that our local group will deviate from the minimalist pattern we've seen over the last five years. But please, guys. You do have to try to create beauty. At a minimum, decide which responses the congregation should make, and then make them. Even the Novus Ordo can manage that -- even in Latin on occasion.


Scelata said...

I'm so sorry... and I hear you.
Would you mind if I reposted this on the CMAA discussion boards?

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

bgeorge77 said...

I'm there with you.

Before I had attended a TRM I was sure I was a traditionalist.

I now realize that I have no desire to attend a Latin Mass any more-so than I have a desire to attend Vietnamese Mass with my girlfriend. Not hearing the Word proclaimed in a language you understand is terrible.

What I want, I think, is the Traditional Rite, but simply in English, maybe with a little Latin chrome in spots.

Ever been to an Anglican Use Catholic parish? In Houston we have one, Our Lady of Walsingham. Probably the most beautiful English liturgy available. (Though even there sometimes it feels a little "museumy.")

Anonymous said...

I have experienced exactly what you describe at one of our local EF masses. I remember thinking to myself as I left the church, "It's no wonder we needed a Second Vatican Council."

On the other hand I've had the polar opposite experience, particularly at two nuptial masses (my own and that of a close friend). Those were probably the two most delightful liturgical experiences of my life.

To a large extent it boils down, at least in my experience, to whether the mass is "sung" or not. I'm not current on all the distinctions between sung, high, and solemn mass in the old Missal. But I do know that if the priest sings the Epistle, Gospel, and Preface, as well as some of the greetings, it makes all the difference in the world. For one thing the chants are, well, heavenly. And it's also pretty helpful for keeping one's place in the missal.

Add to that a half-decent schola singing at least some of the propers, and you're golden.

Unfortunately this has been a problem since time immemorial. I read a life of St. Hugh of Lincoln (12th century) in which he was identified as being unusual in that he insisted on always singing Mass, period. Some of his contemporaries apparently found it more convenient just to read the prayers. Didn't take so much time as singing. That was almost a thousand years ago. And wasn't Pope St. Pius X, 100 years ago, pleading with the Church to take Gregorian chant seriously? So we just have to keep praying, working, and donating to groups like CMAA.

And teaching our children chant. I don't have any quite old enough yet but I'm hoping to use the Ward method when they are.

rose said...

My one experience of the Extraordinary Form wasn't so bad--no chant, but the priest was audible and the congretation was unified in making all the responses. It was a reverent and moving mass.

...I can't say that I found it particularly more exalted than the Latin Novus Ordo I'd attended a few weeks earlier, though, and the Novus Ordo had the advantage of familiarity, so that I could follow what was happening. (Also, I must admit that I *really* don't like the silent Eucharistic Prayer. Partly because it's very hard for me to concentrate when staring at a silent priest, and partly because--this is the glory of the mass. This is the source and summit of our life. It should be proclaimed with joy.)

Anonymous said...


My opinion varies on the desirability of the inaudible Canon. The Canon is clearly the high point of the mass, both because of what's happening and also linguistically -- the Latin is absolutely entrancing, even if you don't know Latin.

But there's also a good argument to be made for silence in this most solemn of moments. One of the problems that can plague the newer form of mass is constant activity and noise. When someone -- organ, choir, priest, congregation -- is always saying or singing something, it can be nerve-racking -- especially when it's over-amplified, as it often is. The OP expressed frustration about the under-use of the sound system in the cathedral -- meanwhile, in most small churches the sound system is consistently over-used.

In Looking at the Liturgy, Fr. Aidan Nichols explores the idea that the silent Canon of the old missal acts as a sort of centerpiece to the entire week, precisely because it contrasts so drastically with everything else that most of us experience during the rest of the week. If I remember rightly he talks about people who attested to having no comparable 'moment of silence' in their lives and who spoke of their hunger for the weekly silence of the Canon and for the interior refreshment it provided.

You might liken it to the eye of a hurricane. One also thinks of the 'still small voice' that Elijah heard on Mount Horeb. In the presence of so awesome a mystery as the sacrifice on the altar, maybe sometimes the best thing for us to do is to keep still.

mrsdarwin said...


Yes, please, feel free to repost this. I'd like to hear some musicians weigh in. One of the things that Darwin and I were discussing as I was writing this was how many hours my schola spends practicing for our one Mass a month -- precisely because if we don't do a stellar job every time, people might start to question, "Why is this group up there, singing the Gloria in Latin and doing it badly?"

It's as if a theatre group were to say, "Well, we're putting on Shakespeare instead of Our Town, and the text is just so rich that it speaks for itself, and we don't have the time and budget to rehearse anyway. But discerning people will always appreciate Shakespeare!"

First Ben,

It's not that I object to the Mass being said in Latin (though I'm not sure I see the point of reading the readings in two different languages.) And I think it very useful that the Church has a common language -- I still writhe when I think of the wretched bi-lingual liturgy inflicted on our parish on Thanksgiving.

I would like to attend the Anglican Use sometime, and I've heard only good things about Our Lady of Walshingham.

mrsdarwin said...

Ben D,

I have experienced exactly what you describe at one of our local EF masses. I remember thinking to myself as I left the church, "It's no wonder we needed a Second Vatican Council."

That's exactly what I've felt, every time.

I think that chanting the Mass would make all the difference. But I've never heard it done in the maybe six or seven EFs I've attended -- whereas our associate pastor routinely chants the Eucharistic Prayer and other parts of the Mass, and does it well. I'm going to state a personal preference here -- I'm not a real fan of the silent canon. Perhaps it's just I like to hear the still, small voice when it speaks.

Anonymous said...

There is probably no priest under 70 who knows the Extraordinary Form.

mrsdarwin said...

Anon, of course there are younger priests who know the Extraordinary Form, though perhaps none of them are part of the Austin Diocese. But I'm not sure why a young priest would be interested in learning the EF if the way it's done here is the norm. The question is, does our group just do it very poorly?

Anonymous said...

My experience has been, fortunately I guess, much better. For a while I onll attended the EF, both high and low, but ever since meeting my wife I have only attended the once-a-month High mass, and I think it does make a definite difference. The music and chanting is done superbly, the Priest is audible, and it's clear that the choreogrpahy (for lack of a better term) is perfect. The overall experience is more more solemn and rich than it is for even the well-done NO Latin Mass at the Cathedral.

So I wonder if it comes down to the particular Church, or maybe it is just something that doesn't move you as it does others.

Scelata said...

Anon 9:19, I don't attend the EF as a rule, and have not been to all that many in my life, but I don't think I've ever even seen it celebrated by a priest over 70.
I know through the accidents of time and space most of you will never participate in a Mass at St John Cantius in Chicago, or at Fr Pasley's parish in NJ, but I can assure you that the EF is being celebrated with aching beauty, in a way that is magnificently attractive in the literal sense, it cannot help but draw people to it, priest and laity alike.
Of course, St John Cantius offers the OF with the same reverence and attention to detail.

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

Deacon Bill Burns said...

I've attended an EF liturgy only once in Post Falls, Idaho. The priest was no older than I at the time (around 41). This wasn't a solemn, high mass, so there was plenty of silence. However, the priest was very clear and precise in his movements and diction so it was easy even for me (with no Latin) to follow.

I would love to it experience it regularly, but I believe a reverent liturgy under the ordinary form is just as beautiful.

I also think there needs to be more Latin in the ordinary form, particularly in bilingual parishes.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I attend first Friday EF at a small chapel in a Franciscan hermitage. It is low Mass, so you don't get a lot of singing, but like you, I'd like to know when to respond, etc. I can follow along fine in my missal.

However, the ladies who sit near us in the pews and have attended for years are more than willing to help us. All we have to do is ask.

Anonymous said...

I grew up with the Tridentine Mass. (I've never heard it called the "Extraordinary Form" before.) My mom was something of a "rad trad," and I didn't attend a modern liturgy until I was 24 years old.

I'd have to say that your experience, as you describe it, was pretty bottom-of-the-barrel. But part of your experience also seems to stem from your expectations. In the TRM, many of the prayers are supposed to be inaudible. And I've never been to one where the congregation uniformly responds aloud. I even remember a talk by a Fraternity of St. Peter priest who encouraged us to go ahead and say the responses out loud if we liked — that's how rarely people did it.

When you grow up with the Mass, you have no trouble following it. You learn bits of Latin, you learn what to look for. I imagine it must be terribly disorienting for someone new to that liturgy.

I know what you mean about there being a "certain desperation" when you go to a different version of a ritual you know. We attend the modern Mass exclusively now, but it took me a lot of getting-used-to. The hardest part for me was the Sign of Peace. I used to call it "intermission." And I had learned the English translation of prayers like the Creed from my Tridentine Missals, so I was always stumbling over the words of the new (and, IMO, very poor) translation. And what's up with translating "Et cum spiritu tuo" as "And also with you"? That's not what it says!

Daddio said...

Great post. I am glad the EF is available. I haven't experienced it yet, and I would like to try it, if I knew it would be well done and I could follow along. But all I really need is a reverent novus ordo. Some Latin responses would be nice, but the most important characteristics of my ideal mass are good music and a very brief homily.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

As I think you know, I attend that TLM pretty regularly--I would have been there last week, but Offspring #1 was subbing for another altar server at the 9:45, so we all went to that one. But I don't disagree. Here's some possibly ameliorating thoughts, though.

1. Yes, Fr. B is inaudible. He's inaudible outside of Mass, too. I think it comes from being about a hundred or so years old. He gave a series of talks at the parish last spring, which were quite good--he's incredibly well-educated and, creaky as he is in body, his mind is quite sharp. But if were sitting more than three feet away from him, you weren't going to make any of it out.

Our current rector is leaving--this Sunday is his last day--and he's being replaced by Fr. L., who is quite tradition-minded, has been boning up on the Extraordinary Form, and who I strongly suspect has been tapped in part because he can take over the Latin Mass from Fr. B. (It gives me palpitations to see Fr. B. even trying to get up and down the sanctuary steps, so this might well be a good thing for everyone.) Fr. L. is young and strong-voiced, so there might be some changes.

2. The high masses are quite different. Go to www.[city] to see when those will be.

It's taken me about a year to get to the point where I have no idea where we are during the Low Mass. But it took me about a year when I converted at 18 to have any idea what was going on in a Catholic Mass at all ('80's-style campus church RCIA didn't help a lot with that; you'd ask "Why do some other parishes kneel at this part?" and they'd hyperventilate and say "IT'S A COMMUNITY MEAL!" and you'd have no idea why that was a response; but I digress). So I don't actually consider it insane to keep doing the same thing over and over; it really has gotten much more interesting as I've gotten less lost.

3. It is, however, insane to go with very little children. When I've tried to take the baby, we've spent most of the Mass walking outside. Offspring #2 reads during much of it. #1 slinks to the vestibule during the homily so she can hear it through the speakers, and briefs me afterwards.

4. The guides they give out in the vestibule are less than helpful. My old 1962 missal is much more helpful; most helpful is my 1940's "dialogue Mass" missal. Oh how I'd like to try a dialogue Mass. But then I'm not really a Traditionalist--though I love chapel veils--as proved by my permitting Offspring #1 to altar serve.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

That first sentence of point 2 should be negated. Oops.

mrsdarwin said...


Actually, we'd hoped we might see you there. :)

Unfortunately, we were sitting in the second-to-last pew because we could already tell that we were going to be that family. As it was, I don't know if the older girls' behavior would have annoyed anyone else -- one has a gimlet eye when it comes to one's own children.

I would be very interested to see what a younger priest with a good voice could do for the traditional mass, but it still seems to me that the core group of TLM parishioners ought to know what responses are customary, and say them audibly enough that newcomers (or very intermittent attendants such as ourselves) feel confident that we're not committing some kind of faux pas by joining in.

I suppose the incoherent nature of the Mass left me wondering: is it just that this group (and I believe the TLM community has been around for at least nine years, so this isn't new to them) doesn't really know or have a consensus on what to say during mass, or is it that they think this is the way it's supposed to be? And if it's the latter, then I think that makes a rather negative statement. But I'm not really a traditionalist either. :)

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

If the Latin Mass regulars make any kind of responses at all, I've never heard them. I just go ahead and mutter the parts I've learned, and assume I've giving scandal to some. What can you do.

Anonymous said...

You are sure to ruffle a few feathers with this post. I admire your courage to come out and say what many must be thinking when they try the EF. The coming years promise to be interesting in the way of liturgical development...let us all pray "Thy will be done..."

Bernard Brandt said...

Dear Mrs Darwin:

Thank you for this thoughtful and informative post. I thank those who have left comments as well. It is seldom these days that one can find posts that shed more light than heat, or smoke.

I come from and with a different perspective: the East. For more than the last score of years, I have been a worshiper, a singer, and (quite often) a choir director at a Russian Catholic church. These are some of the things that I have found from that perspective:

1. The Divine Liturgy, among many other things, is a divine dialogue between God and human kind, with priest, deacon, choir/cantor, and congregation all taking their part. It works best, on a human and divine level, when we listen to what God has to say to us in it, and when each of us takes our proper part in it.

2. The Divine Liturgy may also be considered to be a drama, even a Greek Drama, in that at its best, it has a main speaker (Priest), a secondary speaker (Deacon), two assembled choirs (strophe and antistrophe), and an audience which both listens and has its part to play in the anamnesis (which might be better translated as "enactment" than "memorial").

2. As both dialogue and drama, the Divine Liturgy works best when chant plays a central role in presenting the dialogue and drama. If you have been at an Eastern Liturgy, you will know that everything is sung. More to the point, everything is chanted. By chant, I mean a form of expression by individuals or groups in which melody is as important as word. Both word and music have been with us for as long as we have been human. But we also sing because we have been taught by revelation that even the angels sing before God.

That said, liturgy works best when its character as dialogue between humans and God, as sacred drama, as chant, and as the song of the angels is preserved and fulfilled.

Liturgy tends to get lost when other agendas, ranging from treating the Mass as a sacrifice only, or as a communal meal only, get in the way.

That said, I think it important to remember that the council fathers at the Second Vatican Council, in Musicam Sacram, attempted to restore liturgy as a dialogue and as chant, and started with recommendations that any liturgical music start with chant, and with the chanted dialogue between priest and congregation, before there was any other overlay of hymns, ordinary and propers. I suspect that actually following the advise of the Counsel Fathers might be advisable in order to accomplish any proper liturgical reform.

It would be about time.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Mrs D,

That was very much our experience the one time we went to an EF mass. I felt lost and your description of being disoriented and suffocated ring true for me. I got the feeling that no matter how long I studied a missal and no matter how well I understood what was going on, I still would not prefer this form. I'm glad it works for some people, I've very happy it's more widely available. I'm very excited that the greater availability of the EF is inspiring more use of Latin in my preferred Novus Ordo. But I just don't see myself becoming a regular participant in the EF.

nathansward said...

Like most of the people above, I appreciate the EF and go on occasion, but do not feel particularly drawn to it.

The most beautiful liturgies I have ever experienced were at St. Agnes in the Twin Cities. They celebrate the Novus Ordo in Latin, with copious chant, and facing 'ad orientem'. (This, to me, is one of the less-understandable developments of the Novus Ordo--sometimes I close my eyes and imagine the priest facing with me, offering the Eucharistic sacrifice.)

mrsdarwin said...

That said, I think it important to remember that the council fathers at the Second Vatican Council, in Musicam Sacram, attempted to restore liturgy as a dialogue and as chant, and started with recommendations that any liturgical music start with chant, and with the chanted dialogue between priest and congregation, before there was any other overlay of hymns, ordinary and propers. I suspect that actually following the advise of the Counsel Fathers might be advisable in order to accomplish any proper liturgical reform.

Bernard, I think this is perfect advice.

Anonymous said...


The term "extraordinary form" is quite new, just one year old last Monday. It was coined by Pope Benedict in "Summorum Pontificum", the letter given motu proprio (on his own initiative) last July, by which he removed most restrictions on the use of the pre-Vatican-II liturgy.

The Vatican's web site only has the Latin text of the apostolic letter, but the Pope wrote a separate, rather moving letter to the world's bishops, which accompanied the motu proprio. Here's the link to the English translation of that letter. It gives the gist of the whole event:

Forgive me if you're already familiar with this but it sounds from what you wrote that you're not.


You might try out Fr. Nichols's book (Looking at the Liturgy by Aidan Nichols, O.P.). It's a bit dry but brief, well-argued, and utterly free of crankiness. Before I read it I thought all inclinations toward the traditional liturgy should be viewed with suspicion. After I read it I was intellectually convinced that the EF is intrinsically superior to the OF. He draws from a wide range of sources so it's also a good starting point for a more in-depth study of the liturgy.

Literacy-chic said...

There's a historic parish in New Orleans that has had a Tridentine Mass every Sunday for a looooooong time. I remember hearing about it when I was in high school, and in spite of my dubiousness about Catholicism as a whole, this one part interested me very much. I did not attend the Latin Mass at St. Patrick's until after I converted, and I was pleasantly surprised that (with the help of my Latin Mass that I had downloaded from iTunes) I was able to follow along in the Missal. I only had one child at that time, so I was *able* to focus! ;) (That wouldn't happen now.) It was everything I hoped--beautiful, reverent, chanted. There was even a communion rail. It is very upsetting that the nearest EF to me now is so, um, sub-par was your word. Not that I would have the opportunity to attend, but just in principle, I guess...

Literacy-chic said...


Not that you're visiting New Orleans--to read & imagine, perhaps. I just read, and I'm impressed, that St. Patrick's offers Confession before each Mass!