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Why the Old Form thrives in my parish

Three years ago, in July 2007, the Holy Father published Summorum Pontificum giving parishioners the canonical right to have their parish priest celebrate the Old Form of Mass (the Extraordinary Form) for them alongside the New or Ordinary Form. In places Summorum Pontificum is resisted, and it is important to recognise and address the causes.

Some say the obstruction comes from bishops, but this is unfair. The problem seems to lie within the Church as a whole, being an aversion to formal, God-directed worship in favour of a liturgy that entertains with cheerful hymns, is undemanding to follow and casual in celebration. This aversion harbours resistance not only to Summorum Pontificum but even to the new translation of the New Form. As the end of the three year period of assessment on how the implementation of Summorum Pontificum has gone approaches, I offer a reflection from one of the several parishes which celebrate in the Old Form every Sunday.

In scheduling the Old Form, objections came mainly from those who experienced the heady days of the Church’s surge into change after Vatican Council II and who saw change and informality as the order of the day. It is understandably hard for them to welcome back their heritage when it evokes things considered long gone and appears to undo what was established by priests they have loved. But honesty compels us to acknowledge that we all abandoned things the Council decreed we retain, while loyalty demands we recover them by authentic catechesis on both the Council and the Ordinary Form.

For example, the “full, active and conscious participation” of the people (Sacrosanctum concilium #14) is a call of the Council frequently misunderstood, for the word translated “active” is actuosis; an engagement beyond mere “activity” (actives). Indeed, external activity is but participation in the liturgical rite, and can be present without internal, conscious participation in the Mystery of Faith. Significantly, the Council began its teaching on the liturgy by stating that the Church is “present in the world as a pilgrim [and is] so constituted that in her the human is … subordinated to the divine; … action to contemplation”. The Sacred Congregation of Rites confirmed this contemplative element in 1967: “This participation is first and foremost internal” (Musicam sacram #15). Still, to externalise the internal, participation by word and gesture remains important. Sadly, the loss of focus on internal participation has resulted in the imposing of drama, dancing – even puppet shows – on to the rite. To be recovered here, then, is the core of participation; that lifting up our hearts to the Lord, and actions required by the Missal: striking the breast in the Confiteor; bowing during the Credo etc.

Undoubtedly the lay ministry of Lector (Reader) was built into the New Form so as to facilitate lay activity in the rite itself (Extraordinary ministry is not built-in; it was established for use only in exceptional circumstances), but this seems to have created a sense that unless one has a ministry one does not participate. This is clearly wrong since it would mean 95 per cent of Catholics never participate. It is necessary, then, to recover an awareness that active participation consists not in mere activity but in “raising the mind and heart” in “full, active, conscious” attention expressed by heartfelt responses, postures and singing.

Next we must acknowledge the Council’s decree that “Latin is to be retained” (Sacrosanctum concilium #36). Latin all but vanished following the Council’s permission to use the vernacular for the readings and commonly called “bidding prayers” with authorisation to extend its use, yet the Council limited that extension by decreeing: “Never the less, care must be taken to ensure the people be able to say or sing in Latin those parts of the Mass that pertain to them” (cf Sacrosanctum concilium #54). Gregorian Chant, which was to have “pride of place in liturgical services”, was also lost, yet its use was reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1974 when every Bishop was sent a copy of On the minimum repertoire of Gregorian Chant. Accordingly, use of Latin – which demands a conscious, active attention the vernacular does not – must be recovered if we are to be genuinely formed by Vatican II.

Again, having the priest face the people was not mentioned by the Council but given as an option in the Ordinary Form (cf 1970 General Instruction #262). In fact, the rubrics of that Form direct the priest to alternately face the people (#133) and the altar (#134). The Congregation for Divine Worship noted that even the phrase “which is desirable whenever possible” in reference to facing the people remains an option, not an obligation. Thus for faithfulness to the Ordinary Form, the altar-facing position too needs some recovery. Practised correctly, it accounts for only a quarter of the entire Mass.

Acknowledging that things frequently cited as contrary to Vatican II are in fact decreed by the Council (Latin) and directed by the Missal it generated (the altar-facing priest) their more regular use should be promoted in order to make genuine our claim of being faithful to Vatican II and eliminate misinformed resistance to the Old Form and the new translation. How then did our parish facilitate reception of the Extraordinary Form in a pastoral way?

We began by educating the parish in the actual decrees of Vatican II, the rubrics of the New Missal and the reasoning behind them. Once aware of what the Council and Missal actually said, most were well disposed toward implementing the Council and New Missal in a more authentic manner.

Secondly, when celebrating the Old Form, several pastoral supports are utilised.
First, the readings are – as proposed and recommended by Vatican II – proclaimed in the vernacular with use of a free-standing microphone. Since God is speaking to the people at this point it makes sense that they be able to understand without difficulty.
We also sing three vernacular hymns: at the Entrance, Offertory and Recessional as permitted pre-Vatican II (cf De Musica sacra et sacra liturgia #14, Sacred Congregation of Rites, 1958). This allows for continuation of both the characteristic silence of the Old Form and the verbal contribution of the people in a manner to which they have become accustomed.

We also supply missalettes with the people’s responses highlighted so as to enable participation in the rite itself. Missalettes for children are picture booklets showing the varying positions of the priest and servers at specific points, enabling the children – and adults new to this Form – to more easily follow the rite.

Finally, we ensure that those who wish to receive on the hand may continue to do so in accord with current canonical rights and obligations. Receiving in the hand while kneeling poses no problem, while those who cannot kneel make the required act of reverence by receiving on the tongue.

There are some who still resist solemnity in celebration; the use of Latin and the altar-facing priest. Yet these unintended losses in the New Form are not difficult to recover: if we can lose them overnight after centuries of use we can recover them after only decades of loss. Such recovery is not “going backwards”, or doing a U-turn, since the Ordinary Form will continue in use. Rather, it is a halting of the train to retrieve what has fallen from the carriage before our continuance. Many folk seem unable to grasp the distinction.

It is important to say that attendance at our Extraordinary Form accounts for a third of our weekly Mass numbers. Some who said they would never attend do so occasionally, and with decreasing prejudice. Further, the parish is not divided by differing liturgical preferences – friendships and working relationships remaining unaffected. Finally, as with the Ordinary Form counterparts, those who attend the Extraordinary Form display great devotion to Christ in the Eucharist and personal prayer; a concern for social justice by running coffee mornings to support SPUC, Aid to the Church in Need and Let The Children Live, and engage in collaborative ministry as catechists, extraordinary ministers, Legion of Mary and finance committee members.

I believe we can no longer refuse the Extraordinary Form and for two main reasons. First, because the Church declared it to be sacred, and while the Church has all authority to forbid what is evil she has no authority to forbid what is sacred; her authority is “to build up rather than destroy” (1 Cor 13:10). Second, this Form is the rightful heritage of future generations; one to which we have no moral right to deny them access. Use of the Extraordinary Form is then a matter of recognising and promoting the holy, and an act of justice towards future generations.

Fr Gary Dickson is parish priest and Sacred Heart and English Martyrs, Thornley, Co Durham