Thursday, April 4, 2013

Reasons for the Reform of the Roman Rite Part II: Low Mass Culture (UPDATED)

Today I will treat the second of my six proposed causes of the reform of the Roman Rite in the 1950s and 1960s, the excessive usage of the low Mass at the cost of sung Masses or public celebration of the Divine Office.

Again, a little history goes a long way in understanding this phenomenon. Mass, and the Divine Office, is supposed to be sung using the chants given in the liturgical books of a given rite, be it Roman, Byzantine, Armenian, Milanese, or Japanese. High Mass is the presumed norm. Indeed, until, but not including, 1960 there was no formal distinction made in the liturgical texts of the Roman rite between sung Mass and low Mass, only between private and public Masses. Public Mass was presumed to be sung in a communal or conventual setting, such as the Mass sung by all the monks of a monastery in a given day or the main Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day in a parish church.
A monk of Clear Creek Abbey reads his private daily Mass

Private Mass developed in the late first or early second millennium. There were two motivations for its development: the first, and main, was so that priests who were monks and canons of collegiate churches could celebrate the Eucharist on days which they were not assigned roles at the main Mass; the second, so that numerous Masses for the Dead might be prayed. To put it succinctly, the purpose of the low Mass is so that a priest could live a full sacramental life under circumstances which would normally reduce him to spectator. This is a good reason on its own, but not one which makes low Mass suitable for public liturgy.

Originally the low Mass simply lacked a deacon, subdeacon, and incense. At first it was sung, although texts describing how are no longer extant. As late as the eighteenth century in France low Mass was sung in a monotone, except for the Canon, which was recited as it is at any type of Mass.

During the Middle Ages laity would frequently attend private low Masses, hoping to see as many elevations of the Blessed Sacrament as possible, asking for prayers to be said for their deceased loved ones. These are private devotional motives, and ones clearly supplemental to public worship. Private Masses did not stop rural parish churches from offering high Masses on Sundays and Holy Days, nor did they impede urban churches and monasteries from singing the Divine Office in choir. Indeed, private Masses were initially votive Masses and not part of the liturgy prescribed in the calendar. What happened?

In short, the model for sacramental life underwent a drastic change during the centuries that followed the Council of Trent, which did very little to change the presumed setting of the liturgy. First to note is the two major religious communities that the Counter-Reformation birthed: the Jesuits and the Oratorians. Ignatian spirituality is famously individualistic, focusing on private reflection and efficient meditation conducive to the life of a missionary priest. Although Jesuits operated in large communities their charism did not call for communal gatherings. Therefore Mass was often read in private and the Divine Office, the public prayer of the Roman Church, was recited in private.

"First Mass in Florida"
source: State Archives of Florida
This same analysis applies to the Oratorians, although I will readily concede that they do make an effort to have sung Masses and Vespers on Holy Days and Sundays. St Philip Neri said nearly every Mass in private and emphasized individual relationships with his parishioners. Neither of these things are bad. Indeed, the latter of these is a pastoral necessity. Still, given the size of Oratory communities, surely sung Offices were plausible?

The missionary needs of the Church also expanded the use of the low Mass and put it at the center of public liturgy. The discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus sent Spanish and Portuguese missionaries everywhere from Florida to south of modern-day Brazil. Priests often had better things to do than teach the locals how to sing in a language that used a different alphabet, such as build churches, create schools, and foster relationships. But when missionary communities expanded, high Masses did not follow.

A typical post-Tridentine country church
England and Ireland, although not part of the New World, were seen as missionary countries, as the faith was effectively suppressed on those islands for several centuries. Mass had to celebrated as privately and as quietly as possible. Low Mass was really the only option, if the priest wished to remain a free man.

As a result, outside of Western Europe, by the nineteenth century the faith was well-established in North and South America, growing in Africa and Asia, re-established in Ireland, and returning in England. Yet high Mass was very rare in these places and celebration of the Divine Office even rarer (although Vespers were popular in London until World War II). The revolutions of the nineteenth century and the two world wars of the twentieth century forced parish priests doing temporary duty as chaplains recite the Office in private and read Mass as quickly as possible. Sermons disappeared for practical reasons.

Yet I think I am blaming the nineteenth and twentieth centuries too much here. How do we explain this chapel, shown on the right?—a site so common throughout rural Europe? It is clearly built for low Mass and also for public viewing.

The Counter-Reformation defense of the priesthood, of the Real Presence, and of private devotion put an over-emphasis on all of these things, the "Spirit of Trent" if there ever was one. Various saints like Louis de Montfort, Francis de Sales, and Peter Julian Eymard devised methods by which the pious soul might hear Mass. These included, but were not limited to, meditating on the Passion, meditating on the Marian mysteries, and praying the Rosary. There is nothing wrong with any of these things, but none of them involve directly considering the Mass of the day. Easter Sunday and a votive Mass of St. Joseph vary minimally with this sort of devotion.

I will treat what I call "Devotionalism" in a separate post, but I think it suffices to say that regardless of what one thinks of these various spiritual devotions, they do not require one to engage the Mass of the day. The proper texts carry minimal importance.

This problem was compounded by the introduction of the layman's missal, first published in English by Bishop John England of South Carolina. Personally, I find the layman's missal very beneficial at high Mass, where I can glance at the Introit or Gradual, close the book, and spend some time in meditation whilst the choir circulates these words slowly through my mind. At low Mass this is not possible. One can only read the text and, as the priest too is reading, one feels compelled to keep pace with the priest. This means that, inevitably, one races through the missal throughout most of Mass, clinging on the priest's every word, trying to understand it. It seems one can either neglect the propers of the Mass in private devotion or cling to every word in a translation frenzy. There has to be a better way of praying than this. The hand missal has potential, but this potential is not tapped at private Mass.

Moreover, the focus on the propitiatory effect of the Sacrifice of the Mass gave people the impression that they only had to attend the Mass and not engage it. I shy of using the word "participating," as this word reminds most traditionalists of some layperson reading the book of Numbers from a lectern for five long minutes. Still, I maintain that a lay person can be very engaged in the old rite high Mass.

As someone who attended private old rite low Masses three or four times a week for a considerable period of time, I can say that I found little in life as rewarding or as spiritually uplifting as serving private Mass. Yet I find little disengaging as hearing a public low Mass. My Latin is decent and I know the liturgy. The close quarters allow these skills to take over my faculties and have an intimacy with the mysteries of the day. This is not possible for the average layperson listening to the priest's voice muddle through the walls of the church. One loses sight of Mass as an action.

This effectually divided the priest and the person in the pew (pews are a damned problem on their own) to the point that people viewed themselves as spectators. What the reformers got [very] wrong was the loss of a critical distinction: there is a difference between making the Mass accessible to a lay person and focusing the Mass on the laity. Sung liturgy makes the former possible while what happened was the latter.

Sung Vespers
Given this stark liturgical praxis, one could hardly expect public recitation of the Divine Office. It fell out of use in most churches. The reason hymns like Ave Maris Stella repeat so often in the Office and that most of the Sunday psalms were used on major feasts is because in ancient days parish churches in Rome determined their own Office and the clergy made an effort to use the most familiar material. In short, the old, pre-Pius X Office, was well-built for popular use owing to its repetition of hymns and utilization of psalms. This system became mundane by the end of the nineteenth century, as I said in my previous post, but an abuse ought not render the entire system dead.

Yet the prevalence of low Mass culture meant that liturgical texts were the jurisdiction of the priest, not the laity or even a collegiate community. Laszlo Dobszay in his The Bugnini Liturgy estimated that by the mid-twentieth century 95% of priests had no experience singing the Office in choir. I cannot verify this figure, but even 2% would be an appalling figure! What the hell were these people doing in their seminaries? A priest can hardly be blamed for not holding Terce before Mass or Vespers in the evening. These sung Offices were foreign nationals speaking an alien tongue to the clergy!

By the time Vatican II issued its liturgical constitution virtually all Sunday Masses were low Masses, with the rare sung Mass or low Mass with vernacular hymns for special occasions, like Confirmations or Christmas. People were used to Mass being their private, quiet time. Indeed, several years ago I took my father to a Latin Mass for the first time since 1965. He could not bear the 75 minute duration of the Mass. Afterward, I learned not only had he never attended a sung Mass in the old rite before, he was unaware such a thing existed! Vernacular, aside from being a change on its own, disturbed the person in the pew from his private prayers. The priest and lay person were talking to each other, although not necessarily praying. With sung prayer a long-gone concept, this vernacular exchange naturally became a conversation, not a liturgy.

What began as the priest's private devotion became the priest's sole function and the laity's private devotion. The reformers saw the problem, but not its cause or better solutions.

Am I blaming low Mass too much? Maybe. Or perhaps we are too accustomed to low Mass to see the problems its use as the norm creates.


First I would like to thank Marko and Désiré for their input, which has given me some cause to update and clarify what I am trying to say here. I would maintain that the majority of Sunday Masses throughout the world were low Masses. In certain European cities—mainly London and Paris—one could easily find a Missa Cantata as the main Mass in most parishes and in other cities—particularly Rome and Cracow—solemn Mass. Still, in the Americas and elsewhere there was a proliferation in the number of Masses, but not necessarily high Masses. If a parish in 1820 had two Sunday Masses—one high and one low—it likely had three or four Masses in 1920—one high and the rest low.

Diaconal ordinations at the FSSP seminary in Denton, Nebraska
source: FSSP
Moreover, by "low Mass culture" I do not simply mean the number of low Masses, but the effect this new liturgical norm had on the liturgical praxis and formation of clergy. High Mass, outside of some European cities, had become so rare that seminarians routinely only spent a few days or weeks in the subdiaconate and diaconate. This contributed to a depleted understanding of the sacramental role of each level of Holy Orders, as well as a de facto ignorance of the qualitative difference between solemn and low Mass.

The restoration of the "permanent" diaconate is an amusing illustration of this problem. There was never a "permanent" diaconate, just deacons who did not have the vocation to become priests. Popes Innocent III, Leo X, and St. Gregory the Great were all deacons when elected and probably had no intention of becoming priests. The restoration of the "permanent" diaconate is an ill reaction to the loss of solemn Masses. The emphasis on the priesthood and also the "low Mass culture" meant most deacons only remained so for a short time until they became priests. The reformers assumed this "transitional" diaconate suppressed a phantom "permanent" one. The truth is that one simply accepted the call of the Church through the discretion of the local bishop, whenever that time came. My theory is that the "low Mass culture" contracted the number of deacons who did not immediately anticipate a priestly ordination and resulted in the short-lived diaconate of seminarians.

Lastly, I would like to say something about the dialogue Mass, an idea that came to me while gleaning Fr. Conrad's article. Although the reformers like Archbishop Bugnini wished to return to sung Mass, they still initiated many of their early attempted alterations on low Mass, such as the "dialogue" Mass. For those readers unfamiliar with this practice, the "dialogue" Mass was a set of rubrics for private Mass issued by Pius XI in 1922 that allows for the faithful to recite any number of things normally said by the server. Some parishes, under dubious legality, extended this participation to many other parts of the Ordinary of the Mass.

Yet the "dialogue" Mass, which I find can be done well, reveals the dynamic of "low Mass culture." In countries where sung Masses were still common, such as France or urban Italy, the "dialogue" Mass was successful and is still practiced to this day. Indeed the FSSPX church in Paris and FSSP church in Rome demonstrate a very impressive degree of participatio actuosa. Those who learned the responses and Ordinary by singing the Mass had no problem when the time came to recite the Mass. Yet in  many countries that I mentioned, mainly the Anglophonic world, missionary countries, and the Americas, the "dialogue" Mass never caught on. Indeed, many parishioners still find the idea awkward. Englishmen are distinctly allergic to the faithful saying anything. During the first time I attended Mass at the Oxford Oratory I began to say the Domine non sum dignus and promptly stopped, horrified that my voice and the priest's were the only noises audible in the entire church.

Lastly, I would like to share a brief anecdote. I once asked my priest, a Melkite Catholic formerly of the Roman Church, why the East had retained communal singing of the Office while Rome had not; we have two weekday Divine Liturgies, one weekday Vespers, and Compline during Great Lent. He ruminated and said "Where two or three are gathered in My Presence, someone has to say Mass."

Understand I actually do like low Mass as long as it used responsibly, yet I think the above quote speaks volumes.

I will read Fr. Sven Conrad's article and publish some sort of review either in my conclusion to this series or afterwards.


  1. This series is great. Thanks for your response on the other post. I've read all them except Dix and Fr Taft. Dr Hull's 'Banished Heart' is a tour de force, I'd call it 'urgent reading'.

    Anyway, I loved this post, sharing it with friends, and looking forward to more! How regular are they?

  2. I will have to read Dr Hull's full book then!

    I shall be posting every few days. Each point mentioned in the first post will get its own post, then perhaps a separate one of conclusions and some ideas going forward.

  3. As both you and i said. It's not about the Low Mass itself, but about this culture and priests who weren't singing Masses.

  4. Marko: I have nothing against low Mass as an additional devotion. I can see weekday low Masses benefiting a parish's sacramental life, but low Mass as the normal, on days where the faithful are expected to attend Mass. I like private Mass, as I suggested in my post, but I cannot help but think the way in which it has been used has done more harm than good.

  5. I wonder if you are overstating the prevalence of the low Mass culture before the Council. In Western Europe I hardly think the situation was so desperate especially in major cities like Paris etc.

    I do agree that for Sundays and feast days that low Mass is not ideal. I currently attend a Parish that has a daily low Mass with a high Mass on Sunday and I think that it is a very good combination.

    I think you would be interested in an article that Sven Conrad, the chief liturgist for the FSSP, which discusses the low Mass towards the end (127 and on)among other things that I think would interest you.

  6. Rad.
    I agree. That's what i was saying.

  7. But i would like to add that now...i would be the happiest man on the face of the Earth if i had the opportunity to attend the Traditional Mass and if it were lowest of low and most private of private Masses - even on Easter!

  8. Okay I was not sure if you were just specifying America and the Anglo world when you wrote:
    "By the time Vatican II issued its liturgical constitution virtually all Sunday Masses were low Masses, with the rare sung Mass or low Mass with vernacular hymns for special occasions, like Confirmations or Christmas. "

    If you have time to look at it let me know what you think of Fr. Conrad's proposals, which I think are on the mark.

  9. Marko:

    I wholeheartedly agree!


    Thank you for your continued interest. I will read Fr Conrad's article and write a reaction in due course. You raise an interesting point and provide me an opportunity to clarify myself. Please see my updated post.

  10. Low Mass was actually prescribed, for the first time, in Additiones et Variationes for Conventual churches. Before then when two Masses were required e.g. a feast falling in Lent, one Mass was sung of the feast after Terce then one of the feria after None. Following Pius X's changes in the same situation a Low Mass was prescribed for the feast - without the Chapter assisting - and the only Mass sung would have been of the feria. At Westminster Cathedral this change was not adopted. Whether the Cathedral obtained an indult or just continued its established praxis I am uncertain.

    1. What was the point of the singing the ferial Mass on a feast and observing the feast without the choir? Do monasteries which follow the pre-Conciliar rites use this rule when a feast occurs or do they sing both Masses?

  11. My mother recalls Missa cantatas in her town every Sunday during the 50's. I don't recall how often they had Solemn Masses celebrated there (the "Mass with 3 priests", as they were called). In my father's village, just a few kilometers away, Missas Cantatas were rare, having only dialogue Masses most Sundays.