Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Bishop Forester on Participation at Mass

    11. To the Reverend Giles Pocock, Parish Priest of Blackwater
    (Blackwater is a “plum” parish with no curates and no schools; just two Masses on Sundays. He was formerly Professor of Fundamental Theology at a major seminary.)

Dear Father Pocock,

I was most grateful to receive your letter because it put my mind at rest. I am afraid of you theologians. You seem to have gone charismatic and to “speak with tongues” which we common mortals fail to understand—although I sometimes suspect that you merely have your tongue in your cheek.

It is very good of you to consent to put the prayers of the old Offertory back in their place in spite of your reservations about their significance. I am delighted, too, that you should approve by and large of my “hybrid.” So your 9 a.m. will be the New Ordo plus the Offertory and the 11 o’clock the “hybrid.” Yes, that is perfectly all right by me. I vaguely hope, however, that from time to time you will give your parishioners the Immemorial Rite should they ask for it. Surely you have a hard core of Tridentiners who are led by the Duchess? Perhaps that is the trouble: you feel it would be unwise to allow the Duchess’ clique too openly, too easily, and too soon.

You give me, however, a quite different reason which both interests me and which I completely fail to understand. You say that on balance you disapprove of the old rite and approve of the new because it is your function “to mediate religion to your people.” Doubtless you have to mediate it to them in catechism classes, sermons, conferences and the like, but surely not at Mass? What you do at Mass is exactly the reverse: You “mediate the religion of the people to the Heavenly Father through Jesus Christ truly present on the altar.”

You seem to me to have defined with wonderful clarity the basic difference between the new rite and the old. If you think of Mass as “mediating religion to the people” then clearly it should be comprehensible, i.e. in the vernacular, and didactic, i.e. with lots of scripture readings and homilies; moreover, the people should demonstrate that they have received the message by constant “participation” at every level and in diverse forms—exclamations, hymns, gestures. If, on the other hand, you think of Mass as “mediating the religion of the people to God,” then, as a matter of fact, there is nothing for it but silence.

What do I, Edmund Forester, imagine is happening during Mass in the old rite? Quite simple. After a bit of backchat, Epistles and Gospels and things, I uncover the instruments of my craft and lay on the sacrifice of Man’s Redemption in much the same way as a plumber lays on water. Yes, but the people? They start subsiding. Some meditate for a moment but soon give up; some thumb a prayer book without much conviction; some finger a rosary without thinking; the majority just sit or kneel and become empty. They have their distractions, of course, but as far as they are able they are recollected. You see, the state of prayer of the overwhelming majority of the faithful is that of “simple regard.”

Good, they are now recollected. Human activity is reduced to its minimum. Then the miracle occurs. At the fine apex of their souls, imperceptible even to themselves, the Holy Ghost starts making little shrieks of “Abba, Father” or after the consecration, soft groans of the Holy Name, “Jesu, Jesu.” They adore: or rather, to be more accurate, the Holy Ghost adores within them. Sometimes, as I stand at the altar, I can feel the myriad little darts of adoration piercing my back and landing on the Adorable Presence. That is what I mean by “mediating the religion of the people to God.”

“Nonsense, Forester,” I can hear you say, “you are being sentimental.” No I am not; it is merely that I am fairly sensitive. How often have I been almost deafened by the piety of the faithful, now, alas, struck dumb by sing-songs!

I ought to write a thousand boring letters but I must tell you a story. I had been Parish Priest of Grumby for a couple of years. In a remote village lived a certain Mrs Donkin, mother of five children under ten, of whom the last was born after her husband was killed in an accident. They had to walk a couple of miles to catch the bus, which did not correspond at all conveniently with Masses. The mother and elder children carried the baby in turn; the toddlers toddled. Never did they miss Mass except when there was snow. Because of the bus, they arrived rather early for the 9:30 and plonked themselves down in their pew, with a potty for the toddlers, carefully camouflaged in a scarlet bandanna. There they sat. They never moved. Mrs Donkin neither stood for the Gospel nor knelt at the Sanctus. The only kneeling was when Mrs Donkin and the eldest boy were at the Communion rail.

I used to call on them about once a quarter. I was still young and had the illusion that I could “do good.” The second child was going to make her first Holy Communion and I thought it would be a good excuse to give Mrs D. a really decent missal and appropriate prayer books for the rest. To introduce the subject I said to Mrs D.: “I notice that at Mass you don’t use a rosary or missal or anything. What do you do, Mrs Donkin?” Without a moment’s thought or hesitation the answer came: “I sits there and I loves.” When anyone starts criticizing the piety of the laity, the harsh voice of Mrs Donkin rings in my ears: “I sits there and I loves.” St Teresa of Avila could say no more.

No, Father, I do not mediate religion to Mrs Donkin. By the grace of ordination I mediate her religion to the One she loves.

Forgive me, Father, but in my present troubles it is a relief to write about the only thing that matters: the adoration of God.

Devotedly in Dmno,

 —Bryan Houghton, Mitre and Crook, 1979, pp. 43–45.