On Pentecost Sunday I attended the Solemn High Mass at the Birmingham Oratory. This was celebrated, as has become their recent custom on a Sunday morning, in the Extra-ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, using the Missal of Blessed John XXIII (1962).
They do things well at the Birmingham Oratory and always with the minimum of fuss. Despite the beautiful vestments, Mass setting by Schubert and two gorgeous motets by Palestrina, the whole liturgical experience feels very ‘ordinary’. By this I mean that it isn't a performance or a concert it is ‘just’ the People of God at Mass.
It was during this Mass that two things struck me very powerfully.
Availability of Confession
In order to cope with the large number of people in the confession queue a priest sat in the confessional for most of the Mass. I suspect this is frowned upon by many because the ‘assembly’ should be participating at mass and should have sorted out going to confession well before hand. And yet it struck me as a most pragmatic, pastoral approach. Now that so few Catholics make use of the sacrament of penance in the way the church requires, it is critical that priests make it available at times that are convenient and where others can see that there are those who still go to confession. Even in churches with multiple priests on the staff it is rare to see this practice and of course it is impossible if the priest is single handed. During Lent in a parish in Essex I saw a priest leave the confessional 2 minutes before mass started, celebrate Mass and then return to the ‘box’ immediately after removing the vestments. It is no coincidence that it is in these churches where an effort is made to make the sacrament of confession accessible, that it is in fact used in great numbers.
One of the perceived ‘problems’ of the old rite of mass is that it apparently at odds with the teaching of Vatican II. Sacrosanctum Concillium, the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy says, “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.
“In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.”
In the older form of the Mass, now called the Extra-ordinary Form (EF), the people in the pew apparently do very little. The clergy carry out the sacred actions in the sanctuary and in most cases even the people’s responses are made for them by the server. The people are expected to pray quietly in their places and to many this form of participation may seem anything but active or perhaps entirely passive.
The Mass is of course the supreme liturgical act of the Church as She participates in, offers and makes present the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary offered once for the sins of the world. To kneel in silent prayer, wonder and awe as the priest offers this Sacrifice at the altar is no less active a participation than was Our Lady’s participation as she stood and watched her Son die. The degree to which our participation is active or passive doesn’t depend on everyone doing their own bit, reading, taking the collection, running the Sunday school, ‘giving out’ Holy Communion; it depends much more on how we engage inwardly with the action of the priest offering the Mass; the degree to which we bring our needs and those of of our family, friends and the world to the very foot of the cross and unite those intentions with those of Christ himself. Busy-ness in church is no substitute for the real active participation which is predominantly interior and spiritual and yet has expression in our standing, kneeling, actively listening, making the relevant responses etc.
In my experience there can be much more active participation in a prayerful attendance of Mass in the EF than can be be seen in many parishes where everyone has a job to do, no one joins in the many hymns anyway and where there is incessant murmur and chatter throughout the liturgy. In both forms of the Roman Rite this imperative of active participation by the faithful is fulfilled by their presence, their prayers and their union with the Church as it carries on the work of redemption. We have to accept that our Lord offered himself on the Cross for us. He was and is the principal in the drama of our redemption and in the Mass; the full conscious and active participation of each one of us in either form of the Roman Rite must not obscure that simple fact that we are at the mercy of God.