A Liturgical Bootcamp in Provence: the Sacra Liturgia Summer School

It was a little embarrassing to tell some brethren that I was off to a liturgical summer school at the monastery of St Benedict in La Garde-Freinet. Inevitably the question would come, where is that? Offering "the south of France" was never satisfying. So one had to make the admission that it is near St Tropez, between that resort town and Antibes and Nice. The southern region of Provence, on the outskirts of the French Riviera. Not convincing as a destination for work rather than play with Europe's rich and infamous.

In fact, Sacra Liturgia's fourth international summer school is hard work, despite the sunshine, good food and wonderful camaraderie. It is not a theoretical school but a practical one. We do not talk about liturgy as much as do it. A lot of it. And it is usually in its most solemn form, and invariably its more ancient form, the Extraordinary. Some readers, though I suspect not most, might have just now rolled their eyes, or worse. "He's gone trad" they might groan. Apart from the obvious riposte that it is impossible to be Catholic and not be traditional, such laments do warrant something by way of an answer, as to why I am here and why it is good to be here. Since I am writing this on a tablet, my frustration, quite apart from my fatigue, will keep this fairly short.

Why am I here? The easy answer- that I was invited -will admittedly not cut the mustard for anyone. In truth there are a number of reasons all coalescing into one general motivation. There is my growing dissatisfaction with the post-conciliar liturgy. Having been born and raised Catholic after the Council, I have no experience of, let alone nostalgia for, a liturgy I never knew. Yet, having spent many an hour reading about Catholic liturgy, its history especially the recent, its principles and aims, and indeed what the Council actually taught about the liturgy and what reforms the conciliar decree actually proposed, the modern liturgy as received and experienced appears more and more like Hans Christian Andersen's emperor with no clothes. As I've suggested before here, my personal discovery of the 1964/5 interim missal was a revelation: the reformed Mass we could have had, yet which proved to be a Mayfly Mass. For all that, this missal seemed to coincide far more faithfully the reforms actually proposed by the Council rather than those imposed by the Consilium. Its final product, substantially our current missal, seems a very distant cousin to the liturgy by which the western Church worshipped for nigh a millennium and a half.

Recent studies and memoirs have laid bare the shoddy (or worse) process that led to the missal we have today. It is not always an edifying story, and some of the current liturgy's original proponents, such as Louis Bouyer, came to regret their own work. By its own measure, as a liturgy expressly and specifically designed to be more accessible to ordinary Catholics and allow for greater participation by them to the benefit of their Catholic lives, it simply has failed. Great swathes of traditionally Catholic heartland are now blighted by near-empty churches, even after many others have been closed, and so many of those that remain have been renovated in ways that have destroyed the work of centuries, so often funded by the pennies of the poor. Very frequently sacred spaces have been turned into banal, lifeless monuments to architects of widely varying talent and ephemeral secular taste. It is a sad sight to see such monuments to fashion sitting almost lifeless and largely unloved.

That being so, the logical step seemed to me to see firsthand the liturgy we forsook in the 1960s. I say we, but I had no say in that forsaking of course, nor did the laity in general back then. It was the work not even of bishops but of experts who applied to the liturgy the historical-critical method that emasculated the Bible in the life of the Church.

In discovering first-hand what I have missed had been disturbing and rewarding. Fully formed in the new liturgy, I find the old often feels very unfamiliar, and uncomfortably so. In the next few days we will reach the zenith of our activity with a trilogy of solemn liturgies for the Assumption, two of them pontifical, all of them in the presence of a Cardinal. Into some of those I will be thrown as a sacred minister. Thrown into the deep end, I fear very much that I shall drown, and the MCs will have to labour as they never have before to save me. The saying, As lost as a Jesuit in Holy Week, will be wholly inadequate to my state!

For all that, I will at least have had the reward of seeing and experiencing how profound the traditional rites are. Truly they merit the description "sacred mysteries". They have a logic and symbolism all their own that enable the self-emptying required for true worship. And far from being triumphalistic, I have seen and felt his humbling they are, how they reduce the ministers to almost anonymous servants of God and the people, and they free these people to taste a little of the heaven to which they are called in grace and in love.

Equally as inspiring is the youth of the majority of participants in the summer school. I am one of the oldest here, and I am not yet 50 (young in EBC terms!). Some of these young are religious or seminarians but most are not. Many are converts, and not from high-church Anglicanism but from bible-based Protestantism. They have asked the hard questions and found the answers in Catholic tradition and truth. They are not young fogeys but young people with a taste for authenticity. One is an economics graduate from Princeton, another studies space sciences in Toulouse, by way of brief example. They know their stuff.

In the affluent west our congregations are rapidly ageing and to replace them will be those young people who already commit themselves and their time and talent to the Church they have recognised in scripture, history and tradition. It is a fact we must face that so many of them find more nourishment in the old rite than the new, and we clergy must be humble enough to put aside some cherished but failed initiatives and give the young, and the not so young who have held their peace so long, what they desire, not least the liturgy so many feel they have been cheated of.

The reform of the reform is not necessarily dead, as these Ordinariate shows us. But more and more it seems to me that the new rite is. Even as I celebrate it personally here, in Latin with an attentive server, I feel as if I am celebrating its obsequies.

Whither now?

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  1. Congratulations on taking the plunge, Father ! I hope it proves an enjoyable and fruitful course, and a lasting benefit.

  2. Bravo!! Praying for you. You will be helping to save the Church just by saying the Mass of the Ages, whether there are any faithful there or not. God bless you!!

  3. I was born in 1948 and so I experienced many years of the pre-Vatican II liturgy and much of it from the close range of being an altar server. Like you, I grew to love the liturgy as I experienced it during those years. However along came Vatican II and the reforms of Sacrosanctum Concilium. I have now spent more of my life worshipping in the form of the reformed liturgy and I have formed a love for this liturgy as well. For me it has never been a question of either/or.

    What do I love about Vatican II liturgy? Well lots of things actually, but there are two things I wish to highlight. The first is that I value very highly the way I can participate fully and actively as the Council fathers wished. I try to do this at every liturgy I attend. Having the liturgy in my vernacular language is the single most important support for me in this.

    The second is that the liturgy emphasises the scriptures in just the way the Council Fathers wanted. One of the blessings of my adult life had been that I have discovered the scriptures as central to my Christian life in a way which I did not experience in my formative years before the Council.

    Of course the reformed liturgy can be badly celebrated with banal music and too much wordiness from the celebrant. Unfortunately I have experienced too many examples of such liturgy. But the same can be said for pre-Vatican II liturgy. i well remember serving 15 minute low Masses celebrated early in the morning with barely a nod towards the sacredness of the action.

    I can point to many places where the reformed liturgy is celebrated beautifully in all its “noble simplicity”, for example, St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne where I now attend regularly.

    It is a large claim to reduce such a complex issue as the decline in the numbers attending Mass to the reformed liturgy and the design of churches. this is a complex issue and, after a lifetime in ministry to young people in Catholic schools, I would not be prepared to single out bad liturgy as the major cause.

    However thank you Fr Hugh for raising the issue and for providing the opportunity for discussion on this important topic.

  4. One of the most flourishing groups in France at the moment is the Communauté Saint-Martin, of which I have long been a benefector. I believe that this post-conciliar community has truly grasped the concept of a worthy and dignified celebration of the Novus Ordo. For my part, I am convinced that the Novus Ordo has not yet been properly tried and experienced by many who find spiritual sustenance in the Extraordinary form. This is because far too much post-conciliar liturgy is poorly done, with no respect for the rubrics and no sense that the rubrics serve a spiritual purpose. I can remember being taught that the People of God have a right to the rite. It would be good for all ministers of the sacred liturgy to remember this more often.

  5. Hurray! Great piece, Dom Hugh. As you know, I’m in the category of convert from bible-based Protestantism (at outs Pentecostal end), exposed since converting 4 years ago to both rites at St Birinus, and as someone with no Catholic past, it was plain as a pikestaff which one was deeper, richer, holier and more affecting upon the soul. But I’m 63 …

  6. Like you, Father, I grew up in the post Vatican 2 church and did not experience the Extraordinary Form until I was in my late 40s. I do remember being conscious as a child of a move from beauty to utility, but did not relate this to the NO. For me, too, my first experiences of the EF were of something quite foreign, but something holds me to it (when it is available). I, also, believe humility is a central component of the EF because you attend “as you are” with none of the artificially created, feel good (or bad!) buffers of an anthropocentric liturgy and the Mass is simply between you and the great mystery who is God – that God loves you sufficiently, with all your warts, to accept you into His beauty is profoundly humbling. How much easier it is, too, to feel acceptable for those who feel outcast, in a Mass where the emphasis is on the individual and God, rather than on “fitting in” to the congregation. I, personally, do not think we will (should?) return to the EF Mass as the norm, however, to bring the NO back to something mysterious, beautiful and God centred seems essential for the survival of the Church and this needs to be learnt by review of what we have lost in the change to the NO – presumably as Cardinal Sarah is suggesting?

  7. I really enjoyed the article, Father Hugh. There are a number of interesting points above in reply. For my part, I love attending mass at Douai from the perspective of the mix of Latin and vernacular. In fact, my wife – not yet a Catholic but more so than a number I know – was drawn there because of the more traditional form as compared to local parish churches celebrated purely in the ordinary form. That resonates very much with your comments re converts from the Protestant churches. Great stuff – more on this please, as conversions to the Church are the issue of of times, given the clear demographics facing us in the pews.

  8. An excellent article Domne.

    I love the ‘Tridentine’ liturgy. I’ve been to novus ordo Masses which were utterly beautiful, and ones which were heartbreaking. I’d still choose the quiet Low Mass I attended this morning above both extremes and everything inbetween.

    Noli timere – enjoy learning!

  9. A great post. I was born into Catholicism in 1944 and feel that the post V II interpretation of the Council on Liturgy was a heinous “trahison des clercs”. And the invertebrate contemporary episcopate is a second!


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