Handel the Liturgist and other Reveries

One of the leitmotifs of the post-conciliar liturgical reform, present in the conciliar decree to be sure, is active participation. Unheard of before, it is a peculiarly twentieth century obsession. Claiming inspiration from St Pius X (though not as convincingly as claimed if one looks carefully at what he wrote in its context in Tra le sollicitudini), within the Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century there developed an ever more elaborated and extended advocacy for the congregation’s “active participation” in the liturgy. The congregation must be forced—not be allowed—to be mere bystanders or spectators of the liturgy, nor should more solemn liturgies become like concerts and the congregation reduced to an audience.

But why not a concert? Why the opprobrium for a concert, and the congregation an audience?

Let me come at this from another angle. When I was a misanthropic teenager (the subspecies teenager being another twentieth century invention), I would often take refuge from the slings and arrows of life and the rocky marital relations of my parents, by retreating to my room and turning on the stereo, a new-fangled CD player in time replacing my cassette player (with its Dolby®). One of my obsessions was Handel’s Messiah. I had several versions of it (a mere drop in the ocean, of course), and after hours of listening to them I had a favourite version: from my failing memory I think it was The Scholars Baroque Ensemble released on Naxos. I liked the voices, the tempi, the instrumental discretion and restraint. Pinnock’s more celebrated version did not butter any parsnips for me.

But in my room, working through the Messiah (usually, I confess, abusing the blessings of CD technology by replaying my go-to pieces—He was despised, and The trumpet shall sound) I was transported to greener pastures, and sunnier uplands. It was moving. The Messiah is musical lectio divina, but it is more than that. It is moving, affecting, stirring, inducing melancholy one minute, exultation the next, at one one moment penitence and then thanksgiving soon after. It is the Bible in summary, and it is an almost-perfect Reader’s Digest (another 1980s phenomenon)—not quite perfect due to the omissions, no doubt influenced in part by its Protestant authorship and audience. The Paschal Mystery of Christ and the Inexplicable Mystery of Man—his fall and thraldom to evil—are presented intertwined, in a gripping, spell-binding way; and by it my heart my heart and mind were raised to God.

Does that sound familiar? It is the old catechism’s definition of prayer; it is also the ideal of authentic liturgy. Back then, in an unarticulated way, I went to Mass and to Benediction (which we still had in Junior School) to raise my mind and heart to God. Or better, to have my mind and heart raised to God. Grammarians will recognise the change from active to passive voice. For the liturgist of the mid- to late-twentieth century, passive and liturgy, like blue and green, should together never be seen.

But, do tell me, in authentically Catholic terms, what was, is, wrong with that? At the liturgy, though I often did something physically active as a server (and when in the choir I gloried in singing Panis angelicus, though I was just as happy hearing it) I did not feel any need to do something actively in a physical sense. Rather something was done to me, in me, for me—for us. And so the liturgy was a great place to be.

In fact, by a legitimate association of it with the liturgy and its work upon me, the school chapel—modern but not unworthy, and literally the centre of the school—became a place in which I would spend some time after school. Often I used to sneak a peak at the lectionary on the ambo, and one day on the lower shelf I discovered an old bi-lingual breviary. It was Fr O’Brien SJ’s, who was an ancient retired Jesuit with a severe stoop who lived with the St Aloysius’ community and who would come down to hear confessions; he was a gentle confessor. How his breviary got to the ambo I have no idea. But I remember still being fascinated especially by Compline, and the translation of the Compline hymn still remember though I have not used it for decades:

Now the fast departing light
Maker of all, we ask of Thee,
Of Thy great mercy through the night
Our guardian and defence to be.

Far off let idle visions fly,
No phantoms of the night molest,
Curb Thou our raging enemy
That we in chaste repose may rest.

Father of mercies! hear our cry;
Hear us, O sole-begotten Son!
Who, with the Holy Ghost most high,
Reignest while endless ages run.

I used to say it every night. Maybe that was the birth of my Benedictine bent.

Anyway, I digress. The nub is this: the liturgy for me, and I would assert also for most of my believing classmates, was not something in which I needed to “be doing” anything in particular; I felt like St Peter at the Transfiguration: “Lord, it is good to be here”.

When was the last time you felt that way at the liturgy, as a spontaneous feeling rather than an intellectual justification?

My heresy is this: I would so much rather not do anything active liturgically, above all in the Mass. By ordination I am required to do so. But it is, in many ways, a cross. Not only in that I find much modern liturgy pyscho-emotionally un-nourishing, even banal sometimes. It is more personal than that; I do not feel up to it, competent or even worthy in some deep, primal way. Liturgy is most congenial for me when I am not “doing” it actively and exteriorly, but when it is being done to me and in me, passively and interiorly. It does not need to be a Gregorian or polyphonic Mass; I see no irony or sarcasm in Browning’s bishop who yearned for a tomb wherein he could hear, till the end of time, “the blessed mutter of the Mass”.

Tonight, I gave myself the treat, in honour of the Blessed and Undivided Trinity, of a concert. In my study that is, on my computer via Youtube. It was Handel’s Messiah, of course, as performed last Christmas by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. It is my new favourite. It is glorious. My two go-to pieces are magnificently sung by the exquisite countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński and the hearty José Antonio López. The two and a half hours flew by; yea, up north where the weather has been grim the sun suddenly shone. Again I felt the range of emotions the music and the texts so powerfully elicit; again the fall, the passion, the resurrection, and the glory of heaven were made vivid, alive and engrossing. There are words and music of consolation, encouragement, instruction, warning and admonition, of supernatural insight and eschatological hope.

It was quasi-liturgical, though I include the quasi for the sake of precision. For me it was liturgical in its operation and effect. I did nothing but respond, or rather I did nothing but let myself be done to. I was, in the modern liturgical sense, inactively participating. And it was wonderful. Do go and watch it, all the way through. Carve out a space of two and half hours and see what happens. It is split into Part One and Part Two.

The reformed liturgy, with its generally uncompromising demand for active participation so myopically viewed, has been attended by consistently diminishing congregations since its inception. It’s simplistic to blame it on the liturgy, many cry; society has changed. To a point they are right, but their point is not compelling. The liturgy was reformed precisely to meet the needs of contemporary man in contemporary society, and contemporary man and contemporary society have voted with their feet, leaving only a faithful remnant as a ghostly presence in most suburban pews. Where that faithful presence is growing we find a liturgy less obsessed with contemporary human society or human doing, and more focused on divine doing and being, and the supernatural society in which we also live but rarely attend to.

If only Handel and his ilk had been around when our reformed and vernacularized liturgy was cobbled together in haste by a committee of liturgical experts, some of whom came to regret their handiwork.

Anyway, do not feel guilty if you want to be a little less active and a little more passive and receptive at Mass. As it developed over 19 centuries that ambience made many a saint and convert. The measure of Mass is holiness not activity. Dare to be passive! Be still and know that He is God. Leave modernity’s egocentricity at the church door and let God do what we can never.

Join the Conversation

  1. Handel’s grasp of theology, and ability to translate it into music, is sublime.

  2. Unfortunately, most parish priests aren’t like you, Fr. Hugh. Hence, the need for Anglican choral evensong!

  3. Father, Ian sure you did not want your readers’ attention to be distracted from your main theme.However I believe the perversion of “active participation “. By the false “ spirit of the Council
    “ folk has been too malicious not to be highlighted. Pope Saint Pius X coined the phrase “participatio actuosa – That is, of the heart , mind and spirit. The false spirit of the Coucil rogues proceeded to use the English translation as if the phrase had been “participatio activa” that is in action.that is how we have ended up with the invasion of the Sanctuary by layfolk male and female, turning the sacred ritual into a semblance of a backyard barbecue. The truth of this matter is really too important to miss , in my humble opinion.

    1. It was my desire to keep the tone of this post free from polemic, and to let my point come across to those who had ears to hear. I think it is a logical corollary of my piece that active participation is not exactly what it was made out to be. Pax.

  4. The distinction between ‘actuosa’ and ‘active’ in the modern sense of important. Actuosa, I think, means having one’s mind on the liturgy, not necessarily rushing about being busy – you are right. But it also excludes the nostalgic one still hears sometimes for a liturgy that did not distract one from one’s private devotions. You wouldn’t, I assume, regard a concert performance of Handel’s Messiah as a backdrop for reading The Times. But some people did, and do, seem to see attending Mass as a chance to say the Rosary. As someone who happily attends EF Masses from time to time, I think that would have to be the worst possible reason for doing so.

    The early twentieth-century liturgical movement was, it is becoming increasingly clear, was betrayed by what happened in the sixties. But it was onto something.

  5. Further to my last, I should clarify that I have nothing against the Rosary either, and indeed recite a decade of it most days. It’s just that I’ve never seen the point of praying it during Mass, rather than giving my attention to the Sacrifice.


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