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The Return Of Public Mass: A Light In The Darkness

June 26, 2020 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

2020 has not been a year of glad tidings. The pandemic of COVID-19 is now giving way to a pandemic of violence in our nation. Yet amid all this darkness, there is one cause for rejoicing — the return of the public celebration of Mass. It is a gradual restoration that began in some places in mid-May, yet as of this writing there are still many places suffering under this Eucharistic privation. In the suburban New York county where I live, the permission to attend Sunday Mass and receive Holy Communion has been restored on the very feast that celebrates this sacrament, Corpus Christi. Even amid new and growing troubles, one could not help but feel what Psalm 126 expresses so well:
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, / we were like those who dream. / Then our mouth was filled with laughter, / and our tongue with shouts of joy; / The Lord has done great things for us; / we are glad” (Psalm 126:1-3).
The Corpus Christi processions that providentially accompanied this return of public Sunday Mass served to underline the fact that what is being restored is first and foremost the worthy public worship of our Lord that is His by divine right. Seeing the priest carry the monstrance back up the steps into the church at the end of the Eucharistic procession seemed a poignant realization of Psalm 132 (verse 8): “Arise, O Lord, and go to thy resting place, / thou and the ark of thy might,” a vision echoed in the final glorious verse of the English hymn, “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending”:
Savior, take the power and glory; / Claim the kingdom for thine own. . . . Thou shalt reign and thou alone.”
Restoring to our God what is rightfully His has not proven easy. In Minnesota it took a bold, courageous, and much to be admired decision of the state’s bishops acting in unison to break the governor’s indefinite prolongation of the public worship ban.
What was originally introduced and presented as an emergency measure in dire circumstances is threatening to become institutionalized as a quasi-permanent tool of public policy. Now that public Mass is slowly but surely returning across our country, we will need to be alert in the months and years ahead to a new threat: the danger of politicians who think they can control at will what takes place in our churches. “The kings of the earth set themselves, / and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed” (Psalm 2:2).
For centuries, the world and the Devil have been attempting to stop the Mass and put out the sanctuary lamps in our churches. Looking through the literature of the early decades of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, it always comes as a shock just how much raw and bitter hatred for the Mass is expressed in these pages for the founding of a supposedly “purer” Christianity. Even the titles of many a tract from such authors manifest a seething rage against the Holy Eucharist, as can be seen for example in the name that the Protestant theologian Jacob Heerbrand (1521-1600) gave to his 1581 attack upon Catholic Eucharistic doctrine: “A Refutation of the Treatise of the Spaniard Gregory of Valencia, an impious Jesuit of Ingolstadt, concerning the profane, abominable and cursed Mass of the Pope, condemned by the Word of God.”
When in 1583 the English Protestant propagandist John Foxe (1516-1587) published the fourth edition of his Acts and Monuments, he added to his account of Queen Mary’s reign an introductory screed entitled “The Absurdity of the Mass Proved,” wherein he declares his intention to set forth “the great absurdity, wicked abuse, and perilous idolatry, of the popish mass” so as to demonstrate “why it is to be exploded out of all churches.”
Citing the comment of his co-religionist John Bradford that the Mass is “a most subtle and pernicious enemy against Christ,” Foxe presents his own running commentary upon the text of the Roman Canon and the rubrics of the Sarum Rite Mass, casting his remarks in the form of marginal notations wherein he taunts the priest with blasphemous mockery of the celebrant’s prescribed words and actions. Thus at the post-Communion rubric for the rinsing of the sacred particles from the priest’s fingertips in the chalice (“But let him wash his fingers in the hollow room of the chalice with wine being poured in by the subdeacon…”), Foxe comments, “A token that he hath had some corrupt matter in hand.”
At the rubric, “And afterward bowing himself, let him say: ‘Let us worship the sign of the cross . . . ,’ ” Foxe interjects, “What it is, that these idolaters will not worship? Very signs and tokens will not they stick at” (John Foxe, The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO, 1583 edition, The Digital Humanities Institute, Sheffield, 2011, pp. 1397, 1400, original pagination — https://www.dhi.ac.uk/foxe).
From the likes of John Foxe, later generations were to “inherit the wind” of hating not only the Mass but an ever increasing canon of sacred beliefs and traditions that became the objects of the secular world’s iconoclastic fury.
Recently I came across an essay published well over a century ago in the June 1889 issue of the North American Review penned by an American writer named Percy Douglas. This piece makes for chilling reading, for the essayist’s perverse and arrogant dream of an America “guiltlessly” torching all traditional beliefs, institutions, and observances in the name of “progress” has largely been fulfilled in our own time. His words are nothing short of a manifesto of modernism, a creed of hatred for the past. Beginning by bragging that Americans have succeeded in founding “a state without a religion…which surely should have called down upon us the vengeance of heaven, if the men who believed in the old order of things were right,” Douglas continues:
“The world of today is for the men and women of today, and not for the pallid ghosts of the past. Destruction and revision are the two most potent weapons of progress. By destroying what is useless and bad, and by revising what is capable of improvement, we clear the way for the newer thought of our own age. . . .
“As may easily be inferred, I have personally, very little veneration for relics of the past. I can see no use in them except the gratification of a morbid sentimentality. I would not give a nickel for the most authentic relic of the most famous saint that ever lived. . . .
“But society at large is injured by the preservation of old institutions and traditions merely because they are old. The man who tries to hold his generation to a belief in and love for an outworn idea, on the plea that it was once vital, is a public enemy and should be so regarded . . . constant and continuous change is the mark of true progress . . . to stand still is to go backward. . . .
“The application of my little homily is this: Do not feel any secret pangs of guilt because you share in the iconoclastic spirit of the American people. Rather rejoice because that spirit has been so largely manifested in the destruction of old institutions, in the abrogation of old laws, in the suspension of old customs…in the death of old superstitions….There is still a great work for the American iconoclast to do in politics, art, science, commerce, sociology, and religion. I hope he will do it so fearlessly, so effectively, and so wisely, that in the great American Republic of the future not a vestige of the old abuses and the old falsehoods will remain” (Percy Douglas, “Iconoclasm Necessary to Progress,” North American Review, volume 148, n. 391, June 1889, pp. 768-769 — downloaded from jstor.org).
Douglas Percy’s vision of a tradition-cleansed America reeks of Hell. In 2020, we as Catholics struggle to live our faith amid the scorched earth wrought by the “potent weapons of progress.” And in striving to adhere to and uphold our faith, we are seen as “public enemies” of such “progress.”
Almost three and a half centuries ago, here on American soil, a young woman named Kateri Tekakwitha (saint, 1656-1680) had to brave a similar minefield of hostility to her faith. On her walk to Sunday Mass at the missionaries’ chapel in her Mohawk village of Gandawague (Fonda, N.Y.), she had to run a gauntlet of stones, jeers, and heckling hurled at her not only by pagans but also by lapsed Catholics who resented her fidelity to God. “For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves . . . ‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us. . . . He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us’” (Wisdom 2:1, 12, 14-15).
Over the months since the COVID-19 pandemic first reached England, at the beginning of the livestreamed Sunday Traditional Latin Masses of St. Mary’s Shrine in Warrington administered by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, it has been the practice of the celebrant to carry out in full the opening Asperges rite of going down the center aisle of the nave, sprinkling with holy water the empty pews despite the total absence of any congregation due to the forced closure of England’s churches — a beautiful and haunting reminder that the faithful living “in exile” from their churches have nonetheless remained united in spirit to the action of their priests at the altar of God, and that their priests have longed for their return.

O Wonderful Price

As the celebration of Mass in public returns across our own nation, with it comes a heightened appreciation of what has been so painfully absent from our lives for the past three months. When about the year 1301 the custom of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was introduced for the very first time anywhere at the German Benedictine monastery of Hildesheim, the priest’s blessing of the faithful with the Holy Eucharist in a pyx was accompanied by the choir singing the verse, “O wonderful Price, by whose weight the captivity of the world has been redeemed, the infernal gates of Hell have been shattered, the gate of the kingdom has been opened to us.”
Now more than ever, let us cherish that “wonderful Price” and be prepared to defend it with all our hearts. And let us rejoice in its restoration to us:
“. . . lo, the winter is past, / the rain is over and gone. / The flowers appear on the earth, / the time of singing has come, / and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (Song 2:11-12).

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