With lay readers, girls on the altar, the 'sign of peace' and all manner of music and activities at Mass, the Roman Catholic laity must feel more 'engaged'. I'm sure they do; but why are the churches empty on Sunday mornings? The continual reduction in the number of Masses available - specifically with fewer Vigil Masses - with the expressed aim of concentrating those left into fewer Masses has worked to some extent. But fewer people now attend Mass and if it were not for the Polish community in my own parish, I fear the church may be even emptier.
Of course, the old Mass - the Tridentine Mass - did not engage people as they could not understand what was going on and they were not ostensibly 'involved' in proceedings. Then why, when I went to Sunday morning Mass recently in a large Roman Catholic Church in London was it packed? The Mass was in Latin, the Priest faced the altar and only the sermon was in English. Of course, you'd expect it would have been full of older people and those who wouldn't know any better; it wasn't. There were smart young professional couples, many teenagers and other children and, of course, older people like me.
I had not attended a Tridentine Mass for decades; I was brought into the Catholic Church long after the desecrations of the Second Vatican Council, and Pope John Paul II's restrictions on issuing the celebre - which allowed very few priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass - all but saw it eradicated from the Catholic landscape. But it survived and John Paul II's less popularity conscious successor, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, relaxed the restrictions on celebrating the Tridentine Mass. Looking back, what a cruel and appalling act of bullying the restriction was and how we now live in, ironically, more enlightened times.
From the bell preceding the Priest's entry I was as engaged as I had ever been in any Mass in which I had taken part. Only the occasional 'oremus' (let us pray), as the Priest turned to face us before returning to face the altar, reminded me where we were in the Mass. If I had had my Tridentine Missal with me I could have followed. What many 'Tridentine-bashers' don't realise is that these had Latin on one page and English on the opposite page. All but the illiterate could follow. My eyes and thoughts hardly wandered during this profound and total act of worship.
Since then I have been back to my parish church. The Priest is a very fine man and the congregation is devoted and full of people who give much time to the Church and dispense more charity in a morning than I have dispensed in my lifetime. But Mass is not engaging, it is simply distracting. The different forms of the Mass each week - often mercifully neglected by the Priest in favour of the shortest version - the standing, the sitting, the kneeling, the standing again...sitting...kneeling; the frequent exchange of personnel - lay and ordained - on the altar - the responses, the singing and the increasingly prolonged shaking of hands, barely allow you time to think why you are there. I leave Mass wondering what we'll cook for Sunday dinner; I left the Mass in London wondering how to become a better person.
Dedicated to the memory of the late Anthony Fraser, Editor of Apropos magazine.