Evelyn Waugh on the 1950’s Liturgical Reforms

This comes with a hat tip to Patricius in his new posting on Evelyn Waugh – Waugh…

During the last few years we have experienced the triumph of the “liturgists,” in the new arrangement of the services for the end of Holy Week and for Easter. For centuries these had been enriched by devotions which were dear to the laity – the anticipation of the morning office of Tenebrae, the vigil at the Altar of Repose, the Mass of the Presanctified. It was not how the Christians of the second century observed the season. It was the organic growth of the needs of the people. Not all Catholics were able to avail themselves of the services but hundreds did, going to live in or near the monastic houses and making an annual retreat which began with Tenebrae on Wednesday afternoon and ended with midday on Saturday with the anticipated Easter Mass. During those three days time was conveniently apportioned between the rites of the Church and the discourses of the priest taking the retreat, with little temptation to distraction. Now nothing happens before Thursday evening. All Friday morning is empty. There is an hour or so in church on Friday afternoon. All Saturday is quite blank until late at night. The Easter Mass is sung at midnight to a weary congregation, who are constrained to “renew their baptismal vows” in the vernacular and later repair to bed. The significance of Easter as a feast of dawn is quite lost, as is the unique character of Christmas as the Holy Night. I have noticed in the monastery I frequent a marked falling-off in the number of retreatants since the innovations or, as the liturgists would prefer to call them, the restorations. It may well be that these services are nearer to the practice of primitive Christianity, but the Church rejoices in the development of dogma; why does it not also admit the development of liturgy?

This is quite amazing, since he was writing in 1962 at the same sort of time as Msgr Léon Gromier’s The “Restored” Holy Week. This was before Vatican II and the rest, but of course the Council came out of its background of hundreds of bishops and theologians with their bees in their bonnets. Of course, Waugh was a brilliant writer and I am certainly a fan of his – but he was something of a cantankerous character who lived a very unhealthy life!

I have already discussed questions of the timetable of Holy Week services. It is a difficult one. Why the changes? To be frank, it seems odd to sing O beata nox in the bright sunlight of a spring morning. On the other hand, the long Paschal Vigil with baptisms and everything on a Saturday night is awfully tiresome. My Sarum vigil is much shorter, since it has the same four Prophecies as the Parisian, Rouennais and Dominican missals. I have not conferred a baptism since when I was a Roman Catholic deacon in a parish. For me, it makes sense to begin at dusk or just after dark, which in late March or April is about 9 pm depending on whether the clocks have gone on (last weekend of March). On the other hand, Tenebrae in the morning seem odd.

Though I use an unreformed rite (Sarum), I use the following timetable:

  • Spy Wednesday – Tenebrae of Maundy Thursday at about 9 pm.
  • Maundy Thursday – Mass In Coena Domini at about 6 pm. We “Sarumites” don’t use an altar of repose but put the two hosts in the hanging pyx.
  • Maundy Thursday – Tenebrae of Good Friday at about 9 pm.
  • Good Friday – Mass of the Presanctified and Burial of the Cross and the Blessed Sacrament in the Easter Sepulcre at about 3 pm.
  • Good Friday – Tenebrae of Holy Saturday at about 9 pm.
  • Holy Saturday – Paschal Vigil at 8 – 9 pm.
  • Easter Sunday morning – Opening of the Easter Sepulcre (Christus resurgens) and Mass of Easter Day.

It works for me, because I am either alone or have only my wife in attendance. She generally comes only to the Maundy Thursday Mass and the Paschal Vigil. It would be better for her to come to Good Friday too, but she is free.

That’s for the timetable, which isn’t everything. I find the Pius XII / Bugnini rites plainly silly and of no pastoral value. Waugh was clearly sensitive to what was going on, and the “liturgists” had been playing their games for years. This is a very interesting testimony like the talk given by the then Papal MC, Monsignor Gromier. I see the two together. Men of that generation, or a little later (born 1910-1920) and ordained just before or during World War II, often followed the “pastoral” liturgists with the idea that people were unable to relate to the liturgy and needed special adaptations. But they thought critically and discussed things intelligently. I spent whole days with Fr Pecha, and his distinctive line, when talking about the traditionalists, was that “We weren’t then what they are now“. Waugh was a convert with well-defined ideas, and he just wanted it left alone – as I do with Sarum, taking very few conservative liberties.

Patricius has taken this one on with confidence, and it is to his credit. Perhaps he might follow Waugh’s example by writing beautifully but driving himself into the ground! I’m sure he will be more sensible than that. Having known men like Fr Quintin Montgomery-Wright, Fr Jacques Pecha and some of the priests of Opus Sacerdotale who came to visit us at Gricigliano, there was a change. It was imperceptible, but as attachment to the Tridentine rite became more mainstream from about 1984 (date of the John Paul II indult), traditionalists and American-style (and stuffy English style too) conservatives started to mix together – and traditionalists took the ultramontanist ideology onboard. They were no longer “Lefebvrist” dissidents but conservatives with a preference for the old rite. In comes the rubricism and the tightening screws, and the result is a caricature of the pre-Conciliar Church. Eventually, as the Society of St Pius X started its dialogues with Rome, they also took on the conservative spirit.

The problems come in with ideology and unwillingness to think critically in regard to the mounting totalitarianism – or perhaps one that is being dismantled by Pope Francis as Benedict XVI began to do. We must not answer this with emotions and counter ideologies, but with kindness and original thinking. That’s where we eccentrics come in!

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2 Responses to Evelyn Waugh on the 1950’s Liturgical Reforms

  1. Patricius says:

    The good thing about doing everything in the morning, from a practical perspective, is it gets it all out of the way.

  2. Rubricarius says:

    Your penultimate paragraph is absolutely hits the proverbial nail on its head. Younger folk fail to understand that back in the ’60 and ’70s the proto-Trad groups were all rather militant – even the LMS (vide the infamous falling out described by Richens and the foundation of the ALL over ‘Latin Mass Madness’). The history of the move towards a ‘conservative’ stance, what I usually describe as the desire for ‘respectability’ will prove to be ultimately terminal IMHO.

    With regards to your timetable I must beg to disagree with you. In the traditional Roman rite, with which I am far more familiar, all of the Lenten ferial Masses from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday take place after None and before Vespers. I cannot see any reason to vary the times. Whilst I would not like it I could understand someone wanting to celebrate them all at four in the afternoon and could at least admire the consistency of that approach. Personally, I find no problem with celebrating the services of the Triduum at their received times in a parish setting. Indeed I believe the pre-Pacelli times are far better for families with children and most of the rest of us to. I think the issue is what people think the Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Saturday is celebrating. The 1951-56 ‘Easter Vigil’ became the ‘time’ to celebrate the Resurrection. As we know in Sarum, the Old Roman rite, and the Byzantine rite that is actually celebrated at Paschal Mattins.

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