Some unsympathetic bishops (e.g. Bishop Conry of Arundel and Brighton: “You could commit twenty-six mortal sins in the sacristy by not complying with the rubrics”) will tell you the Traditional Mass is so difficult that priests need lengthy training to learn it. The veteran actor, Julian Fox, begs to differ.
In those comforting classic films, ‘Going My Way’ (1944) and ‘The Bells of St Mary’s’(1945), there is no scene where the leading character, Fr O’Malley, (played by Bing Crosby) says Mass. Undoubtedly, though, Bing Crosby – with his Irish mother and Jesuit schooling – would have learnt the lines and directions quickly. The same applies to many other stars such as Alec Guinness who converted to Catholicism after playing the part of Cardinal Mindszenty.
Let me explain, then, to novice priests, that learning the old Latin rite seems quite easy to me, and far more so than being on the stage or in a studio. Some years ago, I was offered the part of John Paul I in a play that suggested he was assassinated by the Freemasons. A kindly Father at Westminster Cathedral explained papal procedure, but to get fully into the part, a Traditionalist took me to St Dominic’s in London NW3 when the Old Mass was still offered here.
It was something of a revelation, and even for an Anglican turned agnostic, I was thoroughly moved. Although only an observer, I was introduced to the officiating priest who also gave me some useful pointers so that I was able to go on stage at Hampstead New Theatre feeling every inch a supreme pontiff from skullcap to tasselled shoes.
When my Catholic friend asked how long it would take me to learn the old Latin rite, I replied, a single day. What I was comparing was not just being faced with longish speeches penned in some playwright’s gobbledegook, but, in particular, a heavy part in a Somerset Maugham play, when even a week was barely enough to learn one’s lines in disjointed dialogue.
Difficult to learn?
Apparently, Low Mass can be completed within half an hour, which compares with a running time of two hours for the film, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ or over three hours for some Shakespearean dramas. While dealing with length, the table below shows that the total words in key parts of the Mass are far fewer than in Shakespearean soliloquies that must be learnt by heart. If a priest really struggles to be word perfect, he should use a tip from Richard Burton: “Memorise the long orations and leave the short lines to last”.
Actually, this is by the by, because a leading man has to study the whole script and memorise his part word for word, whereas the priest has almost all the texts before his eyes in what is virtually a monologue, some of it recited sotto voce. As I understand it, the variable passages for different days are all in the same Missal, and the correct pages are marked with ribbons before the Mass starts.
As the celebrant, a priest is actor/producer/director combined. He is not concerned with entrances and exits, or with timing or with changes of costume and scenery. And unlike a show televised or broadcast live, he is not up against the clock where the risk of over-running by just sixty seconds is nerve-racking. Moreover, whilst an actor is invariably in front of the lights using facial expressions and exaggerated gestures, the priest faces the altar and turns to the congregation only occasionally.
Remember, too, that thespians face a sophisticated audience, including drama critics who may publish lukewarm reviews, whereas a congregation, in the very nature of things, is fulfilling an act of worship.
It may reassure young priests to know that all those polished performances by the stars of stage and screen often resulted from agonising rehearsals full of inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies. [Several actors like Bob Hope and John Barrymore were so frightened of forgetting their lines that they watched prompt boards, either in the orchestra pit or behind the camera – the equivalent of the autocue on television.]
When doing Agatha Christie in Eastbourne, conveniently I was meant to carry a policeman’s notebook – in which I pasted my lines. Once, playing a soldier, I had notes inside the helmet that I was carrying, so a hard-put celebrant could even stick a couple of brief, early reminders inside his biretta!
Which brings us back to the fact that the priest is meant to read from the Missal and Mass cards anyway. Even the initial prayers at the foot of the altar can be read from a booklet, so all the priest really needs to rehearse are the actions that are far simpler than actions on stage. Therefore, any prompt cards would concern the sequence of movements, and these can be laid discreetly on the altar.
In any event, a trained altar-server can prompt and will do so routinely when he moves the Missal from right to left for the Gospel or when he comes forward with the water and wine. In fact, although priests presumably usually train each other, I would suggest that the later rehearsing be done with an experienced altar-server. I also agree, in line with at least one seminary, that a priest should become perfect in the first half of the Mass before progressing to the more involved action.
‘Coping’ with Latin
There remains, then, the problem of pronouncing the Latin itself, but remember that even the Bulgarian playing Pontius Pilate in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was but one of several actors who had to learn Latin, doubtless helped by the daily Tridentine Mass before rehearsals. I have had parts in French and Italian – and again let me stress, they have to be spoken out loud in front of the footlights. As I understand it, the central part of the Mass is meant to be inaudible to the worshippers, and occasional mispronunciation is not going to be critical.
It is said that many in the pews do not understand Latin. This is one of the various arguments against the Old Mass. I have read them all, but as an outsider I would say that Latin would qualify, dead or living, as one the most beautiful languages in the history of mankind; I can still remember smatterings of Virgil and Catullus from my schooldays. Would that Latin were still a mandatory subject!
Although the vernacularists might cavil at good Catholics adhering to a ritual in the language of Christianity’s earliest persecutors like Tiberius and Nero, one cannot gainsay its lustre. Any religion deserves to be celebrated in the finest language there is. From the time of St Peter, the Papacy has been in Rome and Latin, to those who actually know it, is an international language. There is no greater recommendation than that.
Some history books tell us that, as the ordinary people could not speak Latin, let alone read it, having the liturgy in that language was chiefly to prevent the Faith’s being questioned. That is doubtless a simplification, and maybe a bit patronising. I have actually had Church Latin quoted to me by farming folk in Italy, labourers in France and bus conductors in Ireland.
I am told there is a [vernacular] prayer known as the Memorare, which is Latin for keeping in mind; so remember that the age-old Mass, having outlasted the mediaeval miracle plays, has enjoyed a longer run than any profane production!
|Mark Antony’s 269|
Henry V’s 411
Pater Noster 44
Last Gospel 173
[Taken from "Mass of Ages" February 2009, The Latin Mass Society's quarterly magazine]