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The Most Beautiful Thing This Side of Heaven by Roger Watson

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The Most Beautiful Thing This Side of Heaven

"The Institution of the Eucharist" or "Communion of the Apostles" (1472-1474), a tempera on panel painting by Justus van Gent (ca. 1410-ca. 1480), located in the Galleria nazionale delle Marche in Urbino.

I recently moved house and, while there was—at a stretch—a Catholic Church within walking distance of our previous home, I now live less than a five-minute walk from my new parish church. Being now in retirement, and with my inevitable end ever more in view, my mind has increasingly turned towards spiritual matters and, specifically, how I might more frequently attend Mass. I always attend on Sundays and Holy Days, but I now try to get along more often during the week.

On a Thursday evening our church holds a Mass in the Extraordinary form and, I must admit, I had to check what this meant. It is a Latin Mass in the traditional pre-Vatican II form. What I knew and recognised, having attended quite frequently in the past, as a ‘Tridentine Mass.’ I now make this a regular Thursday evening fixture, along with around half a dozen other parishioners. I am not the oldest but, I am pleased to say, I am by no means the youngest.

I was born in the pre-Vatican II era, but I am a child of the post Vatican II era, having converted (along with my wife) to Catholicism over 30 years ago. I made the journey from Protestant Sunday school, through atheism, The Quakers, and back to the Protestant Church of Scotland over 40 years ago. I had always eschewed Catholicism as my extended family had been divided over the Church, and we were on the anti-Catholic side. 

As a biologist, however, even before returning to Christianity, I had always held doubts about abortion. No amount of sophistry, it seemed to me, could obviate the conclusion that life began at conception. If not at conception, when? If at conception, abortion had to be murder. However, I could not find the moral certainty regarding abortion among the Quakers or in the Church of Scotland, which regularly held votes on the matter at its General Assembly. It struck me the moral status of abortion was not an issue amenable to decision by democracy. The certainty I sought could, it seemed, only be found in the Roman Catholic Church. My mind turned towards the Church and, through a remarkable meeting with a famous Catholic author called Hamish Fraser, my conversion began and was completed in a small Divine Word Missionary chapel on the banks of the River Clyde near Glasgow.

Not long after my conversion, I encountered the Tridentine Mass and grew to love it. I simply could not fathom why the Tridentine Mass was not more widely available. In fact, it was prohibited except under special permission to specific priests. The Mass was preserved and promoted by the Latin Mass Society, but they were mainly responsible for providing information about the Mass and coordinating a timetable of venues where the Tridentine Mass could be celebrated. They were not free to celebrate in those days at will. The Tridentine Mass was also celebrated by the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX)which, in my early days as a Catholic, was proscribed. The SSPX has now been reconciled with the Holy See, although its actual canonical status remains obscure. Pope John Paul II reluctantly issued permission to priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, and then later, Pope Benedict, in the apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, granted wider permission, essentially freeing up the right to celebrate at the discretion of individual parishes and priests. Thus, I now find myself regularly attending the Tridentine Mass.

Until recently I had only attended the Tridentine Mass once in the past twenty years when I encountered one unexpectedly one Sunday morning while on holiday in London. I wrote the following in my blog at the time:

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, allegedly 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 tabernacle 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.

Slightly harsh words for Vatican II and John Paul II, I admit, but in terms of my ‘engagement’ with the Mass, my experience remains the same. I am fully aware that not everyone shares my view, but I prefer peace and quiet before, during, and after Mass. Curmudgeon that I am, I normally eschew offering anyone the ‘sign of peace’—that is, shaking hands with the people around me during the most important moment in the Mass, as is the custom in the new Mass—as I am there to engage with God and not out at a social event with my mates. While I have hated the measures brought in to manage the COVID-19 pandemic I was delighted that they entailed suspending the ‘sign of peace’ and have probably permanently put an end to all those handshakes and embraces in church. 

It was noticeable, at the ancient form of the Mass, when people knelt to take Holy Communion on the tongue that the priest duly administered it and moved between communicants without sanitising his hands. At regular Sunday Masses if anyone insists on taking Communion on the tongue, proceedings are held up while he sanitises his hands. It is refreshing to see that even the rituals of the pandemic cannot override the rituals of the Tridentine Mass. In my view it truly is “The most beautiful thing this side of Heaven.”

Roger Watson is a British academic and former professor of nursing at the University of Hull. He is the editor-in-chief of Nurse Education in Practice and an Editorial Board Member of the WikiJournal of Medicine. He was the founding chair of the Lancet Commission on Nursing, and a founding member of the Global Advisory Group for the Future of Nursing. In 2020, Watson was elected vice president of the National Conference of University Professors. In 2022, Watson was elected president of the National Conference of University Professors.