Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pontifical Midnight Mass (Premonstratensian Rite) from Tongerlo Abbey, Belgium, 1955

NLM Guest Article
by Frater Anselm Gribbin, O.Praem., Tongerlo Abbey


The use of television by the Church to spread the Catholic Faith was still in its infancy in the years after the Second World War, and yet great progress was made. Television broadcasters began to transmit religious services, the Holy Mass, and specifically religious programmes: one immediately thinks of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s popular series. On 24 December 1955, the Solemn Midnight Mass of Christmas was broadcast from the Premonstratensian abbey of Our Lady of Tongerlo, near Antwerp (f. 1130) to homes throughout Europe; in Belgium, Holland, France, and the British Isles. This was the first time that Belgian (Flemish) television had undertaken such an operation.

Tongerlo had been very active in the Liturgical Movement before the Second Vatican Council and, with such a large community at that time (over 100 canons), was renowned for its beautiful liturgy. The televising of the Pontifical Mass, celebrated by the Rt. Rev. Joost Boel, abbot of Tongerlo, was meticulously planned, and scheduled for one hour of viewing time. It is interesting to read the directions issued to the community by the abbot, such as where the priests were to place their birettas for the duration of the Mass; not to look directly into the camera, and to uniformly bow at the holy names of Jesus and Mary. It is also noteworthy that the community was urged to give the viewers a good example of reverence and prayer; indeed the televised Mass was regarded as an ‘act’ of the abbey’s apostolate.

The abbey magazine for 1956 relates that "in the Holy Night (of Christmas) the religious of the abbey allowed their prayerful voices and prayerful actions to be sent through the airwaves, as a public act of adoration and homage to God, by which others can participate in this prayer, to give television viewers an example of upright and consecrated 'service of God’".

The broadcast was warmly received, and the commentary for the BBC was provided by the veteran Catholic commentator, Fr. (later bishop) Agnellus Andrew, O.F.M.. Unfortunately only a few minutes of the recording (without sound) have survived – including a few scenes from the life of the abbey – which we eventually hope to share with you. But for now we present some stills from the recording, and a few photographs to give some idea of the lay-out of the abbey church. We are grateful to Eurovision for preserving this precious film for posterity.

What is noteworthy from the film itself, is the liturgical arrangement of the church in the 1950’s. The present church was dedicated in 1858, though the high altar had been re-located to between the transepts (facing south), allowing for the expansion of the choir, the erection of the baldacchino and more ‘liturgical space’. The laity in the nave actually faced the priest during the celebration of Mass, though the arrangement of the crucifix and candlesticks was the same as in the ancient Roman basilicas. The t.v. cameras were therefore able to transmit the celebration of the Mass from the back of the altar from the nave, giving the viewers a good view of the celebrant. The abbot’s throne was located at the very end of the choir, where the abbot normally sat – and still sits – for the divine office. The processions to and fro the throne to the altar were a very impressive feature of the celebration of Pontifical Mass at the abbey. I shall give further details on the vestments, liturgical furniture, the abbey church and the liturgy at Tongerlo in further posts on NLM.

The abbot and community wish all NLM readers a very happy and a holy Christmas. Zalig Kerstmis!

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Statio before the divine office in the cloister. The community are wearing the winter choir habit, and the solemnly-professed priests wear (four-cornered) birettas.


The divine office in choir. The abbot’s place in choir can be seen behind the cantor and succentor.


The singing of the proclamation of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ on 24 December, in the chapterhouse, after Prime. The lector stands next to the abbot.


The prostration after the proclamation of Our Lord’s birth. The rubric for this ceremony stipulates that the canons ‘are to give thanks to God "who humbled himself taking the form of a servant..."


This later photograph (after 1958) of Pontifical Vespers – with the new choirstalls - gives a good impression of the size of the choir at Tongerlo. The long carpet was used for pontifical services. There is room for 82 confreres in the choir.


This photograph, from the abbatial blessing of Abbot Boel (which will be the subject of a future post), indicates the liturgical arrangement of the altar, which was again altered in the 1990s.


After intoning the Te Deum of the Christmas Matins, the abbot vests for the Midnight Mass at the altar in the sacristy. The subdeacon is on the abbot’s right.


The abbot receives his crozier, with the osculum. The minister ad baculum wears a cope, as do some of the other ministers of the pontifical Mass. The deacon can be seen on the abbot’s left.


The abbot is now ready to celebrate Holy Mass.


The procession into the church. We see here the MC and candle-bearers at the front.


The assistant-priest and throne deacons. Note that the white Premonstratensian biretta has four corners, and, at Tongerlo, was worn at an angle.


The abbot enters the church, with the deacon and subdeacon of the Mass, preceded by the ministers for the mitre, staff, book and candle. Note that the Mass deacon and subdeacon do not wear birettas.


After arriving at the altar the deacon takes the crozier and mitre from the abbot.






Reverence at the beginning of the Mass.


The Adjutorium nostrum and prelate’s Confiteor. The abbot is between the assistant-priest and the deacon.




The procession with the Gospel-book to the ambo, carried by the subdeacon, who is behind the thurifer. Note the candle-bearers and the cross-bearer.






Proclamation of the Gospel by the deacon. His breath is clearly visible, indicating how cold the abbey church used to be (!).


The elevation of the Sacred Host. One can see one of the throne deacons behind the abbot.