Monday, November 12, 2007

Heaven on Earth

In the 10th century, legend has it, grand prince Vladimir from what is now called Ukraine was planning to introduce his people into the civilized world. So he sent ambassadors in search of a religion of truth and beauty. They came back with unflattering reports about Jewish, Muslim, and Latin worship. The last they described as without fervor, cold and dead. But among the Byzantines, they reported, the liturgy was so beautiful that "we did not know if we were in Heaven or on Earth, for on Earth there is no such beauty. . . Only one thing do we know: that God was living there with men, and that their form of worship is the best of all. We cannot forget this beauty."

Two 40-something friends from my diocese (Fall River, Mass.) described their experience in similar terms. Except, it wasn't a Byzantine liturgy that captivated them. It was the Roman liturgy in its full splendor. You see, they accompanied me to Sacred Heart Church in New Haven, Connecticut, for Solemn High Mass in the "extraordinary form" (a votive Mass in honor of Pope St. Gregory the Great). It was their first time assisting at this form of Mass, and I daresay they could have had no better introduction to it. The full schola of the St. Gregory Society (which celebrated its 21st anniversary yesterday) sang Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli and the Gregorian propers. Mass was preceded by the Asperges and concluded with Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament. As the saying goes, they pulled out all the stops. And as if that weren't good enough, the celebrant, Father Richard Cipolla, gave an outstanding sermon on the meaning of virtue, its exemplification in the lives of Pope St. Gregory and other saints, and the desperate need for it among Church leaders today.

On the way to New Haven, I explained to my friends some of the key differences between the extraordinary and ordinary forms. "What you experience today," I told them, "will give you a strong sense of what was lost and what was gained -- mostly lost, though -- since the Council," and mentioned in passing my personal preference for vernacular readings (well translated, that is).

After Mass, my friends couldn't have spoken more highly of their experience. I must admit, I was a bit surprised when they told me they would be perfectly happy assisting at this form of Mass, and only this form, without a single word in the vernacular, for the rest of their lives. They know that in the "good ol' days" Mass wasn't always that beautifully celebrated, that not every Mass was solemn, that there were sloppily celebrated, rushed Masses, and so on. Still, said they, compared to their usual experience (gum-chewing communicants, a veritable battalion of "extraordinary" ministers, Dominus vobiscum and Ite, missa est replaced by "Good morning!" and "Thank you for coming!", etc.), they'd prefer a less-than-perfect Low Mass in the old rite.

Had Vladimir's emissaries encountered what took place in Heav -- er, New Haven -- yesterday, well... things might have turned out very differently.

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