Sunday, August 30, 2009

Extraordinary Form, Montgomery, Alabama

The first extraordinary form in a Montgomery, Alabama, parish in forty years will take place September 27, 2009, at 5pm, St. Peter's Catholic Church. It will be a Missa Cantata, featuring all Gregorian propers plus W. Byrd's Mass for Three Voices, a sung by members of the St. Cecilia Schola in Auburn. The Mass will be celebrated by Fr. Mark Fischer of the St. Francis De Sales Catholic Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

It would be fantastic to see the Church with standing room only, along with a generous collection for the visiting priest and the parish, and I see no reason why this shouldn't happen. The pent-up demand for the extraordinary form in this town has a long history--it's been a long wandering the desert--and here it is being welcomed with open arms in this gorgeous parish and with the full support of the Archbishop of Mobile. The effort do bring this about was led by Una Voce Central Alabama.

I'll be in the loft, not the pew, but I'm personally very excited about this particular event. I had sung for the dedication of St. Francis when Fr. Fischer was pastor the first time around, so this is like history coming full circle for me.

Also, the pleasure of singing or hearing Byrd's Mass is intensified by the history of this particular setting of the Ordinary. It was composed for secret Masses during Byrd's service as composer for Queen Elizabeth, as part of the interesting double life that Byrd lived. The virtual suppression of the preconciliar Mass in the years following Vatican II seemed to share some similar qualities that are in retrospect gravely regrettable. But now what was only in secret is now in public.

There is a third point but I only have sketchy details and some might be wrong, so I welcome a correction from anyone who can provide one. I can recall 15 years ago hearing of a Tridentine Mass in Montgomery and driving to find its location. I became lost several times (pre-GPS) and finally came to a small structure in what seemed to be a nowhere residential area. It certainly wasn't a Church. I had gathered that I had happened upon an independent chapel of some sort so I lost my nerve and didn't attend. It was unclear to me whether I was even in the right place. Still, I've remained curious about that all these years.

Meanwhile, only recently, I heard a story about the pastor of St. Peter's in the late 1960s who was older and very much attached to the preconciliar form and quite simply refused to say the new form of Mass even after it was mandated and the older form suppressed.

This is where details are foggy and perhaps someone knows the full story. I've heard it said that he was removed from the parish but retained faculties and that he continued to say private Masses for many years, inviting others as they saw fit. He said Mass in homes mostly but also in other places where there was a need. In other words, it is quite possible that the Mass I had nearly attended in Montgomery some 15 years ago was being said by this former pastor of St. Peter's which is now opening the parish to that very form of Mass and happily hosting its revival.

I don't know if that is true, and I don't have enough contacts with a community that might have attended back then to know for sure. Nor do I recall the priest's name, though I've heard his name used. Again, perhaps someone can help with the details. That confluence of events should teach us all something about time and principles and the tendency of history to eventually right itself. One wonders how common such incidents were in the "old days"; one wonders sometimes just how brutal it was for pastors in those years of crossing from old to new.

All of that aside, this really isn't a post about picking at old wounds. The fact is that this is going to be an amazing time of celebration for everyone. Leading up to the event, I think we can fully expect promotional coverage in the archdiocesan paper and elsewhere. It is a glorious thing even in an empty parish; if it were to be packed with praying and singing people, that would be sweeter still.

One final point needs to be made. The music we will be singing is as normative for the ordinary form as it is for the extrordinary form. Both forms call for Gregorian propers. Both forms can accommodate a polyphonic ordinary. And yet this is the first time that members of our schola will have sung both in the same Mass and it so happens to be a preconciliar Mass. There really is no reason to wait for the extraordinary form to come to town to have beautiful music. No reason to wait at all.

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