Friday, February 05, 2010

The Priest as Mediator: A Conversation with Rev. Allan J. McDonald

The four years I spent at St. Mary's in Baltimore were the best years of my life and helped me to grow as a Catholic and into a priest. So let that be said! The silliness I experienced growing up and yes in the seminary made me study the Vatican II documents even more seriously to make sure that the Church really hadn't gone to hell in a hand bag.

OZ: In your blog, Southern Orders, you have written candidly and fondly of your seminary days. Can you tell me more about seminary life in the 1970s?

AJM: I was at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. It was probably the Cadillac of seminaries up until Vatican II times. Up until 1968, actually. And then things began to unravel there, like everywhere else.

OZ: What occurred precisely?

AJM: There was almost a rebellion against the stricter form of seminary life – by the seminarians, but also by the professors. Seminarians wanted freedom, and the faculty gave in. It created chaos. This was in the early 70s. I'm sure that our current vocations crisis is a result of situations like this.

Let me tell you an interesting story. This happened before I got there, so it is second hand. In order to make a symbolic point about celebration of the new Mass in the pre-Vatican II designed seminary chapel, there was a ceremony to strip the old altar. A wheelbarrow was brought in. They dumped all of the accoutrements of the pre-Vatican II altar into the wheelbarrow and wheeled it out — liturgically. Then they put a table in front of the old altar so they could celebrate Mass in the “spirit of Vatican II.”

OZ: Rupture.

AJM: Absolutely. When I arrived at the seminary in 1976, things had started to become a little more stable. I would say the education I got was top notch. In fact it was one known to be one of the more difficult seminaries in the country, even then.

OZ: What kinds of things were you taught?

AJM: Well, what they did, unwittingly, was teach us precisely what we are talking about here – the theology of rupture. What they wanted to do was show what had been taught in pre-Vatican II times. So they would give us that. And then they would give us their version of Vatican II teachings — or what they perceived Vatican II to have changed. Sometimes this was a good thing. It helped you to see both sides. If you wanted to you could see continuity. But if you were skeptical, it allowed you to see the theology of rupture.

OZ: In other words, it was a Scholastic approach run amok.

AJM: Exactly! But their preferences were clear.

OZ: How did this thinking play out in the Masses there?

AJM: Lots of arbitrary or silly things were done.

OZ: Yes, some of these are highlighted in one of your blog posts.

AJM: There was lots of creativity. For example, ceramic cups instead of chalices. To me they looked like small plant pots. The idea was that Christ was simple, so we should be simple, and this is what he would have liked. Different priests had their own styles, of course. There was one priest who believed the liturgy of the word was the most important part of the Mass. So we would begin with the entrance hymn and things would begin rolling.

OZ: No Introit, correct?

AJM: No, of course not! That had been thrown out with the old Mass. Right after the entrance hymn the priest would stand at his chair and say "The Lord be with you, let us pray." Then we would sit down, right away, to the liturgy of the word. Then there was no genuflection at the Consecration and no Elevation at all. I was left wondering: what are we supposed to learning about the Eucharist here? What was conveyed to me was that maybe the Real Presence wasn't what had I thought it was.

OZ: Is this something you were thinking and observing privately? Was this actually taught?

AJM: No, no one would come out and deny transubstantiation. But its centrality wasn't borne out in the actions of the Mass.

OZ: So in way what you were observing was the linearity of the new Mass. In other words, it was all about cognitive understanding. Things were shrunk down to a linear dimension. There were no layers to the mystery.

AJM: Correct. They also refused to have Benediction. Until there was some uprising and it was eventually done once a year. But even then, they said the Eucharist was food — and to be eaten. It was not something for looking at. Again, that is a one dimensional way of seeing things. So we were all left wondering – is it real, or is it not.

The first time they had Benediction they insisted that the consecrated Host be on a plate, not in a monstrance. It was food, after all. And they insisted that the Precious Blood be present as well. At the time for the blessing, the priest took the bread on the plate and the blood in its ceramic vessel and held them up before us – as food. The bread was homemade, of course: honey buns. I often wondered if the Masses there were even valid. The honey buns were very good, by the way – I would have wanted them for breakfast.

OZ: So they made it up as they went along.

AJM: Right. And I only experienced Benediction that one time while I was there.

OZ: Was all tradition downplayed?

AJM: Things were pretty much low church. But to be fair I must say that Sunday Masses in the chapel had a little more to them. They did have a music director, and of course a piano and guitar. Some musicians with their ensembles sang right up in front. The singers were good singers. They weren't singing the Propers, of course, but what they did was well done. The ensemble sound was beautiful. I appreciated it because there was so much lacking otherwise. Whether it was good theology or good music for Mass is another matter entirely. We also had a very excellent traditional choir which sang from the choir loft with the chapel’s magnificent pipe organ. Much of this music was very good, but again I don’t recall any Gregorian Chant, Introits, offertory or communion antiphons, just sacred music in the form of metrical hymns and motets, both contemporary and traditional.

OZ: Do you know if the musicians aware of what they were singing? Were they aware of the Propers, or for that matter, was anyone?

AJM: Not really. Hymns. New hymns. Icing on the cake music. We sang the Mass parts in English, of course. But never the Creed. The sung Creed fell to the wayside. It was all beautiful music, but very secular in character and even sometimes in wording. God was never even mentioned in a few of the Dutch compositions that were selected. Others extolled the church and the community, praising these but forgetting about the praise and worship due God alone. Like today, so much of the contemporary music sounds like something you might hear in a bar. Close your eyes and listen to the melody of some and you’ll think the piano player at the bar is playing it.

OZ: This sounds like much of the adult contemporary music we hear in most parishes today. I think it is better now – God is mentioned. But this has been what people now in the 30s, 40s, and 50s grew up with — music that makes you "feel a certain way." But nothing that is intrinsic to the Mass itself.

AJM: As seminarians we were not taught about the right music for Mass, either. The entrance, offertory and communion antiphons were not even mentioned. They were not in the new missal. Nor was there any hint that they still existed. That is the problem.

When I was pastor at Most Holy Trinity in Augusta we held a monthly Novus Ordo in Latin. It was not until that time that our music director at the time, Dr. Janet Hunt, made me aware that the Propers still existed at all and could be sung at Mass. I had no idea where she got them.

OZ: Well that makes sense from that standpoint of a Mass with a linear look and feel. If the emphasis of the Mass, rather than sacrifice, is the cognitive understanding of everything – transparency in the vernacular – what is the point of singing Gregorian antiphons?

AJM: The problem today is that the rubrics aren't clear. And there are many options. No one is taught, for example, that the Gregorian Propers still exist, and for that matter that should be your first choice. That has been made somewhat clearer in the new GIRM.

With the EF you know how and when to do everything. But there is little instruction in the missal for the new Mass. And for musicians and pastors who want solemn music at Mass, well, what is there to do? In the absence of clarity, the politics of the Mass have come to concern themselves with creativity and self. Hymnody is what is pushed. Not the Mass. Hymnody is not the tradition of the Mass. People come to Mass to pray.

OZ: Father, with your background and insights, how have you come to make liturgical changes in the parish you are in today?

AJM: When I arrived at my current parish in 2004 there was a lot of resistance. Things had been done in the same way for thirty years. The pastor here was very pastoral, very loving. But in terms of liturgy, things that he was doing in 1974 were still being done. This startled me quite a bit.

OZ: The renovations in the church were already going on when you arrived, correct?

AJM: That's right. And there were a lot of things I needed to do. Replace the altar, for one. And there was a lot of kicking and screaming.

Another one of the first things I did was work with the music director to make sure that we were doing the Mass properly — and with decorum. The previous pastor had imported many of his particularly favorite devotional hymns, like “peace if flowing like a River and the Charismatic version of the “Alleluia.” into the Mass here, and those had become part of the culture. Removing them was disarming to people. Little by little, and by letting parishioners know the reason behind the changes, things are coming around.

I'm now in my sixth year here. It was probably three years ago that we started to sing the Latin Sanctus and Agnus Dei during Lent and Advent. We haven't yet gotten to the Gloria or the Creed. But we do sing these parts with our men’s schola at the Extraordinary Form of the Mass now once a month. Gregorian chant is the order of the day for this Mass, along with the Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion chants prescribed for the Mass of the day.

OZ: When did you introduce the EF?

AJM: As soon as we could. It was on a particularly ominous Friday night at 7:00 PM — September 14, 2007. I was more nervous doing that than I was doing my first Mass as a priest! Despite the horrible weather, the thunder and lightening and the chance of a tornado, there were over 300 people present!

OZ: How did you go about learning it?

AJM: We got tapes. I have a deacon here who remembered a lot and I remembered some. But we practiced and practiced. It was a Low Mass, so I didn't have to worry about the music or singing. But now I find the sung mass easier to do.

OZ: Why is that?

AJM: Because the choir takes over certain parts. The Sanctus, for example. I feel I can relax a little bit. I can pray.

OZ: It is interesting from the point of view of the choir or schola director coming to the EF, too. The rubrics have to be learned thoroughly so you get it right. The result is of course wonderful: the different theatres operating at the same time. The mystery is hinted at on many levels. That is something missing in the linearity of the OF.

AJM: Yes, and I must add that having the EF here is helping people feel more comfortable with the Latin in the OF. This has been a struggle. The former pastor allowed Latin hymns to be sung now and then, but not the parts of the Mass. There are lots of converts in this parish that he brought into the Church. He had his way of doing things, so they haven't experienced the older forms. As I said, he is very pastoral and loving. But precisely for this reason, trying to recover our heritage here was a little more difficult — they didn't know what it was.

OZ: It was easier at your former parish?

AJM: Yes. When I was at Most Holy Trinity in Augusta, people were more open to this idea of recovering their heritage. You could re-introduce anything and people were appreciative. They would practically stand up and applaud. That's why we were doing a Latin Novus Ordo once a month when I was there.

OZ: You've commented many times in your writings on the beauty of the OF — if done according to the intentions of the Second Vatican Council.

AJM: I think that if you celebrate an OF Mass with Latin propers and ordinary and the priest facing east, many people don't even realize that it isn't the Extraordinary Form. Of course there are a lot of details involved. I'm not using the Benedictine altar arrangement here, for example, at least not to the letter. We have four beautiful standing candlesticks, two on either side of the altar. The old altar, behind, has six candles on it. All I've done is to place a crucifix on the altar facing me. It is a beautiful solution.

OZ: But you are still facing the people with this arrangement.

AJM: Yes, and of course when the priest is facing the people, there is a tendency to want to look at them. But the crucifix on the altar gives me a focal point. Trust me, I can get so distracted, especially if I am praying the Eucharistic prayer. If someone in the congregation gets up for any reason, I wonder what's up. But if I am looking at the crucifix, I am not looking at the congregation. I can pray.

OZ: And if you are saying the Mass ad orientem?

AJM: That is better yet. Then none of it matters. Of course the congregations matters. But small things won't distract me. We recently had a priest retreat in the diocese. I felt like I was back in seminary. It was led by an older priest who was emphasizing once again the role of the congregation. There was some controversy in the room. I finally got up and said, "I am celebrating the EF Mass now. And I have to tell you, when I am not facing the people, I am not preoccupied with what they are doing. I don't think I need to be."

OZ: That is what ushers are for, right?

AJM: Good point. So many times I've heard the complaint that in pre-Vatican II times people weren't really paying attention at Mass. They were praying the rosary instead. Well, so what? They were praying. They were at Mass. They were being represented well before God. The priest was representing them. Of course they have a role, but the priest is the mediator. I think we have lost that in the new Mass. But there were many others who followed the Mass in their St. Joseph Missal and do so very, very consciously and today I emphasize at our EF Mass what the Second Vatican Council taught about Latin and the laity singing and saying their parts and since it taught this before the Mass was revised, it applies not only to the EF Mass but also the OF Mass.

Sacrosanctum Concilium makes clear in no uncertain terms what very, very few clergy or laity bother with or even care about the following: “The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites....Care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”

And one thing is for sure: we are not Protestants. We've spent the last forty years trying to learn from them. Fellowship is great but it is not our strength. The Sacraments are our strength.

OZ: What you are saying reminds me of something that has only recently taken shape in my mind. I was at a Protestant funeral. I was puzzled, as I have always been, by their incessant emphasis on memorizing scripture. But then it occurred to me: perhaps they long for something tangible, something they can feel in their mouths, something physical. Perhaps memorizing and reciting scripture it is a way of making something "real," or recapturing something they don't know they've lost.

AJM: I believe a lot of their customs are based on trying to find a substitute for the Sacraments. And sadly enough, for Catholics, a lot of the mystery attached to the Sacraments and to the Mass were stripped away after Vatican II. This is the crux of the problem.

There is a lot of work to be done. Education is necessary. As are decorum, attention to detail, the right music and excellence in all things. An intelligent examination and organic crossbreeding of the EF and OF make a great starting point.

Rev. Allan J. McDonald attended St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore and was ordained a priest on June 7, 1980. He has served in St. Teresa Church, Albany and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah. He was pastor of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta from June of 1991 to July of 2004 and is currently pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Macon, Georgia. He was the vocation director for the diocese from 1986 to 1997, the Diocesan Master of Ceremonies and Director of Liturgy from 1985 through 1991, and was vicar forane of the Augusta deanery from 1991 to 2000. Fr. McDonald can be contacted at

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