Monday, January 04, 2021

The Evangelizing Power of Solemn Liturgy: A Witness from Montreal in the 1920s

A postcard from 1907

Here at the New Liturgical Movement we frequently feature photographs of beautiful liturgies celebrated all around the world in a variety of rites. We have also published from time to time testimonies from converts who were drawn to the Faith (or reverts drawn back to it) by the beauty of liturgies they happened to attend — often enough, out of curiosity, or at the behest of a friend, or even somewhat by chance.

The other day I was desultorily scanning the shelves of a parish library and noticed a book whose title caught my attention: All or Nothing by Murray Ballantyne, published by Sheed & Ward in New York in 1956. I took it off the shelf and began to read it, finding in its pages a delightful and well-narrated story of the author’s conversion in 1933 from a generically Protestant background to Roman Catholicism. His vivid description of the superficial gaiety and literary sophistication of his circle of friends in the 1920s is valuable for those who are interested in a firsthand account of the interwar period.

Of particular interest to me, however, was Ballantyne’s description of a Christmas Midnight Mass he attended at Notre-Dame in Montreal in the late 1920s (he does not specify a year, but it has to be in 1927 or later). The whole passage is worth sharing, because it so strongly confirms the intuition at the heart of NLM’s work that authentic Catholic liturgy in its grandeur — and its strangeness — has a peculiar power to make an impression on the soul and to sow doubts about the self-assured security of a modern secularist worldview. Ballantyne’s thoughts on kneeling are especially relevant to our times.

The basilica at night
“TWO EVENTS pierced the glossy shell of this self-sufficient life and once again brought the thought of Catholicism to my mind. They were accidental and unrelated. The first was when I went to Midnight Mass with two undergraduate companions. The other was when I saw, in the New York Times Book Review section, a large advertisement for the latest essays of G.K. Chesterton, from which it appeared that he was not only an ardent Catholic but a convert as well. Seemingly unimportant as these happenings may appear, they nevertheless played a decisive part in what was to become my own conversion.

“The French-speaking Canadians have always celebrated Christmas enthusiastically. It is the custom among them for the whole family to go to Midnight Mass, and then to celebrate with a gay supper of traditional dishes. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve has at all times had its own magic. In the larger churches of Montreal the innate appeal of this beautiful and grace-laden service is heightened by superb music and decorations. When I was young, curious Protestants frequently went to these services as to a show. They were drawn not only by the glamour of age-old ceremonial, but also by the thrill that always attends ventures into strange lands.

“With enthusiasm, then, I accepted an invitation to go to Notre Dame one Christmas Eve…. All was still and hushed as we walked through the silent business district, but by the church on Place d’Armes all was life and movement. Although it was more than an hour before midnight, crowds were already streaming towards the portico under the two high towers… As we stood waiting in the snow, Notre Dame’s great bass bell, the thirteen-ton Gros Bourdon, began to toll, seeming almost to shake the tower with its clangorous vibrations.

“My emotions were intense as I stood there in the crowd, watching the snow falling soft and white, listening to the great bell sounding, and sensing the warmth and colour that awaited us within. It was Christmas Eve, and Christ was born, and there was joy to the world. In this stimulated and receptive condition, I was aware of a certain fitness. A long train of historical legitimacy joined me to the distant past, and carried me back beyond even the Reformers to an almost immemorial era. There has been a church on the spot where I stood for more than two hundred and fifty years, and the Faith that had built Montreal’s Notre Dame was the same that had built Europe’s cathedrals long before that. The Catholic Church had seen the founding of all our sects and all our institutions. This was the real, the genuine article. We might think her wrong, but no one could deny her continuity. It was living history that I was about to witness. I was about to see much that Charlemagne had seen on the fateful Christmas of the year 800, and even then the Church had been twice as old as the Protestant churches are now. The Catholic Church might be a relic, but at least she was venerable.

“We were swept in from the cool silence of the snow night to the warm, vivid, and ornate interior of ‘La Vieille Paroisse.’ As we stood in the throng, I noticed near me a bearded, roughly dressed Habitant [native resident of French descent]. Being unable to move farther into the church, he fell on his knees and began to pray. I was thunderstruck. In my Presbyterian experience we had not even knelt in our pews for fear of emotionalism and of papist superstition. My first reaction was one of embarrassment that the man should have made such a spectacle of what should have been his private devotions. Talking to God was something to be accomplished in a mumble, not something to be performed openly. Why make the melodramatic gesture of kneeling? Why indeed make any gesture at all?

“Immediately I had another reaction. This man clearly was neither theatrical nor making a gesture. He had come in all simplicity to adore his God. To him, if he had given us a thought, we were merely others who had come for the same purpose. He had simplicity, and we had not. And then I saw that if a man believed in God it was right and fitting that he should worship Him and that the should kneel in His temple. This, and not the restrained self-consciousness of the Puritans, was the proper behaviour. The concept of God was immense and overwhelming. If God existed — staggering thought — then this was the normal and the right reaction. If one came consciously to worship Him, if one entered His very presence, then one should kneel, yes, even prostrate oneself as did the ancient Jews. If one believed in God, it would be absurd to be held back from worshipping Him by the presence of other mortals. If people really believed, this was the way I would expect them to behave.

“By a stroke of luck, we found balcony seats in that vast throng, and my first Mass began. I was fascinated by the seemingly weird and incomprehensible ceremonial that unfolded before me. Nothing in all my life had prepared me for the gilt-encrusted vestments, the incense, the strange chanting, or the inexplicable comings and goings. I hadn’t the slightest idea of what it was all about. Here was something totally unlike the ‘meeting-house’ service of my childhood. I felt as a child might at his first circus. And yet with it all there was not only the glorious music, but also the feeling that somehow a valid religious experience was taking place. There was a rapt silence, a profound devotion, a spirit of worship that was an unmistakable as it was inexplicable. Worship, adoration, thanksgiving, joy were in the very air. Something was happening. And so I came away from my first Mass puzzled, intrigued, and enchanted by the strange beauty of a rare event.” (pp. 52–56)

Murray Ballantyne (photo source)
Ballantyne then talks about how the thought of Chesterton’s conversion bothered him, because he had assumed that only a poorly educated and somewhat superstitious person could be a Catholic, but here was a highly intelligent and spirited man boldly defending the Faith against all comers. He bought the book of essays by GKC, and this began to provide an intellectual counterpart to the spiritual and aesthetic intuitions he had had at Midnight Mass. Later in the book, Ballantyne offers a fine defense of “incarnational” Catholic sacramental worship and of adherence to tradition.
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