Sounding the Mass

[This month's Cushwa post is by Jennifer A. Callaghan, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University. She visited the Notre Dame archives recently on a Research Travel Grant, a number of which are awarded annually to scholars making use of the archives' collections of Catholic Americana. This year's deadline for all Cushwa-sponsored grants is December 31; further information on the grants and application procedures may be found here.]

Jennifer A. Callaghan

I study U.S. Catholics by studying the Mass.  In one way, this is awfully narrow: Catholics are certainly much more than what they do (or don’t) on Sunday mornings.  It’s also awfully broad: the Mass is an obligation, and it emphasizes a universal requirement made by an institutional authority instead of the personal work that religion so often involves.  My archival work slips between these two awful approaches to counter the related analytical imprecisions: that surveys can calculate Catholicism by counting the number of times Catholics went to Mass, and that the institutional Church is the ultimate arbiter of Catholicism. 

I study the Mass, in part, because doing so makes the defects in those two narratives so visible.  I also study the Mass because it operates simultaneously within so many different fields. Let me give an example.

In August of 1964, Fr. Frederick R. McManus was the celebrant for the opening Mass of the 25th Liturgical Week Conference in St. Louis, MO. [1] It was a special event for a number of reasons.  First, it was the feast of St. Bartholomew; McManus’ homily was simultaneously a hagiography of the saint and an acknowledgement that this feast was simply one in a whole system of interrelated dates making up the full liturgical year of Catholic worship.  Second, the Mass marked the beginning of the 25th annual Liturgical Week. This conference was the first opportunity for members to gather since the Second Vatican Council began, and the first opportunity to discuss pending liturgical developments. [2]  Finally, this Mass was in English.  The change in language was one of the most publicized reforms stemming from the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy promulgated the previous December. [3] The Catholic Mass was not in Latin anymore.

Of course, it was in Latin as well.  At this stage in the rollout of reforms much of what Fr. McManus said, and of what the congregation said in response, was in Latin.  I can hear their voices on a recording made at the time and now part of the Liturgical Conference collection at the University of Notre Dame Archives. “Dominus vobiscum,” Fr. McManus says calmly, slowly, in an accent half proper Boston parish priest, half cool canon lawyer.  “Et cum spiritu tuo,” the people say, geographic and demographic indicators less discernable in their unison, to my straining ear, than in McManus’ sonorous solo.  The Latin dialogue occurs several times during Mass; it occurs several times in English as well. “The Lord be with you,” McManus volleys.  “And with your spirit,” returns the undifferentiated American crowd. 

My notes on the recording are full of meditations on accents interwoven with attention to the back and forth of English and Latin (and the Greek of the Kyrie!) at this point in the history of liturgical reform.  I am struck, reading them, by how nicely all of this illustrates my fascination with the Mass as an object of study.  This Mass is a particular feast in a calendar full of them; it is an opening ceremony for an intellectual and professional event; it is the introduction of changes to the central public worship of a religious community; it is the actual religious worship of that religious community, a sacrifice and communion and devotion in the sense that practitioners use those terms; and it is also these sounds, preserved on a tape reel with a careful label. 

I did not think I was particularly interested in an analysis of sound.  But that’s part of the Mass now too, and I follow my object wherever it goes because I have responsibilities to it.  It lets me think and write through American religious history using debates about language and public worship; the least I can do is let it take me into unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory.  I will need to learn to say something about the sound of clattering objects around the 25-minute mark on this tape. Is someone organizing the altar vessels? Am I hearing someone move recording equipment out of the way? These are elements of this Mass; and so they’re elements of the Mass as well.

There are other ways for the Mass, as an object of my study and as a phenomenon in the world, to take me around by my ear.  Before he was a past-president of the Liturgical Conference, a presider at the first English Mass of the post-conciliar liturgical era, and a peritus (expert) at the Second Vatican Council, Fr. McManus co-wrote and performed something he called a ‘Demonstration Mass.’ The script, written around 1950, included a translation of the whole text of the Mass into English as well as commentary explaining the meaning of both the liturgical text and the actions of the priest who spoke it. Demonstrations were given throughout the Boston area in the early 1950s, and in 1958, the National Council of Catholic Men (NCCM) published a revised version of McManus’ script.  In his introduction, McManus says of this “Mass demonstration in English” that it is useful precisely because it is not the Mass itself – it “enables the priest or teacher to dissect and explain the parts of Mass in a manner which could never be employed during the holy sacrifice.”

Despite his warning that the Demonstration is no such thing, I have made McManus’ script and the NCCM publication part of the Mass I study. It exemplifies, in part, the way that the Mass inevitably escapes from the boundaries set around it. McManus's script, once written and available to the public, had its own momentum. How did different Catholics use it for their various purposes? Much of this is lost to the archival record, and yet fragments can point me to interesting new questions. For example, an excerpt of the booklet ended up in the Notre Dame Archives as part of the Institute of Lay Theology in San Francisco collection transferred there in 1999. The document is without a title page or any author information – there’s no indication of what it is or how it came to be there. But the text is identical to the 1958 NCCM booklet, including page numbers. Somehow McManus' pages found their way into the possession of the Institute, which means the Demonstration Mass somehow lived there as well as in a Boston town hall and the publication offices of the NCCM. It had a presence in each of these spaces, an operation in each of these fields. Which means that the Mass I study was present and operating there too.


[1] McManus was prominent in conversations about and implementation of policies related to liturgical reform.  See his obituary for more on his extensive work with U.S. Catholic liturgy

[2] The Second Vatican Council was held in Rome from 1962-65.  It is widely regarded as a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church, both globally and in the U.S.  Bishops at the Council drafted and approved a number of documents, including four Constitutions; the first of these to be released was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, known by its first words, Sacrosanctum concilium, which declared that the Mass should be reformed in order to secure the active participation of the laity.  

[3] Sacrosanctum concilium was not specific about the degree of vernacularization, or the speed with which it was to be adopted – the particulars are left to Bishops, as particulars often are. The U.S. Catholic Church was already involved in a number of liturgical reforms, but in 1964 the reform process received a special drive and focus.  Press coverage tended to emphasize two elements of this reform: translating the liturgy into the vernacular, or language of everyday speech (usually understood to be English in the U.S. context), and changing the position of the priest so that he faced the laity across the altar during Mass.


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