Oct 15, 2012

Mass and the Centuries

Online Edition:
October 2012
Vol. XVIII, No. 7

Mass and the Centuries
Pilgrimage Connects Past and Present

by Joanna Bogle

The Mass is always and everywhere the Mass of all time. Every Mass is the Mass of all the ages. And I have never sensed this more powerfully than kneeling with a crowd of young people in the ruins of a great abbey as Mass was celebrated — the Mass for which the abbey church was built hundreds of years before, the Mass that became illegal and banned in the years that followed the destruction of the abbey in the 16th century.

I was with the John Paul II Walking Pilgrimage, making its way from Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. This part of England — the bit that bulges out into the North Sea on the Eastern side — has several ancient abbeys. They were destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII, who resented their power, wanted their property, and rewarded his friends by giving them large chunks of Church land.

The ruins stand today as monuments to faith, welcoming tourists. They are administered by public authorities, who provide guide books and historical displays. The facts are usually presented in a way that is very sympathetic to the monks (seen as providers of hospitality, care for the poor and sick, etc.) and are invariably hostile to Henry VIII — who as a tyrant and wife-killer certainly deserves all the opprobrium that comes his way.

Over recent years it has become easier and easier to arrange for Mass to be celebrated in such places. Our Walking Pilgrimage began with a glorious Mass at Bury St. Edmunds, once one of the most notable abbeys in England and the shrine, of course, of the boy-king Saint Edmund, martyred by the pagan Vikings in the 9th century. At the mid-point of our walk, with only another thirty miles or so to go to Walsingham, we arrived at another great abbey, Castleacre, for a midday Mass.

Our celebrants were priests of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham: there are now more than 80 priests in the ordinariate in England and Wales, with more still in training and preparing for ordination. Their care in celebrating the liturgy is noteworthy. They know all about the liturgical horrors or plain dreariness of the Catholic Church in the 1970s and 80s — these things became the stuff of legend in Anglo-Catholic circles — and they bring to the ordinariate their own traditions of dignity, solemnity, and good music.

The young people taking part in this pilgrimage — walking 20 miles a day, sleeping overnight on floors in church halls or schools — are very much the John Paul/ Benedict generation. Many — in fact most — of those taking part have been to at least one World Youth Day, and the conversations during the walk included many a story of WYD adventures, memorable moments, absurd escapades, or profound religious experience.

The liturgy for our Masses was in English, with Latin chant. Simple sheets with the words and music were distributed, and all sang with enthusiasm. We chanted the responsorial psalm, and had a hymn at Communion and at the end of Mass. Every day we also sang the Office — very early in the morning in the Catholic church of the small town where we were staying — using the Dominican form, which includes, for example, special references to Saint Dominic among the saints invoked. We also had Benediction as part of Night Prayer, incense wafting over the pilgrims kneeling in prayer, the day’s long walking accomplished, a good supper shared, and the glorious prospect of a night’s sleep ahead.

Mass in a ruined abbey begins with finding the site of the old main altar. The altar itself was usually destroyed, and all that is left if a chunk of masonry, but this can be — as happened at Castleacre — covered with a cloth, held down against the breeze with stones. Candles and crucifix completed the arrangements (we used the now-standard “Benedict altar arrangement” with a line of candles and a crucifix placed in the center). We brought along incense and vestments. The clergy vested in the area that would have been the sacristy long ago — it is easy to work things out from the layout of the ruins — and walked in procession as we sang. The soft grass is easy for kneeling. For the readings and homily, many found seats on the low walls or chunks of what were once pillars.

After four hundred years, the great broken arches and the thick pieces of wall echoed again to “Kyrie eleison” and “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus”. Probably in those days, there would not have been great numbers of ordinary lay people at a weekday Mass: they had their own parish church; the abbey church was for the monks. Certainly they would not have brought with them things that we were carrying: suntan lotion, plastic water bottles, and mobile phones. But the Mass makes us all one: the bell rang, the Host was raised, heads were bowed, and the One Sacrifice was again presented to God.

The monks would have understood, of course, about pilgrimage, about walking to Walsingham along the very paths and lanes that they themselves knew (we used the old routes, avoiding busy modern roads whenever possible). They would understand some things about our group very well — our Catholicism, our references to the pope, the white robes of the Dominican sisters who were leading and organizing the pilgrimage. Much would seem odd: our language, the mix of races (we numbered Chinese and African among us, as well as English, Irish, Czech, and American), our clothes. But I think they would not feel at all unfamiliar with the Mass: amid all the changes of the centuries, the sound of young voices joining in the Confiteor and the Our Father, and the Canon being said audibly, would not seem particularly strange. Perhaps more astonishing would be the discovery that the pope today flies through the sky and visits countries in every corner of the globe, that we’ve had two popes visit Britain, and that young Catholics — along with everyone else — routinely communicate with people thousands of miles away at the click of a small hand-held machine.

As the second decade of the 21st century gets under way, the liturgy lifts the minds and hearts of today’s faithful to God, and we are united across the centuries with the people of the 16th century who were the last to pray in the great abbey. The only really worrying thing about this continuity is that we, like them, face confrontation with government authorities. We must pray that, as we beg God to protect the Church in the face of new threats to religious freedom, we do not have to suffer as Catholics in England did 400 years ago.


Joanna Bogle is a British journalist and author who appears frequently on radio and television. Her most recent article to appear in AB was “The Power of Smells and Bells” (May 2012).



Joanna Bogle

Joanna Bogle has an MA in Theology and is Visiting Research Fellow at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London.