Weekend before last, I went down to Ogden to visit the grandparents. Among other things, Sunday the 8th was (a) my birthday, and (b) the date set for Missa Cantata at St. James the Just, the inimitable Fr. Erik Richstieg celebrating, and Michael Wooden directing the schola cantorum. It was a great treat to be able to attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form on my special day.
Meditating on this beautiful Mass gave rise to some reflections. My attention was drawn to the professionalism of Michael, the altar server, in all his movements. He did not look stiff and rigid, but on the other hand, there was nothing lazy or sloppy in how he carried out his duties. I particularly noticed how, whenever he passed in front of the tabernacle, instead of just walking across the front of the altar, he descended to the bottom of the steps, stopped directly in front of the tabernacle, genuflected, then re-ascended the steps and continued on his way. He was clearly committed to striving for excellence at the altar and doing everything exactly right. There is an almost military precision to the traditional Mass, and the ministers in the sanctuary who love it, like Michael and Fr. Erik, work hard to be faithful to it. There is a rubric to govern everything they do at the altar, and it must be done in a particular way. Part of the purpose of all this strict ritual is to shield the people from the distraction of having the priest's personality intrude on the Mass; to safeguard the priest from feelings of self-importance; and to remind us all that the Mass is the work of God and not of mere men. So crucial was -- is -- fidelity to the ritual that it was once considered a mortal sin for a priest deliberately to deviate from it.
Things are more relaxed for the people in the pews in the traditional Mass. Except for genuflecting during the Credo and the Last Gospel, standing for the Gospels and kneeling for the consecration -- instinctive for believing Catholics -- there seem to be no set rules to what the people are supposed to be doing. My 1962 Missal has a loose-leaf cheat sheet with a table that tells you generally when to sit, stand and kneel, but in practice, one just does whatever is done in a particular place. You can never go wrong by kneeling through the whole Mass if you want to, but you don't have to; and if you want to sit after Communion, there's nobody to tell you you can't. Nor are you required to sing, or say any responses, or make gestures. You can just listen, and watch, and be, and quiet your soul, and leave all the heavy lifting to the alter Christus in the sanctuary. That is what he is there for.
One can't help contrasting this order of business with the way things are done in most places with the Mass of Paul VI. The New Mass is supposed to be an expression of the New Spirit of Freedom and Openness...and yet have you ever noticed how strictly regimented we in the pews are? We are expected to say our parts, and sing the songs, and generally busy ourselves with doing a bunch of stuff. We have ushers to keep us in line, and priests and deacons to lecture us sternly on our failures of "active participation" if we do not keep up with our many appointed tasks. We are essentially driven like cattle through a noisy, fast-paced proceeding that leaves us no time to pray or recollect ourselves or remember that we are at the foot of the Cross. Meanwhile, many priests do pretty much whatever they want at the altar, whatever the books may say.
And this is what is known as the "golden age of the laity."
Personally, I envision the Golden Age of the Laity as something more along the lines of what I got on September the 8th. I would much rather let the priest be the priest, and have him let me be me, and shut out the din of everyday life and listen in silence for the still, small voice.