NACCURATE MYTHS are often repeated with regard to the “typical” American Catholic parish of the 1950s. These rumors—often started by people disparaging the Holy Catholic Church—are presented in a dogmatic way, and then folks who don’t know any better mimic them. It is time for such assertions to cease.
A very common version goes something like this:
The Catholic Church before Vatican II focused on externals, never stressing a personal relationship with the Lord. The priests rushed through Mass as quickly as possible—to get it over with—which made no difference because priests in those days didn’t understand the prayers (recited in Latin). Low Mass often lasted 15 minutes, and the Requiem was frequently chosen because it was shorter; not because of the priest’s sincere desire to offer prayers for the dead (something the Curé of Ars encouraged with all his strength).
I got so tired of hearing this, I sent an email to five priests ordained before the Second Vatican Council. They all said these myths were total nonsense, and not representative of the 1950s. Here’s one:
Jeff, I never heard that and I never knew any priests who said or did that. I never witnessed a Mass in the so-called “extraordinary form” done in 15 minutes. The normal time for a side altar—that is, a Mass with no congregation but with just a server—was 25-30 minutes. A Requiem Mass was slightly shorter, especially if the Sequence (optional) was not recited. And that is still the case with Masses said at the seminary, e.g. the FSSP Seminary in Nebraska.
When people make a statement like the one you quoted, I simply tell them that this was not my experience—because it wasn’t. My High Masses on Sunday with a sermon usually take an hour and five minutes. My daily low Masses with congregation normally last about 35 minutes. That is without a sermon; and I don’t preach on weekdays! People are preached at too much nowadays… Regarding preaching, we were taught in the seminary that “the preacher should always end his sermon while the people still wanted to hear more!” Some preachers don’t know when to stop!
(Regarding what he says about the Dies Irae Sequence, it was not said 1 on certain days.)
Another “preconciliar” priest—not the one quoted above—recently sent me this powerful & beautiful prayer:
Regarding how well priests knew Latin back then, I correspond with 5-6 preconciliar priests through email. All of them know Latin not only “sufficiently” but fluently. Some of the traditional orders these days are teaching Latin to their seminarians, and this is fantastic. 2 But most priests—even good & holy ones who offer the Extraordinary Form—are not fluent in Latin, the way these 5-6 preconciliar priests are. We must continue to work, and hopefully we will again reach preconciliar level!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Prior to the reforms of Pope John XXIII—which were incorporated into the 1962 editions of the Roman Missal—the Sequence Dies Irae was supposed to be said or sung (depending on whether it was a Low Mass or a High Mass) at all Requiem Masses. The only exception was the so called “Daily Mass for the Dead.” Its recitation was optional at a “daily” Low Mass. (A daily Low Mass could be offered on feasts lower than a double. Today, it would mean a 4th class day.) In 1962, the Dies Irae became obligatory at all Funeral Masses and during one Mass on 2 November, unless the second and third Masses are High Masses.
2 Canon Law requires that all priests of the Latin Rite—both Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form—possess a knowledge of Latin, because so much of the Roman Catholic teachings are in that language.