OR MANY PEOPLE, anything in the distant past is inscrutable. They are unable to distinguish between 600AD, 1475AD, and 1766AD—to them, it’s all just “old stuff.” Furthermore, many (most?) have zero interest in learning about history. But I love history. For example, I find it fascinating that Franz Liszt, the greatest pianist who ever lived, as a child was rejected by the Paris Conservatory. I find it fascinating that Benito Mussolini, as a young man, was an elementary school teacher—can you imagine sending your kids to be taught by Mussolini? I find it fascinating that by the age of eleven, Camille Saint-Saëns had memorized all thirty-two Beethoven Sonatas (and played them in public). I find it fascinating that Abe Lincoln would often leave the White House early in the morning in search of boys selling newspapers (so he could learn what was going on) since the presidential staff at that time consisted of just two people. And so forth.
Contrarians Who “Parrot” • When children are young and immature, they “parrot” whatever they hear. In 4th grade, I heard my teacher mention SUDAFED. Proudly, I raised my hand told her: “That stuff dries out your sinuses.” I had no idea what I was saying. I was parroting something I heard my father say about SUDAFED. It’s embarrassing to admit this. But the reality is, children parrot whatever they hear. When they grow up, children usually stop parroting; but some never do. Once a story gets rolling, it can be virtually impossible to stop—especially when it comes to the sacred liturgy. I have experienced this firsthand speaking to people who self-identify as “ultra-conservatives” vis-à-vis the Holy Week reforms. Such people tell me how awful the 1962 Holy Week is (according to them) and how perfect (according to them) the 1950 Holy Week was. But when asked about specific changes made by Pius XII, they don’t have a clue. When asked if they support priests using incense without Deacon and Subdeacon, they reply: “Of course!” [But the 1950 Holy Week forbids that.] When asked if they believe the Easter Vigil should begin at 7:00AM on Holy Saturday morning, they ask: “Are you nuts?” [But the 1950 Holy Week did.] When asked if they would attend the Easter Vigil if it only had 4 readings, they respond: “No, because that’s like Bugnini!” [But the traditional Easter Vigil for certain orders had only 4 readings.] When asked if certain parts of the ancient EXSULTET should be omitted, they respond: “Under no circumstances!” [But even in 1950, parts of the EXSULTET were omitted due to changed political situations, and this had been going on for at least fifty years.] When asked if they believe attending the Easter Vigil should fulfill the Sunday obligation, they answer: “Absolutely!” [But the 1950 Easter Vigil did not.] And so forth. One realizes that certain people care more about being contrarian than they care about serving JESUS CHRIST. Therefore, they parrot anything that sounds contrarian. These folks could save time by simply saying: “I love anything old—even if I don’t know what it is—and I hate anything new.”
1950s Catholicism • A very common attack on the Extraordinary Form goes something like this: “By 1950, the Catholic Church had become stale. Nuns were mean, and priests mumbled through their Low Mass in 25 minutes—which was an abuse.” I won’t bother responding to the “bloodthirsty nun” business, since that’s been refuted a zillion times. For instance, read what FATHER SAMUEL WEBER testified regarding the nuns of his childhood. My mother was born into abject poverty, and these “bloodthirsty nuns” showed tremendous kindness and generosity to her. Nuns in those days were probably somewhat strict—but being strict with children can help them develop into happy, healthy, holy citizens when they grow up.
1950s Mumbled Masses • But what about the accusation that priests mumbled through Low Mass in 25 minutes? We must remember that Holy Communion was not—broadly speaking—distributed to the faithful at Mass in the olden days. Although it sounds strange to us, the faithful normally received Holy Communion several hours before Mass, or after Mass, or at a side altar (!) while Mass was taking place. In countless articles over the last decade, I have provided documents which prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt. I admit that many liturgical customs our great-grandparents knew seem peculiar in the year 2023. Nevertheless, I myself have attended such Masses—during Covid-19 when distribution of Holy Communion was forbidden by the bishop. Such Masses are very short, especially when there’s no Homily. The Celebrant’s “Communion Time” were so brief that it barely allowed me enough time to sing the Communion Antiphon! The 1962 Missal—which was a “transitional” missal—explicitly encourages priests to distribute Communion to the faithful during Mass, but still allows the other customs I mentioned.
Then Vs. Now • Therefore, we must jettison the notion that 25-minute Masses were de facto “an abuse.” And let’s remember that folks in the olden days didn’t have the modern conveniences we do today! Everything is provided for us today: Food, Medicine, Air-Conditioning, Computers, Internet, Google-Translate, Google-Maps, and so forth. We don’t have to worry about going into the forest and killing our food. Absolutely everything is provided for us! We can’t last 15 minutes without “checking” our iPhone. Moreover, many priests (sadly) no longer say the Divine Office everyday, whereas priests in the 1950s did—and it took them hours each day. One bishop I know (who shall remain nameless) doesn’t even offer a daily Mass, unless he has one on his schedule—and this is very sad. Furthermore, some (not all) priests today barely spend any time at Mass. They concelebrate, which means some priests today (not all) sit down and “zone out” while most of the Mass is read by laypeople—and then they participate for only a few minutes during the Canon, which is usually Eucharistic Prayer No. 2. My point is this: It’s unfair to imply that priests today take Mass more seriously than priests in the 1950s.
Mark Twain • Many today seem incapable of grasping the reality that our church consists of more than a billion Catholics. Different realities exist for each community; indeed, for each individual soul. Mark Twain got a lot wrong, but he was correct when he said: “There’s no such thing as an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Beneath the dullest exterior, there is a drama, a comedy, a tragedy.” We must guard against generalities, especially when we speak of Church music. Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt wrote in 1977:
“Felix Mendelssohn was reported to have written to his dear sister, Rebecca, of the dreadful music at Mass in Düsseldorf, where there was nichts von älteren Italienen (“nothing of older Italy”). He had better luck in Bonn and Cologne where he heard six Masses of Palestrina, some Allégri, Baini, Lassus, and Pergolesi.”
Monsignor Schmitt was basically correct.1 But that doesn’t mean an offhand comment by Mendelssohn in a letter to his sister explains the universal Church music situation in those days. It’s simply an anecdote that helps us understand; and it must be combined with many other documents and witnesses if we hope to get an accurate picture.
Scandalously Bad • I was part of an editorial team that produced the Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal. As part of the preparatory work, our committee collected something like 20,000 pages of old Catholic hymnals. A surprising amount of the music was scandalously bad: kitschy, sentimental, horrifying. One of the most popular Catholic books was the SAINT BASIL HYMNAL. Frequently, this collection took secular songs and changed their lyrics to sacred texts. To demonstrate what I’m talking about, here are a few sample pages from the SAINT BASIL HYMNAL:
* PDF Download • SAINT BASIL HYMNAL (Example A)
* PDF Download • SAINT BASIL HYMNAL (Example B)
* PDF Download • SAINT BASIL HYMNAL (Example C)
* PDF Download • SAINT BASIL HYMNAL (Example D)
* PDF Download • SAINT BASIL HYMNAL (Example E)
* PDF Download • SAINT BASIL HYMNAL (Example F)
* PDF Download • SAINT BASIL HYMNAL (Example G)
* PDF Download • SAINT BASIL HYMNAL (Example H)
* PDF Download • SAINT BASIL HYMNAL (Example I)
* PDF Download • SAINT BASIL HYMNAL (Example J)
These are hokey hymns. These are circus hymns. They have nothing to do with the authentic tradition of Catholic music. Believe it or not, some EF communities even now still sing these hymns! I have some of them memorized, because various priests I knew throughout my life sang them.
In Perspective • I don’t want to come across as denigrating the faith of our great-grandparents, many of whom were immigrants doing their best. We should not fail to consider what life was like back then. For example, Abe Lincoln only had about one year of schooling as a youngster, but he eventually learned to read. He would eagerly walk miles and miles if he heard that somebody had obtained a book, because books were so scarce. [Whereas these days, I can carry around every book ever written on a tiny thumb drive.] Many people in those days were illiterate. Abe Lincoln’s father could barely write his own name! Abe Lincoln—like many in those days—lived in a log cabin with a dirt floor. We cannot imagine how life must have been! Women often died in childbirth. They gave birth inside cabins with dirt floors. Even if somebody knew how to read, there were no medical books available explaining how to give birth safely. Indeed, the medical books in existence at that time were often filled with erroneous information. A great deal more could be added to what I’ve said about conditions in those days. The point I’m trying to make is that we shouldn’t be too hard on folks who were using the only hymnals they had, considering the advantages we have today.
Jeff’s Views Are Not Unique • Abbat Pothier is said to have been scandalized when he saw the type of music in Catholic hymnals back in those days. FATHER ADRIAN FORTESCUE (d. 1923)—the preëminent scholar of the English-speaking world at that time—wrote in 1916:
In nothing are English Catholics so poor as in vernacular hymns. The real badness of most of our popular hymns, endeared, unfortunately, to the people by association, surpasses anything that could otherwise be imagined. When our people have the courage to break resolutely with a bad tradition, there are unworked mines of religious poetry in the old hymns that we can use in translations. If we do, there will be an end of the present odd anomaly, that, whereas our liturgical hymns are the finest in the world, our popular ones are easily the worst.
Most Popular Hymn!
The most Catholic popular hymn in the olden days—believe it or not!—was a hymn very few people know. It’s called MELCOMBE, and it’s found everywhere in the old Catholic books. In the SAINT BASIL HYMNAL (1906), it’s found on page 23. In the OLD WESTMINSTER HYMNAL (1912) by Sir Richard R. Terry, it’s on page 54. In the NEW WESTMINSTER HYMNAL (1952), it’s found on page 370. In the SAINT PIUS X HYMNAL (1952) by Father Jones, it’s found on page 117. Father John C. Selner, president of the Society of Saint Gregory, published a hymnal called CANTATE OMNES (1952), and MELCOMBE is number 78. In the MEDIATOR DEI HYMNAL (1955) by Joseph Vincent Higginson, it’s found on page 110. In the hymnal published by the London Oratory (Catholic Hymn Book, 1998) it’s found on page 480. And so forth.
“The Best” From Each Era • The Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal made sure to include MELCOMBE, because the committee tried to take the best from each era of Catholic hymnody. Our team did not start with protestant hymnals—we began with the authentic Roman Catholic hymns. The earliest translations by Roman Catholics (of hymns) were circa 1053AD (!) into Anglo-Saxon. Number 34 in the Brébeuf Hymnal can be seen in this astonishing MS from 1053AD. You can see the Brébeuf Hymnal isn’t doing anything new. Such things have been done for 1,000 years! My volunteer choir sang this ancient hymn (married to the MELCOMBE melody) at Mass last Sunday:
To access this hymn’s media in the Brébeuf Portal, click here.
“The Venerable Bede” • Another ancient hymn, quoted by Saint Bede the Venerable (d. 735AD), is called REX SEMPITERNE DOMINE. In the Brébeuf Hymnal, the text is married to the MELCOMBE melody on page 430. Our volunteer choir sang this last Sunday at Mass:
To access this hymn’s media in the Brébeuf Portal, click here.
Bring Back 1950s Catholicism? • So what’s the verdict? Should our goal be bringing back the 1950s? If we want to bring back items that were good (such as respect for authority, hard work, respect for family life, sensitivity towards modesty in dress, and so forth), I’m all for that! If we want to bring back every single practice that existed—e.g. some of the kitschy, schmaltzy, sugary hymns—I would argue against that.
“TLM Communities” • As someone closely involved (since the 1990s) with EF parishes all over the world, but especially in the United States, my basic impression is that many of the problems that plagued this ‘movement’ in the 1990s have been eradicated. I’m sure some EF parishes do have serious problems; because we are sinful human beings who have a fallen human nature. Other EF parishes are fabulous! If the pastor is solid, that makes a huge difference. For myself (in spite of problems that crop up from time to time) I love the EF communities. It is true that some of the people attracted to EF parishes are bitter, extremely combative, and Pharisaical. It’s important to remember that those same people are usually the ones whose personal lives are the most disordered. Indeed, the most aggressively judgmental people often embrace the most heinous immorality in their private lives. I’ve observed this more times than I can shake a stick at!
Reform Will Continue • The saints strove to return to authentic traditions, seeking sanctity. We must have the courage to do the same. Church music reforms are nothing new. Katharine Ellis (Politics of Plainchant, 2013) talks about Bishop Nicolas-Joseph Dabert, who followed the recommendation of Pope Leo XIII in 1883 to buy the Medicean edition of the Graduale. He spent 40,000 francs, purchasing enough books for his entire diocese. But his priests rejected the Medicean edition, so the poor bishop died surrounded by stacks and stacks of (unused) copies of the Graduale, filling his entire residence. Around the same time, Dom Mocquereau told the story of an English-speaking archbishop who exclaimed: “I no longer understand how things go in Rome. Only a few years ago (1883) you were inviting us vehemently to take the Medicean edition, and here today all the honors are going to Solesmes. Yesterday, the Cardinal Vicar was telling me himself that the Medicean edition was the worst of all.”
1 If you read the actual letter, Monsignor Schmitt wasn’t quite accurate. Felix Mendelssohn says he “found scores”—he didn’t say the Masses were sung liturgically. The first letter (26 October 1833) was sent from Berlin to his sister, Rebecca: Sunday, Maximilian’s day, was my first Mass; the choir crammed with singers, male and female, and the whole church decorated with green branches and tapestry. The organist flourished away tremendously, up and down. Haydn’s Mass was scandalously gay, but the whole thing was very tolerable. Afterwards came a procession, playing my solemn march in E flat; the bass performers repeating the first part, while those in the treble went straight on; but this was of no consequence in the open air; and when I encountered them later in the day, they had played the march so often over that it went famously; and I consider it a high honor, that these itinerant musicians have bespoken a new march from me for the next fair. […] Unluckily, I could not find among all the music here even one tolerable solemn Mass, and not a single one of the old Italian masters; nothing but modern dross. I took a fancy to travel through my domains in search of good music; so, after the Choral Association on Wednesday, I got into a carriage and drove off to Elberfeld, where I hunted out Palestrina’s “Improperia,” and the “Miserere” settings by Allégri and Bai, and also the score and vocal parts of “Alexander’s Feast,” which I carried off forthwith, and went on to Bonn. There I rummaged through the whole library alone, for poor Breidenstein is so ill that it is scarcely expected he can recover; but he gave me the key, and lent me whatever I chose. I found some splendid things, and took away with me six Masses of Palestrina, one of Lotti and one of Pergolesi, and Psalms by Leo and Lotti, etc. etc. At last, in Cologne I succeeded in finding out the best old Italian pieces which I as yet know, particularly two motets of Orlando Lasso, which are wonderfully fine, and even deeper and broader than the two “Crucifixus” of Lotti. One of these, “Populus meus” we are to sing in church next Friday. Another letter (12 January 1835) was sent from Düsseldorf by Felix Mendelssohn to “Pastor Bauer” in Beszig: When you however say “our poor Church,” I must tell you what is very strange; I have found, to my astonishment, that the Catholics, who have had music in their churches for several centuries, and sing a musical Mass every Sunday if possible, in their principal churches, do not to this day possess one which can be considered even tolerably good, or in fact which is not actually distasteful and operatic. This is the case from Pergolese and Durante, who introduce the most laughable little trills into their “Gloria,” down to the opera finales of the present day. Were I a Catholic, I would set to work at a Mass this very evening; and whatever it might turn out, it would at all events be the only Mass written with a constant remembrance of its sacred purpose. But for the present I don’t mean to do this; perhaps at some future day, when I am older.