I was born and baptized in 1962, and after I reached the age of reason, the only Mass I had ever experienced was the post-Vatican II Novus Ordo. This was the case while I misgrew in the faith and lapsed from it shortly after leaving my Catholic upbringing and school for university. In the years that followed, I became a doctor, drifted, and hit spiritual rock bottom. Finally, I returned to practicing my faith.
Over the decades I must have attended many hundreds of Catholic Masses. In my younger years, I now fear that I received the Blessed Sacrament unworthily many times, due to lack of preparation, attention, or objective mortal sin. Holy Mass, properly understood, is a meeting with the Triune, Transcendent, Immanent, God-with-us. It is an epiphany, evoking love, fear, and trembling in varying measure as experienced. Sadly, due to my poor formation in faith as an adolescent, I came to dread Mass and Communion. I did not see it as a source of healing and spiritual nourishment, but as a reminder of my permanent unworthiness, and as an occasion of sacrilege should I become coerced into approaching the altar in a state of mortal sin to please those around me.
The most important words of the liturgy for me became “Lord I am not worthy.” The obvious remedies of Confession and moral guidance from a discerning pastor were things I timidly shied away from like the lonely teenager I was. To be honest, such remedies were difficult to find. Depriving myself of sacramental sanctifying grace in this way, my soul rapidly left God’s orbit and I accelerated away from Him, for far too many years.
In God’s good time, I received several powerful course corrections. I returned to Confession and Holy Communion, and in my mid-forties I discovered online Catholics contributing to a religious blog on a daily newspaper and I joined in anonymously, following the example set by contributors on such sites. The freedom afforded by the anonymity of such company emboldened me. Many were rad-trads who seemed to have authoritative answers for everything and I fell under their influence. They wrote about the traditional Latin Mass (TLM), claiming it as the source and summit of all Christian life, a seductive message which appealed to me greatly.
However, opportunities to attend the TLM were simply not available to me, as a family man far from the metropolitan center of things. Then, yearly business trips to medical conferences opened up new possibilities, and the very first Latin Mass I attended—a few years ago—was on Maundy Thursday in central London at St. Mary Moorfields Church. It is the only Catholic church in the City of London district, and the TLM Mass had been arranged by the Latin Mass Society. I discovered it online when I was looking for somewhere to attend Mass while I was in London.
I wore less-than-appropriate clothing as I approached the Church—as a traveler I was living out of a suitcase—and when I turned up early I was greeted at the church door by a gaggle of very well-turned-out young men in conservative suits and very shiny black shoes. They stood in front of the church entrance, almost like night-club bouncers, chattering excitedly amongst themselves. To me, the expression “young fogeys” sprang to mind: those who are stuck fast in appearance and mentality, before their time.
I was so shabbily dressed that I may have appeared to them like a local down-and-out from the nearby London terminus at Liverpool Street. I told them that I had never been to a Latin Mass before and asked if there would be a bilingual text to help me. There was not, but they eventually let me through. I was left with a distinct feeling of being looked down upon, tolerated rather than welcomed, as if I wasn’t part of the club. The church soon became packed and I remained in a pew near the back feeling unworthy.
The Mass was visually and audibly beautiful, with much ritual and ceremony, incense and richly-spoken Latin. It was very long and sadly I couldn’t understand a word of it, except the Amens. Even the readings were in Latin. I simply followed what everybody else did: kneeling, standing, sitting. It ended with a procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose at the back of the church, after which I escaped rather urgently, relieved to breathe some fresh air.
The start of the Triduum that year lacked the profound emotional effect it usually has on me. The tone was set by the cold welcome at the door. I then spent the next two hours preoccupied with the minutiae of trying to follow the Mass in an unfamiliar language.
A year or two later I happened to stay with a London priest who had been a friend at school. We hadn’t been in touch for over 35 years, yet we met and conversed as if it had only been yesterday. He showed me his lovely church and graciously heard confession at my request, in preparation for daily Masses over the next few days. He and I were both busy with other affairs during the days ahead, but each day we would both be there at morning Mass.
Once a week, he said a mid-morning Latin Mass attended by people from far outside his parish. The church rapidly filled with many young home-schooling families and widely assorted metropolitan types. I watched the Extraordinary Rite unfold again before my eyes. I had a booklet this time that allowed me to follow everything in Latin and English. I was struck by how different in structure it was from the Novus Ordo Mass I was used to. The priest and servers said and did almost everything while the congregation just observed, or those with rosaries separately said their private devotions. The readings were in English this time, which was helpful! I gladly received Communion at an altar rail, which was delightful. This time, I knew I had really been to Mass and felt part of it, despite the strangeness of the rite to me.
Some time later, I was on a ten-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land organized by an Anglican group and I was the only Catholic among them. I found them to be inspiring Christian company and they seemed to find me better than they expected! On the first Sunday, I insisted on finding a Catholic Mass and the multilingual vicar duly obliged by showing me to the Melkite Catholic church in Haifa (while he led the rest of his flock up the road to a different service.) The experience was “soul blowing,” if you will forgive the expression. I discerned the shape of a liturgy of penance, readings, Eucharist, but with a great visual emphasis on icons and holy theatre. The consecration took place behind a screen in the sanctuary and acolytes processed around the church. Exhausted by this active sensory participation which was new to me, I communed by intinction for the first and only time in my life, and really felt as if I had assisted at Mass.
On the Sunday after, in a convent to the west of Jerusalem where we were staying, I attended Mass in a tiny chapel amongst the sisters. I had to seek out this private community gathering, and thankfully one of the Filipino kitchen staff understood my requests in English and guided me to the chapel. It was in French, which I did not understand either, except “Le Seigneur” and “Amen.” As I took my position, again near the back, I heard some clucks of disapproval at my presence from some older ladies there, but I remained firm in my need of Sunday Mass. I felt secure enough to receive without sin.
Another time, due to work, I missed the scheduled Sunday morning Masses and I felt guilty, so I consulted my parish newsletter for alternatives and saw there was a 4 p.m. Syro-Malabar Mass. I turned up at the church door to find myself amongst fifty or more Keralans, many of whom I recognized as co-workers at the hospital where I work. The priest was delayed by a sick call, so we all waited and light-heartedly swapped banter about the situation. Eventually, the priest arrived and apologized profusely. Again I sat at the back, ever the humble stranger. The Mass proceeded in language incomprehensible to me, but again I recognized the structure of the rite. Loud and exuberant music and singing played a large part in the liturgy. I enjoyed this, though it was very strange to my ears. The first reading was in English. During the homily, the priest’s eyes flashed at me and he apologized in English, recognizing my discomfort in good humor, and I was OK with that. At the sign of peace, my neighbors said to me, “Peace be with you,” while they spoke in their own tongue to the others. I was OK with that too. I joined in communion readily with them all and experienced profound Catholic Christian fellowship in the most unlikely of places: my own familiar parish church, among strangers.
So far, the most memorable Mass of my life was the one I attended two days after my daughter died following a short illness. She was the youngest of our four precious children, and as raw as my grief was, I led my family to Mass that Sunday. We sat near the front, which was not our usual practice. The priest mentioned us in the bidding prayers. I sobbed publicly like a baby. My wife and children joined me. After Mass, complete strangers came up to offer their condolences. At the time, we were still new to the parish. It was all very touching. This Mass helped us get through the next few days and the funeral—a terribly raw and painful time.
So, I have shared with you my life in six very different Masses. Ultimately, we have only one Mass, one eternal Sacrifice upon Calvary. Let us never forget, whatever our liturgical tastes and preferences might be: there is room within our Christian community to accommodate all legitimate variations and rites of worship as determined by the One Great Tradition of the Church.
In recent years, I withdrew from online Catholic engagement, having witnessed displays of terrible factionalism in the Church, both at its power center and its busy blogging periphery. I was scandalized and saddened by the divisiveness and polarization. This article marks my return, and hopefully a more positive experience.
Our Lord wants unity and mercy, not conflict and division. When we foment division and move closer toward schism over matters of words, the Word weeps.
Image: St. Elias Melkite Catholic Cathedral, Haifa, Israel. By Hanay, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19403652
Dr. John Morrissey is a semi-retired NHS specialist in anaesthesia and critical care medicine. He is a Catholic husband and father of four. Born to Irish parents, he was raised in the UK. He is an Oxford scholar and an ex-culture warrior. In the past, his writing has been published in the Catholic Herald and he has been a contributor to group blogs.