Rediscovering the Latin Mass
By John Smeaton | 19 July 2023
The following article is taken from a talk given by Mr Smeaton at the annual general meeting of the Latin Mass Society on 15 July 2023 in London, England. The complete talk will appear shortly on the website of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales.
I was born in 1951 in West Norwood, south London, about five miles from Westminster Cathedral, the fifth of five children. My family belonged to St Matthew’s parish church, where my siblings and I were baptised, received our first Holy Communion, and were confirmed.
Despite the narrow confines of West Norwood, there was another world within that London suburb, with its own character; namely the character of the Catholic Church reflected in the spiritual, liturgical, familial and social life in the parish. Our parish priest, Fr Cole, was the third of just four parish priests who served St Matthew’s in its first 100 years (1905–2005) giving a sense of stability in the rapidly changing twentieth century.
I first discovered the Mass of Ages under the tuition of my father who had the job of training young boys to serve Mass and Benediction.
One of my earliest memories of this period in my life was knocking nervously on the sacristy door one Sunday morning when I was seven years old, hoping to serve as a torchbearer at the eleven-o’clock Sung High Mass for the first time. A big boy in a cassock and cotta, by the name of Julian Englard, opened the door, peered down at me and said, “You’re very small. You’ll never be big enough to be an acolyte.”
On a much more edifying note, another of my earliest memories was the glorious music I heard at the Sung High Mass. St Matthew’s polyphonic choir would practice at our home on a Monday evening. Two of my big sisters were in the choir and I loved to hear the sounds of William Byrd, Palestrina and Gregorian chant filling our home — along with the laughter, conversation and the smell of cigarette smoke filtering out under the door of the music room and around our house. But on a Sunday morning, the cigarette smoke was exchanged for incense, and instead of laughter and conversation, which were beautiful in their own way, I heard the word of God.
I can personally testify that, in the 1950s and early 1960s, beautifully sung Gregorian chant and some of the greatest Catholic music were the common fare of Catholic churchgoers in so undistinguished a part of south London as West Norwood. My recollection is that it was a time of great faith and Catholic witness. Whether I was at school or visiting my friends in the local area, I don’t recall a single instance of an adult saying anything contrary to the faith I was taught at home.
My mother was a leading member of the Union of Catholic Mothers (UCM), which she co-founded in St Matthew’s parish soon after she and my father married in 1940. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that, in 1937, the UCM gave evidence to the Birkett Enquiry, the Royal Committee of Enquiry into Abortion, chaired by Sir Norman Birkett KC. My father was a member of Knights of St Columba which, in the 1960s and early 1970s, mobilised thousands of men from virtually every Catholic parish in Britain to help in organising and protecting SPUC’s huge rallies and parliamentary lobbies.
My father was also a member of the Guild of the Blessed Sacrament. His copy of the Blessed Sacrament Guild Book, published in 1921, explains that the Guild, originally instituted by Pope Paul III in 1539, was brought into being “in order to counteract widespread apathy by restoring Our Lord in the Divine Sacrament to His place of honour; and thus, by sitting Him firmly on His royal throne in the affections of men, to make Him their Sovereign King and Master”. In 1918, Pope Benedict XV ordered that the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament be erected in every parish throughout the Universal Church.
As a boy, I wasn’t aware of all that history. However, what I personally saw taught me to reverence the Body of Christ, the Presence of God, in the Eucharist. What I personally witnessed was my father and dozens of men — his friends and fellow members of the Guild — dressed in their special regalia, processing behind, and four of them holding up, the canopy under which our parish priest, Fr Cole, would carry the Blessed Sacrament as the packed church sang hymns in honour of the living bread which comes down from Heaven, whilst the burning incense enveloped us all in a cloud of fragrant smoke. Such events were an unforgettable, regular catechesis on the Real Presence of Our Blessed Lord in the parish in which I was born and grew up. The awe and wonder instilled by such occasions in young boys like me gave us an enormous sense of privilege as we went about our humble tasks of ringing the bell and lifting the celebrant’s chasuble at the moment of consecration in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Later, I went to secondary school at Salesian College in Battersea where I used to arrive early in the morning to serve one of the many Masses taking place at the little side altars in the chapel of Mary Help of Christians. Sometimes I served the Mass of my form master, Fr Collins, who epitomised for me order and authority. Seeing Fr Collins praying before and after Mass, repeatedly kneeling, and hearing him speaking the words of consecration in hushed reverent tones gave me a sense of just how important God is — that even Fr Collins bows down before Him! Other priests on the teaching staff, who shall remain nameless, whose irascible natures and little faults we schoolboys knew so well, celebrated Mass in just the same calm, devout and submissive way as Fr Collins. Overall, it gave me a powerful sense of the existence of another world, beyond the ups and downs and minor injustices and occasional triumphs of day to day school life.
Probably it was seeing me serving Mass that prompted one or two priests to talk to me about the possibility of my training for the priesthood. At the ripe old age of 16, following my brother’s footsteps, I tried my vocation at the Salesian novitiate in Ireland, staying for a very happy six months before deciding it wasn’t for me.
I left the novitiate in January 1968. I went home to West Norwood and back to school at Salesian College, Battersea, to study for my A levels.
Change was very much in the air in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both the spiritual and the moral climate were changing and the changes seemed to be coming from on high.
Fr Cole, our parish priest in West Norwood, died in 1970 and St Matthew’s beautiful polyphonic choir was disbanded on the instructions of a new young priest who was temporarily in charge, and who had established a pop group in the parish: our new young priest played drums. The sacking of the choir formed part and parcel of liturgical changes sweeping through the Church at that time. My sister Freda, who was in the choir and in her early twenties, tells me that one of the choir’s leading lights was so upset he joined the Russian Orthodox Church.
I recall my father’s sadness when, in 1969, Pope Paul VI replaced the Tridentine Mass with the new Order of Mass. However, my father told me that we must accept it obediently, and I remember him being very concerned for the souls of some very good friends who sadly left the Church in their upset at what was happening. He went to see them to try to change their minds.
When I became a father and, with my wife, was taking my children to Sunday Mass to sing along with the folk choir in hymns like “Give me joy in my heart, keep me praising”, I was unable to put into words the sense of loss I used to experience. As far as I was aware, the uplifting way of worshipping God which I experienced at St Matthew’s Church had gone forever. How I longed to share with my children the beauty of what I knew as a boy!
As far as I was aware, the old rite of Mass, to which my father had introduced me in those altar-serving classes in the 1950s, was irrevocably gone. It was over 40 years later that I was reintroduced to the Latin Mass — not by my father this time, but by my son, Paul.
Paul had gone to study at Campion College in Sydney, Australia’s first liberal-arts tertiary college, named after St Edmund Campion of course. Whilst there, he fell deeply in love with his Catholic faith and the tradition of the Catholic Church.
I worked for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and I would try to get to daily Mass on my way to the office either at Southwark Cathedral or Westminster Cathedral on my way to work. Both cathedrals were convenient places to stop en route. In the meantime, Paul was urging me to go to the 8am Latin Mass at the Brompton Oratory, which added at least half an hour to my morning commute.
In the end I succumbed to Paul’s promptings and, for the first time in nearly 50 years, I was not bored, distracted, irritated, or outraged by the countless occasions of irreverence and sometimes even sacrilege at Mass. I felt at peace.
The opening prayers of the Mass at the foot of the altar immediately caught me up in the mystery of man’s existence — both in the real natural world of the earth and in the real supernatural world of heaven.
Maybe I was slightly distracted with worldly thoughts during the silence which reigned in the Oratory during the Canon of the Mass — but I was suddenly and powerfully moved back to my relationship with God when the priest said out loud the words Nobis quoque peccatoribus — “and to us sinners also”. I had totally forgotten about those momentary breaks in silence during the quiet parts of the old rite of the Mass. It took me right back to my duties as an altar server as a boy. It was as if the priest was saying to me, “Wake up there! You’ve got to do something in a minute … We’re getting to the end of the Canon!”
As Ronald Knox says:
“These sudden emerges … from silence into sound lend to the Mass, from the unliturgical layman’s point of view, a good deal of its atmosphere of mystery. When you hear it from the congregation… you feel as if the priest was being torn between two different instincts; one of which tells him that what he is saying is much too sacred to be said out loud, while the other tells him it is much too important not to be said out loud — first one instinct, then the other, getting the mastery”.
After going to the Oratory for Mass on my way to work for a few years, I was saying prayers before Mass one morning when I was approached by Fr Rupert McHardy, to whom I’d not spoken before… Indeed, I knew none of the Oratory priests and was somewhat in awe of them. He said he had seen me at the morning Masses and he asked if I would be willing to serve Mass. I replied, “It’s 50 years since I last served Mass, Father, and I’m wearing trainers.” (My shoes were at work). “I’ll train you” he said — and a few days later, that’s what he did — and for a few years I served Fr Michael Lang’s Mass on a Monday morning, wearing black shoes of course.
Fr Michael Lang taught me a memorable lesson on the importance of silence during Mass when he said, “When you serve Mass, please don’t use your Missal. When you turn the pages it distracts me. Please use instead the Ordinary Prayers of the Traditional Latin Mass, published by the Latin Mass Society. “The pages are thicker and they don’t make a noise.” And he advised me that I should offer up as a sacrifice not reading the gospel and the epistle during the Mass, which my St Andrews Missal had enabled me to do.
Far from criticising Fr Lang, I have no doubt that he was correct to insist on absolute silence during the celebration of the Latin Mass. Silence, apart from the low murmuring of the priest’s voice, promotes reverence due to “so great a Sacrament”, as St Robert Bellarmine puts it. This is something I learned from Fr Thomas Crean’s excellent The Mass and the Saints, a book that our son, Paul, presented to my wife, Josephine for Mother’s Day some years ago. In the same chapter, Fr Crean cites the Council of Trent:
“Since holy things must be treated in a holy way, and this sacrifice is of all things the most holy, the Catholic Church instituted many centuries ago the sacred Canon, so that this sacrifice might be offered and understood in a worthy and reverent way. It is so pure from error, that there is nothing in it but what breathes forth the greatest holiness and devotion and raises up to God the minds of those who offer. For it is made from the very words of our Lord, the traditions of the apostles, and the devout ordinance of holy pontiffs.”
There is a connection between the loss of reverence for the Holy Eucharist, which accompanied the virtual abandonment of the Latin Mass by the Church in the 1960s, and the battle against abortion in which I’ve been involved for the past 50 years. I note in this connection that the Latin Mass Society was founded in 1965, one year before the launch of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in 1966. SPUC was set up to combat David Steel’s abortion bill, introduced in the 1965–1966 Session of Parliament.
According to the most conservative estimates, more human beings have been killed by abortion worldwide during the past century — 1.1 billion — than the estimated total number of everyone killed in all of the wars in recorded human history.
There are 330 million people live in the USA and there are 746 million people live in Europe. If a nuclear war were to wipe out the entire population of the United States and the entire population of Europe, the number of human beings killed would be less than the number of human beings killed by abortion in the last century.
What’s even worse is this: as the number of abortions grows, more and more people are saying that they agree with abortion in certain circumstances, including Catholics. According to data published by the Pew Research Centre on 23 May 2022, in the United States, 69% of people who identify themselves as Catholic think that killing unborn children should be legal in certain circumstances. Put another way, that’s an estimated 43 million, out of 62 million Catholics in the United States, who think that it’s OK to murder babies in the womb, even though the Church teaches that abortion is “the direct murder of the innocent”. Nothing like this has happened in the history of the world.
And yet there is something even more precious than the sanctity of human life, and this is the divine life truly present in the Holy Eucharist — in His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Our greatest treasure on earth is the Blessed Sacrament.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught:
“Out of reverence towards this Sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this Sacrament. Hence, it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity, for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency.” (16 ST, III, Q. 82, a. 13)
Who can seriously doubt that the loss of the Latin Mass to the vast majority of the Catholic world has led to this rubric being flagrantly disobeyed by priests and bishops who encourage the handling of the Eucharist by unconsecrated hands above all in the reception of Holy Communion in the hand?
We may also ask: is it merely a coincidence that Communion in the hand, which denies the dignity of divine life, was so irrationally introduced to the Church during the same period that legalised abortion, which denies the dignity of human life, was introduced insuch a dishonest way by so many western countries?
Today, we reap the bitter fruits: human life has lost its value in human society and Christ has become shamefully abused by the Christians who should know and love him most.
Just as it is impossible to calculate the countless desecrations of the Body of Christ in the sacrilegious treatment of the Holy Eucharist brought about by the practice of Communion in the hand, it is impossible to number the unborn children — made in the image and likeness of God — killed worldwide not only through permissive abortion legislation, but also through abortifacient contraceptive drugs and devices, and through IVF procedures.
In September 2021, there was an abortion referendum in the tiny European country, San Marino, where 97% of the population profess the Catholic faith. 77% of voters in San Marino said “Yes” to abortion up to birth. And bishops all over the world welcome politicians who publicly back abortion (and same-sex marriage) to receive the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion, including in the UK.
I believe that the truth about the sanctity of human life before birth and about the truth and meaning of human sexuality cannot triumph without the recognition of the truth about Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. We will only recover the proper understanding of the sanctity of human life, and of God’s purpose in the Sacrament of Marriage, if we restore the understanding of the sanctity of divine life present in the Holy Eucharist and act accordingly.
The inviolate holiness of the Traditional Latin Mass is rooted in its profound contemplation and incomparable reverence of the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and of His Sacrifice of Calvary. It teaches the true meaning of human life, as realised in the divine life of Christ, offered as a sacrifice to God and as a sacrament for our salvation.