Catholic Herald, 10 June 1966: Yes, but…

In this week’s Catholic Herald (which sadly now I must read in the hard copy as the trial period of free editions on the paper’s app has expired) has an interesting, and no doubt deliberately chosen, excerpt from the corresponding edition of 50 years ago. From memory it is on the page with Piers Paul Read’s column near the very back of the paper.

It refers to the then 18-month-old permission given to parishes in England and Wales to celebrate Mass versus populum, facing the people. It notes that only 10% of parishes had taken up this permission; at those 10% of parishes the change was said to be very popular with the people. Mmmm.

My first thought was to wonder if anyone would be so precipitate as to use this as an argument against the mounting desire for a return to ad orientem. I could see some saying that it was obviously the clergy who were the hindrance, as the people when they could have Mass facing them loved it.

To some extent they are probably right. The suspicion that the clergy on the whole were not keen on the change sounds justified. After all, they had more theoretical and practical knowledge than most of the laity, and probably had an instinct that this change was not ideal. Perhaps, however, it was the laity who were the hindrance, not keen on changes in their liturgy, which was, for all its other values in their lives, part of their tribal identity as a minority in British society, and one still discriminated against to some degree. But when exposed to the wonders of versus populum, nevertheless (I can hear the argument) they saw its merits and loved it. After all, it was a change permitted for their sake, to foster their active participation in the Mass. Of course, it was the 1960s, and society was changing everywhere and in every way.

Either way, we are faced with the next, and logical, question: So why did the majority of them give up on Mass?

In 1966, Mass attendance in England and Wales was measured as 2,114,219 out of a total Catholic population estimated at 4,000,695. By 1993 the Catholic population reached a peak of 4,526,873, but Mass attendance had fallen to 1,277,617. So in less than 30 years of liturgical change made ostensibly for the sake of the people (including the soon near-universal practice of Mass facing the people) Mass attendance in England and Wales had fallen just under 40% even as the Catholic population had risen over 13%. In 2010 the Catholic population had fallen almost 11% to 4,034,069, and Mass attendance had fallen by a further 31% to 885,169. That represents a total fall in Mass attendance between 1966 and 2010 of 58%. [Please feel free to check my calculation of percentages—I am no mathematician.]

Where have all the faithful gone since 1966?

So if this, and other changes made for the sake of the people, were so popular, why did the majority of the faithful stop going to Mass? Some will raise the obvious objection that society had changed, and had become antipathetic to religion and more secular, even anti-religious. While that social change is a fact, it is not shown how this necessarily affected Mass attendance. One might argue that people of faith should have clung even more strongly to the spiritual foundations of their faith and identity in the face of secular apathy or antipathy.

But what if some of these foundations of faith and identity, like the Mass, had changed in step with secular society, and to the beat of its drum? If one was faced with the secular in daily life, and increasingly in the Mass as well, why bother to go to Mass for more of the same secularity?

The authentic instinct of Christians has always been that worship is a duty centred on God, not an optional get-together focused on them. When our worship again reflects this instinct, this truth, then we will see a return of the faithful to worship. In fact, in those places where reform along these lines has been begun already, numbers have already grown, especially among the young.

Just saying…

Now, I had better get ready for Mass.

[PS You will see from the links that the Latin Mass Society’s excellent collection of statistics has helped me immensely in this little analysis. My thanks to them, and especially to Dr Shaw.]

10 thoughts on “Catholic Herald, 10 June 1966: Yes, but…

  1. Well said Father, this is an argument that many of us have used for many years. The usual answer is that “the world has changed” etc, etc but the world has always been changing otherwise we would still be in the Middle Ages or before. No, it is people who are changing! I think that if the priest celebrated Mass standing on his head & blowing bubbles every time he spoke we would still have seen the major drop in congregations. The great sadness is that the mystery of the Mass has been lost because everything is done to encourage vocal attention holding of the people. But the Mass is mysterious, it is holy & we aren’t meant to understand Consubstantiation. Priests are given the power to effect the wonderful mystery of the Mass. Why not write your comments to the Catholic Herald & see the reactions?


    1. Salve, David!

      Obviously I agree with your basic points and indeed I suspect there would have been a drop in Mass attendance anyway; BUT nowhere near the 58% we suffered up to 2010. It is precisely because the Mass because less and less distinct from secular reality that it ceased to be, dare I say it, relevant to the people’s deep, unarticulated, yearning for the mystery of God in their lives. In fact I remember Jesuits arguing that Mass should be as little different from secular life as possible, otherwise it just becomes a craven escape from reality. It is not much different from the smell-of-the-sheep argument. So of course vestments were out!

      The (old) Jesuit in me must quietly point out that the Eucharistic mystery at the centre of Mass is TRANSubstantiation. Consubstantiation is Luther’s heretical attempt to keep the real presence but deny the rest of the mystery. I suspect you have the creed’s new translation in your head. 😉



    2. Yes that old chestnut ‘well society was changing’ to give credence to the liturgical revolution that has helped destroy the faith of the people. Seriously, dismantling of this stupid and often repeated fallacious assertion deserves a blog post in of itself.


      1. Indeed it does deserve post to itself. One would think that the Church had existed for 1900+ years in a changeless society, and was suddenly faced with something unprecedented for which it needed a Council to deal with. The fall of the Roman Empire, barbarian invasions and conversions, the spread of the faith to the four corners of the world, the rise and fall of feudalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation and ensuing religious wars, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the industrial revolution, two world wars and the demise of monarchy, the rise of communism and fascism — through all these changes the Church had seen the need to make only the most minimal adjustments to its liturgy. Only with St Pius X did large scale central interference with the liturgy, with his reform of the Breviary. Ironically, unwittingly and sadly, that sterling pope set the stage for the liturgical revolution.



  2. As someone who lived through that change, my recollection is that there were priests who turned their altars round long before it was authorised. These were the progressive priests, of whom there were many. I suspect that they attracted progressive congregations, so it is no wonder that the change was popular in those parishes.

    Another factor is one of propaganda. Very considerable pressure was put on people to accept the changes. The argument was that it was selfish to resist. The changes were not for us they were for the people of Africa. I am not sure whether a poll was conducted in Africa!


    1. Salve!

      I do not doubt you for a second. In our Magazine this year I have out picture of one of our monks saying Mass versus populum for a student group in 1963. Your analysis of the dynamic involved – progressives flocking to progressive priests sounds right enough for cities at least, though I am not so sure such mobility would have been probable in rural areas. That said,probably few altars were turned in rural areas in the first place.

      The argument of selflessness for Africa is a classic guilt trip. Ironic now it is that the African Cardinal Sarah is encouraging us to face east, and the Africans to quiet down at Mass!



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