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.]
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.
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.]