Home at Last

CHAPTER 30 – Home at Last: Maternal Heart of Mary

Just what is it about Maternal Heart at Lewisham that keeps us sane?

Most Catholics feel very, very uneasy about Latin Mass at Maternal Heart of Mary, Lewisham. To many, they can see no distinction between the dreaded schismatic SSPX priests and the FSSP priests. A bunch of old, nostalgic, intolerant, reactionaries stubbornly pining for the culture of the past, clinging to a by-gone age. And Latin?! Why? A dead language, and which is assumed to alienate the laity from the Mass itself. What could be worse? Where is the “active participation” of the laity at Mass? And don’t these Latin Masses attract a lot of “weirdos”: the “end of the world” prophets, monarchists, idealist dreamers, religious outcasts …?

These are all perceptions borne from almost total ignorance of what is experienced at Maternal Heart. And what is experienced is difficult to explain to anyone. There have been such huge historical shifts in culture, and in Catholic religious practise and belief, not only the over past 50 years since the effects of the Vatican II revolution, but also over a couple of Catholic centuries that one cannot put the Maternal Heart experience into perspective without tracing those cultural shifts. So, dear Reader, bear with me.

The Media is the Message

Firstly, the Catholic Liturgy of the Mass, is the prime source of the Faith: not the doctrinal, credal and moral statements of the Church. How one worships defines what one believes. The outright traditional Mass which summed up Catholic belief, borne through and developed over 2000 years, was the Solemn High Mass sung in Gregorian chant. Furthermore, the sacramental nature of this traditional Mass itself, reinforced the sacramental expression of the Faith into every aspect of daily life: every object and act could be a means of grace. What is more, grace comes into the soul, according to the bodily senses of the receiver. In rich, guided-over-the-centuries sensual forms, grace becomes more available. Grace impinges upon us through those senses, gentled and harmonised upon rough souls. The Gregorian Solemn Mass and its accompaning enriched daily and yearly circle of sacramental life was the pure essence of Western Catholic religion.

Gregorian Chant

Secondly, Gregorian chant, both in the lay responses of the Mass and the chanted readings, are part of the seemless whole of this Mass. Gregorian chant is a gradually-evolved organic development from the ancient Jewish chanted responses which the Apostles and early Christians chanted. Nothing links the Mass more with the religion of Christ than the ritual and chant of the traditional Latin Mass. It is irreplaceable.

This Gregorian Solemn Mass was more or less abandoned after centuries of religious and philosophical division in Europe following the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment and the French Revolution … so much so that it was not until 1900 that a group of Benedictine monks collected the remnants of Gregorian chant and with the assistance of the 19th and early 20th popes sought to bring the traditional Catholic liturgy back into the life of the church. So what was going on at Mass through those centuries?

Liturgy Becomes a Public Performance

Solemn High Mass became a performance of Western European high culture – Mass settings of Haydn and Mozart. Or the High Renaissance polyphony of Palestrina. Mass for the normal, everyday laity who in the past, say in 1200 AD, a Gregorian Mass, was the main Mass of the day. “Low” Masses (unsung) were not the norm. The whole village would go to Gregorian Solemn Mass and knew all the Latin responses and Gregorian chants of the Mass. It was a whole community event, as were all the feast day Masses through the year – public holidays and free bread after Mass. Renaissance Popes, by allowing polyphony into the Mass, opened the floodgates for Post-Vatican II guitar Masses – music became an aesthetic option.

But, with the huge crisis in the Church from the Protestant Reformation through the 19th century, almost the whole stress of Catholic survival was on fighting the enemy with the weapons of solid doctrine, tight moral discipline, and attending Mass – mostly Low (unsung) Mass. The enemies fought with the weapon of ideology – Rationalism. The Church gradually become contaminated with Rationalism. Pure doctrine was defended with numerous tracts, sermons, textbooks, and manuals, and young people were immersed in Catholic education ready to defend the Faith: Rationalism would be fought with the weapons of the enemy: reasoned logical arguments.

What was missing? The wonder, glory, wholeness, beauty, and communitarian nature of the Faith non-verbally transmitted by the traditional Gregorian Solemn Mass.

Victory of Northern Europe

This crisis affected mainly Northern Europe, while Southern and Eastern European Catholicism remained closer to traditional religion. Missionaries from Ireland and France to America, and Oceania, brought with them Northern European Counter-Reformation spirituality. And with the victory over the world of Northern European liberal society, Northern European spirituality triumphed, especially after World War II. And to us in English-speaking countries it was, predominantly, the Irish missionaries who victoriously won Catholicism for this world.

However, Irish Catholicism was particularly stern. Centuries of English persecution had forced the Irish to express their Faith in tight doctrinal terms, detached from the wider European culture. The minimalism of Low Mass was balanced by an array of both traditional and 19th century sacramental pious devotions, flourishing across Western Europe. The experience of older Catholics was of Low Mass being said quickly. After all, the rules allowed for absolutely minimal performance of the ritual for the great sacrament to confer grace. Pragmatism prevailed.

Democratic Patronising

By the 20th century, the Catholic intelligensia knew that something had to be done to address the “liturgical issue” – liturgical reform. And with the same rationalistic weapons they addressed the problem. After Vatican II, a committee was given the power to create a new liturgy, and, of course, it would reflect the main cultural and post-war Western European victorious democratic, modernist and liberal issues of the time: democratic lay participation, the people’s language, the people’s culture. Low Mass, the common experience of most, became supposedly enriched and expanded with contemporary language, music, and that relaxed tolerant distaste for form itself. Solemn High Mass ended – we will have no “high culture”, and Gregorian chant was put in the “too hard” basket.

It was a total disaster!! It is typical of modern man to tinker with nature, as if the whole development of the Catholic world religion could be compressed into an instant of local time and space by scholars. “Instant liturgy” it became. Problem solved?

Counter-Cultural Wholeness

But, yes, the problem is solved. With the permission of the Church, a group of priests – the Fraternity of St Peter – dedicate their mission to celebrate the ancient traditional Mass. And at Lewisham, in the chapel of the Maternal Heart of Mary, under the inspired direction of Fr Gresser, one may experience the normative Solemn Mass which unified the Catholic world and still unifies the multicultural laity of Sydney. Unlike most parishes, the people here are younger, diverse in dress, income, and talents, extremely ethnically mixed, and growing year by year, heartily singing Gregorian chant and ancient Latin hymns. To us, Latin is not a problem at all. Latin is just one part of a seemless, unsentimental, authentic wholeness. This traditional Mass outweighs any attempt making it fit to a particular time and place, or a particular anything. Even the individuality of a priest becomes subsumed by the wholeness of the ritual. It is timeless, totally counter-cultural, and non-patronising.

And with the return of the ancient and Medieval Mass at Lewisham, comes the return of full Catholic physical sacramentality – the return of the sacred year, the innumeral blessings of holy objects, of votive Masses, of holy octaves of feasts, of daily lives increasingly becoming conscious of God’s love for and in everything through the physical world. And even better, is the mix of traditional Catholic European, Mediterranean, and Asian practices which the laity bring to reinforce the catholicity of Maternal Heart of Mary.

So, the modern church wants inculturation – we have it. Modern bishops want lay participation – we have loads of it! There is just as much lay singing at Gregorian Solemn Mass as at a modern celebratory Mass, except we don’t have to sing tired folk songs. There is far more physical, bodily participation here: more crossing, bowing, genuflecting, kneeling, standing, more actual sacramental activity. So, more means of the body receiving grace and thus to the soul.

Signs of the Future

The question remains. Is Maternal Heart just a temporary liturgical experiment while the old-timers die out? According to statistics, no. The traditional Catholic world is growing. The most faithful and eager of young Catholics are flocking to the Latin Mass. For the past 10 years, the FSSP priests attract a proportionally accelerating number of seminarians in the world, and are stretched to supply priests throughout a Catholic world becoming more aware of the wonders of the ancient liturgy. Slowly, bishops, especially in the USA, are allowing the FSSP and other traditional Latin Mass movements, to establish parishes and chaplaincies in their dioceses. These Latin Mass young priests are not of the old Baby Boom generation, nor do they imitate the old clericalism of the past. And above all, Pope Benedict has ordered the freeing of the traditional Mass from any restrictions placed once upon it by its enemies. He has drawn attention to the need for any developments of the new Mass to learn from the traditions of the old Mass – he wishes priests and seminarians, world-wide, to become, once again, familiar with our traditional Mass.


Now the Latin question. Whole generations of modern Irish, Welsh, Maori and Jewish people have had to grow up learning their traditional language from virtually scratch: Gaelic, Maori and Hebrew are now languages which have emerged from the past. Latin is the mother language not just of the Universal Church but of Europe itself. I have never learnt Latin and I do not speak it. In fact, I have never learnt any other language. After only a year of singing Gregorian chant and Mass responses and following the English booklet with the Latin, I find Latin at Mass no problem. Ritual Latin is immune from the personal, and sometimes, deliberately, emotive English inflections which can cause great distractions at Mass. Latin is not the issue really. It is English nationalism.

After almost 50 years of battling for the liturgy, Aubynne and I have reached home at last – the Maternal Heart of Mary Latin Mass Chaplaincy.

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