Michael Ryan is a retired solicitor who practised in Melbourne and Morwell. He and his wife Margaret (with wide experience in opera and light opera) are both trained singers. Michael was a member of the St Patrick's Cathedral choir in the 1950s and 1960s as well as in various parish choirs. Both have a keen interest in liturgical music.
I have read recent letters to AD2000 on the subject of reverence at Mass with mixed feelings. It is wonderful to be reminded that there are still parishes in Australia where things are as they should be. But one is saddened by the realisation that there are so very few such parishes now.
My wife and I were both born and grew up in Melbourne. We moved to the Latrobe Valley early in our marriage, and remained there until 1983. We then moved back to the city - really to the outer metropolitan area - and remained there until a few years ago. It was hard to find a parish church near at hand where we could really "pray the Mass".
People seemed to have forgotten whatever they were taught about reverence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. A priest on a television program actually welcomed noise in church! Asked about a neighbouring church where signs asked people to be quiet in church, he laughingly said, "We do things differently here." The church to which he was referring was St Joseph's, West Brunswick.
My wife and I began attending Mass there regularly, and continue to do so. The parish priest was Father Denis Hart. Too soon, Father Hart's role as parish priest came to an end. He left St Joseph's when he became Vicar General, then an auxiliary Bishop, and then Archbishop of Melbourne. Going from parish to parish in the archdiocese now, and observing the behaviour of some congregations, I suspect that he must come close to despair.
In our experience, behaviour in church is at its worst when children are making their First Holy Communion or being Confirmed. Relatives who have long ago stopped going to Mass attend for the special occasion. One of our grandchildren was Confirmed recently at a church in an inner Melbourne suburb. The noise throughout Mass was like the noise at a rock concert. Another grandchild made his First Holy Communion more recently, in a church less than two kilometres from St Patrick's Cathedral. The small group of First Communicants had been beautifully prepared for their great day.
Unfortunately, a large group of other young First Communicants, clearly ill-prepared, joined them. They had no idea how to behave. Nor did the vast crowd of noisy relatives who accompanied them. The bedlam was indescribable. The celebrant made a plea for quiet before beginning Mass. He spoke clearly, and in English, but had no effect. For many, it was simply a social occasion.
I could not help but think back to my childhood and to my own First Holy Communion. How different things were then. We knew that this was one of the most glorious, grace-filled days of our lives. We already knew how to behave in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. As did every Catholic child and adult - even if we were a little careless at times.
What lies ahead for my grandchildren, and their children? Will they be prayerful and reverent in church? Not all priests seem to care about this quite as they should, and the nuns and brothers who once taught us Christian Doctrine are long gone.
The late Holy Father wrote much about this matter, e.g., in his Letter to all the bishops of the Church on The Mystery and Worship of the Holy Eucharist. The Ratzinger Report (1985) makes clear the views of Pope Benedict XVI regarding the liturgy and the Eucharist - "the central core of our liturgical life". And it is mentioned constantly by Archbishop Hart and other bishops and priests here.
Might the quiet and the reverence that we once found in all Catholic churches disappear completely? Any improvement will have to start with the education of our children from their earliest days - quite a task for committed Catholic parents and teachers. I commend to readers the remarks of Professor John Haldane, a Catholic philosopher, in an address in 1997:
"It once was the case that Catholic children were taught a reverence for the sacraments and the liturgy. This effect was produced by pious devotions, modes of dress and behaviour, stories of heroic devotion and so on. One benefit of these efforts was to prepare children for the idea that amidst the ordinariness of life there are channels of transcendence. It is much easier for a child to believe that God is present on the altar if the setting is physically special, if the demeanour of older children and adults is reverential, and if the priest takes evident care to clean the vessels and consume the residue of the body and blood of Christ ...
"[T]he well-educated Catholic knows that the Mass is not a religious service, a family meal, or a community feast. It is an event in which heaven and earth come together, as mundane time and sacred time are united. In it the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, a Divine Person, is made really present - not reenacted or remembered, but made actually present as a means of sacrifice by which our sins and those of mankind generally are atoned. The Messiah whose voluntary death opened the gates of Heaven is presented to us as the priest speaks the words of consecration."
Only when Catholic children (and adults) have a deeper understanding of what the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament mean will there be reverence and prayerfulness in all our churches. There might even be an increased number of Catholics attending Mass regularly.
In the meantime, let us treasure those parish churches where reverence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament counts for something.