Almost everyone who goes to the Trad Mass has a Trad Mass story. My Trad Mass story beings with my moving uneasily from church to church in Toronto, trying to find a Mass that reflected the wonderful theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Before I went to theology school, my principal values were 1. decent music 2. charismatic priest. However, during theology school, I started to notice when homilies went awry and to get anxious when priests just made stuff up.
By the time I met Benedict Ambrose and his Schola of Merry Men, I was choosing from German Mass (reverent, couldn't understand the homilies of flaky travelling Austrians), my alma mater's Mass (trad hymns, homilies pitched to university folk) and Praise & Worship Mass at the Newman (lots of pals, lusty singing and dancing in the pews.) When I met Benedict Ambrose, he took me along to the local Extraordinary From, and I thought, "Wow. All this silence, but nobody fidgets." Meanwhile, I can't remember now, but the priest probably told us that the world hates our guts and the streets will run red with our martyred blood, and I thought "Now that's a homily."
Without any further ado, here is my third piece for the Prairie Messenger, Tablet of the Canadian Prairies.
The Gates of Heaven
When I was studying graduate theology in the USA, my favourite class was Christian Latin. My classmates were all undergraduates, and most of them translated rings around me. However, the challenges of the course created bonds of sympathy among us all, and some of my classmates invited me to join them at evening Benediction.
Pious devotions were not what one expected from that school, so I was surprised to hear that Benediction was offered. I was even more surprised when, on the appointed evening, I walked into the old stone chapel and saw so many undergraduates on their knees. Two dozen? Three dozen? I don’t remember. I do remember that there were many of them and that they all sang “O Salutaris Hostia” (O Saving Victim) and “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum” (Down in Adoration Falling) from memory. Not knowing these hymns, I felt old and slightly out of it.
The Franciscans claim that St. Francis of Assisi began the devotion of venerating the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass. If true, this means the custom began before Francis’s death in 1226. Certainly the custom of elevating the Host during Mass dates from the early 13th century, inspiring a firm and popular belief that there is special merit in gazing at the Blessed Sacrament. After the institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1246, carrying the Blessed Sacrament in processions became so popular among the people that bishops had to step in and regulate them.
There are many forms of Eucharistic adoration, and there are many variations in the details of the Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Through the centuries and across the world, the common elements have been candles, incense, singing the “Tantum Ergo,” and blessing the people with the monstrance. Traditionally an afternoon or evening devotion, Benediction is said immediately after the 11:30 Mass at my parish every last Sunday of the month.
First, several candles—the required minimum was once ten—and a monstrance are placed on the altar. The priest takes a Host from the tabernacle and places it in the monstrance while the assembled, kneeling, faithful sing “O Salutaris Hostia.” Then we pray silently in the quiet or while the Gregorian chant choir sings. Contemporary guides suggest prayers, scriptural readings and even a homily, but my parish priest sticks to prayer and hymns. The important thing is that we have a chance to be truly open and present to the True Presence on the altar.
After this adoration, the kneeling priest takes the thurible, bows deeply and censes the monstrance while the choir and congregation sing “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum.” Then, after a short silence, the priest sings “Panem de caelo praestitisti ei” (Thou gavest them bread from heaven), and the people respond, “Omne delectamentum in se habentum” (Having within it all manner of sweetness).
“Oremus,” sings the priest and prays the prayer of the Blessed Sacrament. Then, wrapped in an ornate piece of cloth called the humeral veil, he picks up the monstrance through the ends of the veil, turns to his right towards the people, and slowly and silently makes the sign of the cross over us. He turns to his right again to place the monstrance on the altar and genuflects. Then he backs away and kneels on the lowest step. Finally he leads the congregation in the Divine Praises, a devotion in reparation for profane speech. He utters each praise first, and we repeat it:
Blessed be God.
(Blessed be God.)
Blessed be His Holy Name.
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
Blessed be the name of Jesus
Blessed be His most sacred Heart…
After the Divine Praises, the priest gets up, takes the Host out of the monstrance and puts it back in the tabernacle while the choir and people sing “Laudate Dominum omnes gentes” (Praise the Lord, all people) or another suitable hymn.
Benediction is one of my favourite devotions for many reasons. First, it fosters a sense of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament in a time when it is handled by almost anyone and taken for granted. Second, the Divine Praises empower us to do something to make up for all the foul language and blasphemies we hear or say. Finally, the devotion reminds me of the night I went to a chapel and saw the next generation on its knees before the Blessed Sacrament. At that moment, I saw the future.
I admit I meant to shake up the grey-haired 68ers with my conclusion. How did I get away with this all?
NOTA BENE: The Extraordinary Form of the Mass offered in Edinburgh on Sundays is now at 12 NOON.