The Monastery, the Motu Proprio, and the Heart of the Church

Philip Carl Smith

Dom Antoine Forgeot, the abbot of Notre Dame de Fontgombault, greeted me upon my arrival at the monastery by pouring water on my hands before the evening meal, welcoming me as if I were Christ. Fontgombault, founded in the eleventh century, has had an immense influence on the religious life of France and the United States since its reestablishment in 1948 by the Benedictines of Solesmes, and it is now an important center of Gregorian chant. For several days this past summer I received the hospitality of the monks, attending the singing of the Divine Office and participating in the solemn conventual Mass chanted each day according to the Missal of Blessed John XXIII—a form of the Mass also known as the usus antiquior or the Tridentine Mass.

One afternoon before one of the hours of the Office, I spoke briefly with Dom Forgeot in the monastery garden. We discussed Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI’s recent motu proprio which has expanded the ability of the faithful to request and of priests to celebrate Mass according to the Missal of Blessed John XXIII. I described to Dom Forgeot some of the immediate effects of the motu proprio that I had witnessed in Rome, having been there for some weeks prior to my arrival at Fontgombault.

“The liturgy is the heart of the Church,” the abbot responded with a serene expression, “and Pope Benedict knows what medicine the Church requires.”

Hearing his words, I recalled participating years before in a seminar discussion of John Senior’s essay, “What is Christian Culture?” at the University of Notre Dame. Some students were puzzled by Dr. Senior’s description of the ancient form of the Mass as “the most refined and brilliant work of art in the history of the world, the heart and soul and most powerful determinant factor in Western Civilization.” Our professor explained this to us, for though he himself was not a Catholic, he still appreciated the importance of the Mass: “Think of what happens if your heart becomes sick,” he suggested. “It is no longer able to supply blood to the rest of the body. If the Mass is truly the heart of the Church, its health and strength are of utmost importance to the proper functioning of all aspects of the Church’s life.”

* * *

My first encounter with the usus antiquior was as a student at St. Gregory’s Academy, a small boarding school for boys in northeastern Pennsylvania that had been founded by former students of Dr. Senior some thirteen years ago. I had never heard Mass in that form previously, but by attending each morning, studying Latin, and memorizing the common prayers and their meaning, I quickly grew familiar with it. The words and their arrangement were delightful to my ear, and I could discern the beauty of the texts of the Mass even before I fully understood them. The prayers took on an even greater beauty when sung according to the ancient melodies passed down to us. Although I had attended the Mass according to the ordinary form all my life, I had never before experienced the treasures of the Church’s musical heritage, the promotion of which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had decreed. Instead, in every parish that I had attended, we had sung hymns each Sunday and Holy Day that had no evident connection to the feast or readings, selected perhaps because the congregation was vaguely familiar with them. At St. Gregory’s, however, the students sang the proper introits specified in the missal, and some of the other chants, at High Mass each Friday and Sunday, the Holy Spirit’s commentary on the Word of God resounding joyfully throughout the chapel.

The chapel of St. Gregory’s has had a long and varied history. The building was originally an orphanage served by Orthodox nuns, and the stained glass windows depict the eastern saints that had been venerated by that community. Though the chapel was later converted for the use of Roman Catholics, who imported a marble altar and baldacchino from Italy and painted the walls with gaudy faux marble columns, many elements of the original design are still discernible. Plaster statues of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph were added later to niches on either side of the altar. When the Academy was founded, the sanctuary was redesigned and given a new altar rail, and a depiction of the Crucifixion was painted for the altar. Though formed from disparate elements, frequently of unknown origin, the chapel proved quite conducive to prayer.

The form of the Mass offered there had been similarly fashioned. Prayers and ceremonies of different origins formed a remarkably coherent whole, under the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit. When we attended Mass each day, particularly in its solemn form, each of our senses participated. The aroma of the incense enthralled our noses, the slow, ritual movements of the sacred ministers and the art and architecture of the chapel engaged our eyes; the ancient chants delighted our ears; the plush communion rail relieved our knees after a long stretch on the pew’s hard kneelers; and the flesh of Christ, tasting of bread, confused our tongues.

All of the students learned to serve High and Low Mass, the younger ones taught by the older. (Three of the four sacristans I knew during my time there were also rugby team captains, perhaps utilizing similar aspects of their visual imagination for each task.) While initially I found it difficult to learn all of the actions of the acolyte, it was nevertheless exciting, and I was amazed by how quickly Mass went by when I took part in this truly liturgical dance of the altar. I began also to understand that I could achieve this participation even when kneeling in the pews, that we all could be engaged in the prayer of the Mass by attentive and careful observance of the ceremonies and by companioning, sometimes vocally, sometimes mentally, the prayer of the priest.

* * *

I first visited Fontgombault in 2001, the summer after my first year at St. Gregory’s, with about ten other boys and the school chaplain, Father Stemler. Attending Mass at this monastery, where the chant, the actions of the altar, and all other aspects of the liturgy are executed with prayerful perfection, proved to be a deeply formative experience. It was the first time I had seen the Mass within the liturgical context of the Divine Office and observed their woven interaction. Witnessing the noble simplicity of much of the Divine Office enabled me to appreciate the almost audacious opulence of the great gradual and alleluia chants of the Mass and to understand the combination of prayer, text, music, and liturgical action found throughout the liturgy. We each had the opportunity to serve a monk’s private Mass each morning: twenty whispered Masses offered simultaneously, the elevations of the host and chalice seemingly synchronized. It is said that when then-Cardinal Ratzinger witnessed this celebration during his visit to Fontgombault, he remarked, “Now that is a Catholic church.”

My first serious encounter with the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger was in the summer of 2006, during another visit to Fontgombault. I had come across a copy of his book The Spirit of the Liturgy in an old wardrobe in the guesthouse library and had read it during my stay. It was a revelation. Its four parts concern the liturgy’s essence and relationship to time, space, art, and form, including a significant advance towards a coherent philosophy of the relationship of Catholicism and the arts. The book radically expanded my love of the liturgy and awakened in me a desire to understand it more deeply.

I found particularly helpful a passage from the preface, in which the Cardinal describes the “whitewashed” state of the liturgy in some places prior to the development of the Liturgical Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which encouraged a more careful observance of the rites, a commitment to congregational liturgical participation and catechesis, and a revival of Gregorian chant. It surprises me to realize the disparity between the ancient Roman liturgy with which I am familiar and the state in which it exists in the memories of those averse to it. As a young Catholic interested in the ancient Roman liturgy, I have encountered confusion and even suspicion from older Catholics who, not having fond memories of the older form of the Mass, think it odd that I and other young men and women presume to take such interest in it. Cardinal Ratzinger’s comment helped me to understand the criticism that some make of the way they remember the Mass being celebrated, and also helped me to realize that my experience of the Mass, which has been overwhelmingly positive, was greatly enriched by the accomplishments of the liturgical movement. As Pope Benedict points out in his letter to the bishops regarding the motu proprio, “a good number of people remained strongly attached to this usage of the Roman Rite… especially… in countries where the liturgical movement had provided many people with a notable liturgical formation and a deep, personal familiarity with the earlier Form of the liturgical celebration.”

It is a pity that some congregations attached to the old Mass strive to reapply the old coat of whitewash—using the bare minimum of ceremonial and incessantly repeating the same three tepid hymns every Sunday, rather than fostering the Church’s repertoire of chant, uniquely keyed to the celebrations of each feast and fast. (Part of the problem in this respect is that the call of Popes Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII, and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council for the establishment of institutes of sacred music has been sorely neglected.) These celebrations, though perhaps more bearable than alternative options available in some places, do little to help the overall situation or to diffuse the fears of the detractors of the ancient Mass. It is likewise a great shame that so many of the noble renewals of the Liturgical Movement affirmed by the Second Vatican Council, such as the emphasis on Gregorian chant as the proper music of the Roman rite and the encouragement of a true participatio actuosa by the congregation in this noble work of God, have been abandoned and replaced by a flavorless and unconvincing repertoire of “utility music,” to use Karl Rahner’s phrase, and by an emphasis on the empty bustle of external activity.1

I am extremely blessed to have experienced the ancient form of the Roman Mass under such ideal circumstances. I hope my experiences indicate that despite serious past problems, the dignified, prayerful, and truly artistic celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not beyond the reach of the contemporary Church. Pope Benedict has aided this endeavor tremendously by making the celebration of the Tridentine mass more freely available. Under the terms of the motu proprio, it is now known as an extraordinary form of the Roman Missal, and must be given “must be given due honor for its venerable and ancient usage.”

I must add my gratitude to the Holy Father to that of a group of pilgrims who declared with an affectionate banner at the Sunday Angelus on July 8, 2007 in St. Peter’s Square: “Benedictus” qui venit in nomine Domini—thank you for the motu proprio!

Philip Carl Smith is a student of music and philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he edits The Catholic Idler and directs the Notre Dame Schola Gregoriana. He may be reached by email at philipcarlsmith@gmail.com.


1. [The concept of “utility music,” which has been diagnosed by Cardinal Ratzinger in The Feast of Faith (pp. 97 – 101), attempts to relegate the musical treasures of the Church to the concert hall while putting forward a repertoire of music whose main criteria for inclusion is its facility. For a further discussion of participatio actuosa, the “actual participation” called for by St. Pius X and Sacrosanctum Concilium, cf. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (pp.171-177).]