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Day 16: An “Extraordinary” Pontificate

MartinMartin Marston-Paterson, is a civil servant in Westminster. He was received into the Church by the Benedictines at the age of 17.

On 7 July 2007, Benedict XVI issued the motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum”. This was for me without doubt the single most important act of his pontificate. Although we here in England had long had the benefit of the “Agatha Christie indult”, the Extraordinary Form of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was still very rarely said and difficult to access. The promulgation of this document, liberalising the use of the older form of the Mass, changed this. The greater availability of this Mass enabled people who had either never been to an Extraordinary Form Mass before or who had not been able to go often to begin to explore it. Indeed, this was part of the Pope’s intention in issuing the document: in his own words, the Pope said that some young persons too have “felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the mystery of the Eucharist particularly suited to them”.

This began to happen for me particularly after the motu proprio came into force. I had always been attracted to the older form, but had not had much chance to experience it. Then, as a result of the motu proprio, in Advent 2011 my church began to use the Extraordinary Form at High Mass on Sunday. Without having to change my habits, I found myself almost by accident an Extraordinary Form Mass attendee, and began to learn more about the spirituality which is attached to it. I quickly came to realise that this was not some Counter-Reformation, Baroque relic of interest as a museum-piece, but was in fact a much older and more spiritually intense experience.

I was overwhelmingly struck by the sense of continuity and prayer in union with the Church throughout the ages both in heaven and on earth – this is the Mass of the saints, the Mass of Gregory the Great, the Mass for which the English Martyrs died.  I also felt great spiritual gain from the quietude. Being able to pray without interruption, being able to follow the priest at the altar even if it is not possible to follow all of the silent prayers is something which I have found to be of great value.I have found that I pray far more – and far more deeply –  at the Extraordinary Form, as the whole ambiance is prayerful and the silence is conducive to it, as well as the focus being ineluctably upon the incredible things happening upon the altar.

Indeed, when the prayers are silent then the symbolism of the liturgy assumes even greater importance than would otherwise be the case. Thus I was fascinated to learn that there are loud echoes of the early Church throughout this form of the Mass, the Mass which has developed organically throughout the centuries. Things which are, in purely practical terms, superfluous remain in this form of Mass and are symbolically highly important and spiritually beneficial.

Some examples may help to explain the spiritual effect these symbols have on me. Think of the subdeacon holding the paten in the humeral veil at the foot of the altar – this stems from the time when the subdeacon at papal liturgies would take pieces of the Host to other churches around Rome after the consecration so that all could take part in the papal Mass. Even though that is not physically possible for everyone around the world these days, it is a real symbol of communion with the pope. We really are the universal Church. I find this very moving and, from now on, whoever the pope may be I shall also think of Benedict XVI when I see that.

Again, at the beginning of the Mass, as the priest ascends the steps to the altar, I have often been moved to tears. I found this such an irrational thing that I had to question why this was happening to me. I think it is because when the priest ascends, he is ascending to the altar of sacrifice as Jewish priests did of old – he is emphasising both the direct descent of the faith from the original covenant with the Jews, who also sacrificed at the altar of the Temple, and also the fact that the Mass is indeed the Holy Sacrifice, the recapitulation of the One and Eternal Sacrifice upon Calvary, the Sacrifice which redounds throughout the ages for the salvation of mankind – how can one not be moved? This extremely clear focus on Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross, this fixedness of the eyes of the priest and the people on the Crucifix, the ascension to the altar of Sacrifice – the emotion of Good Friday overwhelms one every time one goes to Mass in this Form. The effect on my spiritual life has been incalculable.

The third example I shall give is the use of the Last Gospel – the beginning of the Gospel of John – at the end of Mass. It’s a useful encapsulation of the fundamentals of the Faith, a reminder of the awe-inspiring thing you have just participated in, and the moment when the priest genuflects at the words “et verbum caro factum est” is intensely moving – for the Word has just become Flesh, at his hands though not through his doing, at the Mass he has just celebrated.

In sum, it is with a sense of profound gratitude that I reflect upon the pontificate of Benedict XVI – for by liberating the Extraordinary Form, he has immensely increased the spiritual riches open to me. In doing so, he has given me a sense of direct continuity with the early Church, of communion with the Pope, and even of the links to Judaism. It is very easy, these days, to think of oneself as an “English Catholic”: after all, most liturgies are in the vernacular. By coming to a familiarity with the Extraordinary Form, I have been given a real sense of myself as part of the Church Universal, in time and space as well as in terms of geography, and I have been given the gift of much more intense prayer. Thank you, Holy Father, and I will pray for you even though I think you have no need of my prayers, for I suspect we have just lived through the reign of a saintly pope with few equals in the lineage of Peter.

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