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A Timeless Flavor of the Old Interspersed with Today: The Latin Mass in Berwyn

Jim Bowman 26 November 2007 One Comment

St. Odilo in Berwyn wound up its triduum of old-style Latin masses Tuesday night, Nov. 20, with not quite the 400 people of the first one, two weeks and one week earlier. Maybe 300 this time, parishioners and others who came out on a dark and stormy night to celebrate a divine mystery.

This was the holy sacrifice, commemorated and re-enacted in pre-Vatican IIfashion. Fr. Anthony Brankin, the pastor, had a few words beforehand from the pulpit, as he did for the first two. Follow what we are doing up here if you wish, he said, noting the booklets that were available for all. Or don’t, as it suits you. Just being there and drinking in the atmosphere would do it also.

Excellent advice. I for one find the same-old, same -old words of the mass to be, ah, highly repetitive, to cite the obvious. This is theater, after all. Were not the earliest plays in our language called mystery plays, dramatizing Bible stories in church? So be gone with your head-tripping contemporary liturgy, which hangs so desperately on the words of Father Never-Quiet with his finely tuned microphone, delivering commercials. And come on along and hear the song of old Latin music.

Not that St. Odilo is cooking yet on the front burner when it comes to choir and organ — oops, what organ? Very little, used at one point when the silence might be too pronounced for worshipers, Fr. Brankin explained. On the matter of what people are used to, a rather interesting development came when people spontaneously responded, singing “Et cum spiritu tuo” after “Dominus vobiscum” and indeed broke into the full “Agnus Dei” at the appropriate time — none of it with help from the usual leader of song standing and waving up front.

Here is where old met new and meshed rather nicely. Latin mass-goers of the 40s and 50s were not used to taking so much part in a high mass, but mostly left song to the choir. Liturgical reformation — not too strong a word even with its historical connotation — has made singers of some Catholic mass-goers.

The soloist, meanwhile, did yeoman work — from the rear balcony, by the way, as adjunct to happenings at the altar and not competition. His singing included the requiem’s “Dies Irae” (“day of wrath”) and offertory song “Domine, Jesu Christe, Rex gloriæ” (“Lord Jesus Christ, king of glory”) with its haunting phrase “quam Abrahae promisisti” (“what you promised to Abraham” and his descendants), referring to the “holy light” that awaits the blessed in heaven.

Heavy stuff, and most do not understand the Latin as does this student and user of same for many years a long time ago, yes. But look, these lines are as likely to be sung on concert stages as in a big-box church such as St. Odilo. These are world class lyrics, used to good effect some time ago by no less a star of stage and screen than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In any case, Fr. Brankin’s advice to follow the action up front or not, as you wish, applies even to the non-Latin-acclimated, who can engage in meditation (maybe woolgathering, but in a reverential setting) or spiritual reading. He might try “the Cloud of Unknowing,” for instance, the 14th-century guide book for monks, in which he can learn to see himself as a “lump of corruption” on his way to being “united with God in perfect charity.”

“My name is Jim, and I’m a lump of corruption,” you might stand and say in front of your peers, or better yet, quietly to yourself. It’s a sine qua non of progress in any case.

The perfect-charity part came up in Fr. Richard Simon’s 35-minute sermon at St. Odilo, by the way. In this and his previous two sermons a week and two weeks earlier his business was to go at the Four Last Things — death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

These were all requiem masses, it being November, the month of the poor souls in purgatory — a good choice because the requiem mass has neither Gloria (“in excelsis Deo”) nor Creed and that’s good when you are still working your choir up to the big time, though Fr. Brankin is not fazed by the challenge. He’s very upbeat about the whole thing. If he as promoter would not be, who would?

Fr. Simon, pastor of St. Lambert’s, Skokie, and a classmate of Fr. Brankin, talked up purgatory at the third mass — another world-class concept, Dante showed us — as a after-life condition when we learn how to love God for himself, without reference to bottom-line considerations about what’s in it for us, etc.

The pain of purgatory — “experiencing the pain we caused” — is bearable because known to be temporary, but also, Fr. Simon said, because we endorse it as necessary, as a sort of shaping-up process before the big game which we eagerly anticipate — the Beatific Vision.

It’s inside baseball, yes, and what I’m doing talking about it in an ostensibly secular publication is mysterious. But purgatory is household-term enough to toss about, at least to readers of world literature, and love makes the world go ‘round — we know that — so what’s the problem?

As for St. Odilo, the Solemn High Latin Mass has two more dates scheduled — Friday, Dec. 7 at 7 pm, and Christmas Eve itself, at midnight, not replacing the standard 10 p.m. mass but added to the usual fare. The church is at 23rd and East, in Berwyn, if you’re interested.


Jim Bowman knows what he’s writing about re: the Latin Mass. He is religion editor, editorial board member of The Chicago Daily Observer and a former Jesuit priest and teacher. Catch him as www.jimbowman.com and Blithe Spirit, the Blog http://blithespirit.wordpress.com

One Comment »

  • RJE (author) said:

    I grew up in St. Odilo parish in the 1970s and 1980s, but transfered to neighboring St. Leonard in 1990 when I married and moved. I have been a parishoner at St. Leonard ever since, although I will occasionally attend St. Odilo for special occasions or masses offered at times I can better attend.

    St. Odilo has had its ups and downs over the course of my life, which I won’t get into here, but from what I have seen of Fr. Brankin, the parish may be ready to go through a period of renaissance. Upon attending a weekday children’s mass, Fr. Brankin was the celebrant and appeared to be an interesting speaker and very kind to the children. He also has hobbies that relate to art and woodwork. The local paper had an article about him building a harp.

    It’s good to see this parish taking a turn for the better.

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