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Mass at Sea

Peregrinus Goes Abroad (Part 2: Peregrinus Goes Abroad)

Chapter 23

Saturday was sailing day for the good ship Stella Maris, on which the two old Priests embarked, fortified by a double dose of Mothersills Remedy for Seasickness. But although the following day dawned over a somewhat choppy sea, neither of them felt any ill effects, and while dressing in their tiny stateroom decided that both their internal arrangements and the state of the ocean made it possible for them to say Mass. The evening before their deck steward had inquired if they wished to do so, and on their reply that it would depend on conditions in the morning had assured them that everything would be in readiness, and asked one to officiate in the salon and the other below decks for the third class passengers, they happening to be the only priests on board.

The Liturgiologist, as the junior, elected to visit the “steerage.” As the two friends emerged from their stateroom, cassocked, one of the cabin boys greeted them at the end of their corridor and motioned them to follow. Through mysterious doors and down innumerable stairways they followed the lad. “Rather like the catacombs, eh?” chuckled the Antiquary. Emerging at last into the third class dining room they found an extemporized altar at one end. A plain chest contained vestments, chalice and so on. The raised lid supported a crucifix and two candles in brackets, the Mass cards being neatly framed beneath. An inner lid contained the altar stone, and two wing-like shelves gave length to the mensa. The whole was superimposed on a trunk stand, and as they approached, the deck steward was busily laying the thee linen cloths and arranging a flag by way of antependium.[1]

The boy grabbed the little bell and went off chanting “Missa, Missa,” [2] through the bowels of the ship, whence presently emerged a motley crew of men, women and children, who found places at the dining room tables while the Liturgiologist vested (quite like a bishop) from the altar.[3] The Antiquary could not find a surplice, so he knelt a little to one side, ready to answer the prayers. But when the Liturgiologist began “Introibo” the whole congregation answered! And so it was throughout the Mass,[4] for most Italians, certainly the men and boys, know the responses and these were emigrants returning to their native land, some of them deported, others with their little store of money would make them rich men in Reggio or Lucca.

To be sure, most of those who did not stand, sat throughout the Mass, but then, as the Liturgiologist said afterwards, necessity knows no rubrics, and there was little space for kneeling. But there was a certain awed reverence about them all, as the well-known words whispered themselves into their ears amid such strange surroundings, the waves dashing over the portholes now and then, and the steady thrum-thrum of the machinery making antiphon.

At the Consecration the Antiquary rose, and took the chalice into his hands immediately it was consecrated. Perhaps it was not absolutely necessary, for the chart that noon said the sea was tranquil! But surely it was safer, and a unique experience, besides fulfilling the letter of the law. No one seemed to think of receiving Holy Communion, though several English-speaking passengers asked one or the other of the Priests to hear their confessions during the voyage.

While the Liturgiologist was making his thanksgiving, kneeling at one of the nearby tables, the deck steward packed up the chest and disappeared, while the cabin boy loitered about waiting to conduct them to the salon of the first cabin where the Antiquary was to offer the Holy Sacrifice. Here the arrangements were much better, for two large panels in the wall slid back disclosing a proper wooden altar with a tiny reredos. The same ornaments were used, the chest now serving as a credence table at one side. The ships orchestra played softly at the other end of the salon during the Mass, and a really good congregation was assembled, kneeling at chairs and little tables, or standing respectfully about the sides of the room. There were, probably more non-Catholics than Catholics present, and, at the suggestion of one of the ship’s officers, the Liturgiologist read the Gospel in English and made a little sermon on the miracle of Christ stilling the tempest on the Sea of Galilee. After the Consecration he performed the same precautionary service for the chalice as the Antiquary had before, though the sea was no rougher. An at the end of Mass the little cabin boy was waiting at the doorway with a breakfast tray. And so began their first Sunday at sea.

During the week they were able to say Mass on several mornings, the tiny chapel of the salon being prepared early by their deck-steward-sacristan. On several days the sea was so rough that they did not venture to celebrate, though neither of them, fortunately, felt any personal effects. And on the second Sunday, having passed Gibraltar at dawn, the chest-altar was set up on deck, surrounded by the ship’s flags, and Mass was offered in the presence of the entire ship’s company, the third class passengers kneeling on their lower deck and gazing upward to the Place of Sacrifice, while the crew, in their white uniforms, made a guard of honor. Most of the people remained for the second Mass, and this time a number approached for Holy Communion. The ship’s Captain after saluting the Celebrant, translated the Gospel into Italian, and also parts of the Antiquary’s sermon. And a collection was taken!

It was on the first Sunday, after breakfast, that the two old friends, stretched out on their steamer-chairs in the lee of a life-boat on the uppermost deck permitted themselves the luxury of commenting on the experiences of the early morning.

“I’m glad you suggested that we bring along our own purificators,” said the Antiquary. “I suppose the steamship people do as well as they can, but certainly the linen in that altar-chest leaves much to be desired.”

“When I unfolded the corporal,” replied the Liturgiologist, “I thought it was oilcloth instead of linen!”[6] Then I remembered having read, in some old book, of a method of waxing the altar linens so they’d keep clean longer! It’s not our way, to be sure, but you’ll find it frequently abroad. I’m afraid American priests have a penchant for cleanliness regarding the ornaments of the altar and the appurtenances of Holy Mass.”

“Glad to hear you say so,” was the Antiquary’s retort, with rather more asperity than was usual with him. “I must confess I’ve been shocked, if not scandalized, by the carelessness of so many priests in this regard. Where there are no sisters to look after things, mere men have a way of neglecting them sadly. That, of course, is the case with a ship’s Mass-kit. Really, it’s a wonder it’s as good as it is. I’ve seen far worse in parishes which could well afford better. But, with all this water around, it does seem as if things might be kept cleaner!”

“As I may have remarked before,” said the Liturgiologist, lapsing into this platform manner, “the rubrics require cleanliness. The linens are to be ‘decenter munda,’[7] and I’d have you notice especially, that the Ritus Servandus apparently, nay almost certainly, requires a clean purificator for each Mass. We’ve gotten woefully careless about this, I know, and most of us use the same purificator for a week, though we’d have something to say to the housekeeper if she didn’t change the table napkins oftener than that.”

“How many purificators did you bring with you, Pere? was the Antiquary’s mild query.
“Two, if you have to know,” snapped the Liturgiologist. “Necessity knows no rubrics!”




1 For more about antependiums, see The Liturgical Altar and A Guide for Altar and Sanctuary. You can also listen to the LARL shows, The Vesture of the Altar and Visualizing the Altar Decorated.

2 Latin for “Mass, Mass”.

3 Strictly speaking, only a bishop may vest at the altar itself; this is actually a pontifical prerogative.

4 See the articles, On the Dialogue Mass, for more information about this topic.


5 See this YouTube video of a Mass being offered on a rolling ship (at Iwo Jima) during World War II.

6 Oilcloth was made from linen or cotton and coated with boiled linseed oil to waterproof it.

7 Latin for “fittingly clean”.

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