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Submissa voce


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 34


Steelburg,[1] on the direct route of the “Scoot” homeward bound, live up to its reputation for dinginess by adding torrential rains to its already murky atmosphere. But the hospitable cathedral rectory, where our two friends foregathered with the Pastor (who had been in the seminary with one of them and in college with the other) made up by its cheer for the gloom outside, and the combination disarranged the schedule so that the little visit ran into days instead of hours as had been planned.


There is something about a group of priests, old and young, all working hard and enjoying it, and congenial among themselves, which no other social environment can furnish. A certain unanimity about the things that matter, a frank recognition of limitations, an almost painful desire to make outsiders feel at home, plus the ready Irish wit, the German thoroughness, the Polish verve, the French vivacity, all brought out and strengthened by the American spirit, which even in the second generation is more than a veneer; these are but a few of the elements which enter into the making of clerical companionship, and all of them were present to the nth degree in the Steelburg group. The bishop, middle aged and frankly enjoying the company of his priests, dropped in for dinner, and, as the country newspaper would say, a pleasant time was had by all.


There were other guests, for the house was large and noted for its open door, which was always on the latch even for burglars; so there were many Masses. The Antiquary, at the High Altar, noted the subdued buzzing, and bethought himself of Browning’s phrase “the blessed mutter of the Mass.”[2] But the Liturgiologist, at a side altar, was annoyed and, true to form, broke out at breakfast with, “Have you had your retreat in this diocese yet, Fathers?”


“Indeed we have,” said the Irish Pastor, “and a good one it was, too. Broke through the old and bad custom of abstaining from Mass during retreat, and everybody availed himself of the opportunity. Took a note out of the Eucharistic Congress book, and everybody was able to get through by breakfast time at eight o’clock. Must have had about fifteen or twenty altars all over the seminary building. Most edifying, I beg to remark.”


“Must have been the Liturgiologist. “I trust you all followed St. Charles’[3] advice and read over the rubrics; otherwise so many, all saying Mass at once must have resulted in some slight confusion.”


“Now, Pere,” interjected the Antiquary mildly, “you mustn’t get off the old one about ‘stage whispers.”


“Why not?” countered the Liturgiologist. “A little fraternal advice will do these young Fathers no harm, nor the old ones either. I am referring,” including the company in a sweeping gesture, “to the noisy way some of you say Mass, and I intend to be as offensive as possible!”


Cries of “Oh, Father,” and “Retract it, Pere,” interrupted him. Fr. Cracowviacski,[4] just out of the seminary that Spring (who knew only enough Polish to read the Gospel occasionally in his home parish church, and hear children’s confessions, and spoke English with the brogue of a “Far Downer”[5]), blushed and apologized for having disturbed the old priest at the next altar.


“It isn’t that I was disturbed, Father,” said the Liturgiologist, somewhat mollified by the soft answer. “But as I travel with my ancient friend here, I note a general disregard of the rubrics which govern the tones of voice prescribed for the different parts of Holy Mass. It cannot be ignorance, so I fear it is carelessness. But to say the formula of Consecration in what my friend aptly calls a ‘stage whisper’ is most unliturgical to say nothing of sinful.”**


A general remonstrance broke out in the group, but the Pastor quelled it with, “O’Callaghan, following Zualdi,[6] distinctly states that the obligation of varying the voice in accordance with the rubrics binds under the pain of sin, at least venial, though some few falsely suppose that such rubrics perceptive.[7] We had him in the seminary, his book I mean, and the Prof. stressed this point in his classes, and ignored it at that altar! I’m glad our genial guest has brought the matter up, for it saves me making invidious remarks to my excellent curates.”**


**RP COMMENT: the laity should not presume to correct the clergy in such matters, nor form a negative judgment against a priest should he omit any observance of these rubrics. Such a matter—which may not even be venial—should be left to moral theologians.


“Genial guest, is good,” chuckled the Antiquary. “But his bark, is worse than his bite.”


“You think so,” burst forth the Liturgiologist in mock indignation. “Very well, then I’ll bite. There were four of us saying Mass at once this morning. You were at the high altar, and I at the second side altar in the transept. Yet I distinctly hear your Nobis quoque which you said in as clear a voice as you read the Gospel. Now that is one of the phrases which the directions tell us to say elata aliquantulum voce.[8] Next to the loud whisper which can be heard all over a small church, it is in the neglect of the medium voice that most priests offend most frequently. Perhaps it’s because it occurs so seldom, only the Orate fratres, the Sanctus, Nobis quoque and Domine non sum dignus being said thus, and possibly the formula for the distribution of Holy Communion.”


“But,” said Fr. Baumgarten,[9] breaking silence for the first time, “is not your point, dear Father, that a number of priests saying Mass at the same time and in the same church, should so moderate their tones as not to disturb each other?”


“The general rubric (Rub. Gen. tit. 16, n. 2) was doubtless my point of departure,” answered the Liturgiologist, with equal gravity. (“Once get him started and you can’t tell where he’ll end up,” interjected the Antiquary, in slightly more than a moderate voice!) “But my real contention is that we are bound to observe these modulations of tone even when celebrating alone. Naturally, if others are occupied in the same way, good manners, to say nothing of liturgical propriety, would dictate a lower tone for the whole Mass. But even so, the relative tones should be observed. It is not necessary, as Fortescue remarks, that all the people understand and hear what is being read, even when there is only one priest saying Mass for the congregation. This is for the clara voce.[10] The rule for the medium voice is that the server and those near the altar are to hear it. The secret voice of course, is so low a whisper that none but the priest may distinguish the words. Perhaps in a certain anxiety to give solemnity to the act, many priests whisper the Consecration so audibly that not only the server, but everyone within proximity to the altar hears it distinctly. There can hardly be a good excuse for this abuse, since every liturgical author mentions it.” “I think perhaps,” said Fr. Vivaux,[11] “it may be that we too seldom remind ourselves of these minute points of liturgy. Here is one, for example, where there may be a matter of venial sin during the celebration of Holy Mass. Surely we do not want that. I am glad you reminded us of it.”


“I should mind my own business,” began the Liturgiologist, contritely.


“But, surely, this is your business!” said the American-Frenchman.


Minutiae,”[12] this from the pastor, “can never be small matters to the devout priest. With others they should be points of professional pride. And, surely, if the Liturgiologist dropped in on us, and left without calling our attention to something wrong with us, he wouldn’t be the Liturgiologist.”


“Having ridden my hobby, I’ll now prepare to ride my ‘Scoot,’ said that somewhat flustered person.


“I think not,” dryly remarked the Antiquary. “It’s pouring, and I’ve no mind to drive through Johnstown with a possible flood in sight!”[13]



1 Perhaps referring to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, once a steel-making center that was a multi-ethnical archdiocesan see.


2 Robert Browning (1812-1889) was an Englishman and poet of the Victorian age, who wrote a rather famous poem, "The Bishop Orders His Tomb". After recounting how the bishop describes how his tomb should be built, His Excellency then imagines aloud what his body will witness after his burial in which the Antiquary’s line is found:


And then how I shall lie through centuries,

And hear the blessed mutter of the Mass,

And see God made and eaten all day long,

And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste

Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!

For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,

Dying in state and by such slow degrees,

I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,

And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,

And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop

Into great laps and folds of sculptor's-work.


3 St. Charles Borromeo, who wrote several treatises on liturgical matters.


4 Obviously a play on words to name a Polish priest by combining the city of Cracow with the Latin word “via” which is being used to join the popular Polish name-ending of “ski”.


5 That is, one from the city of Donegal in the Irish province of Ulster.


6 Referring to The Sacred Ceremonies of Low Mass written by Fr. Felix Zualdi, CM and edited by Fr. M. O’Callaghan, CM (Browne and Nolan, 1931). This work is often referenced by rubrical authors.


8 That is, a precept of law, and not merely a counsel. Cf. J.B. O'Connell in The Celebration of Mass: A Study of the Roman Missal (pp 19-21) for an excellent explanation of this important legal concept and how it can morally applies to the celebrant at Mass.


9 Latin for “in a slightly raised voice”.


10 Obviously the name of the German priest.


11 Latin for, “in a clear voice”—or one that can be easily heard by those throughout the church.


12 The French priest’s name.


13 Latin for “small details”.


14 A reference to the infamous Johnstown Flood of 1899 which killed over 2200 people and practically wiped out the entire town.

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