Sunday, August 9, 2020

Is Bushido to Blame for the Bomb? On the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Left: Emperor Taisho in the regalia of the Order of the Garter.  Right: mushroom cloud over Nagasaki.

Today marks 75 years when the United States dropped an atomic bomb over Nagasaki, instantly wiping at least 40,000 people off the face of the earth. Together with the destruction of Hiroshima three days prior, the Showa Emperor was shocked into announcing Japan's total surrender over the radio. The vast majority of Japanese citizens had never before heard his voice.

Debate over whether the bomb was necessary to defeat Japan raged almost immediately after the smoke cleared, becoming an American tradition in itself. Today, a "pro" argument on social media usually takes a form like this:

"My grandfather was on a boat heading for Japan. You have to understand, back in those days, the Japanese considered it cowardly to surrender, so they threw themselves in countless suicide attacks against the boys in Okinawa, shouting 'Banzai!' Even the kids were sharpening bamboo sticks at home, ready to fight to the death in the Emperor's name. A land invasion would have cost a million or more American lives. Without the bomb, I wouldn't even be around to tell you this story."

Without a doubt, the Japanese soldier's fanatical devotion captivated the American public as much as it terrified them. If an American knows any words from the Japanese language at all, they're usually in relation to their fearsome warrior ethics: Banzai. Kamikaze. Seppuku. And the catch-all word for this ethos was Bushido: the way of the warrior, as handed down from the samurai ruling class of Japan's Middle Ages. 

And yet, this wasn't the west's sole impression of Japan at war. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Japanese were acclaimed worldwide by the Red Cross for their humane treatment of Russian prisoners of war. And again, during the First World War, the greatest act of chivalry aside from the Christmas Truce of 1914 was when German POW's at Bando camp performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for the first time ever in Japan. Many Germans were so impressed by the Japanese way of life that they stayed behind at the war's end.

So, what went wrong? How much of the Japanese army's suicidal zeal from World War II was truly inherited from the samurai tradition, and how much was a product of modern nationalism? Would the samurai of old have committed such mindless rape and pillage of the kind seen in Nanking, or was this a freak occurrence of a 20th century fascist state?

Samurai through the western lens

In 1951, just a decade after Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment camps in the United States, the samurai film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa was released in America. It even received an Academy Award, and thanks to the samurai fever of the 1950's, Kurosawa grew to be the inspiration for the next generation of directors. Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorcese all can be quoted as mentioning Kurosawa as one of their greatest influences. Seven Samurai (1954) is still hailed by critics as one of the greatest movies of all time.

For my own generation, our understanding of Japan's mythical warriors is informed largely by The Last Samurai (2003). I saw it in theaters with my father as a teenager, and it helped stir me on a path of lifelong interest in history. The movie spins a tale of an American Army officer (played by Tom Cruise) who's captured by rebel samurai during the Meiji Restoration in 1876 and taught bushido, eventually allying himself with them against the forces of modernization--as represented by the plutocratic advisors manipulating the Emperor, and a conscript army with modern weapons. We must admit that the character of Captain Algren definitely plays the "white saviour" trope to the hilt, and it has additional value today for Americans who feel alienated by their own culture; Algren sympathizes with the rebel samurai, largely in thanks to his own PTSD from having joined in exterminations of Indian tribes back home. (As an aside, the parallels that can be drawn from The Last Samurai to the crisis of the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council are endless, especially in relation to "loyal opposition" groups like the Society of Saint Pius X under Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.)

Interest in samurai culture has further enjoyed a boost just this past month with the release of the video game Ghost of Tsushima, where the player takes the role of a samurai during the Mongol invasion of 1274: the last time the samurai truly defended Japan from foreign invaders in history. I've been playing it myself, and can already tell it'll be acclaimed Game of the Year. It masterfully captures the beauty of the islands, and all the mystique of feudal Japan as though you were directing your own Kurosawa movie. (There is even a "Kurosawa mode" which renders the game in the same kind of grainy black-and-white tones as Kurosawa's older films, with vintage film sound effects to boot.) The game does have a Japanese audio track, feels authentic, and is a solid hit in Japan, but it's actually made by an American studio. I believe as westerners, we're naturally drawn to the nobility of a ruling warrior class like the samurai, in whom we can see reflections of our own ideals of knighthood inherited from the Middle Ages in Europe.

But for the discerning history enthusiast, none of these samurai portrayals have a solid basis in reality. In the cases of Kurosawa films or video games like Ghost of Tsushima, this isn't much of a problem because they're set in the distant past, have a legendary quality to the storytelling, and don't take themselves too seriously. The Last Samurai is a bit more troublesome since it takes place much closer to our own time and lends itself more to an impression of being "inspired by true events". And as much as I like the film as a story, it's a poor representation of what really happened in Japan during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877.

Far from being the singular revolt of one charismatic traditionalist's tribe, the Rebellion was more akin to a civil war between a majority of samurai who accepted (even welcomed) the Meiji Restoration and assimilated themselves into its leadership, and a minority of samurai who were disgruntled by the loss of their social privileges and government stipends under the shogunate government. The province of Satsuma effectively seceded from the imperial state that year, and when they rebels went toe-to-toe against the Imperial army, the imperials were hardly a horde of peasant conscripts. Many of them were samurai themselves, fighting side-by-side with professional soldiers drawn from the common classes. As history, The Last Samurai would have done better to draw an analogy to the Confederate States during the American Civil War instead of native American tribes. As it is, some people in Japan regard The Last Samurai as a kind of "Lost Cause" mythologizing which papers over the less savory aspects of the rebels' motives. 

Woodblock of the Satsuma Rebellion by Toshinobu

The rebellion's leader in real life, Saigo Takamori (the basis for the character of Katsumoto in the movie), was mortally woudned in battle. His supporters claimed he committed seppuku, although no accounts actually describe any abdomen wounds to his body. Full acts of traditional seppuku (with a self-delivered act of disembowelment) were rare by this time. Nonetheless, many Japanese people accepted the legend at face value and felt that Saigo was "the last true samurai", having died as a martyr to his own code of conduct. The Emperor found it more expedient to pardon Saigo's family and declare Saigo a hero, even though the Imperial Army suffered about 15,000 casualties. There are statues and other monuments to Saigo around the country, as there are in the United States to Robert E. Lee. Saigo Takamori's posthumous reputation as a martyr for the "old ways" would have serious repercussions as the Japanese government faced destabilization in the 1930's.

Statue of Saigo Takamori and his loyal dog in Ueno Park, Japan. It was unveiled in 1898.


The real history of the samurai

You'll notice that up to now, I've hardly said a word about Bushido. In truth, the word Bushido hardly appears at all in Japanese literature until the turn of the 20th century, decades after the samurai class was formally abolished. Reaching back into the 1300's for a standardized code of conduct among feudal Japan's warrior class would be futile, since it didn't exist. One of the few surviving texts from this era is the Twenty-One Articles (read here) written by Hojo Soun, a former general and daimyo (lord) who became a monk in retirement. House rules like this were practical in nature, as can be seen from the excerpts below:

Precept 1: "Above all, believe in the gods and Buddhas."

Precept 10: "When one has been addressed by the master, even though he is seated at a distance he should quickly answer, 'Yes!' draw forward immediately approaching on his knees, and make his response with full respect. He should thereupon quickly withdraw, prepare his answer, and relate the facts as they are. One should not make a display of one's own wisdom. Moreover, according to the circumstances, when one is considering how best to give an answer, he should consult with a man who is adroit at speech. It is a matter of not pushing through one's own personal opinion."

Precept 13: "When one is going by the place where the elders are in attendance to the master, he should stoop a bit and place his hands to the ground as he passes. To be without deference and simply stamp through the area would be outrageously rude. To be a samurai is to be polite at all times."

And finally, Precept 21: "It is hardly necessary to record that both Learning and the military arts are the Way of the Warrior, for it is an ancient law that one should have Learning on the left and the martial arts on the right. But this is something that will not be obtainable if one has not prepared for it beforehand."

Nevertheless, the history of war in Japan through the 16th century is riddled with examples of samurai engaging in cunning, deceit, and even betrayal in the form of armies switching sides in the midst of battle. To be fair, this isn't any different than what England's knights did during the Wars of the Roses. (The Tudor dynasty would never have happened if Lord Stanley's army didn't abandon Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.) But the famed virtue of loyalty was more an aspiration than a rigidly lived reality.

Likewise, we who grew up with samurai cinema think of the katana as the extension of a warrior's soul. But before the 16th century, the samurai's preferred weapon was actually the bow, with the sword as a backup in case the enemy got too close. The preeminence of the sword came with the Sengoku Jidai: the Era of Warring States. Warfare escalated to the point of introducing peasant conscripts for the first time. Where the samurai were once the only warriors, now they had to reform their manners to become officers over common men. Now, the samurai's sword--an expensive weapon requiring years to master--became the badge of distinction between a true warrior and a peasant armed with a stick (or, briefly through western trade, a gun).

Samurai of the Sengoku Jidai: the Era of Warring States

Tokugawa Ieyasu
These constant wars finally came to their end in 1600 under the firm rule of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Tokugawa shogunate inaugurated Japan's longest ever period of peace--200 years--at a steep price. Ieyasu reined in the daimyo of the rival clans through a system not too dissimilar from Louis XIV of France's Versailles. The daimyo were required to spend alternate years attending the shogun's court in Edo. The rest of the time, they could attend to their lands, but they were required to leave their family members behind as (lavishly treated) hostages. Their retainers, the samurai, became a legally protected, hereditary class. The Tokugawa banned commoners from carrying swords, so they became exclusively a status symbol for the samurai. For two centuries, the samurai had no one to fight, but were also legally forbidden from engaging in common jobs like farming or trade. They lived on state pensions... which eventually was recognized by the common people as a drain on their economy, and a reason why the abolition of the samurai class under the Meiji Restoration was popular, even among the more ambitious of the samurai themselves.

Even as the shoguns kept foreign "barbarians" out of Japan, they maintained a strict adherence to shushigaku (neo-Confucian social doctrine), which is, of course, an import from China. Neo-Confucianism was the humanist philosophy which the shoguns used to tame the samurai into a scholarly class, like the mandarins of China. Where the teachings of Zen Buddhism emphasized unreality and the impermanence of life, neo-Confucianism stressed reality and reason. The samurai were to dedicate themselves to letters, poetry, and refinement. The Japanese tea ceremony crystallized to its present form during these long years of peace. Notably, the shogunate outlawed the ancient practice of junshi ("following the lord in death"): that is, the custom of samurai committing suicide after the death of their lords.

"Night Attack of the 47 Ronin" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

The 47 Ronin

The struggle to adhere to neo-Confucianism led to one of the most widely retold stories in Japanese theatre and cinema: the Ako vendetta, or the revenge of the 47 ronin. The short version of this story is that in 1701, a high-ranking court official by the name of Kira was assigned by the shogun to instruct Asano, the lord of Ako, in court etiquette for an upcoming reception for envoys of the Emperor. For reasons lost to history, Kira caused some offense to Asano which prompted Asano to assault him... but to have even gone so far as to draw swords in the shogun's palace was enough to merit the death penalty. Because he had struck the shogun's official within his own palace, Asano was ordered to commit suicide and his family was removed from power. His 300 samurai weren't assigned a new master, so they became ronin: leaderless.

Photo of a samurai taken in the 1860's.
To be ronin was to stand completely outside of Japan's class system. It was, in some ways, worse than being a peasant. And so, 47 of the 300 ronin vowed to take revenge. For two years, under a careful ruse of appearing to be drunkards and layabouts to the outside world, they plotted to infiltrate Kira's heavily fortified residence and assassinate him. After carrying out their plot and beheading Kira (with strict orders not to harm any civilians and put out any fires), they left Kira's head on their master's tomb and dutifully surrendered themselves to the authorities. The shogun was at a loss for how to punish them, since they had indeed, according to the old ways, properly avenged their lord and offered themselves to his justice. Rather than executing them like common criminals, he allowed the 47 ronin to commit seppuku and to be buried with their master, always serving him in death as they had in life. Perhaps more importantly, their example moved the shogun to restore Lord Asano's heirs to their castle and titles, and allow the other 253 ronin to return to their positions as samurai. The story of the 47 was acted out time and again in kabuki theater (with names and dates changed to circumvent the Tokugawa laws against dramatizing current events). It became almost a tradition for the Japanese to debate the motives and morality of the 47 ronin's actions, but for the most part, they were regarded as heroes whose act of self-sacrifice restored balance to the world order.

One notable critic was a samurai clerk who lived during the Ako event, Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Some years after the 47 ronin committed seppuku, Yamamoto wrote Hagakure ("Hidden Leaves"): a series of maxims and informal conversations on how to bravely accept death, as well as a lament on the weakening of the samurai with lingering nostalgia for a time before the author was born, when the samurai's purpose was clear. Many passages within could easily be adapted for a modern self-help book. For example: "In offering one’s opinion, one must first ascertain whether or not the recipient is in the right frame of mind to receive counsel."

But other passages reveal the anxiety of a samurai who questions his own purpose. Yamamoto's master was opposed to the practice of junshi and made it clear to his retainers that they were not to commit suicide after he died. Yamamoto was forbidden from junshi, forbidden from fighting duels, kept from glory on the battlefield by the long peace. He perhaps regretted not being able to live out a true warrior's career like his distant ancestors had. Of the 47 ronin, he criticized them not because they took revenge and assassinated the man who caused their master's death... but because they spent a year meticulously planning it. He asks, "What if, nine months after Asano's death, Kira had died of an illness?" The more honorable thing in Yamamoto's eyes would have been for the 47 to have immediately avenged their lord's death on the spot with a last stand, even if they were sure to fail. Success, to Yamamoto, is completely beside the point. The honor is in having made a stance and choosing to accept death with indifference.

To be clear, this was a minority view. One could argue a certain parallel between Yamamoto's sentiments and those of alt-rightists today who are frustrated by their lack of acting out masculinity in an increasingly soft, decadent world. But in any case, Hagakure was not widely read in Yamamoto's own lifetime. Rather, it was rediscovered in the 20th century and incorporated into military indoctrination of the 1930's. Eventually, fighter pilots wore headbands inscribed with passages from Hagakure, inspiring them to perform kamikaze attacks on American ships.

Defining bushido for western eyes

As you may know, the long Edo period of peace ended abruptly when Commodore Perry's gunboat diplomacy forced Japan to open its harbors to western trade in 1854. The event exposed the shogunate as not only weak, but complicit in holding back Japan's technological development by 200 years. It was the impetus for an alliance of forward-thinking samurai, together with wealthy commoners, to form an alliance to overthrow the shogunate by appealing to the concept of restoring the Emperor to true sovereignty: the Meiji Restoration. Western experts (like those represented by Captain Algren in The Last Samurai) were paid handsomely to teach Japan western industry, science, and military arts. By 1900, the Japanese military had joined western colonial powers as an ally of the Eight-Nation Alliance to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China. But Japan's traditional warrior culture remained a mystery to their new western friends.

In 1900, a Japanese expatriate in America, Inazo Nitobe, wrote the book Bushido: The Soul of Japan for the express purpose of explaining his homeland's elusive culture to western readers. Nitobe was perfectly poised for the task: his father was a samurai, but Nitobe himself was a Christian convert, studied at Johns Hopkins in Maryland and Wittenberg in Germany, published books in both English and German, and even married an Anglo-American woman. Bushido was originally written in English in Malvern, Pennsylvania (not far from where I live). Nitobe strove to compare the Japanese spirit favorably in terms readily understandable to his audience:

"The Japanese word which I have roughly rendered Chivalry, is, in the original, more expressive than Horsemanship. Bu-shi-do means literally Military-Knight-Ways—the ways which fighting nobles should observe in their daily life as well as in their vocation; in a word, the 'Precepts of Knighthood,' the noblesse oblige of the warrior class."


"Bushido, then, is the code of moral principles which the knights were required or instructed to observe. It is not a written code; at best it consists of a few maxims handed down from mouth to mouth or coming from the pen of some well-known warrior or savant. More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten, possessing all the more the powerful sanction of veritable deed, and of a law written on the fleshly tablets of the heart. It was founded not on the creation of one brain, however able, or on the life of a single personage, however renowned. It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career. It, perhaps, fills the same position in the history of ethics that the English Constitution does in political history; yet it has had nothing to compare with the Magna Charta or the Habeas Corpus Act. True, early in the seventeenth century Military Statutes (Buké Hatto) were promulgated; but their thirteen short articles were taken up mostly with marriages, castles, leagues, etc., and didactic regulations were but meagerly touched upon. We cannot, therefore, point out any definite time and place and say, 'Here is its fountain head.' Only as it attains consciousness in the feudal age, its origin, in respect to time, may be identified with feudalism. But feudalism itself is woven of many threads, and Bushido shares its intricate nature. As in England the political institutions of feudalism may be said to date from the Norman Conquest, so we may say that in Japan its rise was simultaneous with the ascendency of Yoritomo, late in the twelfth century."


Bushido is a fantastic, and short, read. The whole text is available here. President Theodore Roosevelt distributed 60 copies of the book to his friends. He wrote, "Japan has much to teach the nations of the Occident, just as she has something to learn from them. I have long felt that Japan's entrance into the circle of the great civilized powers was of good omen for all the world."

Ironically for such an admirer of the samurai code, Nitobe had converted from Methodism to the strictly pacifist Quakerism while he lived in Pennsylvania. He eventually served as an under-secretary general for the newly formed League of Nations. Later in life, Nitobe took a seat in the House of Peers (the upper house of imperial Japan's Parliament), where he repeatedly condemned the nation's turn toward militarism and aggressive expansion. We can only speculate how he would reacted to the atrocities of World War II. He died in 1933.

Prince Arthur (the third son of Queen Victoria) investing Emperor Meiji with the Order of the Garter in 1906

Nonetheless, Nitobe was responsible for jumpstarting a whole series of works on bushido in the west, which in turn were adopted by Japanese themselves and incorporated into their growing sense of nationalist spirit. This body of literature proved quite useful in Japan's efforts to be accepted as the first non-European great power of the modern world. In 1902, Great Britain established a military alliance with Japan: their first since the Napoleonic Wars. Emperor Meiji was given the Order of the Garter, and the chrysanthemum banner was hung in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. 

The chrysanthemum banner of the Emperor of Japan on the right, third from the back, in the above photo of St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, together the banners of the other Knights of the Garter.


A Japanese Red Cross mission caring for Russian prisoners-of-war

Japan as a world power

In 1905, Japan shocked the world by soundly defeating Russia in open warfare, to the point of sinking two out of three of Russia's fleets. The Russo-Japanese War marked the first time a western power was ever defeated by a non-western military in modern history. The conduct of the Japanese army here bore little resemblance to what would later take place on the Railway of Death in Burma (retold in sanitized form by movies like "Bridge on the River Kwai"). Russians at the prisoner-of-war camp at Matsuyama were treated quite well. Official Japanese policy was to insist upon treating POW's with honor. Medical care was equal to that given to Japanese themselves. They were offered beef to accommodate their accustomed diet (even though beef was rare in Japan then). Russian officers were allowed to keep their sidearms and occasionally offered vodka. Japan was commended by the Red Cross for their humanity shown to over 80,000 Russian POW's. Some Russians even stayed behind at the war's end to start families with the nurses who cared for them in captivity.

German POW's at the Kurume camp, 1915. The camp officer, Yamamoto Shigeru, who was fluent in German, joins in celebrating the Kaiser's birthday.

The Japanese again showed humanity during the First World War in their treatment of a thousand German POW's at Bando camp. Drawn into the conflict by their alliance with Britain, Japan largely contented itself to seizing Germany's colony in China and sitting out for the rest. Mindful to keep their reputation from the Russo-Japanese War intact, the POW's at Bando were kept as comfortable as possible. The commander, Toyohisa Matsue, was a descendant of a samurai family that joined in the failed rebellion against Meiji. He allowed the POW's to run their own bakery and newspaper, send mail back to Germany with free postage, and even permitted them outside the camp to interact with local townspeople of Tokushima. Most notably, many of the Germans were musically gifted. The Japanese allowed them to flourish by forming three orchestras and several other smaller bands. One June 1, 1918, the POW's performed the first-ever rendition of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony anywhere in Japan. With the end of the war, 63 Germans decided to stay behind. And even some who returned to Germany kept up correspondence with their former guards.

German POW officers together with their Japanese captors at Marugame camp

A Punch cartoon illustrating the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The quote from Rudyard Kipling is cited positively here. Only a few years before, he had written the poem "The White Man's Burden" as a call to civilize the Philippines.


From bushido to brutality

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Japan proposed an amendment to the Treaty of Versailles--the document formally ending World War I--called the "Racial Equality Proposal". The draft text would have amended Article 21 to say:

"The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality."

The Proposal was part of a larger campaign by Japan to achieve fairer treatment by Japanese emigrants to other countries. In 1907, for instance, Japan used its status as a favored nation to broker the "gentleman's agreement" with Teddy Roosevelt, ending segregation of Japanese children in Californian public schools. Many of the League of Nations members were actually in support of Japan's proposal. But Australia's prime minister, Billy Hughes, was committed to maintaining the "White Australia" policy and threatened to walk out of the conference if the proposal was adopted. Woodrow Wilson, despite being the architect of the League of Nations, was afraid of losing the support of the Democrats in the solid South if the proposal was passed. (The US was, during the Red Summer of 1919, going through some of the worst race riots in its history.) And so, although 11 of the 17 delegates voted "yes" and no one actually voted "no", Wilson used his position as president of the Conference to require a unanimous vote for approval. It proved to be for nought, as Congress still refused to ratify the treaty.

Hara Takashi, the first Christian Prime Minister of Japan
The quashed proposal was widely reported in Japanese media, stirring resentment and a sense of betrayal. Many Japanese felt that their nation had done everything right in war and peace to be accepted as a premier world power, but still couldn't shake off the "yellow peril" prejudice. Two years later, the British and Japanese allowed their alliance to expire, leading Japan to drift further away from the west. In 1924, the US banned all immigration from Asia, including from Japan. This racial resentment, combined with economic and labor problems suffered throughout the world during the 1920's, proved a volatile mix for the rise of the military junta that would seize control and lead Japan into World War II. In these intervening years, the office of Prime Minister became the most dangerous job on earth. Hara Takashi (the first Christian Prime Minister of Japan--a Catholic convert at age 17) was assassinated in 1921. Two more PM's and numerous other high officials were assassinated over the next decade, with only the mildest punishments given to the killers. Assassins and coup leaders sometimes justified themselves by appealing to the example of Saigo Takamori, the leader of the Satsuma Rebellion, thus winning the support of the public and flooding the government with petitions for clemency. Hirohito had found that his grandfather, Meiji, had set a dangerous precedent in posthumously declaring Saigo a hero. Far from adhering to a strict hierarchy, the parliamentary government lost all control of the military to renegade officers in Manchuria by 1932.

Coinciding with the rise in nationalism was the state's adoption of Shinto as a government-sponsored national philosophy which supplanted neo-Confucianism (now frowned upon as foreign) and which transcended mere religion (including Buddhism). One of the central tenets of state Shinto was, of course, worship of the Emperor as a descendant of the gods. In truth, the phrase "Meiji Restoration" is misleading since that movement didn't just restore the Emperor's political power that had been lost in past centuries to the shogun; it gave the Emperor a power in both the spiritual and secular planes which he had never had before. It was necessary for the modernizers of Japan to overthrow the shogun by appealing to the Emperor's ultimate authority. Two generations later, the cult of the Emperor grew well out of proportion, becoming a frequent excuse for every kind of extra-judicial act imaginable. What had been a gift in the hands of a visionary leader like Meiji devolved into a curse under his weaker successors.

In the 1930's, with the Kwantung Army in Manchuria a law unto itself and the junta leaders conspiring to seize power in Tokyo, literature on bushido was divorced from its original context and reinterpreted to serve the cause of the militarists. Where Japan had previously been renowned for its honorable conduct in war, now a twisted version of "imperial bushido" was the order of the day: one marked by its focus on dying like a shattered jewel (gyokusai) in the Emperor's service, without reference to counter-balancing virtues like benevolence or rectitude. Part of this indoctrination was, of course, the reprinting of Hagakure as a model for common soldiers to aspire to. A passage in Nitobe's Bushido came true:

"Discipline in self-control can easily go too far. It can well repress the genial current of the soul. It can force pliant natures into distortions and monstrosities. It can beget bigotry, breed hypocrisy, or habituate affections."


Is bushido, then, to blame for Japanese brutality in World War II? Yes... and no. Our survey of Japanese history above has shown that the history of the samurai was complex, with many twists and turns over the centuries. The Sengoku Jidai (era of warring states) gave way to the Edo period (200 years of peace under the Tokugawa shoguns). Then, with the Meiji Restoration, the samurai class was abolished but the nationalist movement sought to adapt "bushido" as a code of conduct for all classes in Japanese society, not just the top. During Japan's first wars against western powers, in 1905 and 1914-1918, the Japanese military successfully showed the world that they could both defeat major western powers in combat, as well as show humanity and gentlemanly conduct to the vanquished.

But these were not enough to turn the tide of racist sentiment at the Paris Peace Conference and other trends of the 1920's. Resentment at being treated like a second-class power soured relations with Great Britain and the United States, and caused turmoil at home that led to a series of assassinations and coups. A faction of militarists took control of the state in the 1930's and made common cause with Nazi Germany. Just as Hitler appropriated "Volksgeist" to pervert certain aspects of traditional German culture for the sake of national socialism, the militarists of Japan promoted a selective view of traditional Japanese culture, under imperial "bushido", to expand the empire. But in reality, the war crimes of Japan during World War II have as much to do with the samurai as the Holocaust had to do with the Holy Roman Empire: nothing at all.

British General Claude Auchinleck holding up a katana after World War II.


Saturday, March 21, 2020

Praying the dry Mass: what to do in times of pestilence

A few nights ago, I attended a Liturgy of the Presanctified at the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral in Philadelphia: one of the last public Catholic liturgies in the entire region. After the final prayers, the Metropolitan himself gave a short homily explaining his decision to order a shutdown of all public worship in his archeparchy just two hours before. He said that the pandemic is an opportunity to enter more deeply into the Great Fast. Now, it would seem God is asking us to fast from even the liturgical life of the Church. Perhaps when public worship resumes, we'll no longer take its gifts for granted! Rather, we'll be able to unite our temporary deprivations with those Christians in China, North Korea, and other parts of the world where a lack of liturgy and sacraments is simply part of their everyday lives.

Until that day comes, what do we do? The specific act of hearing Mass on Sundays may be a precept of the Church (and, therefore, adjustable by the bishops), but the larger principle of setting aside one day of the week to rest and honor God is a divine commandment. The Bishop of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, to which I belong, has carefully chosen to "commute" the Sunday obligation to alternative acts of prayer at home, rather than dispense with it altogether. Until we return to normal, he gave his flock two options:
a. Prayerful reflection upon the Sunday Scripture readings, concluding that time by the recitation of the Prayer of Humble Access or the Anima Christi;
b. The recitation of the Rosary as a family.
Modern technology has given us an aid to option a: namely, that with rudimentary equipment, anyone can set up a broadcast of a private Mass for an entire community to watch from a distance. It's rather like a more advanced method of what St Charles Borromeo when the plague of 1576 ravaged his see of Milan. The archbishop ordered the shutdown of churches, but after the streets were cleared, he had altars set up at street intersections so that the people could hear Mass from their windows. This isn't an option today for those of us who don't live in dense European cities, a livestream is easy to set up and gives us visual evidence that the holy sacrifice still goes on behind closed doors, and is still efficacious even without our physical presence. Last week, I assisted my pastor with recording and singing for a simple sung votive Mass for the Sick in the Ordinariate Use--just the priest, with the aid of one server and one cantor--which may be seen on YouTube below. Additionally, starting this Sunday, we will provide livestreams of Sunday Masses using the same general format until it's safe to congregate again. The link to the first livestream, set for Laetare Sunday, is here.

Another method to help in fulfilling option a is more old-school: the use of the medieval "dry Mass" as a devotional tool. What's that, you ask? The term missa sicca--"dry Mass"--has several meanings. The most common today would be the act of practicing the motions of Mass by a deacon or seminarian studying to be ordained a priest. Another meaning is more of a historic usage: when a priest celebrates a liturgy that strongly resembles Mass, but without the offertory or consecration. In the medieval Church, priests sometimes used the dry Mass as a devotion because of the old prohibition against offering Mass in the afternoon (one which continued until the 1950's). Sometimes this would be abused. The missa venatoria ("hunter's Mass") was prayed for gentlemen in a hurry to go on the hunt. The missa nautica ("sailor's Mass"), on the other hand, was quite sensible. Missionary priests on ships to the Americas or Asia would go for months without celebrating a true Mass because of the risk of the Precious Blood spilling over during tosses and turns on the high seas. 

Michael Lofton, author of the Reason & Theology blog, has cleverly adapted a form of the medieval "dry Mass", inspired by a form used by the medieval Carthusian monks, for modern family use. Click on the link below to view the .pdf file he printed, which I encourage you to print out. You'll see that you can easily add in the Scripture lessons of the day.

Finally, a word on option b above: the Rosary is, of course, the most revered private devotion of the western Church. Pope Pius V led its recitation during a procession in Rome to pray for victory against the Turks prior to the 1571 Battle of Lepanto. More recently, this past Thursday, Pope Francis called for the whole Church to join in the Rosary (broadcast from Rome) to pray for a swift end to the coronavirus pandemic. It's an excellent devotion, especially for Catholic families who want nothing more than straightforwardly kneeling and making earnest supplication to the mother of God.

But for those seeking more, we can pause to reflect that the Rosary is called the "Psalter of Mary" because the full recitation is traditionally 150 Aves, in imitation of the 150 Psalms of David. It's a simpler way of praying the Psalter, which--in its fullest form--is prayed through the Divine Office, also called the Liturgy of the Hours. Where this liturgy is all too often mistakenly considered simply the obligation and domain of priests, these upcoming Sundays without access to the Mass might give the lay faithful an opportunity to consider how to make the praying of the Hours a part of their home life, at least on an occasional basis. 

As with the livestreaming of Mass, modern technology has made this aspect of liturgy more accessible than ever. Rather than buying expensive books and having to learn how to mark and turn the pages, apps like iBreviary do all the work for you. There are even choices in which form of the Office to use beyond just that of the reformed Roman Rite. For instance, Divinum Officium offers several iterations of the pre-conciliar Roman Office in Latin and various translations. Or for those who enjoy Morning and Evening Prayer in the Anglican tradition, John Covert has a website set up to easily pray that form of the Office as well. It is used by many members of the Ordinariates.

In the coming days, I believe things will get worse before they get better. I hope the above information at least serves as a useful guide for alternative methods of worship on Sunday. Until then, you can be assured that the Modern Medievalist is as busy as ever, helping set up livestreams at various churches or assisting as part of the "skeleton crew" for these liturgies in the absence of the usual ministers. Stay strong, pray for me, and look out for one another!

In this portrait of St Thomas More's family (based on studies by Hans Holbein c.1527), almost all members are holding their own books of hours to pray the Office at home.
An Act of Spiritual Communion (as given in the St Gregory's Prayer Book)
"In Union, dear Lord, with the faithful at every altar of thy Church where thy blessed Body and Blood are being offered to the Father, I desire to offer thee praise and thanksgiving. I believe thou art truly present in the Most Holy Sacrament. And since I cannot now receive thee sacramentally, I beseech thee to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself unto thee, and embrace thee with all the affections of my soul. Let me never be separated from thee. Let me live and die in thy love. Amen."

The Prayer of Humble Access (said before Communion in the Ordinariate liturgy and BCP)
"We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen."

Anima Christi (by St Ignatius of Loyola)
"Soul of Christ, sanctify me. Body of Christ, save me. Blood of Christ, inebriate me. Water from the side of Christ, wash me. Passion of Christ, strengthen me. O good Jesus, hear me. Within Thy wounds hide me. Separated from Thee let me never be. From the malignant enemy, defend me. At the hour of death, call me. And close to Thee bid me. That with Thy saints I may be Praising Thee, forever and ever. Amen."

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Video: Sarum Vespers on Candlemas Eve

While posting on this blog has been slow, the Modern Medievalist has been hard at work. Today, the Modern Medievalism Facebook page exceeded 4,000 "likes". This has been partly due to new exposure over what many of you already know about: the Sarum Vespers which was celebrated last weekend at St Patrick's Church in Philadelphia. This historic occasion was attended by over 700 people, making it almost certainly the largest Sarum Use liturgy ever offered since the reign of Queen Mary I of England. Yours truly was the principal organizer of the event. I'm happy to say that its success has introduced me to deeper obligations: namely, the foundation of a new liturgical institute devoted to all forms of Catholic liturgy, but with special focus on the medieval uses, and those of the religious orders. The Durandus Institute for Sacred Liturgy & Music will likely demand more and more of my time; yet I hope to maintain this blog for more casual observations here and there.

A more detailed write-up of the Sarum Vespers will be posted on the New Liturgical Movement blog soon. In the meantime, I encourage you to watch the video of the Sarum Vespers below. If you open the link to YouTube, you'll find a detailed description with convenient timestamps for finding various sections of interest.

You are encouraged to follow the video with the congregational service booklet, which I designed and posted here.

Additionally, an official photo album may be found at this link.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Notre Dame: the power of a "mere building"

I've been remiss in updating my blog since Holy Week of last year--but I simply couldn't let the catastrophe of this week go by without comment! In 2011, I had the privilege of touring the great cathedral of the archdiocese of Paris: Notre Dame. Here, at the starting point of every major road in France, where Saint Louis commissioned the southern rose window and where Napoleon was crowned emperor, I marveled with my own eyes what I had previously idealized in books or New World imitation. True, I was annoyed by the chattering of tourists and the dust collected atop the many neglected side altars. Nevertheless, the faith of many generations before my own was still palpable. I imagined the thousands, or even millions of souls washed clean in baptism at the font. During Vespers, I had trouble following the French service, but when it came time to sing the Magnificat, we did so in Latin, and I sang it as well as anyone else in the congregation that evening. The canticle of Mary has special significance for this church dedicated to Our Lady. In 1944, French and American soldiers were led here by Charles de Gaulle to sing the Magnificat in thanksgiving for the liberation of Paris from the Nazis.

A barricade in front of Notre Dame during World War II.

On Monday of Holy Week, as the world watched helplessly while flames spewed from the roof of Notre Dame, I found myself immensely grateful to have seen the cathedral when I did. It seemed, for a moment, as though over eight centuries of history were about to disappear completely before our eyes. Then, after the five hundred members of the Paris Fire Brigade heroically extinguished the flames, the smoke parted to reveal the genius of the cathedral's first architects. Their names may be forever lost to time, but the vault held fast. The stones remain standing to pass its legacy of faith and awe to another generation.

A diagram of the damage, courtesy of

In hindsight, it's no wonder that Notre Dame's builders would have taken some precautions in the event of fire. In an age when the only man-made light was through torches, and where hundreds of candles burned inside the cathedral's walls on a daily basis, an outbreak of fire was likely considered not just probable, but inevitable. Few surviving structures from the Middle Ages have come to us without any signs of fire damage across the centuries. Notre Dame's own counterpart in London, St. Paul's Cathedral, was wiped out by the great fire of 1666, paving the way for Wren's Baroque mausoleum as we know it today. (The Palace of Westminster survived, only to be wiped out by another in 1834 and rebuilt by Barry and Pugin into the Gothic Revival masterpiece we see today.)

13,000 logs were cut down to support the great roof of Notre Dame. Most of the timber was original, and after eight centuries, had long aged into firewood. Nevertheless, Notre Dame was built in such a way that if (or when) the roof caught on fire, the walls would still hold and the flames would not easily spread to the entire structure. Based on photos, we can see that the spire is gone; but that was part of a Gothic Revival restoration by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc (who has, incidentally, been featured on the right hand of this blog since its debut). The original spire was already lost by the 18th century. But the pre-conciliar high altar and the pieta behind it, the great rose windows dating to Saint Louis, and even the pipe organ survived the inferno. We have a chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade (and former Fraternity of St. Peter priest), Father Jean-Marc Fournier, to thank for bravely rushing in to recover the Crown of Thorns, as well as the Blessed Sacrament. He even gave Benediction in the cathedral while it was still burning. For this and other acts of heroism under fire throughout his ministry (including surviving an ambush in Afghanistan while deployed as a military chaplain, and giving absolution to victims of the 2015 Bataclan music club massacre), Father Jean-Marc ought to be recommended for the Legion of Honour.
"The time when the fire attacked the northern bell tower and we started to fear losing it, was exactly the time when I rescued the Blessed Sacrament. And I did not want to simply leave with Jesus: I took the opportunity to perform a Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament.
Here I am completely alone in the cathedral, in the middle of burning debris falling down from the ceiling, I call upon Jesus to help us save His home.
It was probably both this and the excellent general maneuver of the firefighters that led to the stopping of the fire, the ultimate rescuing of the northern tower and subsequently of the other one.
We started Lent by imposing ashes and saying “remember you are dust”, and truly this was a miniature Lent: the Cathedral went to ashes, not to disappear, but to emerge stronger, as we Christians are, after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus-Christ." 
--Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain to the Paris Fire Brigade
The Crown of Thorns is encased in a reliquary commissioned by Napoleon, whose concordat assigned Notre Dame as its resting place. The Crown of Thorns previously resided in the Sainte-Chapelle nearby, but was secularized during the French Revolution.

Now that we can breathe a sigh of relief over Notre Dame's survival, it's worth reflecting: why does it matter in the first place? Yes, of course it's now recognized by most people around the world as a landmark heritage site. But during the Reformation, Huguenots attacked the cathedral as a house of idolatry, shattering windows and knocking down statues. Then, the Jacobins of the French Revolution identified Notre Dame as a power base of the old monarchy; in their foolishness, they cut off the heads of the statues above the main entrance to the cathedral, believing them to be old kings of France when they were really the ancestors of Christ. 

By the 1830's, there was talk of just tearing the old thing down completely until Victor Hugo published a certain famous book. The original novel was not actually called "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", nor was it principally about Quasimodo. Its true title is Notre Dame de Paris, its main character is the cathedral, and its purpose to stir the hearts of Frenchmen to the treasure in their midst. Hugo's efforts were directly responsible for the commissioning of Viollet-le-Duc to restore the crumbling Notre Dame to something of its former glory. In the spirit of the Gothic Revival led by Pugin in England, Viollet-le-Duc attempted to be faithful to the cathedral's Gothic origins, though his flights of fancy couldn't stop him from building a spire even taller than the one which came before.
"And who substituted for the ancient gothic altar, splendidly encumbered with shrines and reliquaries, that heavy marble sarcophagus, with angels' heads and clouds, which seems a specimen pillaged from the Val-de-Grâce or the Invalides? ... Fashions have wrought more harm than revolutions. They have cut to the quick; they have attacked the very bone and framework of art; they have cut, slashed, disorganized, killed the edifice, in form as in the symbol, in its consistency as well as in its beauty. And then they have made it over; a presumption of which neither time nor revolutions at least have been guilty." --Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, chapter 39
The Internet never lets us forget that the barbarians will always be with us. Hopefully you, dear reader, didn't find yourself subjected as I did to as many outrageous comments--whether by gloating Calvinists or leftist iconoclasts--rehashing the same clumsy attacks thrown by their ideological forebears of times past. They are the lashings-out of small minds, altogether less worthy of our notice than that of a single firefighter daring to answer the call of duty, to say nothing of a single peasant laying a brick of the original foundation as a labor of love and devotion, knowing he would never see the fruits of his work in his own lifetime. The naysayers' only purpose is a reminder for the rest of us to be vigilant. The gifts of civilization are not easily understood, much less appreciated, by everyone.

Viollet-le-Duc's restoration plans were much more ambitious than what he could actually achieve.
Above all, as nations and benefactors around the world pledge money and personnel to restore Notre Dame, the medievalists must continually remind them of the cathedral's first and highest purpose. Notre Dame is not just an icon of French culture (though it is that). Nor is it just a monument to the ingenuity of western civilization at large (though it is that too). Notre Dame was built by free laborers over the span of two centuries, most knowing they would never see it finished, to point the hearts of those within heavenward. Dead stones and trees were fashioned to worship the living God. The Parthenon may have long outlasted the cult of Athena, but the sacrifice of Christ was renewed on Notre Dame's altars daily right until the roof collapsed. Even the Temple of Solomon was built chiefly for the use of one race, but Notre Dame was always a house of prayer for all nations, inspiring imitations on every continent of the earth. 

A perfect story to illustrate Notre Dame's universal appeal: King Amon of Sanwi (in the Ivory Coast) just pledged to send a contribution, saying,
"the pictures disturbed my sleep and I could not spend the night, because this cathedral represents a strong link between my kingdom and France." 
His 17th century predecessors in Assinie sent Prince Aniaba to France to learn French ways. Aniaba was baptized at Notre Dame by Bishop Bossuet--his godfather was the Sun King himself. During his time in France, Aniaba was tutored alongside the Dauphin and made a cavalry officer, where he fought in the War of the League of Augsburg. Before returning to Assinie, he was invested as a Knight of the Star of Our Lady, again at Notre Dame.

Let's remind the world, then, that Notre Dame de Paris doesn't rightfully belong to Emmanuel Macron, or the billionaires who have pledged to restore the roof, or even the archbishop of Paris himself. They may try to remake the cathedral in their own image, but Notre Dame belongs to God and Our Lady. The archbishop of Paris and the people of France hold Notre Dame in trust for one reason: to call every man, from the lowliest serf to the most exalted emperor, to bend the knee in worship. In the words of the Virgin, "my soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour."

"Mass Said by the Canon de La Porte", by Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet. This seems to show the Parisian Rite of Mass (note the acolyte returning the chalice after Mass, and some servers wearing full-length albs). A 1766 Parisian Missal may be read here.

Some key events in Notre Dame's history: 

1160: the bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, has the old Romanesque cathedral torn down to make way for a Gothic structure like those in Saint-Denis and Sens. 
1163: Pope Alexander III and King Louis VII (the same who hosted Saint Thomas Becket during his exile) lay the cornerstone of the new cathedral. 
1260: Saint Louis IX commissions the south rose window. 94 medallions depict the life of Christ, the apostles, and patron saints of Paris. 
1302: King Philip "the Fair" convenes the three estates of the realm--the Estates General--for the first time. 
1345: the cathedral is considered complete, nearly two hundred years later. 
1431: during the Hundred Years' War, Henry VI of England is crowned King of France in Notre Dame as a response to the French King Charles VII's coronation at Reims (led by Joan of Arc). Henry was 10 years old, and was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey two years before.  
1548: Notre Dame is partially damaged by rioting Huguenots. 
1558: Mary, Queen of Scots is wed to the Dauphin at Notre Dame. 
1625: Princess Henrietta Maria is married by proxy to King Charles I of England outside the doors of Notre Dame. 
17th-18th century: the Sun King moves the royal court away from the masses of Paris to his father's hunting lodge in Versailles. Notre Dame is increasingly neglected as a site of royal events, and becomes seen more as a house of the people. However, Notre Dame nevertheless hosts the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. 
1793: during the Reign of Terror, Notre Dame is "rededicated" as a Temple of Reason. Sophie Momoro is enthroned over the cathedral's altar as "goddess of liberty". The cult of reason (and its successor, the cult of the Supreme Being) is short-lived, but the damage is done. Notre Dame is converted to a warehouse for the rest of the Revolutionary period. 
1802: Napoleon signs the Concordat, re-establishing the Catholic Church and restoring Notre Dame as an active church. Archbishop Jean-Baptiste de Belloy celebrates Mass (on Palm Sunday) for the first time at the cathedral's high altar in 12 years.  
1804: Pope Pius VII anoints Napoleon as Emperor of the French in one of the most expensive and elaborately staged coronation ceremonies in the history of the world. A new ceremony is drawn up, which combines elements from the Roman Pontifical, the ancient French ceremony at Reims, and some of Napoleon's own making. (Contrary to popular belief, Napoleon did not take the crown out the pope's hands to crown himself. He ascended the steps and took the crown from the high altar: an act which was approved and rehearsed beforehand.) Napoleon also crowns Josephine as empress, much to his mother's dismay. 
1831: Victor Hugo publishes Notre Dame de Paris, bringing a new level of cultural awareness to Notre Dame's significance. 
1844: spurred on largely by the success of Hugo's book, King Louis Philippe authorizes a restoration of the cathedral, led by Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. A new spire is added to replace the one lost in the 18th century. 
1944: French and American soldiers, led by Charles de Gaulle, converge at Notre Dame to celebrate the liberation of Paris. 
2013: a new grand bell is added to the tower as part of the cathedral's 850th anniversary celebrations.

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David really depicts the coronation of Josephine as empress. The pieta behind the high altar is partly seen on the right-hand side.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The glorious return of the boy choir

(Photo credit: Mitchell Mark)
 In 2014, I visited Mater Dei Parish in the Diocese of Dallas (the FSSP's largest apostolate in the US) for a Sunday Mass on my way to attend a concert by the world-famous Choir of Westminster Abbey, over at Incarnation Episcopal Church. I even took the occasion to write about the importance of men & boys' choirs on my blog afterward. Well, as Providence would have it, my focus returns to Dallas once again. I'm pleased to share with you--nay, shout "alleluia" across the rooftops--that the very same Mater Dei Church recently debuted its own choir of men and boys! This is, as far as I know, the only boys' choir dedicated to the traditional Latin Mass in the entire United States. The FSSP's efforts in Dallas here are an unqualified triumph for traditional liturgy and a beacon of inspiration for the rest of us around the world. 

To celebrate this advancement and share the news with my readers, I casually spoke on the phone with Mater Dei's associate music director and founder of the Men & Boys Choir program, Mr. Chase Fowler. Mr. Fowler (incidentally a longtime reader of this blog) began at Mater Dei in 2016. He has a highly liturgical spirit and knew very well that the perennial tradition of the Church, when it comes to sacred music, as constantly expounded upon by Saint Pius X and other popes and leaders of the liturgical movement, valued the schola cantorum of men and boys singing together as the ideal. While Mater Dei is blessed to have many parishioners--five fully packed Masses back to back on Sunday, as many old-timers remember before Vatican II--they still have all the other obstacles against establishing a boys' choir that most of us do. The parish has no school at all, much less one that could focus specially on a music curriculum. Most parishioners live outside the usual territorial parish boundaries (some as far away as the state of Oklahoma, I hear), so commuting on another day of the week for even just one rehearsal after school hours is a pain. 

And yet, undaunted by any of these challenges, Mr. Fowler pressed on. The fruits of their labor blossomed this Passion Sunday, March 18, when the Men & Boys' Choir, clad in the traditional cassock and surplice of an ecclesiastical choir, sang in liturgy for the first time at the 9am missa cantata. The men naturally handled the minor Propers in their full melodies from the Liber Usualis, while the boys assisted with the Ordinary of the Mass. Not to be treated with kid gloves, the boys still capably handle serious choral works of the Catholic tradition by composers like Palestrina and Victoria: a feat most professional directors might scoff at as impossible for boys not enrolled in a full-time choir school and, therefore, not even worth trying. So far, the boys' choir is still going strong. They'll continue to sing at Mater Dei, in rotation with the other choirs of the parish, until the end of this term (the Fifth Sunday after Easter).

Why all the fuss, though? Why not just rely on capable female singers, like virtually every other church does? Mr. Fowler and I chatted about this, and he outlined a few reasons: 

The spirit of the liturgy: the choir of Levites

Illustration of the old cursus honorum. The first four degrees after tonsure are the minor orders.
First, the all-male choir is most in keeping with the spirit of the liturgy. Basically all Catholic communities dedicated to traditional liturgy in some form or another (whether the traditional Latin Mass, the "Anglican" Ordinariate, or the Eastern rites) accept that altar servers should all be male. Lay altar servers fill roles which were, in times long past, exercised only by men or boys who were tonsured and "ordained" to the minor orders. These minor orders eventually came to be restricted to men in formation for the priesthood, despite the canons of the Council of Trent ordering them to be restored to normal parish use. The canons were ignored, but it was universally understood that lay substitutes should at least potentially be able to be ordained acolytes... therefore, male.

What even most traditional Catholics today have lost is the understanding that singing in an ecclesiastical choir is, in itself, a form of altar service; perhaps better described as the foundation of all other altar service. This is obvious if you observe the daily worship at a traditional seminary or monastery chapel. A few seminarians assist the ministers at the altar as acolytes, but the rest sit in the choir stalls in cassock and surplice (fittingly called "choir dress") and assist primarily by singing the Mass or Divine Hours. The sheer amount of singing done at a traditional seminary is probably mind-numbing to diocesan students, but this is simply how the clergy lived for the first seventeen or so centuries of Christian history. In medieval times, an inability to sing on-key was considered an impediment to priestly ordination. This is why medieval literature usually describes priests not as "saying", but as "singing Mass".

The ideal of the seminary choir is shown beautifully in the FSSP's promotional video above for their Requiem album.

One of the biggest favors any parent can do for a son who might have a vocation to Holy Orders, therefore, is to develop his singing talent at a young age. This is where a boys' choir comes in. By learning liturgical music, especially how to read and sing Gregorian chant, and by becoming intimately familiar with many settings of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei), a boy is formed in liturgy just as he would by serving the altar. Indeed, a boy's time is better spent in learning music because the ceremonies of altar service are easier learned as a teenager or adult, while the skills for singing are better formed from youth. But whether the boys sing well or poorly, they nonetheless fulfill a clerical role in liturgy which can't be said for mixed or women's choirs. Pius X felt strongly enough about this that, in his 1903 motu proprio on sacred music, Tra le sollecitudini, he banned women from church choirs entirely (with varying levels of success):
"With the exception of the melodies proper to the celebrant at the altar and to the ministers, which must be always sung in Gregorian Chant, and without accompaniment of the organ, all the rest of the liturgical chant belongs to the choir of levites, and, therefore, singers in the church, even when they are laymen, are really taking the place of the ecclesiastical choir. Hence the music rendered by them must, at least for the greater part, retain the character of choral music."
"On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church."

Feminization of sacred music and decline into performance art

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, established by King Henry VI in 1441, is considered by many to be the greatest men/boys choir in the world.
Second, an all-male choir helps counteract the feminization of sacred music. Here, I don't mean to denigrate the countless women who devote so much time and talent towards the betterment of worship (nor do I have any foolhardy plan to abolish women from church choirs overnight). Indeed, it's because of women's tendency to more freely devote their time that church choirs everywhere have more women than men unless they enforce an all-male schola. Traddy parents often, subconsciously, send their boys to serve, and their girls to sing in choir. The end result is that singing becomes perceived to be a feminine activity, or perhaps a consolation for not being able to serve the altar. The greater consequence is that the choir becomes divorced from its traditional understanding as a liturgical office, and then becomes focused more as performance art--pretty background music while the real work is done around the altar.

Some of the strongest evidence for this mentality is from a screed I found in the April 1917 issue of The Musical Quarterly, titled "The Boy Choir Fad", which you can read in full here. N. Lindsay Norden wrote this diatribe as a response to the revival in the later 1800's of boys' choirs, starting in the Anglican churches with the Oxford Movement, then expanding to Rome by the efforts of the Cecilians and others we might call "plainchant fundamentalists". Here are some of the more pungent excerpts:
"The boy choir fad has grown so alarmingly that the choral ideals of the American church will degenerate unless a decisive check is firmly put upon this disastrous evil in church music."

"Who would dare compare any boy choir with some of the splendid mixed choirs in New York City? Only an individual with no musical conceptions upon which to base judgment, or perhaps one imbued with the idea that a 'real' church choir should look in real life as some painters have elected to picture it."

"The principal elements which have made for the development of the boy choir are: sentimentality, a certain amount of ignorance about the 'angelic' qualities of a boy's voice, hollow imitation of the English church, and the unusual belief that it is not proper to have women in the chancel."

"If church music standards in this country are to equal those in the secular field, the boy choir must go. Rational, refined, musical considerations must overcome sentimentality, and uncultured, unworthy motives, which make for lower standards and insufficient results."
And perhaps worst of all:
"Church music in this country is mainly a mechanical echo of the ideals of the English church, which some of us consider the stupidest and dullest the world has ever known."

For the Modern Medievalist, at least, all these protests simply betray a mind more geared to sacred music as performance art rather than an act of liturgical worship. In any case, I would say Mater Dei's success over one hundred years after the publication of Norden's screed, long after the "fad" of boys' choirs collapsed everywhere outside of the most famous English cathedral and collegiate institutions, shows that with faith, the impossible can be made possible.

The chancel: uniting altar and choir

The chancel of Bristol Cathedral, with choir stalls
Mater Dei doesn't have a chancel and so this isn't an option for them, but this aspect of the choral tradition deserves some commenting on as well. A much more edifying article was posted in response to the above piece, in The Musical Quarterly's July issue of the same year, titled "Why We Have Male Choirs in Churches". This piece, which explains how all-male choirs were inherited even from the ancient Temple of Solomon under the Old Covenant, can be read here. It goes on through medieval history up to the Anglican movement to restore proper chancels with choir stalls, now seen in so many Anglican churches built from the mid-1800's and after. Ironic that so many Catholics perceive the choir loft in the back of the church as the more traditional style when it was really a later innovation to accommodate the introduction of women singers. The article has a fascinating quotation from the Bishop of Covington (presumably Ferdinand Brossart):
"We have succeeded in the past in removing the choir as far as possible from the altar, and have been spending money in the wrong way. Therefore we need not be surprised that we have succeeded in banishing also the music of the altar, the music of the Holy Service, from the church, and have substituted in its stead something more in keeping with exterior worldliness and profanity, and, with all, we have driven in a measure from the hearts of our men and boys that love for things most sacred, which the closer communication between altar and choir fostered so extensively in the Ages of Faith. Let us learn to spend more and more wisely, and restore the chancel choirs to the churches, and bring our men, old and young, back into the Sanctuary of God, that they may take a more active part in our magnificent Liturgical Service. Let us return to the old Catholic way of building our churches with a long chancel, and, if possible, an organ chamber, and vestries not only for the priests but also for the choristers. Let us bring altar and choir nearer each other."

A powerful call to action, to be sure! When I bring my chant schola out to some church for Mass, there are many times when we have to sing in the choir loft as a practical necessity because of the architecture of the place. However, whenever possible, I try to situate us within or near the sanctuary to emphasize our role as a true liturgical choir. 

It's also worth revisiting one of my favorite quotations from Augustus Welby Pugin, in his Earnest Appeal for the Revival of the Ancient Plainsong, which I transcribed for my blog long ago (see here). In addition to his many skills as architect and designer, the father of the Gothic Revival also sensed the importance of recovering the Church's traditional Gregorian chant. He had this to say about the state of choir lofts in his day:

"Formerly such persons as now constitute the choir were unknown. The service was sung in Parochial Churches, between the clerks and devout laymen (ministri), who assisted them in the chancel, and the people in the body of the church, who responded in unison. This grand and overpowering effect of the people answering the priest is yet to be heard in parts of Germany. At Minden the Habemus ad Dominum rose from more than two thousand voices of faithful worshippers. What a difference from the vicarious reply of three or four professionals, thrusting their heads from out of their curtained gallery in the intervals of their private conversation, and whose hearts, instead of being raised up, were probably groveling in the contemplation of a pull at a wine bottle between the acts of the performance, for it must be distinctly understood that all persons who sing in galleries are performers by position. Nutshells, orange peel, and biscuit bags, abound in organ lofts and singing galleries, and those who are acquainted with the practical working of these places must be aware, that they are a constant source of scandal and irreverence.  

Now, when we contrast the Catholic arrangement in a chancel to their miserable expedient of a gallery, we shall at once perceive the infinite wisdom and beauty of the former. All are habited in vestments, whose colour reminds them of the purity of heart and intention, with which they should celebrate the praises of Almighty God. They stand within the sacred enclosure set apart for sacrifice; the very place tends to preserve a recollection of the Divine presence, and to keep the singers in a devout posture. The distinct and graduated Chaunt offers no impediment to the perfect union of the heart and mind with the words as they are sung; and in lieu of a more empty and vain display of vocal eccentricities, we have a solemn, heartfelt, and, we may trust, an acceptable service to the honour of Almighty God."

The next step: the parochial school

The Atonement Academy, San Antonio
Mater Dei has shown us that it's possible to establish a boys' choir even without the benefit of a school. Still, for the perfection of the art, a school is the logical next step. In my chat with Mr. Fowler, he said one of his inspirations was the parochial school attached to my hometown parish, Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, where I was received into the Church. The Atonement Academy is a full K-12 school (for both boys and girls) in the Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter which, in addition to its overall mission in providing an orthodox Catholic education in the classical liberal arts tradition, requires every student, in every grade, to be in a choir. For this, Atonement has the outstanding honor to have one of the only Catholic parish churches in the whole world to have a daily choral Mass during the school year. 

The Atonement Academy represents a rare example of the fulfillment of an ideal espoused long before, during the original Liturgical Movement of the early 20th century. I recently picked up a book from 1963: really, a collection of essays titled Liturgy for the People. Most of the authors are Jesuit priests of a heavily progressive stripe, typical for the era. But one essay stands far above the rest: it's titled "The Schola Cantorum and the Parish School", by Theodore N. Marier. Marier was one of the leading advocates of Gregorian chant in the American Church, and was the second president of the Church Music Association of America. Shortly after writing this essay, he went on to found the St. Paul's Choir School in Cambridge, Massachusetts: the only Catholic boys' choir school in the United States. It still exists today (see website here) and is working hard to reclaim its identity as a liturgical choir, even singing Vespers every Thursday.

But what about the essay? In it, Marier says that the difficulties in fully participating in the liturgy are not Latin or Gregorian chant, but a lack of education. It's important to observe that Marier wrote this essay at the height of the Catholic parochial school's glory days in the US. Indeed, Marier himself seems to know it at the time of his writing: "our vast and complex network of parochial schools serving the cause of Catholic education from the kindergarten through graduate schools is vigorously operative in these times."

And yet, he laments that almost nowhere is any of this energy being directed toward the cause of sacred music. Where they are thought of at all, the choirs are "lunchtime choirs", with rehearsals made only during recess while other kids are at play. Drawing on the many statements from the popes of that era on the need for a schola cantorum to be established in every parish, Marier outlines a plan in his essay for every parish school:

First, of course, is the hiring of a full-time music director. The director would be responsible for developing a special curriculum for choir boys within the larger school, with the assistance of two other teachers, from fifth to eighth grade.

Second, one of the parish priests would be assigned to the schola's spiritual direction. He would teach the boys Latin, the liturgy, and how to serve Mass (all choirboys would also be expected to serve the altar).

Third, as the schola develops, it would take on more and more liturgical duties, enhancing the overall life of the parish. The schola would become the principal choir for Sunday high Mass and major feasts, and hopefully take up one or more of the Divine Hours (such as Vespers or Compline). Teams of boys in rotation would handle the cycle of Requiems, weddings, and other votive Masses as they come.

Marier ends this essay with an imperative, which is as relevant for 2018 as it was for 1963. I'll use it to end this column as well. Marier writes:
"The training of leaders must begin early in their formative years and continue over a long period of time. The Palestrina, Josquin Des Pres, Guido D'Arezzo or even St. Gregory of tomorrow is perhaps today in a parochial school third grade, waiting to be led, encouraged, and motivated by the Church to a life of fruitful creativity in her service. If the opportunity of training him is not seized now, the Church will sit by and watch him spill out his musical talents in the service of the theater or a television network, instead of in the fully dedicated service of her liturgical music."

My personal favorite men/boys choir is that of Westminster Cathedral (the chief church of the Catholic Church in England, often confused with the also-excellent Westminster Abbey Choir)