Sunday, September 16, 2012

Two observations

1.) On the word "Gospel". Ever think about where we get the word "gospel" from? It's a long way from the Greek evangelion or the Latin evangelium, used to refer to the Gospel in the Latin Mass. "Gospel" comes from our treasury of old Anglo-Saxonisms. It literally means "good news", or perhaps "glad tidings". It's a contraction of god (in old English, not "God" as in the Deity, but merely good), and spel (story, message). Over time, god became conflated with God, and the word came to mean something like "God's spell". The medieval missionaries in England used this to their advantage by casting the holy Gospels as incantations against evil spirits, perhaps as a counter to the runes of the heathen Nordic gods. For centuries until the Protestant Reformation, it wasn't unusual for an Englishman to kneel before a priest and ask him to say his In principio as a blessing, or for a priest to say the In principio as a ward before entering a strange house or dangerous place. (See Chaucer's description of the Friar in his General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales: "So plesaunt was his in principio".)

The In principio, for those not familiar with the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, comes from the first passages of the Gospel of John ("In the beginning there was the Word"). Today it's only ever seen recited at the end of the old Mass, but in the Middle Ages, simply having this "Last Gospel" (so-called because John is the last of the four Gospels) recited over someone was considered a powerful blessing against evil.

2.) On getting grown men to serve and chant at Mass. I often try to think of ways to encourage and inspire grown men to serve the altar or chant in choir. The former tends to be associated in trad-dom as an extracurricular activity for small boys, while the latter is considered the province of old church women. When I was touring the palaces of Europe, I noticed that all of the royal chapels constructed or heavily remodeled after the Renaissance were built so the king sat in a gallery, far above and away from the plebs.... and the clergy. And today, we often hear Catholic politicians trying to get votes by recalling how they used to serve Mass as a kid. Contrast that with the medieval Chapel of Saint George in Windsor Castle, where there is no distinguished seat for the King. (There is, though, a queen's balcony originally built for Katherine of Aragon so that she could be closer to the altar without being in the quire proper.)

Wouldn't it be an even more powerful witness if we saw our leaders humbling themselves by serving or chanting in the liturgy? But the assumption seems to be that after a certain age,a man just gets too old or too important for such trivial tasks. This was the objection that Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk brought to his good friend, Saint Thomas More when he saw the saint in a surplice at church once. 

The following excerpt is from a paper on the life of Sir Thomas More by Monsignor P.E. Hallett, who worked to have More and his fellow martyr, John Cardinal Fisher canonized. It reads:

'To his parish church—now called Chelsea Old Church—he was a constant benefactor, giving generously altar plate, vestments, etc. He built for himself and his family the chapel which now forms the south aisle. He thought it an honour, even when Lord Chancellor, to serve Mass or to put on a surplice and chant in the choir. Once the Duke of Norfolk, coming to dine with him, found him so employed and remonstrated with him, “God‟s body, my Lord Chancellor! What! a parish clerk, a parish clerk! You dishonour the king and his office!” “Nay,” replied Sir Thomas smiling, “Your Grace may not think that the king, your master and mine, will with me for serving God his Master be offended, or thereby account his office dishonoured.”'

This was before the office of Prime Minister had been created, so at the time, More occupied the highest government post in the entire Kingdom of England, yet he considered it a supreme honor to serve the altar or chant in the choir at his local parish church, just as he had always done. And just following that passage above, another interesting tidbit:

"In the processions of the Rogation Days, which covered several miles around the countryside, More would carry the cross, and even when Chancellor he refused to ride, following his Master (he said) who went on foot."
The quire of Saint George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, facing the nave. The plaque on the floor marks the burial place of Kings Henry VIII and Charles I.


  1. Now more than ever the Last Gospel is needed. I believe that it was added to the Liturgy when the Muslims claimed that their s was the last revelation. Therefore the "Last" gospel, was not of the Mass but the last revelation of God to man.

  2. I go to a TLM chapel where a small legion of boys process into the Sanctuary at the Sunday High Mass, most of them no older than ten or twelve, and the oldest being the usual MC who is about 21 (the other MC's are high school age teenagers). I agree that this is a problem and I would be happy to serve but have offered and not been taken up on it. I am in my 20's still, but have wife and child so am "older" in that sense. There are also usually several Oblates around who have received some number of Minor Orders, yet they usually sit in choir during the public Low Masses while the boys serve. It is frustrating to me.

    1. By chance, are you referring to Saint John Cantius?

      And I just noticed the photo link is broken. Argh.