Celebrating our Catholic Heritage

Celebrating our Catholic Heritage

Fr Damian McCaughan, who celebrates the monthly Mass at St Therese Church, writes about how the Extraordinary Form of the Mass has helped him and many other younger people to appreciate our Catholic heritage.

As a child growing up in St Malachy’s Parish, Coleraine, I remember being intrigued by the church building.  I loved the chance to light a candle, to look up close at the different statues of the saints, or to say a prayer at Our Lady’s altar.  One thing confused me though – why was Our Lady’s altar attached to the wall?  How could a priest ever have said Mass there?


In the 1980s we were only twenty years after the reforms of the liturgy in the years after the Second Vatican Council.  But already people had begun to forget aspects of the Catholic tradition that had once seemed so natural.  I didn’t know as a child that Mass had, for centuries and until fairly recently, been celebrated with the priest and people usually facing the same direction.  That was why so many old altars, like our altar to Our Lady was attached to the wall!

It wasn’t until I lived in England as a student that I saw Mass being celebrated regularly with priest and people facing the same way (the early morning Mass at Leeds Cathedral where the priest celebrated at the beautiful Lady chapel altar designed by A.W. Pugin).  Later in Rome as a seminarian, I saw historic altars regularly in use in the great churches and basilicas.  Mass “facing the people” might be normal now, and it can be a very effective way of drawing people into the mystery of the liturgy, but it isn’t the only way – and we would be missing a major part of our Catholic tradition if we forgot about the alternative.


The Restored Altar of St Anne's Cathedral, Leeds
The Blessed Sacrament Altar in the Chapel of St Anne’s Cathedral, Leeds

The Importance of Heritage

In the wider society, there is now a much greater appreciation of our heritage than there was in the years after the Second World War.  We are astonished now at how easily historic buildings were demolished to facilitate high rise flats or ring roads.  Nowadays we want to celebrate our history.  Here in Northern Ireland there is a real revival of interest in the Gaelic and Ulster Scots traditions that have been sidelined or hijacked by politics for so long.


But in our religious lives we have been slower to embrace our heritage.  Older people who lived through the changes from Latin to English liturgies and who saw (and paid for!) expensive and sometimes controversial re-orderings of churches can now be reluctant to look back to the past.  Those who were young in the period of the Second Vatican Council rightly feel a special pride in all the positive change that they were a witness to and that they participated in.  They can be wary of any attempt to “go back”.


But for younger Catholics like myself, there seems to be an increasing desire to discover what was good and beautiful in our tradition.  Just as we want to give the Irish language its place in our modern culture, so too Latin still deserves a place in our liturgical life.  To celebrate Mass with priest and people both facing the same direction can be difficult to get used to at first, but after a while many find it a powerful reminder that the whole Church is on pilgrimage together towards the Risen Christ.  The solemn and sometimes complex rubrics of the old Mass, the different feasts, the chants and gestures, the mysterious silences: wouldn’t it be a shame if these things were all lost in our lifetimes?  Wouldn’t it be sad if we were the first generation in a thousand years unable to even recognise the Creed when it is sung in Latin?


I think that’s why so many young people have become interested in the extraordinary form of the Mass since Pope Benedict called for its greater use.  It’s not nostalgia – none of us were alive in the 1960s!  But there is a curiosity to find out how past generations prayed, and that curiosity often leads to a real appreciation of the richness of Catholic tradition.


When we understand and celebrate our Catholic heritage we are in communion with the generations who have gone before us.  We can recognise the liturgical actions depicted in medieval paintings or the illustrated plates in old Family Bibles.  We can understand what St Louis de Montfort means when he offers three meditations for the Domine, non sum dignus at Mass.  We can be inspired by the same scripture readings and the same Mass propers that moved St Catherine of Siena to write a prayer on the Quinquagesima Sunday of 1379.  We can sing Tantum Ergo as loudly as our grandparents.  We can recognise an old marble Lady altar attached to a wall and know why it was placed there!


Solemn High Mass in St Patrick's Church, Portrush in 1936
Solemn High Mass celebrated in St Patrick’s Church, Portrush in 1936 in the presence of Bishop Daniel Mageean. Fr McCaughan’s grandfather and great-uncle are among the altar servers.  

Looking to the Future

And when we understand our heritage we are better equipped for the future too.  If we are to embrace the call to holiness at the heart of Vatican II, perhaps we could still learn something from the traditions that sustained our ancestors in difficult times.  Familiarity with where we’ve come from can also help us to see more clearly the direction we want to go.  We can better understand how the reforms of recent years should build on our traditions, helping us to participate more deeply in the Eucharist and to be more evangelical in our outlook.  As a priest, I celebrate the ordinary form of the Mass daily (in English and facing the people!) with a greater insight because I’m informed both by what is good in our heritage and what has been reformed and revivified in the present.


The great convert Blessed John Henry Newman wrote “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”  He knew that the more we understand of our Christian heritage, the stronger our Catholic faith becomes.  We Catholics have a rich and profound heritage of spirituality, prayer, liturgy, music and art.  But it is often unknown – locked in a past that we’re increasingly unfamiliar with.  The extraordinary form of the Mass can be a key to unlock that heritage so that we can be like the householders Jesus describes who bring out from the storeroom treasures new and old.


Treasures old and new: Fr McCaughan leads a traditional Corpus Christi procession for First Communion children taking part in the Do This In Memory programme in St Mary’s-on-the-Hill parish in 2013


4 thoughts on “Celebrating our Catholic Heritage

  1. It would be nice gesture if the Bishop of down and connor would give a church for the Latin Mass to be said every day or every Sunday at proper morning Mass time. Would be doing God’s work in restoring all things in Christ.

    1. We’re very pleased that now, four years after this comment, we have a regular Mass in St Therese Church every Sunday – just next door to Lisbreen House.

      We might have a few other prayer intentions for you!

  2. A positive,insightful and inspiring article Damien, well done.

    I would go further though and connect both the rise in the number of broken families or single parent families in Ireland and the phenomenal decline in faith today to the 'fallout' from Vatican II.

    This relatively recent occurance coupled with a general downward spiral of indifference could be due to the overall practice of hummility and deep contrition Vatican II eroded during the Order of Mass.

    For example the congregation stands up more during the new Mass which symbolises pride and replaces the practice of kneeling usually associated with deep humility.

    Moreover, with the rise in Eccumenical experimentation within the last few decades, is it just coincidence that society has lost its decisive drive toward right and wrong at the same time?

    Have these subtle changes in the order of Mass created an indifferent society over the last 50 years, affecting the soaring rates of divorce, drug use and a decline of Irish moral values? Can it even be measured?

    In 2011 the Irish Catholics Bishops Conference claimed in their findings that just 51 per cent of Catholics attended Mass on a regular basis with 58 per cent proclaiming to be somewhat religious. That is to say almost half of Irish Catholics are now indifferent to their faith.

    I think there is way too much emphasis put on what the general public feel and what their opinion is and not enough emphasis put on what God the Father's opinion is and his will for his people.

    Would He wish a drive toward the 'Rich tradition of the Catholic Faith' as Damien has described. Would he encourage his flock to regain a deeper contrition for wrong doing and a practice of fervent humility at Mass. Could this be were we're going wrong?

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