My tutor for Art History was a wonderful man. A Viennese Jew, eleven of whose close relatives had perished in the Nazi death camps, he had escaped to England and told us of his experience of arriving at a YMCA establishment in London in 1940. "And when I saw people sitting about in armchairs in the foyer at two o' clock in the afternoon I knew this was a country where I could be very happy. They wouldn't have been sitting about in armchairs at two o'clock in the afternoon in Vienna under the Nazis I can assure you!" he declared. On the occasion I recall, however, we were just coming to the end of a seminar on gothic architecture, in his broom-cupboard of a room, in which we had looked at slides of some of the principal gothic cathedrals of France. "Of course," he said, "none of these churches makes sense now. Their meaning has been destroyed. Can anyone tell us what has happened?" No one volunteered a comment and so he added "What? Are there no Catholics here?" Put on the spot, so to speak, I found myself blurting out, "The Second Vatican Council...changes to the liturgy...the way mass is celebrated so that now the priest has to face the people from behind the altar."
"Ah, yes," he returned, "a great pity". The class broke up and conversation turned to other matters but before I left he asked if I was indeed a Catholic and, when I replied in the affirmative, he said, "I like the Mass. One can be a spectator." I do not remember what I said in reply to this but I have often recalled his words over the years - and my response.
At the time I had sought to answer his question without challenging his presumption that liturgical reordering had "destroyed the meaning" of our churches. Even at the tender age of twenty I had had some difficulties with the visual consequences of reordering but they did not amount to real doubts besides, as a student, I was never really interested in arguments- only in finding out the truth. I did believe that the reordering had been demanded by the Council and it was only in the late 1990s that I began to wonder if I had been somehow mistaken.
I have had a longstanding interest in the historical development of the altarpiece as an artistic genre. Its origins lie somewhere in the twelfth century but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the altarpiece emerged. Its final demise through the turning around of altars, having happened in my own lifetime, should be much easier to isolate - except it was not. I re-read Sacrosanctum Concilium: there was nothing there about mass facing the people.
As I read the Constitution on the liturgyI realised that I was reading it as a post Vatican 2 catholic. Surely I should attempt to read it with some historical imagination? For example the Mass as we know it today simply did not exist in 1963. What did exist in 1963 was what we had since come to call the Tridentine rite and from that perspective it became obvious that when the Council fathers were talking about the Mass it was this version and not some as yet non-existent reformed rite. Reform was most definitely on the cards but its precise form was presumably still in the future.
Unbeknown to me at the time that I was considering these matters one Cardinal Ratzinger was asserting that Vatican 2 had not demanded Mass facing the people and, contrary to what I had been told earlier, there had not been a time when the priest had changed place at the altar from the rear to the fore.
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