The novelist horrified by the English Mass

SIR – Canon David Cotter (Letter, March 17) queries my account of JF Powers’s decision to sit out of earshot of Mass (Cover story, February 24). Canon Cotter says it was “not from distaste over the post-Vatican II liturgy itself, but because he, the most careful of wordsmiths, disliked homilies with a particular intensity”. I sent the passage in question to Powers’s daughter Katherine, and asked her if I was right or wrong. I reproduce her reply:

“You are correct. He actually didn’t mind the homilies so much – or as much, especially if they were short – though sometimes they astounded him for their awfulness. They were often difficult to hear because of the infamous acoustics. But he tried to listen to them, not perhaps as a guide to life and prayer and so on, but as a connoisseur (of good and bad). He found the liturgy simply unbearable – the language, its bathos and cloddiness and lack of resonance with the KJV/Douay. (His retreat to the balcony was in part to escape hearing the liturgy and in part – great part – to escape the handshake business which was far less aggressive up there and sometimes absent.)

“When we lived in Ireland, at the time the vernacular Mass was introduced, he went to the 9:30am as that was in Irish, which he could not understand – and so preferable as an alternative to being subjected to the English version. This meant he had to get up early, than which few things were more painful – the Mass in English being one of them. On the other hand, I don’t think he was really outspoken about the horrors of the English Mass, not wanting to give comfort to the ‘enemy’ – perhaps in the shape of Anglican High Churchmen. I should also say that he really loved and appreciated St John’s community (a word he loathed), warts and all.

“Very interesting article (yours). I was not aware of those statistics, but I absolutely believe that the abolition of ritual and Friday abstinence played a part in declining church attendance and affiliation.”

In a letter sent in 1947 (and collected by Katherine in the delightful book Suitable Accommodations), JF Powers writes of the nascent liturgical reform: “I am only slowly getting the idea that I am surrounded by people who are working night and day for things like the dialogue Mass. Imagine my dismay at the discrepancy between the party line and my own feelings in these matters. However, it’s only feelings with me, not theory.” In short, though it would be gross to view Powers as a determined traditionalist bristling with arguments, he did indeed loathe the liturgical reform.

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