Martin Mosebach on liturgy

Martin Mosebach (b. 1951) argues strongly for the pre-Vatican II liturgy in Latin. But he’s known primarily as a writer of some reputation. The German Academy for Language and Literature praised him for “combining stylistic splendor with original storytelling that demonstrates a humorous awareness of history.”

But on liturgy? Not so much. In his essay “The Old Roman Missal: Loss and Rediscovery,” we find this on the pre-Vatican II Offertory prayers:

These prayers come from earliest times; they speak, for the first time in human history, of the dignity of man, a dignity God gave to his creatures from the very beginning, a dignity that was wondrously renewed by Jesus’ sacrificial death.

Earliest times?? Jungmann, anyone? Dignity of man for the first time?? Genesis chapter 1, anyone? Or Psalm 8?

A collection of his essays on liturgy is available in translation at Ignatius, The Heresy of Formlessness. The heretics here would be pretty much  all of us. I recommend the book in this highly qualified sense – it will help you keep up on the sort of liturgical ideas now spreading in the Roman Catholic Church. Or maybe you’ve gotten enough already with this post.



  1. Does the essay get other things wrong, or is this it?

    People on both sides of the liturgical debate get historical facts wrong, so I’m not surprised. It’s not unique to those in the Latin Mass and Reform of the Reform movements by any stretch of the imagination.

    I’d like to see more positive articles on PrayTell about what its authors consider to be good liturgy. I firmly know what it considers to be bad liturgy (Latin Mass or OF celebrated too similarly to it), but have little idea of what it endorses, which is what I had hoped I would get out of this blog when I first started reading it.

    1. Au contraire: I presided at an entirely sung Latin Mass at the last chant festival in Watou, Belgium! I pray the Office in Latin when I’m on the road. Where did you get the idea that Pray Tell has “a” position, or that “our position” is what you say it is?

      1. Thank you, Father Anthony. I was going to ask the same question, but fugured it would best come from you as editor.

      2. “Where did you get the idea that Pray Tell
        has “a” position …?”

        I’m not Jack but it seems to me that the juxtaposition of this post on Mosebach’s speech and the RBK speech on 8/20 is one thing that might give many the idea that Pray Tell has a position in the Catholic ecclesiastical tug of war. I’m not suggesting that the position is the right one or the wrong one just that it is apparent.

      3. It’s nice to hear those things, Fr. Ruff, but it’s not something I would know about had you not just told me. It doesn’t really show through in the articles posted here on a regular basis. Most of the press this blog gives to the Latin Mass and “reform2” movement is rather negative – dare I say universally negative, which is where I got the impression about PrayTell’s “position” regarding those things.

        Sorry to jump to conclusions, but if you only display one side of yourself, don’t be surprised when people assume incorrect things about you.

  2. Father, with all of the schadenfreude shared here and over at MSF of late, I have wonder, like Jack, is there a there to your post? (Thanks, Gertrude.)
    I haven’t the time to review the full article yet, so I admit to talking out of school now. But the derision of the paragraph following the brief quote in your blogpost is an indication of a scholarly autopsy on what was clearly figurative language used by Mosebach in that sole quote.
    Or am I erroneously, needlessly needled by what I misperceive as barbs, ie. “Jungmann! (anybody? Jungmann!) Just asking.

    1. Frankly, I think this guy has earned the derision with the quality of his writings on liturgy. I heard him speak in Rome at the Deutsche Historische Institut. I read this entire article. I wouldn’t have picked out one quote if it weren’t representative of his approach. No, I don’t this this is figurative language. It’s a pretty clear factual claim – and dead wrong, twice in a row. In this case, I stand by my comment.

      1. I guess people are sensitive because there never seems to be any similar critique for something from the other end of the ecclesiastical spectrum, not even for Robert Blair Kaiser’s 8/19/10 speech in Ireland. Maybe Mosebach’s speech could have been treated similarly, instead of quoting passages with which the editor disagreed the editor could have introduced this speech in a way similar to the way the R. B. Kaiser (archive 8/20) speech was introduced: “Not exactly a moderate or balanced talk – but it probably wasn’t intended to be” without further comment from the editor. As it is, one could be left with the impression that, to our editors, Robert Blair Kaiser is less divisive than Mosebach.

  3. “Does the essay get other things wrong, or is this it?”

    Yes, that’s it. I’ve read the whole piece carefully, and Mosebach’s right on the money on all points. E.g.,

    ” . . . in the Church’s most brilliant periods, when the faithful felt that the most important thing in the celebration of Mass was not that every word should be understood, but that the presence of the Redeemer should be experienced.”

    In some of these translation discussions, are we worrying about the grammar of understanding at the expense of experience of presence?

  4. There are numerous errors of fact and analysis in Martin Mosebach’s speech, and in his book. I find it astonishing that a speech of such poor quality could have been delivered at an archdiocesan conference on liturgy. They might as well have invited Fellay or Williamson from the SSPX.

    I think Jack poses an excellent challenge, so much so that I’d rather respond to it than critique Mosebach’s weak speech.

    It’s easy enough to snipe at bad liturgy — if you’re a traditionalist, you can throw stones at clown masses; if a liberal, there are always cappa magnas and dancing birettas to attack. The harder task is to say what constitutes good liturgy.

    As a starting point I would refer to the advice given in Aidan Kavanagh’s Elements of Rite.

    It’s interesting and encouraging that his criteria for good liturgy apply to both EF and OF.

    An example of great liturgy for me is the one I am privileged to participate in (actively!) on most Sundays of the year: a sung Latin Mass in the ordinary form, with incense, bells, candles, but with an unusual degree of simplicity. I think it satisfies most criteria that Kavanagh sets out, though I have to admit that I haven’t “scored” it in any way.

    1. Ceile, it’s at Immaculate Conception (Farm Street Church), the Jesuit church in central London. A similar Mass is sung at Westminster Cathedral each Sunday. In fact, there are something like 20 ordinary form Latin Masses across greater London on a Sunday morning. They vary somewhat in degree of Latin, style (a few are done ad orientem, many are not) and solemnity. The Association for Latin Liturgy (not to be confused with the Latin Mass Society) has a directory both of OF and EF Latin Masses across the UK.

  5. I am willing to give Mr. Mosebach a benefit of the doubt on this… English is not his first language, after all. The sentence referenced is poorly phrased. Otherwise, The content of his talk is superb, imho.

    Need we note, that this comes from a liturgical conference where several members of the CDWDS were speakers, and one of which, the Ordinary of the archdiocese hosting the Conference, will be made a Prince of the Church at the coming Consistory? Perhaps there’s a bit more validity to the perspective than meets the eye.

    I wonder whether an article on the liturgical preferences of those who will be made Cardinals would be a good read? Just looking at the two Americans that are now Cardinals-designate, they are right in line with the Holy Father’s liturgical and ecumenical vision (not to mention their renowned stance on Life issues) for the Church. They’ve also been quite outspoken on the clergy abuse scandal.

    First, there’s Wuerl, who is the head of the committee in the US on implementing Anglicanorum Coetibus. Then there’s Burke, who celebrates the Solemn Pontifical Mass in the EF quite often. together with Ranjith, looks like our next Pope is beginning to have quite a few traditionally minded electors… perhaps, even could be one himself?

    It comes across as misleading- one is made to think that this is simply a fad and product of “bad liturgical scholarship” that we are working so hard against. But maybe, just MAYBE, this is led by the Spirit?

    Just a thought…

  6. Jonathan said: An example of great liturgy for me is the one I am privileged to participate in (actively!) on most Sundays of the year: a sung Latin Mass in the ordinary form, with incense, bells, candles, but with an unusual degree of simplicity. I think it satisfies most criteria that Kavanagh sets out, though I have to admit that I haven’t “scored” it in any way.

    It all depends on your perception. Mass at Farm Street from another point of view (and I speak as a former sub-organist at this church) could be seen as a fossilized performance, with music taking a dominant role. An independent observer might well dispute the claim to “an unusual degree of simplicity”. For that, you would certainly have to go elsewhere.

    The point about churches like Farm Street is that they have the resources to put on an English Mass in the OF with excellent choral music and good congregational singing, yet they do not choose to do so. This means that their take-up is limited to those for whom Latin is a priority. Others elect to go elsewhere. I am not decrying Latin at all; but Farm Street, Westminster Cathedral and many other central London churches could, if they wished, draw forth from their treasuries things both new and old — in Latin and the vernacular. A greater breadth of vision is what is needed.

    I have to say, having known both Aidan Kavanagh and Farm Street, that I do not think he would have uncritically accepted what goes on there.

  7. Paul, I am sure he would not have accepted it uncritically, and there are always things that can be improved. For example, the (said) psalm between first and second readings would really benefit from being sung by the congregation, I think, as they did in the papal Mass at the Cathedral.

    By comparison to the Brompton Oratory, though, where the same Latin ordinary form Mass is done in a way that seems removed from the congregation, artificial (lots of biretta-business, vested readers who seem to be trying to re-create the voice of T S Eliot, etc.), ad orientem at the end of a sanctuary so deep you can strain to see the celebrant at all, the Latin Mass at Farm Street seems simple and unaffected.

    On high feast days at Farm Street (St Ignatius, Immaculate Conception, Christmas, Easter Vigil etc.) it’s all done in English, same strong music, same ceremonial — and many people are virtually unaware that the language has changed. And there’s now a 9:30 am family Mass in English, with congregational singing but thus far no choir.

    1. Jonathan,

      Thanks for the reply. I agree about the Oratory (I was the sub-organist there, too, for several years). Glad to hear about high feast days, etc, at Farm Street in your final paragraph.

  8. This is subjective, a matter of taste, but also of theological sensitivity. I find these things to be affectations, rather fussy and off-putting. It makes the liturgy less ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ in my judgment. But I realize that others’ experiences differ from mine.

  9. These issues are subjective, to be sure, and I am not so naive as to think that there can be unambiguous ‘laws of liturgical rightness’. Nonetheless can we find some degree of intersubjectivity, places where the sensibilities of both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ overlap?

    On birettas, for instance: nothing against them. But when the doffing and donning of birettas gets in the way of the central action (e.g. proclaiming the Word of God) then I have a problem with it. This has been the case at the Oratory, where the removing and replacing of birettas at each mention of the Lord’s name sometimes looks like a Mexican wave at a football match. I think it no accident that many of the people in the chairs around me at the Oratory have their eyes down and are saying their rosaries during Mass. To the extent you can see what’s going on in the sanctuary, it can be distracting.

    Nothing against vested readers, either; I do object to readers who speak in an impossibly affected voice, rather like someone imitating the way the Queen spoke in her early broadcasts. They sing the Gospel in Latin as well, without an English translation; personally this isn’t a problem, because my Latin is very strong, but it seems like it breaks the integrity of the liturgy.

    For me, it wasn’t as much about the things they used (birettas, incense, Latin etc.) as how they used them. And I agree with Fr Ruff that these matters are ultimately personal and subjective.

  10. Paul, a brief comment on Latin: our main congregation is international and multi-lingual. Latin works well in this setting more for its neutrality than for any “sacred” character it may have.

    It is also the case that a Latin Mass avoids the problems of translating Latin rhetoric (pleonastic phrases, for instance).

    I may not be understanding your concern about the use of Latin. Could you say more?

    1. Jonathan,

      I have no problem at all with Latin, only with using Latin to the exclusion of everything else. It seems to me to be a waste of good musical resources to confine competent musicians to just one or two areas of the range of liturgical music (and by that I include everything up to our own day).

      If you’ve got a choir of the standard of Westminster Cathedral’s, for example, they are capable of and ought to be using a much wider spectrum of material than is actually the case. They, and others, could be leading the way in demonstrating how to combine high-standard choral music with high-standard music for the assembly (even in the same piece — yes, such music does exist), but a narrowness of repertoire and vision is preventing them for getting anywhere near that.

      So when you spoke of an OF Latin Mass at Farm Street as if that were all they ever did, I reacted accordingly. Now you have said that this is not all that they ever do, so I am a lot happier.

      Does that make it a bit clearer?

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