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Online Edition - Vol. V, No. 6: September 1999

Reverence Grows at St. Charles Borromeo, Even "Among the Dandelions"

by Father Lawrence Violette

"During my time at St. Charles, the solemn Vespers actually became more solemn ... guitars were replaced by the simple yet beautiful chanting of the Psalms."

Founded over 160 years ago, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pennsylvania, has a reputation as a bastion of conservative Catholicism in the United States. This traditional bent is very much seen in the celebration of the liturgy. Compared to stories of liturgical abuse in various seminaries around the country, St. Charles, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, has been preserved from the worst of the nonsense.

My first exposure to the liturgy of St. Charles came at an open house week-end in October 1986, the year before I entered as a third year college seminarian. I was visiting the seminary to discern my own vocation to the priesthood. As I sat in the back pew of the large St. Martin Chapel, the procession of the seminarians, reverent and attentive in cassock and surplice, made a deep impression on me.

During my six years at the seminary, this first impression came up against reality. Though some seminarians seemed to find the liturgy a burden and a cause for jocularity, others were very holy and serious men whose reverence and devotion were evident. These were able, for the most part, to celebrate the liturgy in the manner laid out for us by the Church.

Cassocks and surplices distinguished the liturgy at St. Charles, even at daily Mass. For Morning and Evening Prayer, clerical shirts or cassocks were allowed, but for Mass, all the seminarians were to be in cassock and surplice. This truly provided for a formation in the liturgy that respected the sacred nature of the celebration. Even the mandatory wearing of clerics for prayer and class, an exception to the practice of many American seminaries, enabled the seminarians to develop a sense of being clerics, distinct members of the Church.

In my time, there were no public dissenters on the doctrine of the Eucharist. When there were liturgical abuses, they were rarely egregious. The ceremonies were, for the most part, celebrated with great reverence and proper decorum. The preparation that went into the celebrations usually was sufficient to provide a prayerful attitude.

"Inclusive language"

Inclusive language was not a large problem at St. Charles. I don't remember a single case of God being called Mother or anything like that. When it came to so-called "horizontal inclusive language", some celebrants would use "humankind" in place of "mankind" or add "sisters" where the liturgy said simply "brothers", either in the prayers of the Mass or in the readings. But this attitude was not forced upon seminarians at all, and it was not a formation issue when a student did not use "inclusive language".

The places in the Mass where the rubrics permitted some options became, for some celebrants, a time to preach new homilies, sometimes five or more per Mass, or to add expressions that were redundant or simply unnecessary. One place such liberties were taken is at the Ecce Agnus Dei (Behold, the Lamb of God). The rubrics do not say that this can be changed according to the celebrant's desire, but it happened nevertheless: "Happy are we who are called", "This is Jesus", "Happy and blessed are we", etc. (Editor's note: see article on this topic in the December 2002 - January 2003 Adoremus Bulletin.)

"Love the dandelions"

Perhaps the worst violation of this part of the liturgy came from a visiting celebrant who instructed us during his homily that the Church is like a giant lawn of grass, containing not only grass, but also dandelions, and we must learn to love them, too. His invitation to Holy Communion reflected this thought: "This is Jesus, who challenges us to love the dandelions". One of my classmates wondered why the lawn doctor had offered Mass that day.

Most of the "dandelions" in liturgical celebration were peculiar to the various celebrants, either seminary staff or visiting priests. In the classes and practica for the various liturgical offices, the proper form of celebration was taught, allowing the seminarians to learn what the Church's documents required of her ministers. Our first class on liturgy consisted in reading most of the Church's recent documents on the Liturgy, including Pius XII's Mediator Dei and the Council's own Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Occasionally there was an inconsistency between the norm taught and the actual celebration in the chapel. One professor, no longer there, would tell us in class that innovations were not ours to make, since the liturgy was not a personal, individual act. Yet, in addition to idiosyncrasies such as multiple homilies, at the end of Mass he would give the blessing: "May Almighty God bless us". To his credit, when asked about this by a student, he admitted that this was not proper and he corrected it. But few seminary professors, or priests in general, take criticism so well.

Effort to restore Latin

The use of Latin was frowned upon for a long while, and only with great effort over a few years were we allowed to have a Latin Mass included in the schedule once a month. We were also able to get more Latin hymns used at the various liturgical celebrations.

Both Latin and vernacular traditional hymns were often intermingled with songs by such musicians as Haugen and Haas (not to be confused with the ice cream manufacturer). In a single Mass you might find a Latin motet at Communion with a rambunctious, guitar-strumming "contemporary" oldie as the closing song. Gradually, however, the liturgies became more unified in style throughout each celebration.

At one point we started to have Masses celebrated in Spanish. The purpose was to show us what it was like to attend Mass in a language we did not understand, and also to acclimate us to Spanish in the Liturgy. The question many of us had was, Is this what the liturgy is for? The teaching aspect of the liturgy takes place primarily through the rites being well celebrated, and through the proclamation of the Gospel. The desire to enable the seminarians to know and speak Spanish is legitimate and necessary in the Church in some parts of the United States. But the liturgy is first and foremost the means of offering adoration to God, not a language classroom.

Sense of solemnity restored

On the other hand, the idea of progressive solemnity was applied. Solemnities were celebrated as such, while memorials or ferial days in ordinary time were less solemn. This was a great advance. I can remember, before this procedure was introduced, when we had a sprinkling rite, salt included, on a weekday in Ordinary Time, while solemnities were often plain and anything but ceremonious. The change was most welcome.

There were occasional lapses, such as the time a former spiritual director had seminarians use their hands as puppets from behind the altar to illustrate the Gospel parable of the talents during a Compline celebration. One did not know whether to laugh at the idea of being treated like children, or to be angry about the abuse of the sanctuary and the sacredness of the Church's official prayer.

I truly miss the solemn Vespers on Sunday evenings, with the seminarians attending in cassock and surplice. The weekly event concluded with benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, unheard-of in some American seminaries. During my time at St. Charles, this solemn Vespers actually became more solemn, as guitars and the like were replaced by the simple yet beautiful chanting of the psalms.

Liturgy a time for prayer

Although some elements of the formation program at St. Charles lacked prudence, if not simple common sense, the liturgy was for the most part a time to pray and to adore God as He deserves.

Especially considering the state of other seminaries in this area, our complaints were relatively minor. One classmate commented, after hearing of some of the liturgical problems at another seminary, that he had to learn to appreciate what we had at St. Charles. He would get perturbed if they put too much water (more than a drop or two!) into the chalice at the offertory. Many of us wanted more traditional aspects of the liturgy to be included, legitimate options that would assist our own development in spirituality.

In the long run, what most priests realize has dawned upon me: you take what you can of the good in the seminary, and St. Charles had a lot of good in its celebration of the liturgy.

Father Lawrence M. Violette attended St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, was ordained for the Diocese of Arlington on May 15, 1993, and now serves at Our Lady of Angels, in Woodbridge, Virginia.

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