On a cold winter morning, before the sun has even crested over the Green Mountains, the city of Burlington is eerily quiet. Both Main and Pearl Street barely have cars on them, a far cry from the bumper-to-bumper traffic that will be heading into the city in just a few hours. Even the famed Church Street is still largely asleep, with the odd delivery driver unloading wares to restaurants and businesses not opening until 10 am or later. The basement chapel of the great French Catholic Church of the Northeast St. Joseph Co-Cathedral, however, is full of life on even the harshest Vermont mornings. In that basement chapel every day of the week, Catholics worship as they have for over a thousand years using the Traditional Latin Mass. In my exploration of the Latin ass community, I learned about the contrast between the Low and high mass, as well as the effect being in a small basement chapel has on the community.
The first morning I attended mass, celebrated by the Philip Neri Latin Mass Society for the Diocese of Burlington, it was on a day much like the one described above. After a frigid walk down Pearl Street, I was overjoyed when I saw the brick tower of St. Joseph towering over the surrounding buildings. Upon finding the entrance at the side of the building, I instinctively grazed my fingers along the font at the door and signed myself with the cross as I entered the chapel. While I am not Catholic, I spent a fair amount of time in Catholic Churches during high school and knew my way around the Novus Ordo Mass. Therefore, I was not surprised by the hushed quiet of the pre-mass atmosphere. As I slipped into the back pew and waited for the service to start, my eyes were immediately drawn to the wealth of imagery in the worship space. The altar was affixed to the far wall with an ornate light green frontal. Behind that sat alter cards, a set of six Baroque style candles, and a crucifix. The ornamentation was a far cry from what one would see in a typical Vermont parish. Furthermore, the tabernacle was sheltered by a small wooden canopy, something few churches still maintain; it is intended to help protect the consecrated elements below. As I looked around the rest of the chapel, I noticed that there was barely a wall without saints standing in front of it, or without large wooden carvings of the life of Christ. Yet despite all of this art, we were still in a low ceiling, pipe filled basement.
While I was still surveying the chapel, the mass started. As this was a low mass, there was no music, procession, or incense. Instead, the priest and a server approached from the sacristy door and rung a bell three times. At the sound of this bell, worshipers are to stand and draw their attention to the priest. Then, after a few prayers in English before the mass, the “peace of the low mass begins”(O’Donnell 2018). The low mass is peaceful in the sense that one is not bombarded by sound, but instead is gifted with silence and the freedom to pray. In the words of Father Brian O’Donnell, the Chaplin for this community describes the silence “as the contemplative dimension of” the mass in which we are drawn to “pray on this sublime worship”(O’Donnell 2018). The Catholics at the low mass do all they can to create silence, or at least a hush, for in the space of the basement chapel sound is amplified, and every muddled word of the priest is audible to some degree. Yet for ethnographers like Hillel Schwartz’s, the striving for silence seems counter intuitive. He seems to have traced our relationship to sound as a commodification of silence. In 1995, he writes: “Silence is now a commodity” and that the “soundscape was changing, new sounds were coming to the fore” (Schwartz 1995, 4). In this way, people were revolting against the sounds of the city, the noisiness of the world.
Yet despite all of the new movements toward silence, the catholic low mass has always been seeking silence, as seen in the tradition of the low mass. Here in the basement chapel, Father O’Donnell and parishioners alike have made an effort to work toward silence. For instance, people are more careful about opening doors when exiting, and the servers are more mindful of the sound associated with moving liturgical items. During my time at this service, parishioners seldom rustled a page in the missal, in an attempt to prevent unnecessary noise. Schwartz’s analysis of sound in the last hundred years is right for some churches and publics, but not true for Catholics. Yet his omission of Catholic views of silence also speaks to the marginalization of Catholic practices in large parts of religious scholarship.
The sound of silence in the low mass, however, is in contrast to the “glory of the high mass,” with it touching on all of one’s senses (O’Donnell 2018). This mass is one full of incense, chant, sung liturgy. The whole body is involved as one moves even more in the high mass. On Easter Sunday, when I first attended a high mass, the service was overwhelming. The Mass opened with bells after which there were spoken devotional prayers in English, which are not part of the formal mass liturgy. As the liturgy began, there was an opening acclamation in Latin, followed by Gregorian chant, with its mystical and haunting nature that can fill the space with a certain foreign quality. In this Latin mass, even a small choir comprised of between 3 and 5 men, does its job successfully. Using chant, “A rhythm is created in the beginning that remains fairly stable” similar to the Sufi chants as discussed by Deborah Kapchan (Kapchan 2009, 73). The chant sets the tone and pace of the mass while also leading parishioners into the prayer. Just as Father O’Donnell described the contemplative nature of a low mass leading one into worship, in the same vein we find Gregorian Chant. For there is a “freedom of the Traditional Mass” in how we pray, and the Gregorian Chant leads one to pray into the high mass in two key ways (O’Donnell 2018). In the first sense, it sets apart this space as a prayerful one, the soundscape filled with sounds of worship. Also, the Gregorian Chant leads people into their parts: “the ordinary of the mass, the gloria, credo, sanctus, and agnus dei” involving them into the glory of the chant and the mass as a whole (O’Donnell 2018). These distinct ways of praying is the key difference between the low and high mass and how one comes to understand it.
One of the most important types of sounds are soundmarks defined by R. Murray Schafer as “a community sound which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community” (Schafer 2012, 101). While the obvious soundmark for this the Traditional Latin Mass is the use of Latin, another important soundmark is the sounds of liturgical actions, seen most clearly in the use of sanctus bells.
The use of Latin is in one sense a historical fact more than a definitive choice in the Roman Church, for when the mass was developed the language of Rome was Latin and, therefore, it was in the vernacular. Only as the Roman Church spread, and Latin fell out of use, did Latin become a unique sound of Catholic worship. That was challenged about 50 years ago with the Novus Ordo Mass allowing, among many changes, the ability to say the mass in the vernacular, which is now common practice. So today even more so, the use of Latin is a statement of one’s piety and beliefs. In the Burlington community, the use of Latin is to “separate from the world” and also the more robust form then a Novus Ordo Mass . For those worshiping in Latin, it is a decision to worship in the tradition and freedom of the universal church. Further, to worship “in a language you easily understand,” in the words of Father O’Donnell, “practically speaking it takes away your freedom because you are forced to listen to those words”(O’Donnell 2018). To worship in any other language than Latin is to allow the language to set “the way you participate in the mass”(O’Donnell 2018).
Only two months from now, this community will be moving to a new location in Burlington’s South End, St. Anthony’s parish. With this new space, they will have what is an ideal setting for the Traditional Latin Mass: a stately brick church with high ceilings, beautiful reredos, and stained glass. This community will worship for many years to come. Yet, so little will be different from the mass I walked into on that cold winter day in early February, as they will still be saying the same words, with the same chants, and the same reverence. That is the beauty of the Traditional Latin Mass; it is the same wherever it goes.
The other soundmark is the sound of sanctus bells. In the masses I attended, both low and high, I saw the use of bells as central to worship. Bell have for centuries been important to worship of civic life. In Alain Corbins article “The Auditory Markers of the Village” bells are used to “define” space and “create a territorial identity” for villagers in rural places (Corbins, 117-119). In similar ways, bells help Catholics understand their space. In the Catholic Church, the doctrine of the real presence of Christ is central and makes the mass have value. So when the bread becomes the body and divinity of Christ, bells are rung. This defines the space as Catholic, as only Catholic churches would ring bells during the consecration. These bells help Catholics further understand space within the chapel, as they are able to draw their attention to the consecrated elements when they are shown. The sharp ring of the bell cuts through the silence of a low mass or the chant of a high mass easily, rising above everything but Christ in the eucharist.
While there are many features that make the St. Philip Neri Latin Mass Chaplaincy in Burlington distinct, very little of it has to do with the space it is in. In the wider context of Burlington, a “pagan” or “post-Christian” city, the Latin mass at St. Joseph does not intrude into the city’s sense of secularity. Unlike a street preacher or the Muslim call to prayer, most of what they do is in their own sacred or consecrated space. The goal is not for the mass to be intrusive, but instead is meant for those in the immediate chapel space. The mass is also distinct in that there is a goal to make it as much like other Latin masses as possible. Father O’Donnell mentions how when a priest from Montreal came to say mass for him, he was overjoyed that the priest from Montreal did nothing differently than Father O’Donnell (O’Donnell 2018). For that is the goal: to be in union with all other Latin mass parishes in the world, praying as a universal church.
Bull, Michael, and Les Black. “The Auditory Markers of the Village.” The Auditory Culture Reader, by Alain Corbin, BERG, New York , NY , pp. 117–126.
Dunne, Jamison, and Father Brian O’Donnell. “Interview of Father Brian O’Donnell.” 20 Apr. 2018.
Kapchan, Deborah. “Learning to Listen: The Sound of Sufism in France.” The World of Music 51, no. 2 (2009): 65-89. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41699883.
Schafer, R. Murray. “10. The Soundscape.” The Sound Studies Reader, edited by Jonathan Sterne, Routledge, London, 2012, pp. 95–103.
Schwartz, Hillel. “Noise and Silence: The Soundscape and Spirituality.” Realizing the Ideal: The