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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Thursday, April 17, 2003  
The High (Speed) Mass

Domenico Bettinelli and Bill Cork have been jousting on the relative merits of the quickie Mass.

One who favored, nay required, his Masses fast was Hilaire Belloc:

It followed that his piety was matter-of-fact. To him, the church was home. Thus, although he attended Mass daily, he believed (it is theologically sound) that a Low Mass should last no more than 10 minutes. If I attended Mass daily and were as hungover as he often was at that hour (Belloc was occasionally known to almost stagger to church, murmuring, "Oh, what we must endure for our holy religion"), I suspect I, too, might prefer similar brevity. I would not imitate H.B.’s criticism of a slow priest by standing up after 10 minutes, taking out a pocket watch, opening it and staring at its face.

Catholic writer Brian Doyle, in a 1997 essay in American Scholar, described the clockwork skill of serving the Old Mass with the speed required by worshipers with a morning train to catch. Someday I will post the entire essay, which is magnificent, but here is an excerpt:

Altar boy
Brian Doyle
1 April 1997
American Scholar

I will go up to the altar of God/ The giver of youth and happiness. - Psalm 43


I missed one Mass as an altar boy - the Tuesday dawn patrol, 6:00 A.M., Father Dennis Whelan presiding. He was a good-natured fellow, a cigar smoker, although he was a little young for it, that kind of guy, but he was furious when I trudged back to the sacristy after sitting through the second half of Mass in the very last pew.

Where were you?

I was late, Father.

You miss another and you're out of the corps.

I'm very sorry, Father.

It's no joke to be all alone out there.

Yes, Father.

I knew why he was peeved; I was the key to his famous twenty- two minute Mass. He pulled off this miracle week after week, without ever looking at his watch. His Mass drew the faithful by the dozens, especially businessmen trying to catch the weekday 6:30 train into New York City. One time Whelan had the 6:00 on St. Patrick's Day, and we had nearly fifty people in the church-still a record for our parish, I bet.

Working with Whelan was a pleasure; he was a real artist, someone who would have made his mark in any field. He had all the tools - good hands, nimble feet, a sense of drama, a healthy ego, the unnerving itch to be loved that all great performers have. He did not rush his movements, mumble, or edit his work. He was efficient, yes-he'd send his right hand out for the chalice as his left was carving a blessing in the air, that sort of thing-but every motion was cleanly executed and held in the air for the proper instant, and he had astounding footwork for such a slab of meat. He was one or two inches over six feet tall, 250 pounds maybe, big belly sliding around in his shirt, but he was deft at the altar and could turn on a dime in the thick red carpet. He cut a memorable double pivot around the corners of the altar table on his way to his spot, and he cut that sucker as cleanly as a professional skater before a Russian judge.

My job was simple: I was the wizard's boy, and the whole essence of being a great altar boy was to be where you needed to be without seeming to get there. Great altar boys flowed to their spots, osmosed from place to place. They just appeared suddenly at the priest's elbow and then vanished like Cheshire cats. There were other arts- quick work with the hands, proper bell ringing, a firm hand with matches and candles, the ability to project a sort of blue-collar holiness on the stage, that sort of thing-but the flowing around like a five-foot-tall column of water was the main thing, and it was damned hard to learn. Rookies spent their whole first year, and often two, lurching around the altar like zombies, a tick behind Father's moves, which led to, horror of horrors, an irritated Father gesturing distractedly for what he needed. Extra gestures from the wizard were the greatest sins, and we recoiled in horror when we saw them when we were at Mass with our families and out of uniform. At such moments, when the clod at the altar forgot to ring the bells, or brought the wrong cruet, or knelt there like a stone when he should have been liquiding around the altar in a flutter of surplice sleeves, I closed my eyes in shame and in memory, for my rookie year was a litany of errors too long to list, and my graduation from rookie to veteran was a source of great pride to me.


Whelan was all business out there from the moment he strode purposefully through the little doorway from the sacristy. He had to duck a bit to get under the lintel easily, but even this little dip was done smoothly and powerfully, as if he had trained for it. This quick duck-and-rise move made it appear that he was leaping onto the stage, and he always startled the rail birds getting in a last ask before the lights went up; by the time Whelan was front and center, the old birds were back in their pews doing the rosary ramble.

Whelan ran his Mass like clockwork, and God help the boy who was still sleepy, because the man knew our marks like they were chalked on the floor, and he expected us to be quick with the equipment of the Mass - glassware, towels, smoke. Cruets were to be filled to the neck, incense respectfully removed from the boat and properly lit in the thurible, hand towel clean and folded over the left arm, Mass book open to the right page, bells rung sharply at exactly the instant he paused for the sharp ringing of the bells. He also liked his wine cut with water in advance, half and half. Most priests liked to mix it themselves during Mass. Some drank mostly water with only a touch of wine for color and legitimacy; some drank the wine straight, with barely a drop of water. Few priests drank a full load of wine; even the heavy hitters found cheap burgundy distasteful at dawn. We did, too, although there were more than a few boys who drank wine in the musty stockroom, and every altar boy at some point gobbled a handful of Communion wafers to see how they tasted fresh from the box. They tasted like typing paper. After I discovered that the hosts came wholesale from a convent in New Jersey, the consecrated Host never tasted quite as savory again…


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