Facing the people in 1955, Paul Claudel’s lament continued . . .

The new, experimental mass in France drew fevered objections from the poet, dramatist, and diplomat Paul Claudel in a Figaro article a month before he died . . .

“It is true that in the traditional liturgy,” priest with back to worshipers, “the most moving part of the Holy Sacrifice is hidden from the faithful. But it is not hidden from their hearts and their faith.”

At Solemn High Masses of old, this sense of wonderment was such that the sub-deacon, one of the regulation three celebrants, at the foot of the altar remained standing during the Offertory, hiding his face with his left hand in reverence.

“We too are invited to pray,” he said, “to withdraw into ourselves, not in a spirit of curiosity but of recollection.

[Emphasis added throughout]

He took note of the (Catholic) Eastern-rite practice of in effect hiding the altar behind the iconostasis, a screen or partition with doors and tiers of icons.

Behind it “takes place unseen” by worshipers, he said, “the miracle of transubstantiation”; and “only afterwards” did the celebrant appear “on the threshold of the sacred door, the Body and Blood of Christ in his hands.”

Something like this “lingered” as a venerated custom in France “for many years,” he said; and the mid-19th-century pioneer in such matters, Dom Prosper Guéranger, “protested energetically against those who had the audacity” to do away with it.

There was nothing like that now, Claudel complained. Instead, the church’s “deplorable practice” had “turned the ancient ceremony upside down, to the great consternation of the faithful.”

“There is no longer an altar,” he moaned, asking, “Where is it, this consecrated stone which the Apocalypse [Book of Revelation] compares to the Body of Christ Itself? There is nothing but a bare trestle covered with a tablecloth, reminding us depressingly of a Calvinist workbench”!

The supposed “convenience of the faithful” required this: “Accessories” had to go, “not only the candlesticks and flowers, but the tabernacle! The crucifix!”

“The priest says his Mass in a vacuum!” he continued. “When he invites the people to lift up their hearts and their eyes . . . to what? There is nothing left in front of us to focus our minds on the Divine.”

Except the priest himself, of course, looking at you.

Of the faithful, “it would appear that not the slightest spiritual effort will be required.” Instead, “it seems necessary to stick the most sublime of mysteries in their faces, to reduce the Mass to the primitive form of the Last Supper and in doing so, change the entire ritual.”

“What is the meaning of ‘Dominus vobiscum’ [The Lord be with you] and ‘orate fratres’ [pray brethren] spoken by a priest” in this new mass, separated from his people [by the table altar] and requiring nothing of them [by way of concentration]?

It seems good to note here that stage directions meant everything to the superb dramatist Claudel, who rebelled at the changes he saw, as if stage design and directions were all wrong and that made all the difference to him.

Liturgy is theater, of course. The mass is staged. Ritual provides stage directions and dramatic impact is crucial. Why not?

More later on this stage-effect function of rites.

In a month after this article appeared, Claudel was dead.


  1. Jim Bowman says:

    Reblogged this on Blithe Spirit and commented:

    Paul Claudel’s final statement.


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