Participation at Mass: Then and Now


I first became a member of St. Basil’s parish in 1944, some 70 years ago. Over this lengthy period I have seen and welcomed significant changes in the Eucharist liturgy, the community sacrifice that rests at the very centre of our faith. Early on, as a student at St. Michael’s College I was an altar boy for five years, 1947- 52. Then my academic career took me away. I rejoined St. Basil’s parish in 1977 and later, as a retiree I was a lector for almost a decade, 2004 – 13.

I grew up Brantford, Ontario, and attended a blue collar parish led by a visionary pastor, though I didn’t realize it at the time. As an altar boy I served for 10 years in a parish where we had daily dialogue Mass and congregational singing at the Sunday High Mass. I was somewhat surprised, then, to find that St. Basil’s lacked such practices. I was further surprised the first time I attended Sunday High Mass at St Michael’s cathedral, Cardinal MacQuigan celebrating, to discover that communion was not distributed to the faithful at the Mass.

In the late ‘40s –early ‘50s many priests lived at the College. Each said a daily private Mass. Although I never did the numbers, in some years it would have been more than thirty. Meeting their daily Mass requirements involved a complex arrangement. Then, St. Basil’s Church had fifteen altars, four in the church itself there – three inside the sanctuary, the main altar and two side altars, plus a fourth in front of the east wall Pieta statue, then at a right angle to the wall with a small altar placed in front. The chapel below had even more, the chapel altar plus eight more (as I recall) located in a long narrow room at the rear that opened to the east. Each encompassed a small area some 10’x5’ with an altar at the far end separated from one another by heavy drapes on each side that extended from the rear wall to the open end. Given its resemblance to a railway sleeping car, this room was known as “The Pullman”. Two public early morning Masses were “said” on the St. Basil’s main altar. For the remainder, the schedule provided for private Masses at half-hour intervals from 6.30 a.m. to 8.30 a.m. on the other altars. Those were busy mornings at St. Basil’s Church.

In my junior and senior undergraduate years, I served the daily 6.30 a.m. Mass celebrated by Father Wilfred Dore, C.S.B., at the altar in front of the Pieta statue. Then, as a graduate student, I served Mass for a fellow student, a priest on leave from St. Francis Xavier University. He said Mass in the Pullman. Here the server knelt on the floor at the open end of the “room”, Perforce, prayers and responses were spoken in soft whispers. Since the Mass was a community liturgy, Canon Law required at least two persons to be present. Occasionally a server would sleep in. Then another server or a priest who had completed his Mass would “fill in”. On those very rare occasions when neither was available, a server was called on to do “double duty”. This involved kneeling in the aisle at the end of the drape separating the two altars, with one knee on each side of the drape. In this way he could be said to be present at both Masses and the rule observed. I never understood why such a non-sensical expedient, which involved observance of the “form” while ignoring the “substance” was judged necessary. Reflecting today, I find it difficult to understand how such an impoverished understanding of the nature of the Eucharist as a community sacrifice lasted so long.

Thanks to the liturgical reforms arising from Vatican II daily Mass at St. Basil’s today is much different. Over the past decade until forced by ill health to step down I have been privileged to serve as a lector at the daily 7.30 a.m. Mass celebrated by Father Dan Donovan in St. Basil’s. The language is English; the congregation participates in voice and song; lay persons, both men and women, assist the celebrant as lectors and Eucharistic ministers. And on occasion when a visiting priest is present Father Dan and he concelebrate. The community nature of the Eucharist is clear, a very important improvement! More remains to be done, however, to increase understanding and participation.


[Dr. Ed was awarded a D.Litt (hon.). by the Univeserity of St. Michael’s College in 2008. He has recently published an e-book history of the college.]