Mang’e State Zitt’ – Eat and be Quiet

Could This Italian Expression Be the Answer to the Optional Dialogue Mass?

Brian McCall

Editor’s Introduction: In recent months a number of Remnant readers have asked us to weigh in on the “Dialogue Mass” controversy.  Especially in the wake of Summorum Pontificum there seems to be a good deal of misunderstanding over this issue, with some arguing the need to respond audibly to the prayers of the priest and others opting for silent prayer and meditation.

Many traditionalists consider the Latin Mass to be one of the few opportunities left in an increasingly egocentric and noisy world for one to just retreat into the background, remain silent and be content to let the priest represent them with due honor and majesty before the Divine Godhead. As they see it, Catholic churchgoers have been induced to babble and “participate” ad nauseam for forty years and they'd like finally to enkindle in themselves and in their Church a renewed appreciation for silence.

They hold their tongues, then, even when well meaning coreligionists ocassionally demonstrate proper “participation” at the top of their lungs. This is a cross to be borne joyfully, of course, since traditionalists can only rejoice that so many have returned to the old Mass. Still, a serious discussion of the Dialogue Mass becomes crucial as ever larger Latin Mass congregations mean an increase in the controversy surrounding this issue.

Interested in avoiding unpleasant confrontations at Mass, a growing number of tradition-minded Catholics are actually seeking out non-Dialogue Masses. Several Fraternity of St. Peter priests have, out of pastoral concern, reportedly suspended Dialogue Masses in various locations of late. But as Brian McCall rightly points out, this is not de fide and both sides of the aisle have a right to try to make their case.  Still, at the very least the following article should help the pro-Dialogue folks realize that those who remain silent on Sunday morning do so out of carefully considered choice and not an ignorance of the Latin responses. This should decrease the decibel level of the tutorial din rising from the pews, thus bringing distractions to a minimum. At least that is our hope as we go press with this excellent study of the Dialogue Mass. MJM


We are living through an important period in history.  For decades the Mass of All Ages has been confined to catacombs and dark corners of the Church.  This pearl of great of price is now emerging from its unjust imprisonment.  Decisions that will be made in our lifetime will affect in what way we pass on this treasure to future generations of Catholics who, God willing, will know of no other form of Roman Rite.  I speak here not of the fixed essential prayers and other elements of the Holy Sacrifice, but rather certain novel options and customs introduced in the period immediately preceding the imprisonment of the Mass. 

Should all of these as they existed in 1962 be passed on or not?  That is the question.

We know the novelties of the Novus Ordo did not appear out of thin air but were the culmination of the decades long efforts of the illegitimate heirs of the true Liturgical Movement.[1]  Beauduin, Bugnini and others distorted the original goals of the Liturgical Movement (a revival of study of and interior devotion to the Sacred Liturgy) to Modernist ends.  Pascendi and other anti-Modernist encyclicals and decrees demonstrate that the Modernists sought to alter the liturgy as part of their plan to remake the Church in the image of Modernists.  Gerald Ellard’s The Mass of the Future published in 1948 (twenty years before the publication of the Novus Ordo) predicted almost to the very letter the form of the Novus Ordo.  Their influence although restrained prior to the Second Vatican Council still left its mark on the Roman Rite of all Ages.  We looked last year at the trial run of many Novus Ordo novelties inflicted upon the Holy Week ceremonies.  In this article we will consider the position of the Dialogue Mass.

Before examining the issue, it is important to emphasize the nature of this debate.  As with the discussion of Holy Week, the issue does not involve a grave danger to the Faith.  It cannot be claimed, as with prolonged exposure to the Novus Ordo, that the Dialogue Mass has a high likelihood to Protestantize and destroy the faith of Catholics.  It is not an issue about which anathema sit is to be hurled from one side to the other amidst vehement polemics.  Under current liturgical law it is a permitted option.  Yet, we need to ask ourselves, is it an option that should be used or abandoned.  Prudentially is it a good thing or not?  Should it be left to one side as an unhelpful experiment?  In this article I would like to initiate a discussion (and I really want this to be a rational discussion not an emotional “Dialogue Mass makes me feel closer to God” or “It makes me angry.”)  Although I will present arguments that suggest that the theology of and practical difficulties with this 20th century novelty argue for its abandonment, I am not saying that anyone who disagrees is a traitor to the cause, a heretic or any other such thing. 

The Arguments

So turning to the arguments, it will be helpful to sketch briefly the history of its introduction, the theological difficulties with the Dialogue Mass and then some practical considerations. The various forms of Dialogue Mass were officially permitted as options by the Instruction issued by the Sacred Congregation for Rites De musica sacra et sacra liturgia in September 1958 (the “Instruction”).  As the title suggests, the Instruction deals primarily with the regulation of sacred music, the role of chant and polyphony. Yet, within the text the option of several types of Dialogue Mass is authorized.  This fact is important: there is not a “Dialogue Mass” but actually a variety of different options and forms.  We will need in the argument to distinguish among them. 

At a Mass where no choir is present (commonly called a Low Mass and referred to by the Instruction as a Missa Lecta) the laity are authorized by the Instruction to join the server and priest in several different ways. They may recite a few, a greater amount or all of the server’s responses. There is also the option of joining some of the prayers of the priest (e.g. Kyrie, Gloria, Pater Noster).  At a High Mass (where a choir is present to sing the parts proper to it and which can be with or without sacred ministers, referred to in the Instruction as a Missa in Cantu) the people are permitted to join the choir for a few, some or all of their singing of the Ordinary and even for the Propers (Introit, Gradual, etc.).  We will consider first Low Mass and then a High Mass.

Although this permission was only granted to the universal Church in the final days of the reign of Pope Pius XII, various forms of Dialogue Masses had been in use for a few decades, mostly in France and Germany, sometimes with an indult but more often illicitly. Those favoring the introduction of this novelty tended to favor the liturgical revolution that was to come and they admittedly saw the Dialogue Mass as an interim step. 

The liberal Secretary of State Cardinal Gasparri, protégé of the suspected freemason Cardinal Rompallo, orchestrated a Christmas Mass for Pope Pius XI where the congregation was encouraged to join in singing the responses.  After this event which was seen as strikingly novel by those attending, Fathers Bugnini, Bauduin, Boyer and others advocated the establishment of various forms of dialogue throughout the 1940s and 1950s and Hans Kung was reported as exclaiming upon publication of the Instruction, that finally the ancient participatory role of the laity had been restored.

Although this great enthusiasm of the liturgical liberals is not a reason in and of itself to reject the dialogue options, as with the revised Holy Week Rites, their exuberance over this change should cause us to pause. More importantly than their support, their arguments in favor of it are troubling. 

As with communion in the hand and reception under both species, the advocates of the dialogue options claimed to be re-introducing an ancient liturgical custom.  As with the changes to the reception of Holy Communion, this argument exhibits two main weaknesses.  First, we have very little reliable evidence as to the general liturgical practices of the early Church.  Driven underground in persecution, few reliable records from the period survive.  It is uncertain whether the bits of evidence we do have represent general practices or local variations or even intentional or unintentional abuses. 

More importantly, as Pius XII himself warned in Mediator Dei, we must guard against a false antiquarianism.  Even if it can be shown that a particular practice existed in the first few centuries of the Church’s life, that is no reason to return to a practice abandoned for over a millennia.  The Holy Ghost has been working through history to refine and embellish and perfect the sacred Rites.  The authentic understanding of an organic development of the Liturgy is that some practices fell into disuse for good reasons. 

The arguments of Michael Davies, recently reprinted in these pages, demonstrated that it was for sound theological and practical reasons that the Church abandoned a possibly existent early practice of reception of Our Lord on the hand.  As Michael Davies argued, the assertion that the Church’s public worship had deteriorated through “medieval” superstition and accretions and needed to be returned to its ancient purity is a Protestant error through and through. The hubris of Archbishop Bugnini (mastermind of the New Mass) was the same as Luther and Cranmer. The poor laity had been suffering for hundreds of years and needed to be restored in their worship to the original usages.

The Theological Reasoning

So what are the theological reasons for the general laity not joining in the prayers of the server or choir that led the Church to abandon the custom, if it existed at all?  First, it obscures the nature of the real dialogue that takes place at Mass.  It is a sacred dialogue between the great High Priest Christ our Lord and His Eternal Father.  It is for this reason that the priest, in persona Christi, faces not the congregation but the East.  He is speaking to God, not the congregation he leads.  The dialogue is not a conversation between priest and people but a scripted exchange among sacred ministers at the altar. 

If we turn to Sacred Scripture, we see that worship under the Old Law (which was a type of the eternal Liturgy to be established by Our Lord) did not involve a dialogue between the sacrificing priests and the people.  Abraham goes alone to talk with and offer sacrifice to God.  He does not bring his extensive household with him to actively participate in the sacrificing. 

The Israelites remain at the base of Mount Sinai while Moses goes to speak with the Lord.  There they are to pray for and unite themselves with Moses as he undertakes this great task. 

The high priest entered into the Holy of Holies to worship God while the nation of Israel prayed outside and united itself in prayer to the priest. 

At the Transfiguration, Our Lord ascends the Mountain with a small group of the Apostles and he speaks privately with Moses and Elijah.  His words are not even recorded by the sacred writers. 

The dialogue of the first Mass Christ offered was not in the open with all his disciples but spoken intimately with his newly ordained priests, the Apostles. 

Likewise with the Mass, there is a great difference between the role of those who hold a sacred office and those who do not.  For those not holding or exercising such an office, the Liturgy is not something we “do” but rather something that we experience, something outside of us that overshadows us and toward which we need to be properly disposed to receive worthily. 

The ritual requires distinctions to be made between clerical and lay roles.  As the Instruction itself says “By its very nature, the Mass requires that all present take part in it, each having a particular function.” (emphasis added)

What is the particular function of the laity not exercising clerical offices?  To answer the question we need to remember that the altar servers are liturgical offices of clerics, the minor order of acolyte.  Due to the practical necessities of parochial life, lay boys are permitted to exercise their office out of necessity.  Although in the lay state, these boys are by indult exercising these clerical functions, but the office remains clerical. 

Thus, the altar boy is not the model of the function of the laity.  He does not represent the action of the laity which has somehow been usurped by the altar boy.  When the laity join the acolytes in the responses at Low Mass this distinction between clerical and lay is blurred.  Where the option offered by the Instruction of having the laity join the priest in praying certain prayers (such as the full Pater Noster) the distinction between the mediating priest himself and the laity is diminished.

Proper Lay Participation

Since the Protestant Revolt, this Catholic understanding of the great divide between the laity and the Liturgical action of the sacrificing priesthood has been disparaged and attacked.  Yet as we shall see, this clear delineation of roles is actually a great blessing of freedom for the laity. 

The obligation of the laity is the same as the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai.  They are to unite their minds and hearts to the action of the priest, their mediator, their representative, as he enters into the Holy of Holies, the Garden of Eden, to beseech God for the fruit of the Tree of Life and to bring it to the edge of the Garden for the people to be nourished. 

The Instruction itself explains “Interior participation is the most important; this consists in paying devout attention, and in lifting up the heart to God in prayer. In this way the faithful "are intimately joined with their High Priest...and together with Him, and through Him offer (the Sacrifice), making themselves one with Him" (Mediator Dei, Nov. 20, 1947).” 

This intimate and interior union of the faithful who lift their heart up to their Creator is the proper function of the laity, not external activity.  As John Vennari recently pointed out in an excellent commentary on the 49th Eucharistic conference: ‘[a]ctive participation’ is supposed to be a genuine liturgical fervor, not a fever of activity during the liturgy.”[2]  Obviously there is a quantitative difference between a Traditional Latin Mass using a dialogue option and the World Youth Day Papal Mass with half naked aborigines gyrating toward the sanctuary (if it could be called such).  Yet, both are rooted in a flawed desire for external activity outside the sanctuary. 

Put another way, the Dialogue Mass is only a low grade fever of 100 degrees whereas the balloon launching at the recent Eucharistic Conference was a delirium causing 105 degree fever.  Yet, both are a fever.

This interior role for the laity provides a great freedom in the manner of its attainment.  Unlike the priest and his ministers whose every word and action are regulated, the laity have a freedom of choice in means to achieving their rightful participation.  In earlier centuries the Rood Screen, and in Eastern Liturgies the Iconostasis,  helped to emphasize that the laity prayed devoutly in the manner most suited to them outside while the priest, assisted by his ministers, spoke on behalf of the people of God to the Blessed Trinity inside.  This ritual conversation was a highly orchestrated one. The interior conversation of the laity could be more spontaneous.  In these different manners, the whole Church, those outside and those inside the Holy of Holies, could pray with different words but with one voice.

As the comments of Hans Kung noted above indicate, those originally advocating the Dialogue Mass despised this ancient understanding of the different roles of the laity and the priest.  They saw a deficiency in the over 1000-year custom of the Church.  The laity were missing out on something.  There was too much emphasis on the priest (the office that all the Protestant varieties would abolish in reality if not in name).  This thinking even creeps in to the Instruction. There is something incomplete, they argued, in a mute congregation.  It obscures the nature of the Mass as an act of the community.  The people are not involved. 

The error in this line of reasoning is that the Mass is not a community event like a cookout or town meeting.  The perfect sacrifice of Christ to His Father needs no “participation” of the laity to become perfect.  It is perfect in and of itself and even in the absence of any congregation (a Mass with a lone priest).  The laity are present for their own edification and spiritual nourishment, not to effect the action at the altar.  They come not to add to or perfect the sacred action but to receive its benefits.  This is the reason for the necessary interior disposition – it disposes the soul to receive graces.

A Dialogue Mass can easily be seen as a community event.  Priest speaks, people respond.  Once accepted, the liturgical liberals more easily argue for turning the priest himself around.  Should he not face the people he is talking with?  I am not stating that versus populum Masses are the inevitable result of a Dialogue Mass.  Yet, the two ideas spring from a common vision of the nature of the Mass as a communal experience.

Practical Considerations

The foregoing theological reasons are supported by practical considerations. As noted above, the absence of responses by the people, allows great freedom to the laity to choose methods (and even change them from Mass to Mass) for attaining greater interior union with the sacred action.  The centuries have produced a great number of possibilities.  Meditating on the inspiring scenes displayed in stained glass windows or statuary is a venerable custom.  Many lay books called “primers” were composed over the centuries.  They contained prayers and meditations to assist in forming the interior dispositions suited to Mass.  Some were written to suit particular temperaments and stations in life.  One beautiful one composed at the end of the 19th century has wonderful meditations for mothers arranged to correspond to different points in the Mass. 

In modern times,[3] hand Missals provide the texts of the Mass prayers and commentary which can be used to initiate meditation.  The mental recitation of the rosary is another possibility.  I am aware of a story from the 20th century when a liberal leaning priest chastised his mother for praying the rosary during Mass. The wise woman humbly asked her son what was the essence of the Mass. He responded a re-enactment of the incarnation, passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Our Lord.  She then asked what we meditate upon when praying the rosary.  He responded the mysteries of the events of Our Lord’s incarnation, passion, death, resurrection and ascension intertwined with the events in the life of His Mother.  She then asked: do you not see that these are then the same meditation? He had no reply and did not rebuke her again. 

The introduction of a spoken lay dialogue interferes with this freedom for the laity to choose the most effective method for attaining the meditative state.  The chatter surrounding them and the natural impulse to be drawn into the collective vocal action precludes or at least interrupts these other means of interior recollection.  Maintaining a sacred silence outside of the sanctuary allows this freedom of means to the laity.  In the pew, the words read from a missal can be the focus, but are not the exclusive means.

Also, given the number of options permitted for dialogue at a Low Mass, the practice often generates confusion and discord in the congregation, not knowing to which parts a response is expected.  With a variation of proficiency in reciting and pronouncing Latin among the laity, there is often great variation in the level and enthusiasm of responses.  For a visitor to a parish it is somewhat reminiscent of the confusion before the Acclamation after the Consecration in the Novus Ordo Mass where one is never sure which response to parrot.

 Finally, one of the best instruments for fostering priestly vocations is being an altar boy. This is one of the reasons against allowing girls to fill the role.  With a dialoguing congregation, the altar boy’s unique role is lost.  Obviously it is not to the extent of the Novus Ordo (where the altar servers and serviettes stand around with nothing to do except look bored), but still the boys role is seen as less unique. 

I witnessed this once when a devout Catholic French boy came to stay with us in England.  Knowing that he had served Mass in France for years, Father asked if he would like to serve a weekday Mass.  As the prayers at the foot of the altar began, there was a great silence.  The boy did not know the responses.  When I asked him about it he replied that in France where he served the congregation always said the responses so he had never had a reason to learn them thoroughly himself.  This could never go unnoticed for so many years in the absence of a dialoging congregation. 

And at High Mass?

So far we have been focusing on the use of dialogue at a Low Mass. The theological and practical difficulties discussed already are similar for a High Mass.  The difference is that during a High Mass the congregation becomes an extension of the liturgical choir rather than subsuming the role of the acolyte.  Thus, the encroachment on the clerical functions is less pronounced. The choir is still a liturgical office and where possible should be comprised of clerics.  Yet, in most parochial settings necessity usually dictates an all lay choir. 

The differentiation of roles is preserved in the rubrics applicable to the High Mass and a usurpation of the priest’s prayer is prevented.  The priest is required to say silently the Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and all the Propers in addition to them being sung by the choir (called “doubling the text”).  The official liturgical prayer is the silent one of the priest at the altar.  This doubling of the text eliminates the confusion that the choir are joining the priest. 

Likewise, the altar servers say all the responses sung by the choir, preserving their role as acolyte.  In this sense the role of the choir can be understood in light of the meditation aspired to by the people.  The singing of the sacred texts is an aesthetic aid to assist the laity in their contemplation not a participation in the action of the sacrifice.  I do not mean to slight the importance of good liturgical music as a valuable resource to the interior life of the laity by using the word aesthetic.  Since aesthetics aim at beauty, they are of great virtue.  Unfortunately our utilitarian society tends to give aesthetics a connotation of superfluity.  I refer to the role of the choir in the Catholic sense of placing high value on aesthetics. 

Thus, when the congregation join in the singing with the choir it is less problematic than at a Low Mass since the structure of doubling the texts already preserves the distinction between the liturgical drama and its offices and the role of the choir.  The laity become an extension of the choir, not those in the sanctuary. 

Yet, even in a High Mass, the loss of the interior disposition of the faithful can be lost in exchange for external activity.  Congregational singing can still detract from the meditative spirit that should dominate the nave of the Church.  Rather than just being able to allow the beauty of the sacred words and melodies wafting down from the choir loft as from angels in heaven to overcome oneself, the atmosphere can become more active. 

Further, having the laity join the choir regularly, can restrain the ability of the choir to offer all of the treasures of the Church’s musical tradition.  I have great respect for the members of our choir here in Oklahoma who spend so many hours learning, practicing and rehearsing chant modes and polyphony.  Although it is possible for the laity without intensive training to learn some of the more common and easier chants, most people on their own will not be able to attain the proficiency to sing all of the Gregorian varieties (especially the Propers) let alone polyphony.  If the congregation is always to join the choir this either significantly restricts the repertoire to the simpler level or interferes with the quality of the music. 

Both points were emphasized to me when attending a Mass once where someone accustomed to a dialogue setting insisted on joining the chants from his pew.  As it was a feast day, the little scola had agreed with the celebrant to sing the more elaborate Solemn tone for the versicles before the preface (Et cum spiritu tuo, habemus ad dominum, dignum et justum est).  This person with a booming voice belted out the more commonly used Simple tone which clashed horribly with the Solemn tone of the scola and was so disruptive that the choir had to stop and start the verse over again, having totally lost the note as a result. 

Thus, a regular practice of dialogue at a High Mass presents many practical difficulties even if the theological points are less impinged. 


I will attempt to draw a few conclusions from this discussion.  First, as sated at the outset the Dialogue Mass is an option (or more precisely a list of various options) since 1958 officially permitted by the Church.  The issue is thus not one of condemning communities who are making use of or abstaining from use of the options.  The question is rather, should this experiment (for given its novelty in the liturgical history of the Church that is what it is) be continued in the revival of the Roman Rite or left to one side like many other customs and experiments over the years as not desirable as a permanent part of the Rite.  I have argued that certainly for a Low Mass, the practice distorts and obscures important delineations between clerical and lay offices. It discourages the quiet interior disposition of the laity as they join their mind and soul to the sacrifice of Christ.  It makes it difficult for individuals to make use of other means of contemplation as they are interrupted by the congregational responses. Someone wishing to focus his spiritual faculties on the words of the Mass is free to do so by internally speaking the words of response in his heart.  By doing so, this leaves the person sitting next to him free to use other methods of interior preparation and contemplation.

We have seen the theological and practical difficulties, although present, are less pronounced at a High Mass.  Yet, even here the habitual use of the dialogue form is likely to restrict the extent and quality of the choir’s contribution to the aesthetic atmosphere of the Mass and damage the laity’s understanding of their proper interior disposition.  If utilized on a parochial level[4] at all, it should be limited in frequency (perhaps once a month).

One final note is important.  We must approach this topic with charity and respect for our fellow Traditionalist.  In addition to discussing the issues raised in a civil manner, we need to exhibit these virtues in Mass.  On one hand if we are not in favor of a dialogue option but find ourselves in a community where it is used we should respectfully pray at Mass, not glaring with disgust at those around us and then hurling invectives at them afterwards. 

Likewise, a local custom of not using the dialogue form should be respected.  Using common sense, if we observe that we are the only ones responding, we should discontinue it immediately out of respect for the custom.  As much as my position on the matter should be clear from this article, I acknowledge that those using these options are permitted to do so as long as the rules of the Instruction remain in force. 

On the other hand, consideration must be mutual.  If at a Dialogue Mass (spoken or sung) and the person next to you is quietly reading or praying a rosary and not joining in, he should not be coaxed or cajoled or made to feel obligated to join in the use of the option.  It is difficult enough to maintain contemplative composure with the community around responding but near impossible when someone is shoving a book in your face or poking your arm telling you to respond.  As much as I believe that the injection of these options into the Rite has been an anachronistic, theological and practical failure, I pray that we can discuss the issue and pray at Mass together in Christian charity.  


[1] See Rev. Fr. Didier Bonneterre, The Liturgical Movement Gueranger to Bugnini (Angelus Press 1980) for an excellent historical summary of the original Liturgical Movement and the development of the subsequent perversion of it.

[2] Catholic Family News, August 2008.

[3] The Church actually forbade the printing of missals containing vernacular versions of the Mass until well into the nineteenth century so they are a rather late newcomer.  Again it was liturgically progressive priests such as Antonio Rosmini who agitated for a reversal of this long standing prohibition.  Church officials feared its introduction would lead to agitation for participation by the laity and then claims that this participation would be easier in the vernacular.  I am not suggesting that the use of hand missals should be abandoned, yet the nature of their use is another topic which could be discussed at a later opportunity.

[4] I use the term “parochial” to distinguish discussion of a High Mass in a Monastery or other religious community.  Given, their different station in life and time to devote to liturgical music training, a different conclusion would likely be warranted.