Luca Fumagalli

Msgr. John O’Connor (1870–1952) is remembered today for being the model for Chesterton’s Father Brown. Yet the Irish priest was an outstanding figure in more ways than one. Although all his life he was a simple parish priest in Yorkshire, he was friends with the artist Eric Gill, the poet David Jones and many other Catholic and non-Catholic intellectuals of his time. He was also a bibliophile, art collector, musicologist, journalist and translator from French (his favourite authors were Claudel and Maritain). Hilaire Belloc, who like many was fascinated by his good humour, called him the most intelligent man he had ever met.

However, the theological views of the monsignor, particularly with regard to the liturgy, could hardly have been defined as conservative. On the subject he wrote a pamphlet, Why Revive the Liturgy, and How?, which anticipated some of the innovations that would be introduced by the Second Vatican Council. His views found a concrete application in the new parish church of Our Lady and First Martyrs, in Bradford, which the priest had built in 1935: the church had a revolutionary octagonal, almost circular plan, with the altar placed in the centre of the assembly.

Why Revive the Liturgy, and How? was printed privately and anonymously, without date and without even the indication of the publishing house or printer. Such discretion was motivated by the desire to limit the circulation of the pamphlet to a close group of friends and correspondents since O’Connor was fully aware that he was dealing with sensitive issues and wanted to avoid being confronted with the ire of his bishop. Only in 2021 did the Arouca Press take on the task of republishing the text with the title Father Brown Reforms the Liturgy, accompanied by a long and interesting introduction by the Benedictine Hugh Somerville Knapman.

If the dating of the writing is not so obvious – Father Knapman puts forward the hypothesis of 1939 – there is no doubt about its paternity. A copy of Why Revive the Liturgy, and How? is in fact kept in the library of the University of Toronto among those papers of Msgr. O’Connor which form part of the Chesterton Collection. Other references to the document can be found in the article by the nun Felicitas Corrigan, The Prescience of Father Brown, published in the magazine “The Clergy Review” in February 1972, and in the biography of O’Connor signed by Julia Smith in 2010.

Why Revive the Liturgy, and How? however, is a somewhat disorganized text, giving the impression of being the result of scattered notes merged a posteriori in an attempt to make the arguments at least coherent and linear. What O’Connor calls for is no mere revitalisation of the Tridentine Mass, but rather a thorough reform. The monsignor, who does nothing to mitigate the frankness of highly assertive language, expresses himself in favour of the translation into the vernacular of some parts of the Mass and of concelebration; he finds no serious objections to the idea of receiving communion in the hand or to the ordination of permanent deacons, and finally he calls for the softening of the discipline regarding the Eucharistic fast. In order to avoid certain choral horrors he witnessed, he even goes so far as to propose the abolition of music in public functions. Nonetheless, what O’Connor considers the most important reform is the return to a central altar without a tabernacle, with the faithful gathered all around (Eric Gill, author of a small volume on the issue entitled Mass for the Masses, thought likewise).

Although Msgr. O’Connor occasionally demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the liturgical tradition and falls into some rather spectacular errors, Why Revive the Liturgy, and How? makes for interesting reading even for those who, like the present writer, do not share most of his opinions. It is in fact a valuable testimony of that desire for liturgical renewal which, in the years between the two world wars, was affecting European and British Catholicism, a phenomenon to which few scholars, at least until now, have given due consideration.