British Catholic literature gives a lot of importance to the Mass that is unmatched in any other European literature (including even that of France, with the exception of Huysmans and Claudel). Beginning with Cardinal Newman’s novels, the Eucharistic celebration became the symbol of a people faithful to the religion of their fathers and the most evident sign of Catholic doctrine that Protestantism had tried in vain to annihilate.
Consequently, in the works of various authors who were active at the time of the Great War, the liturgy plays an important role also from the point of view of the structure of the story, such as, for example, that of emphasizing the spiritual value of a particularly significant part of the plot. This happens in the novel One Poor Scruple by Mrs Wilfrid Ward – where the protagonist, tormented by remorse, finally makes her appearance at Mass – or in Great Possessions, in which the redemption of the heroine slightly precedes the scene of Eucharistic adoration, which is offered amid the affection and devotion of a group of nuns. And more dramatically, in the epilogue of The Coat Without Seam, Maurice Baring’s masterpiece, the main character, wounded and delusional, attends Mass in a small French village, finding some comfort before taking his last breath; something similar also happens in Daphne Adeane, where the echo of the litanies of Loreto that comes from a small church sets off a radical change of course in history.
Some of Roger Pater’s short stories collected in Mystic Voices, a book of 1923, show how detailed descriptions of the Catholic liturgy can also be present in supernatural stories, similar to the kind found in historical novels, especially in those with an Elizabethan setting. Mgr. Benson, for example, wrote many pages on clandestine masses, when, in the Tudor era, the faithful and priests risked their lives every time they received communion. In his novels the Eucharistic celebration plays an important apologetic role, similar to what happens in Ward’s Tudor Sunset – in which three priests celebrate Mass just before being executed – or in C by Baring, where the realistic description of the liturgy reveals the great difference between Catholic and Protestant spirituality. Communion is likewise present in the epilogue of The Lord of the World; it is the only hope as the universe dies out.
Finally, the Mass can operate as an occasion for conversion for the characters. Horace Blake, protagonist of Ward’s book of the same name, re-embraces the Catholic Faith while attending a service in a small Breton church; while in in The Heavenly Ladder, a novel by the Scottish Compton Mackenzie, the Eucharist not only brings Mark closer to the Church of Rome, but is also a valuable opportunity to find himself.
Many other examples could be given as further evidence of a theme that has occupied considerable space in the pages of English authors. This is why some of the most harsh criticisms of the Second Vatican Council and, in particular, of the liturgical reform promoted by Paul VI, would come precisely from the British Isles.
Sources: R. GRIFFITHS, The Pen and the Cross, Continuum, London, 2010; J. PEARCE, Literary Converts, Harper Collins, London, 2000.