With the church ablaze with candles, the Christ child in the crib and the choir singing their carols in perfect harmony, Midnight Mass is at the heart of Christmas. But according to a Tablet survey, it is on its way to becoming a thing of the past.
Priests at more than 50 deaneries – groups of parishes – across England and Wales contacted this week confirmed that there has been a decline in the number of churches offering a Mass that ushers in Christmas Day on the stroke of midnight. In some pastoral areas it will not be offered at all, while in many the first Mass of the nativity is now scheduled for as early as 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Though cherished by many Catholics, various issues have militated against the 1,500-year-old tradition. Many priests report problems with drunks infiltrating services that begin just as the pubs close – one parish even reported a streaker.
Ageing congregations have also made earlier Masses more popular; and the declining number of priests, and subsequent reorganisation of parishes, mean that increasingly Midnight Mass is only celebrated in one parish per deanery.
Mgr David Hogan, parish priest of St Bernadette’s, in Nunthorpe, Middlesbrough, estimated that fewer than 25 per cent of parishes now offer Midnight Mass. “Last time we had it, we ended up with a drunk trying to get the doors off the church,” he said. “So we’ve made the decision not to have Mass when people are pouring out of the pubs sloshed.”
The roots of the decline, said Fr Hogan, went back to the 1970s and the introduction of an evening vigil Mass to fulfil the Sunday or Holyday obligation. “There has never been any significance in celebrating Mass at midnight at Christmas beyond the fact that it used to be the first opportunity there was to have it,” he added.
Other parishes have experienced bizarre interruptions to Midnight Mass over the years. Canon Alan Sheridan, of St George’s, in York, said the service was moved to 8 p.m. after a streaker caused havoc. “We are on the main drag into town so people are coming straight from the pub and it can make Mass very difficult,” he said.
Meanwhile, Canon Peter Turbitt, now a priest in Wantage, in Portstmouth diocese, recalled an incident at St Michael and All Angels, Havant, when police were called three times after drunks attacked his church. “It is not nice being showered with bricks by drunken yobbos when you’re trying to pray,” he said. “A lot of people were frightened to walk home afterwards.”
According to a parishioner at Holy Rood, Barnsley, in Hallam diocese, his church ensures there are men standing near the door to act as informal bouncers during Midnight Mass.
Where priests have consulted parishioners over the timing, most have opted for an earlier liturgy. Fr John Gott, of the Good Shepherd, Mytholmroyd, in Leeds diocese, said the popular vote had led to a change to 8.30 p.m. “We reckon that’s about midnight in Bethlehem, ” he said. Fr John Minh, priest in charge of St Luke’s, Peterborough, in East Anglia diocese, said parishioners had voted three to one in favour of a move to 10.30 p.m. “It’s still tradition, but for rural or semi-rural areas like ours, we have to abolish it,” he said.
Fr Tom Grufferty, of the Immaculate Conception and St Joseph’s Church in Christchurch, Dorset, reported that people preferred the vigil Mass “because they can get on with Christmas.”
At St Mary’s Church, Pembroke, in Menevia diocese, Carmelite priest Fr Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard said he would celebrate two vigil Masses at different churches on Christmas Eve. He worried, however, about a 5 p.m. Mass becoming a substitute for Christmas Day Mass for children. “We have turned our practice of the faith into a matter of convenience rather than a matter of commitment,” he said.
Many priests spoke of their sadness that Midnight Mass was becoming a rarity. Fr Michael Marsden, parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes, at Hessle in Middlesbrough diocese, said the midnight service in his parish would be the only one in the deanery. “Going to Midnight Mass at Christmas used to be one of the hallmarks of being a Catholic; it is sad if that is changing,” he said.