The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Fr. Roger Ebert

Roger altar boy.jpg

Well, that was what his mother had hoped and prayed for. It didn’t quite work out that way.  The celebrated film critic — now suffering from a ravenous form of cancer that has taken away much of his jaw — remembers his Catholic upbringing, the loss of his faith, and the vocation that wasn’t.  It’s all in a poignant entry over at his blog.

And he has this interesting take on the Church of his youth:

In my childhood the Church arched high above everything. I was awed by its ceremonies. Years later I agreed completely with Pauline Kael when she said that the three greatest American directors of the 1970s–Scorsese, Altman and Coppola–had derived much of their artistic richness from having grown up in the pre-Vatican Two era of Latin, incense, mortal sins, indulgences, dire sufferings in hell, Gregorian chant, and so on. Protestants and even Jews were victims, I suppose, of sensory deprivation.


The parish priest was the greatest man in the town. Our priest was Fr. J. W. McGinn, who was a good and kind man and not given to issuing fiery declarations from the pulpit. Of course in Catholic grade school I took the classes for altar boys. We learned by heart all the Latin of the Mass, and I believe I could serve Mass to this day. There was something satisfying about the sound of Latin.

Introibo ad altare Dei.

Ad Deum qui laitificat juventutem meum.

“I will go to the altar of God. The God who gives joy to my youth.” There was a “thunk” to the syllables, measured and confident, said aloud the way they looked. We learned in those classes when you stood. When you knelt. When you sat during the reading of scripture and the sermon. When you rang the bell, when you brought the water and wine. How to carefully hold the paten under the chins of communicants so a fragment of Holy Eucharist would not go astray. Later, there were dress rehearsals on the St. Pat’s altar. 


For years I served early Mass one morning a week, riding my bike to church and then onward to St. Mary’s for the start of the school day. On First Fridays, the Altar and Rosary Society supplied coffee, hot chocolate and sweet rolls in the basement of the rectory. When you served at a wedding, the best man was expected to tip you fifty cents. When you served at a funeral you kept a very straight face. During Lent there were the Stations of the Cross, the priest and servers moving around the church to pause in front of artworks depicting Christ’s progress toward Calvary. Walking from one station to the next, we intoned the verses of a dirge.

At the cross, her station keeping,
Stood the mournful mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.


 This was the Stabat Mater in English, we learned. Of course it had been written in Latin. You could go anywhere in the world and the Mass would sound the same, we were told, and the priests could all speak with one another in Latin. The dissolution of that practice at Vatican Two was the end of something that had survived for nearly two millennia. I loved the idea of Latin. I loved the hymns, especially Tantum Ergo, the solemn song at the Consecration of the Eucharist, which had been written by Thomas Aquinas.

Read the rest. It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking.  

Comments read comments(10)
post a comment

posted June 24, 2010 at 4:52 pm

I agree…both beautiful and heartbreaking. But it does raise an idea that often comes to my mind (I have no conscious memory or experience of the pre-Vatican II Church): IF things pre-Vatican II were so good and heavenly, passed on the Faith in an orthodox manner and celebrated a Liturgy more sacred than today…then WHERE are all the 55+ year old lay apostles, religious vocations and clergy?? One is given the impression by “oldsters” that pre-Vatican II Church was nearly heaven-on-earth…but it must have failed to pass on a deep living faith that would be able to transcend the “changes of Vatican II” that so many of them deplore. Instead it seems to me that so often what I read or hear is that what people miss most about that Church are mostly the “externals” (incense, Latin, wimples and veils, etc.). But I repeat: IF that form of Church did such an (allegedly) superior job at instilling a deep living faith then even the upheaval of the 60’s-70’s would not have been able to shake the rock-foundation.

report abuse

Dana MacKenzie

posted June 24, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Ebert may think he is removed from all of that, but his writing says otherwise.
God is not finished with him, yet. And he may end up, like Oscar Wilde and John Wayne in their last hours, surprising everyone.

report abuse


posted June 24, 2010 at 7:26 pm

I wonder if Roger Ebert knows that the Latin Mass is alive, well, and probably at a nearby church. Maybe he should go or have someone take him to hear a Mass one Sunday. It would be also wonderful gift if he could be buried with a Requiem Mass. It’s a shame that not many priests know how to say the Requiem Mass and burial rites any more. I pray that someone finds a priest that will agree to say a traditional funeral for him. I agree with Dana that he’s hungering for the faith. It’s not too late.
Dante, I agree that some people have returned to the Latin Mass out of nostalgia. Often nostalgia is a catalyst for a return to the faith — Roger Ebert is a great example. Nostalgia can’t explain the many young people who eagerly attend Latin Mass week after week. People of my generation, in their 30s and 40s, have no memory of the preconciliar era. Yet we know well that the traditional rites provide deep piety and spiritual nourishment from daily low Mass to a huge Pontifical Mass. The Latin Mass, or any liturgy of the Church, can’t ensure faith in a changing world. Liturgy uplifts, but faith is a personal decision.

report abuse


posted June 25, 2010 at 12:57 am

Praesta – your expression of what the liturgy is for you is beautiful. But as Catholics who profess faith in the Holy Spirit directing us through Pope and Bishops in ecumenical council. And the Pope and Bishops of Vatican II called almost unanimously for the reform of the 1962 Liturgy. So what are we to do? The decision of a pope (B16) to extend the use of the Mass of John XXIII is a prudential liturgical action and certainly his perogative as pontiff. BUT such a decision is not something “covered” by the magisterial office anywhere near the same level or solemnity as the act of an ecumenical council confirmed by the pope. Many believe this action to be unfortunate and seemingly a contradiction of the directives of an ecumencial council. I can see thieir point very clearly. Perhaps the next Holy Father will see things differently.

report abuse


posted June 25, 2010 at 2:22 am

I’m 65 and well remember the pre-VII church. [I studied the documents of VII at my Jesuit university as it was going on.] They tinkered with the Mass for years before Paul VI approved the new one we have now. You never knew what was going to be going on at the altar from one week to the next. That’s when missals became useless and throw-away worship aids came into being.
I was only at one Pontifical high Mass in my whole life – the dedication of my parish’s new church, but that’s what is going on at the designated church that have the Extraordinary Rite. People attending the Extraordinary Rite at most places today are not seeing what the typical parish had before Vatican II – they are seeing something that is aping films of Masses at St Peter’s. That’s why it wouldn’t help for Ebert to go to one of the places in Chicago that specializes in the Extraordinary Rite. It would not be what he remembers – it would look fake and staged. It sure does to me.
Tonight on PBS I saw a show that featured Shinto monasteries with ancient rituals that were favorably reported. Why is that cool and our ancient Catholic ritual is not thought to be cool? Why is our love of the old Mass considered nostalgia to be dismissed and ancient Shinto to be admired? What’s wrong with our culture??????
Why do we have such a stilted form of the old Mass? Is it because nobody is comfortable doing it? Do these folks even understand how rare it was for a Mass to have a priest and 2 deacons at a parish Sunday Mass? That’s not what we experienced before Vatican II.

report abuse


posted June 25, 2010 at 8:12 am

Julia — in the region of New England where I live there are many different types of Latin Masses. Within a hour’s drive east and west of my house on any given Sunday I can find a old-time mumbled Low Mass, a slowly-said Low Mass, a sung Mass, and a fully choreographed Solemn Mass with three ministers and professional choir. I agree that the extraordinary form today is often far from the rushed, indifferent Low Mass that many experienced in the 1950’s. Still, Ebert’s reflections suggest that he would likely benefit from any experience of the extraordinary form, even if the priests of his youth served up endless helpings of quick mechanical Masses.
Dante — I hear what you’re saying. Pope Paul VI clearly intended for the reformed missal to fully supplant the Tridentine missal. Yet his intentions weren’t stated at the Council. Rather, he expressed them afterwards in the motu proprio Missale Romanum (1969) that was issued just before the new books were mandated. Pope Benedict painstakingly refutes the notion that the Novus Ordo is invalid or deficient. That’s why Summorum Pontificum says that the Latin Church has two forms in one rite.
Perhaps the Holy Spirit informed both Pope Paul and Pope Benedict. The Church confirms that both the reformed Mass and the traditional Mass are both infinite means of grace. This Tridentine eye reads Ebert’s memoir as his yearning for grace through the traditional rites. If that’s not the Holy Spirit calling him to conversion, then what is conversion?

report abuse


posted June 25, 2010 at 10:10 am

Has anyone recently invited Mr. Ebert to “come Home”? I believe he would be pleasantly surprised. We must pray for him, for many reasons, but especially for him to realize the great Love awaiting him. God bless to all.

report abuse


posted June 25, 2010 at 10:57 am

Praesta – thanks for you clear-minded level-headed reply. The only thing I would ammend is that the liturgical reform intentions (in general) of the Pope and bishops were indeed stated at the Council thus clearly indicating some form of liturgy contunious with but different from the 1962 Missal. Now one thing I will stand up and shout loudly is that the multiform and too often innane APPLICATION of the post conciliar implementing documents was NOT covered under the “inspirational” aspect of Vatican II. And sadly I think it is these horrible liturgical implementations that have given such a “bad taste in the mouth” to those who bemoan the present and long for the past.

report abuse


posted June 26, 2010 at 12:50 am

Interesting blog by Mr. Ebert. In reading the comments on it, I was saddened not only by the fact that so many have lost their Faith, but the indications of so many others who do not seem to know what the Church really teaches. We really need to pray!

report abuse

Lee Gilbert

posted June 26, 2010 at 2:47 pm

It is true that we should pray for him, and I have been. However, I also wrote up a comment in reply to some of the things he said. It hasn’t shown up yet, and maybe it never will, for he can reject it.
Consider the fragile shape this guy is in. You can look him up in Wikipedia. Consider all the surgery and paring away of his body that he has gone through to reach this fragile shape. He’s done everything but die. And why is that, why is the Lord keeping him in this wayfaring state if not that He has willed his conversion? And yet we should do our part, too, not only by praying, but by trying to woo him back from the brink with the word of God, with brotherly affection and concern, for after all he is baptized. So I wrote him a note. Please do the same. Read his post again, and write from your heart…as only you know how to do.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

This blog is no longer active
This blog is no longer being actively updated. Please feel free to browse the archives or: Read our most popular inspiration blog See our most popular inspirational video Take our most popular quiz ...

posted 10:42:40pm Dec. 12, 2010 | read full post »

One day more
A reminder: "The Deacon's Bench" is closed! Please enjoy the archives! ...

posted 11:26:20pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »

Meet Montana's married priest
Earlier this week, I posted an item about Montana getting its first married priest. Now a local TV station has hopped on the bandwagon. Take a look, below. ...

posted 10:29:55pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »

Big day in the Big Easy: 10 new deacons
Deacon Mike Talbot has the scoop: 10 men today were ordained as Permanent Deacons for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. This group of men was formally selected on the day the evacuation of New Orleans began as Hurricane Katrina approached. The ...

posted 6:55:42pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »

Gaudete! And let's break out a carol or two...
"Gesu Bambino," anyone? This is one of my favorites, and nobody does it better than these gals: Kathleen Battle and Frederica von Staade. Enjoy. ...

posted 1:04:10pm Dec. 11, 2010 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.