In The Times today the feast of Pope St Pius V was noted and we were treated to two pieces of information. One was his being patron saint of some obscure town and the other was that he was a leading figure in the Catholic Reformation. That he was the pope responsible for the so-called Tridentine missal might seem an unduly arcane fact for the general run of Times readers and a bit difficult for that nice blonde girl who does religious affairs for them but I was surprised that they missed his uniquely significant role inthe history of England. By the bull Regnans in Excelsis (23rd February 1570) he excommunicated Elizabeth I and released all her subjects from their allegiance. Sadly, Black Bess was to reign for another thirty years.
I have long admired the way the French named their monarchs- so descriptive, Jean le bon, Charles the bald, Pepin the short, Philippe le bel and so on. The old Franks could be very frank. William, "the Conqueror" to us, was simply known as "the bastard" at home in Normandy. Watching Henry VIII Mind of a Tyrant on Channel 4 last evening it occurred to me that the late portrait by Holbein shows very piggy eyes. Appropriately enough the 500th anniversary of his accession is being marked by an outbreak of swine flu. Henry the swine seems like a not unreasonable description. Come to think of it Holbein's portraits of the English court are pretty telling. We can see, for instance, that Thomas Cromwell was not a nice man.
The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is one of my favourites. It seems so real. The puzzle, of course, is why they were unable to recognise our blessed Lord until He broke the bread. Some have suggested that He was in a state of disguise. Others suggest that they were prevented by some supernatural means. My own take on this is that it is an example of the paradox whereby although we say that seeing is believing, the opposite, or something like it is equally true. We largely see what we expect to see. Believing is, in a sense, a prerequisite of seeing. "Seek and you will find," is sound advice. But to return to the two disciples: just imagine the state they were in. They were deeply traumatised by Jesus's death and following the reports of the women returning from the tomb they were doubtless steeling themselves against further potential disappointment. It was not just a case of not expecting to see Him but one of needing to guard against the raising of false hopes. Did not their hearts burn within them on the road! Yes. They did. They were burning in a torment as they sensed themselves "falling" for the words of this stranger just as they had "fallen" for those of Him whom they had lost.
Like St Thomas, these are real men. They refuse to be convinced by anything less than their own experience but their unspoken desires are in earnest and that is where Jesus meets them.
Several people seem concerned that Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor may accept a peerage when he retires. What a wonderful idea! An idea to be wondered at indeed! It is a joke, surely, and one in very poor taste.
It has become almost a cliche in the media in recent years to ask why we English do not make more of our national patron saint's day. Some feeble mention is made of the Welsh and the Scots and their supposed celebrations on the feasts of St David and St Andrew respectively but the real target of envy, for I have no doubt that that is what it is, is the Irish celebration of St Patrick's day. Part of the answer, I suspect, lies in the fact that the Irish have made their patron saint's day a national holiday. A largely Catholic Christian nation was able to do this. A protestantised nation like England naturally has an ambivalent relationship with saints. Indeed neither do the French or the Americans honour their patron saints with a national holiday. They have their political feasts. The Americans keep their Independence day on 4th July and the French their Fete Nationale on 14th July. These are of course wholly secular events commemorating the eighteenth century origins of their state regimes in acts of wilfull rebellion, with the like of which no saint would want to be associated, however, Great Britain does have a national celebration on 5th November. Like many things British it is marked first and foremost by a fine sense of irony.
Bonfire night or Guy Fawkes night commemorates the foiling of the attempt by a group of desperate Catholic gentlemen to blow up King James I and the members of the houses of Lords and Commons assembled for the state opening of Parliament upon that day in 1605 with gunpowder. From the outset bonfires (from bone fire - a fire in which the bones or effigy of someone is burnt) were a feature. Originally it was the pope who was burnt in effigy. Thankfully this continues in very few places today, Lewes in Sussex being the most famous example of pope burning. Generally now Guy Fawkes, the conspirator taken with the gunpowder stache, is burned to the accompaniment of firework displays.
Guy Fawkes was no saint but I think he was a true English patriot. Questioned by King James I he is said to have replied, "I wanted to blow you back to your Scottish mountains." It was, however, another Englishman, Dr Samuel Johnson, who articulated the classic English attitude to patriotism. It was, he declared, "the last refuge of a scoundrel."
A little while ago I posted my first question on Fr Z's blog and I shall be very interested to see if anybody picks it up. Not for the first time I have seen it suggested that the current versus populum celebration of mass derives from a mistranslation of a passage in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. Fine. I have no problems with ad orientem. In fact I have long recognised that it makes more sense visually. But a mistranslation into English while influential in the many English speaking parts of the world is hardly going to be noticed where French, Italian, German, Spanish or Polish constitute the vernacular. Over the last thirty years I have been at Mass in France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. I have visited churches in Spain. In almost every case the sanctuary had been reordered to facilitate the versus populum celebration. The only exceptions were those Roman basilicas where it had been traditional- as most notably at St Peter's. I am sorry to say that I suspect that I am being told a half-truth rather as I was given an untruth when I was led to believe that the reordering was mandated by Vatican II. How come so many got it wrong?
When Pope John Paul came to Britain in 1982 he made what I fear was a serious mistake in that he complimented the English clergy upon the practice of visiting their parishioners in their homes. At the time it made my ears prick up, not least because I could recall priests who had been assiduous in this respect. A mistake, then? Well, yes, I reckon so because I imagine them sitting there, listening to the pope's words and hearing the implication that by visiting they were being somehow exceptional ("What? You mean Catholic priests don't normally do this the world over?") and that, therefore, it wouldn't be unduly serious if they stopped visiting. As a matter of fact I would have a lot of sympathy having on more than one occasion heard priests complain of homes where the television remained on at full volume throughout the visit. Nevertheless in less sympathetic moments I have wondered what they do instead. Of course! They visit the sick and take Communion to them.
I said as much to someone recently only to be contradicted with the observation that all these Extraordinary Ministers of Communion do that now. Perhaps, but not exclusively so, was my reply. I am particularly aware of the times my father's Parish Priest attended to him in his last few months (and, indeed, of the support given by two Extraordinary Ministers of Communion). The work of priests, apart from the very obvious aspects like celebrating mass or hearing confessions, tends to go unremarked until it concerns oneself.
But now, shock! horror! we learn that some of them are blogging! Is it allowed? Surely it shouldn't be! Isn't it a sin? Should celibates... what do you call it?...blog? Where's the Inquisition when you need them? Call in the secular arm!
It seems to me that the priest bloggers are actually doing is what the priests of old did when they went visiting their parishioners. It is quite simply forming links and connections that help to build up the Church- the mystical body of Christ. Here too we all have a part to play as salt of the earth, leaven in the dough or light of the world. There is so much in the world today that is antipathetic to the faith and opposed to truth. Sharing faith and witnessing to the truth were never more needed.
On that afternoon four years ago I recall asking the Parish Priest as he was leaving the house after having anointed my father if he had heard any news from Rome yet. He had not but it was soon to follow. I switched the television on and the scene of St Peter's with the bells ringing confirmed that an announcement was expected. I have to admit to having, when it came, a sense of- almost- anticlimax. The cardinals appeared to have elected the Dean of the Sacred College as if to say they had looked no further than the man who had led them for the past few days. This wasn't like the election of Pope John Paul which had made one exclaim "Wow! What will the Kremlin make of that!" Then one saw some of the "usual suspects", the professional Catholic Commentators, being interviewed and the looks of poorly disguised dismay on their faces. My heart began to warm to the man. These were the very individuals who had been wanting Pope John Paul dead about ten years before he finally went. Perhaps, I thought, not such a bad choice. I was not very well informed in those days having virtually given up the Catholic press. When, the following morning, I switched on the television and saw and heard Pope Benedict preaching to the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel in Latin I jumped for joy. "We have a Catholic pope!" I exclaimed. From that moment to this I have been a fan.
Sadly, it was not long before the enemies of truth began to attack him. Some are surprised by the hostility of the media. I am not. I think it is too easily forgotten that Pope John Paul was given a long "honeymoon" by the media largely because he was regarded as an ally by the West against the "Evil Empire"of the Soviet Union. As the USSR receded into history a cooler attitude became more evident even towards him. Hardly had Pope Benedict been elected than the knives were out. Thankfully we are living in new times . The Internet undermines the power of the traditional media. There is hope!
The Octave day of Easter is a Sunday with identity issues. In the old calendar it was marked as the first Sunday after Easter or "Low Sunday". I think that in Latin it was "Dominica in Albis". It appears also to have been known at times as "Quasimodo" Sunday, from the first word of the Introit, and after which the hunchback of Notre Dame was named. The revised calendar, however, sorted it out good and proper in 1970, calling it the Second Sunday of Easter. At least we thought it had until Pope John Paul II named it as "Divine Mercy Sunday". In the Spirit of Summorum Pontificum I should like to propose that we call it by whichever of the above names takes our fancy. This suggestion does, it must be said, raise two questions. Firstly, what is the Spirit of Summorum Pontificum? and, secondly, which do I, as the proposer, favour?
The first question may be dealt with as follows: Why, it is just like the Spirit of Vatican II. It is whatever the person using the term wishes it to be! To the second question I have to admit that I am inclined to favour "Quasimodo"- not least because it goes with Gaudete and Laetare Sundays and Requiem Mass but also because it raises a smile!
Like many people, I am sure, I read accounts of a letter in the "Tablet" alleging pseudo-eucharistic shenanigans in "Lower Grasmere" with an appropriate sense of indignancy- until it began to dawn on me that it was most likely to be a hoax. Leaving aside the lack of corroboration, the psychology doesn't ring true. We are asked to believe that the priest has communicated his inability to get to the church without giving any instruction about what is to be done in his absence and then that what "actually" occurs is arrived at by a consideration of some (relatively plausible) options which are jettisoned in favour of a completely wacky idea backed up by direct scriptural quotation. Even lapsed Catholics don't think that way. In emergencies people generally "revert to type", falling back upon what is familiar or habitual. Are we to believe that no one present questioned or dissented from this proposal? Are we to believe that no one subsequently raised the subject with the priest but, instead, straight off fired off a letter to "The Tablet"? (Not "The Universe","Catholic Herald", or "Catholic Times" I note!) I could be wrong but I am inclined to suspect someone "flying a kite". That there is mischief here I have no doubt but I have no idea as to its origin. The creative possibilities, however, are enormous! Writers could compete to get a letter detailing some improbable event published in "The Tablet". The kind of subject I have in mind might be "The Black mass I attended in Westminster Cathedral" or "How I had tea with the Pope's grandson, or "How Ian Paisley was delighted at the gift of a rosary blessed by Pope John Paul II". It could be such fun!
To the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool for the Mass of the Last Supper I went and was grateful for arriving in time in spite of traffic hold-ups. The plainsong introit "Nos autem gloriari oportet in cruce Domini nostri Jesu Christe" intoned by the choir signalled the beginning of the mass and the opening of the Sacred Triduum.
It was an extraordinary turn of events which determined, some weeks ago, that I should be at the Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of St Chad in Birmingham for the principal mass of Palm Sunday yesterday. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised at the significance of the event in the light of past experience. My previous arrival at mass there some twenty four years ago had been marked by a fanfare of trumpets. It just so happened that we had arrived at the beginning of a civic mass and so I graciously consented to share the fanfare with the Lord Mayor of Birmingham. Yesterday's mass was noteworthy because the celebrant, the Archbishop, had just become the most celebrated prelate in England and Wales and, at the end of mass, the Cathedral Administrator (I think) made a speech congratulating his grace which we applauded. Archbishop Nichols, in his reply spoke of the challenge ahead of him and of his affection for the priests and people of his current diocese. I felt privileged at being present at a historic moment in the life of the Church in our country. Privileges, like all God's gifts however, are for a purpose and perhaps here what is needed now is prayer.
There was one disappointment for me at St Chad's and that was the fact that the Passion was not sung but read. I suppose I have been spoilt in recent years at Liverpool where it is sung on both Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Somehow it seems more "real" when it is sung- the words carry better. In fact I would say that the sung words have a more direct quality- they go straight to the heart. Another practice here which struck me as rather -( well I am sorry to say but feel I must)- silly was having the congregation read out the crowd parts. There is something so infant school about it one almost hears the teacher prompting, "Now, children, what did all the people say?" What, in the name of all that is sensible, is the point of that? It is surely a case of active participation gone barmy, or am I missing something?
There was, nevertheless, much that was good. The choir sang the plainsong antiphons, Hosanna Filio David and Pueri Hebraeorum and we were able to join in singing the Sanctus and Agnus Dei from Mass XVIII as well as the Pater Noster and the Ave Regina Caelorum. The Archbishop wore an impressive red (Pugin?) cope for the Blessing of Palms and procession and an appallingly bland modern chasuble for the mass. All in all one had a sense of a work in progress and that we are living in changing times in more ways than one. When I got home my son, who had been at Liverpool showed me his mass leaflet and I showed mine. "So you had the better music," I said. "Yes," he said, "but Archbishop Kelly persists in his performance of walking around the altar to listen to the Passion." "Archbishop Nichols has more gravitas," I said. "Compare the liturgy dot com,"he replied.
Two things one hears from time to time these days about the Stations of the Cross include the claim that there really should be a fifteenth station, the Resurrection, and that some of the stations are "unscriptural". I had occasion to look into these questions a few years ago when I designed a set of stations for our church and the short answer to both of these views is that they are mistaken. The traditional fourteen stations were fixed in the eighteenth century and did not include the Resurrection and furthermore they are only unscriptural if one applies a strictly literal interpretation to the scriptures.
The gospels do not tell us explicitly of Jesus falling on the way to Calvary so are we to assume that he did not? Nor are we told of him meeting his blessed mother but to suggest that he did not meet her at some point given the clear assertion of her being beside the cross seems to me to be splitting hairs to little purpose. The episode of Veronica and her veil is not mentioned in the gospels but its obvious meaning is, as it were, saturated in the scriptures. The psalmist asks "When shall I see the face of God?" and in the account of the Last Judgement wicked and virtuous alike ask, "Lord when did we see you hungry...thirsty...sick or in prison...naked... a stranger...?" And express surprise on being told, "As long as you did it to the least...."
Perhaps, sometimes, in our concern to follow the Way of the Cross we overlook the Stations of the Cross. A station is, simply, a stopping place and the fact that we refer to the stations is, I think, testimony to their origin in a pilgrimage involving real places. In other words the stations are not convenient illustrations of scripture but the trace or record of a real journey which, undertaken by pilgrims in Jerusalem, was transferred to the local church. Initially the Franciscans, traditional custodians of the holy places, were instrumental in the spread of the devotion before papal endorsement extended it to the whole church in 1731. At this point the last two stations were added with the final, fourteenth station referring to our Lord's burial in the Sepulchre.
The significance of this last station should not be underestimated for it refers to the traditional and ultimate goal of all Christian pilgrimage from the earliest times, the Holy Sepulchre. Considered as a place, a station, it is not just the site of Christ's burial but, at one and the same time,that of his glorious Resurrection. In going there we not only follow the Lord on his way of the cross but, it seems to me, we go back to our very beginnings as Christians. "In baptism," as St Paul says, "we went into the tomb with him."
When Cardinal Hume died an interviewer on Radio 4 asked Bishop Nichols, "And what of his successor...what will he be?" To which he replied, "A disappointment." It seemed a pretty good answer to me...for someone who was actually going to get the job.
One of the soundest pieces of advice I ever came across occurs near the beginning of The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius: "...it is to be presumed that every good Christian will be inclined to put a good construction on another's statement than to fault it. If he is unable to find a good interpretation, he should ask what he means. If his meaning is unorthodox, the other should put him right in a spirit of love. If this is not enough, let him use all the means proper to get the proposition rightly interpreted."
Nobody suspects the Spanish Inquisition! Or do they? I daresay that St Ignatius had to watch his back at times.
When I saw blog headlines today saying that Dawkins had called the Pope "stupid" I was struck by this being another instance of an inclination to fault Pope Benedict's remarks and a refusal to actually consider the evidence. I thought that scientists were worthy of respect precisely because they weighed evidence carefully before giving an opinion. In short, yet again the pope was being insulted not for what he did say but for what some people wanted him to say (so that they would have an excuse to attack him). There are words that describe people acting as Dawkins did here. They are "prejudiced" and "bigotted". Prejudice and bigotry are generally associated with stupidity. Interesting.
So St Ignatius gives good advice. Good- but not particularly easy to follow.