Monday 30 March 2009

Non-expert advice

Like many bloggers I have been following posts discussing the impending appointment of the next archbishop of Westminster with some interest. I can reveal with something like 100% certainty that, as a married layman, it wont be me. Indeed, despite my altitude, I cannot honestly claim to move in the kind of elevated circles giving access to such information. Early on I would read Damian Thompson's comments and gasp in wonderment: "Gosh! How does he know this? Has he bugged the Vatican? Has he got chums in Rome?" As a more seasoned reader now, having aged visibly in the wait, I am now of the view that, as ignorant and unconnected as I am, I could play the game just as well.

Of those mentioned in one place or another I can claim to have only seen two in the flesh, and outsiders at that. A year or two ago I attended a talk on Justice and Peace by Bishop Philip Tartaglia. I remember being very favourably impressed, not least because he stressed how pro-life issues should not be sidelined from the Peace and Justice remit, but seen as part and parcel of it. Perhaps because I remembered the late great Cardinal Winning, I found myself declaring "If only we had bishops like the Scottish bishops!"

I also had the privilege of seeing Archbishop Paul Gallagher on the sanctuary of the cathedral of Liverpool on the Good Friday just prior to his posting to Burundi. I have to admit that I looked at him somewhat in awe at the thought that I might be seeing a future martyr, his predecessor in that post having been murdered.

Two of the favourites, Archbishop Nichols and Archbishop Smith, I have seen and heard on television and radio and have found them easily likeable. When Cardinal Hume died I thought that the then Bishop Nichols was an obvious successor. On the other hand Archbishop Smith has a marvellous no-nonsense tone when dealing with the media which maybe just what is needed at present.
The latest bishop in the frame, Bishop Roche of Leeds, has evidently upset people by closing churches. I know nothing of the state of the church in that part of the country and so I would be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on that score however, if he is really responsible for the chapel shown here, then I fear for Westminster Cathedral.

Sunday 29 March 2009

Passionate concerns

I was not a little surprised to hear our priest this morning in the sermon refer to today as "Passion Sunday". It was like a voice from the past because I have never been entirely happy with the new calendar. Given the choice, I would bring back Passiontide, along with Septuagesima and the Octave of Pentecost. Septuagesima gave one an early warning for Lent, Passion Sunday was a sort of preparation for Holy Week and, well, I just liked the Whitsun Octave with its red vestments and Veni Sancte Spiritus sequence. While I remember being prepared for mass in the vernacular I have no recollection of ever having had any reason given for the calendar changes other than that for the dropping of some saints whose historical credentials appeared a bit thin. So, Passion Sunday!
(And note, I always refer to the "sermon" and not to the "homily" and to the "Consecration" and not the "narrative of institution". I refer to the "lectern" when it is a lectern and not a genuine ambo, the Sacrament of "Penance" or "Confession" and not "Reconciliation".)
My surprise arose from the fact that since 1970 we have had clergy calling Palm Sunday "Passion Sunday" and that the veiling of statues, where maintained, has tended to be just for Holy Week. Well, who knows? Perhaps we shall see the old calendar restored eventually!
Now I have never considered myself a traditionalist other than in the sense that being a Catholic makes one, by definition, a traditionalist and I have tended to feel that the self-proclaimed traditionalists have a bit of a nerve appropriating the term exclusively to themselves but, be that as it may, I do resent people trying to change my language. It is like doing violence to my memory or part of my soul. In short I have always known that today was really Passion Sunday and that next Sunday will really be Palm Sunday (and the Sunday after Easter will continue to have identity problems). So why the change?

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Lady Day

The Annunciation, it seems to me, is a sadly under-rated feast these days. There was only one mass in my parish today and that a funeral mass. Fortunately, however, I was able to get to mass in a neighbouring parish where, despite there being perhaps fewer than a dozen of us present, the priest led us in singing the Sanctus and Agnus Dei from Mass XVIII. So I was pleased to have the opportunity marking the solemnity appropriately.

I recall from my youth a genial elderly priest who was known largely for the length of his sermons, most of which - well I was young- went way over my head. There was one sermon of his which must have been taken out and dusted off more than once in a while because not only did I remember it but found myself dreaming of it years afterwards. He would begin with the rhetorical question, "What was the most important thing that ever happened?" After a pause to let it sink in he would then ask a series of supplementary questions. "Was it the crucifixion of our blessed Lord?" "Was it the Resurrection?... the Nativity? the Creation? " and so on. Having briefly considered each of these in turn he would go on to assert the pre-eminence of the Incarnation. This was the most important event that had ever happened. Apart from this, I can no longer recall any of his words but they are unecessary. The importance of the Incarnation and, hence, of this feast has remained with me and I cannot understand why more is not made of it. Indeed it should, by rights, be the very first day of the year since our years are numbered as being "of the Incarnation of the Lord".

Ipsius sunt tempora et saecula
Ipsi gloria et imperium per universa aeternitatis saecula. Amen.

Friday 20 March 2009

St Joseph

Saint Joseph is the perfect patron of working people because as often as not when we meet him in the Gospel he is asleep or, like his Old Testament namesake, dreaming. I think that shows a proper attitude to work.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Dog bites man

Only on Friday was I suggesting that there seemed to be a decided effort to undermine Pope Benedict and then, all of a sudden, there was that nonsense yesterday. And it was nonsense. It was the fabrication of "news" out of non-news. So the Pope is a Catholic: big deal. Get used to it!

Tuesday 17 March 2009

No Common Name

Now take the holy abbess Sexburga, mentioned by St. Bede, for instance. Was this name given her by her parents, taken in religion or merely acquired posthumously? Be that as it may I suppose some good may eventually come out of parents naming their children after some minor celebrity of the moment and that, after lives of heroic virtue, we may expect some saint "Kylie" or "Darren", "Jason" or "Jade" raised to our altars and thus provide a wider pool of genuinely Christian names from which to choose. There is certainly something to be said for this. After twenty centuries we are on to our sixteeth Benedict as Pope having had twenty-three (well really twenty-two but it's enough) Johns, a dozen Piuses, thirteen Leos and fourteen Clements. In the England of Tudor times when the king was called Henry most men, good and bad, were called Thomas after St. Thomas Becket who had stood up to Henry II. Is it any wonder that HenryVIII freaked out? And what contrasts between them! On the one hand you had depraved monsters like Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer while, on the other, a true hero and saint like Thomas More.
As a matter of fact we can be very grateful to St Thomas Becket and St Francis of Assisi for breaking up what was looking like becoming a monopoly of Johns (generally after him of whom the Lord said was no greater born of woman)- although St Francis should have been a John really, having been thus baptised. Yet it is a funny thing how the names given in almost any field seem to be drawn from a narrowing pool. I was very pleased when Pope Benedict was elected and he didn't choose "John Paul III". Granted, he didn't have a lot of time to think it over but...Benedict is fine.
As is Patricius! To all who share the name of the great apostle of Ireland, noble in name and noble in spirit, Happy Feastday!

Sunday 15 March 2009

Oops! Mea culpa

I sang one verse of the responsorial psalm twice this morning. At least this is what I am told. I returned to my place convinced I had missed a verse. This happened because I was so preoccupied with following the notes of the psalm tone I missed my place in the text. And it would have to be the bishop saying our mass!

Friday 13 March 2009

Shadows without substance

I am not a great one for conspiracy theories having lived just long enough to appreciate that much of the time the world runs on cock-up and cover-up. Nevertheless it is difficult not to suspect some decided effort to undermine Pope Benedict - a deliberate attempt to misconstrue him. His lifting of the excommunication of the four SSPX bishops has been characterised as having a "hideous holocaust-denying element" by no less a person than Archbishop Kelly of Liverpool. When Pope Benedict issued the Motu Proprio "Summorum Pontificum" there was an outcry about the Good Friday prayer for the Jews which was completely absurd. The Motu Proprio concerned the use of the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal in which the prayer had already been rewritten to exclude terms which might give offence. Not satisfied the critics continued to fuss. Nor were they satisfied when Pope Benedict went a step further and rewrote the prayer. Before that there was the talk given in Germany which exercised the Moslems. One wonders how they got to hear of its contents although the fact that they got upset once they had was hardly surprising given their addiction to indignation.

I recall people, even Catholics, who thought that Pope PaulVI only ever talked about sexual matters. Convincing them otherwise was difficult bordering on futile. Then in the latter years of Pope John Paul I encountered people who criticised him as out of touch and oppressive. In each case the individuals concerned appeared to have swallowed opinions whole from the media. This is bad enough when lay people are so gullible but worrying when a bishop seems to think that way. All of a sudden Plato seems a prophet. We are men in a dark cave forced to watch the flickering shadows on the screen for so long that now we account them reality.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

The Holy Shroud of Turin

From time to time I visit the site to see if there are any new articles about the Holy Shroud of Turin - a subject which has fascinated me for something like forty-two years. Having looked again this evening I subsequently found that Fr. Longenecker had posted a poll on what people thought it was - medieval fake, photograph of Christ etc.. I may be accused of hair-splitting but, although I think it may be genuine, I do not think it is a photograph or,as has been often suggested, a photographic negative. Nor do I think it the product of "atomic radiation". Rather does it seem to me to possess something of the character of a print- as something resulting from a direct one to one contact between a three dimensional body and the cloth itself. Moreover it is a print the reulting image of which is the product of two distinct processes one of which is created by a degradation of the surface of the cloth while the other is the accumulation of very fine matter upon the surface. The latter relates to "blood" -which, genuine or otherwise, it may well be.
Now whether that three-dimensional body causing the imprinting was the body of our Saviour in his death or that of someone else with appropriate features I cannot tell. A lot of ink has been wasted detailing suggested forgery techniques. For instance it is not necessary to posit an artist with the anatomical knowledge and graphic skills of a Leonardo da Vinci since the relationship of original body to image is one to one. Nor is it necessary to imagine an artist with extra long brushes working at more than arm's length in order to be able to keep everything in proportion. Nor is there any point to claiming that the medievals secretly knew how to fix the images produced by a camera obscura quite simply because the image is not a photograph.

The mistaken idea that the image on the Holy Shroud was a photograph arose from the fact that when it was first photographed in1898 the resulting negative produced a more coherent or intelligible image than that hitherto available to the naked eye. This was a matter of scale as much as anything quite simply because the image on the shroud is, as we would say, at a very low level of resolution. This low level of resolution also explains why people are also able to claim to see details imaged which others do not see and which in my opinion (certainly as regards the coins minted under Pontius Pilate) are not there but are like "the face in the clouds". There is just enough "information" to trigger a suggestion response. Our "suggestibility" as viewers is, paradoxically, the reason we are able to make any sense of the image at all

Monday 9 March 2009

Liturgical Reform- a personal view 6

The fact that I was able to happily attend that mass offered in the German language in Berne was thanks to my familiarity with mass in Latin but perhaps even more so to having been introduced to the old rite before the reforms. In short I had been taught to pray at mass without being engaged by the celebrant. I often wonder what the experience of younger people, who have not had that kind of foundation, must be like when attending mass in a foreign language.

The experience for me on that occasion was, nevertheless, not unmixed as, not for the first time, I found myself irritated by aspects of a reordered sanctuary. Why, when the altar had been moved forward, had it been thought appropriate to place the organ in the apse? Were the clergy responsible for this marked gesture aware of what it appeared to be saying? It seemed strange as if done either by someone desirous of making a point or by someone completely blind to the meaning that would naturally attach to it.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Liturgical Reform- a personal view 5

In the summer of 1979 I spent thirty six hours of a weekend in Berne in Switzerland and on the Sunday morning went in search of a Catholic church for mass. My grasp of German being somewhat limited I was pleased when I came upon a neo-gothic church with a signboard which had what looked like the word for catholic enmeshed in the text. I went inside and mass was in progress. It was in Latin and the choir were singing the Sanctus but from the outset despite my being familiar with the new rite in Latin (I had spent Easter in Rome) I felt that something was not quite as it should be. Glancing around I could see that the congregation was somewhat sparse, well heeled, middle aged and elderly. It seemed strange to be at a Sunday mass and not see children. After the Agnus Dei servers spread cloths over the altar rails and as people started to make their way up to communion I went to the end of my bench and a lady stopped to let me out.
"Excuse me," I whispered, "do you speak English?"
On being told that she did I asked, "Can you tell me? Is this a Catholic church?"
"Zis is the Old Catholic church," she replied.
"Aren't you in schism with Rome?"
"Not wiz Rome, " she said "but wiz Canterbury."
Clearly she had confused my "schism" with "communion" but I had got the information I needed and so I thanked her and left. Somewhat miffed at having been unable to find the genuine article by my own efforts I went to the tourist information office and asked for help in finding a (real) Catholic church. The young lady I addressed there seemed to have some difficulty in finding out -so I was at least able to comfort myself with the thought that it wasn't just stupid me- but eventually got it and marked a map with directions.

The real Catholic church when I found it was, as one might expect post Vatican 2, brutally reordered, the organ having been placed at the head of the apse. It was however the people I warmed to. They were, as usual, a mix of every age group from bothersome babies to doddering ancients and a wide spread of social classes and crowded. In short a veritable mob and, in spite of the German language, I knew from the start that this was home.

Friday 6 March 2009

The Altarpiece- some thoughts 3

"The Mass of St Giles" is a panel painting in the National Gallery attributed to a northern European, Flemish or French, artist known as the Master of St Giles of about 1500 A.D.. Remarkable for its detailed realism, its narrative subject matter is depicted by means of a priest at the moment of the elevation of the sacred host. This is shown occurring at the high altar of the famous abbey church of St Denis a few miles north of Paris. The architectural interior, which played an important role in the evolution of the gothic style, may still be seen today. It is accurately portrayed as are the furnishings as they appeared at this date but which were subsequently lost. The retable or altarpiece is, on the basis of both stylistic and documentary evidence, believed to be the gilded bronze antependium given to the church in the ninth century by Charles the Bald.

The "recycling" of antependia as retables or altarpieces appears to have been a thirteenth century phenomenon. Here at St Denis the antependium appears to have been reused with no further modification. Elsewhere the piece would, as in the case of the famous "Pala d'Oro" of St Mark's basilica in Venice, have additional panels affixed in order to expand the surface. In some instances, as for example in Sant Ambrogio in Milan, gilded antependia remained in situ fulfilling their original function and two impressive examples originally from the cathedral of Basel can be seen in the Musee Cluny in Paris.

Here it seems worth noting that the use of gilded bronze for antependia was by no means fortuitous there being a deliberate attempt to create the impression of the altar being made of solid gold and thus a reflection of the heavenly altar described in the Apocalypse.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

The Altarpiece- some thoughts 2

During my visit to the "Byzantium" exhibition at the Royal Academy recently I was interested to learn that the iconostasis of the eastern rite churches was a comparatively late development appearing (I think) in the fourteenth century. Prior to this the sanctuary in eastern churches had been demarcated by means of a low wall or balustrade rather than screened from view. During the same period in the west we find rood screens however a momentous change was already under way which would lead eventually to their removal following the Council of Trent.

The key liturgical reform in the west was, if I am not mistaken, the introduction of the eucharistic elevations. Initially this had been done to counter certain eucharistic heresies but there were several far-reaching consequences among which were the new feast of Corpus Christi and the requirement that the curtains which had hitherto screened the altar during the Consecration be removed altogether. The rails from which such curtains were once hung may still be seen in some of the Roman basilicas where the original baldachino is still to be found.

A major part of the role of the baldachino was undoubtedly to honour or dignify the altar since it was in essence an architectural canopy however the supporting pillars also provided a means of supporting curtain rails and so it may well be that the removal of the requirement of veiling the
altar led to a rethinking of the need for such an elaborate structure. Equally the need to display the sacred host clearly may well have suggested the advisability of providing an appropriate back-drop.

Monday 2 March 2009

Oh Dearie Me!

Well, I watched Mrs Blair on "The Future of Christianity" and it was clear that she lacked the two qualifications one might reasonably expect of someone proposing to discuss the subject, i.e (a) a knowledge of Christianity's past and
(b) a knowledge of Christianity.
She showed little of the former- which did not extend beyond the First World War, and even less of the latter. Her Credo, with its reference to "the Sermon on the Mount", was very BBC -as uttered by no less a theological luminary than THE VICAR OF DIBLEY! Really I shouldn't be so mocking. I have also heard that one from the lips of some Agnostic politicians. ( I'd love to ask them which part they found so inspiring!) Frankly, I think that "Sermon on the Mount" in such instances is an utterly meaningless phrase - a conventional saying. In fact I have my doubts as to whether she had any idea of what she was talking about at all.
One idea that did come across was of "tradition" as being almost by definition a Bad Thing. I suppose it must seem so if you feel cheated of the opportunity to invent the wheel. Anyway, the answer is Mega - churches as in the USA. Mega-? Isn't that like Megabucks?