Saturday 29 May 2010

The Holy Stairs

A couple of days ago I noted the anniversary of the day I visited three of the four Patriarchal basilicas of Rome during the Great Jubilee, St John Lateran, St Mary Major and St Paul outside the Walls. I have memories of all of them. But some things stand out. Most amusing was my entry into St John Lateran where I was accosted by a nun handing out booklets. Declining the Italian text offered I explained, "Inglese". Quick as a flash a North American voice returned, "And I thought you looked like Perry Como!" To this day I have been unable to discover any resemblance with an Italian American singer of my parents' generation- although with a little fresh air I am susceptible to tanning. She very kindly gave me an English version which contained, among other scriptural texts, St Luke's Gospel- a free gift from the organising committee! This, however, was merely the prelude to something that I regard as one of the defining experiences of my life.
After the basilica we went across to the Santa Scala- the holy staircase. These are the steps reputedly from Pilate's Praetorium in Jerusalem brought to Rome by St Helena and incorporated in the old papal palace of the Lateran,Before my visit to Rome I had read somewhere that Martin Luther, the infamous heresiarch, had given up the climb about half way. A champion of orthodoxy, no wimp and, indeed an Englishman to boot, I saw no real difficulty in climbing the twenty-eight steps on my knees. If you have never done it, be warned! Never in my whole life, either before or since have I voluntarily inflicted so much pain upon myself.

The original stone staircase, already worn by the knees of countless pilgrims over the centuries, was encased in a wooden covering at some point in the eighteenth century. This in turn has become worn and knobbly so that every movement one makes is extremely uncomfortable. The question "Why am I doing this to myself?" is unavoidable. I certainly couldn't dismiss it.
It is all very simple really. In fact it is one of those things which is so simple and blindingly obvious that it is easily overlooked. By doing this, I realised, I am expressing a wish to follow Our Lord in His sufferings. A prayer sometimes said when doing the Stations of the Cross sums it up,
O Jesus, who for love of me,
dids't bear Thy cross to Calvary,
in Thy sweet mercy grant to me,
to suffer and to die with Thee.

As I had started my way up the stairs I read from the Gospel account of the Passion in the booklet I had received earlier. The reality of the pain in my knees, however, brought home very vividly to me the fact that Our Lord's Passion was no cakewalk. I also found myself filled with a sense of dismay and even dread at what the Lord might be asking of me long before I got to the top of the stairs. I could see that the suffering ahead could, very likely- indeed almost certainly- involve people very dear to me and I felt terribly helpless. Only as I neared the top did it become clear to me that the real destination of the Way of the Cross was and is the Resurrection. At that moment and upon that day I received a grace which was to sustain me in the troublesome times that would soon follow.

So the Holy Stairs: would I advise it? Yes! Would I, knowing what I know now, attempt it again?
Most certainly, (ouch!) Yes!

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Papal Visiting !

On this day exactly ten years ago during the Great Jubilee of the year 2000 it was my privilege to enter the Vatican Basilica through the Holy Door. There followed mass at the end of which Pope John Paul II, to our surprise and delight, entered to the applause of the vast throng. The feast of St Bede seeming an auspicious day for the arrival of us English pilgrims we had chanced upon a mass celebrated for scientists and when the Pope took his seat in front of the high altar he was addressed by one or two academic worthies before making his speech. Somewhat stooped and frail by then he nevertheless seemed to completely recover his old power once he began to speak. I had first seen Pope John Paul in the flesh during the Easter Triduum of 1979 in Rome when, as I frequently recalled, I was within a few feet of him when he blessed the new fire and Paschal Candle in the narthex of St. Peter's.
Three years later I was, initially, less than enthusiastic at the news of his projected visit to Great Britain, after all, I had been "with" him in Rome- but subsequently felt I couldn't afford to miss it. On the Saturday evening, while staying with my parents, I heard a report on the BBCMidlands news that already the roads around Coventry airport were busy. Indeed they seemed to be trying to discourage more people from going. It being a fine evening we decided that we had better lose no more time and so we set off on the forty mile journey. The roads were not busy and we arrived well before sunset. There were many people there but the site itself was vast and thousands of us settled down for the night on the airfield. The night was mild and, in an atmosphere of cheerful anticipation, passed quickly. The sun rose brilliantly upon a vast crowd that continued to grow. I am not normally one for crowds but at no time did I feel oppressed or "crowded". Wherever one went the joyful anticipation and good will were palpable.

Fast forward to 2010! Having experienced such ease in seeing Pope John Paul I am still bemused at the suggestion that Pope Benedict's visit will be ticket only. If Pope Benedict's visit had never been proposed I would not have been bothered. He is not a young man and there is no obvious necessity, despite the custom of Paul VI and John Paul II, to travel around the world. But this visit is about so much more than even Pope Benedict XVI. It is, among other things, our opportunity to demonstrate, before a world so much more hostile to Christ and His Church than was the case in 1982, our loyalty as British Catholics to the Holy Father.

Again I recall the hatred, the sneering hostility, in the media towards the visit of the relics of St Therese here last autumn. Once the visit was under way it suddenly seemed to stop. Why?

I believe it was because everyone was surprised- and some were shocked- at the sheer numbers of us that turned out. Surely we must be allowed to turn out on this occasion to expose the lies that the devil's friends are already composing for the visit:
-"he's not as popular with the faithful as John Paul"
-"he is out of touch with today's catholics"
-"only in traditionally Catholic countries can he expect to be welcomed"
-"the church has been decimated by the sex abuse scandals".
So often, in this country, the Church is falsely represented by its enemies, or poorly represented by false friends. The papal visit is an opportunity- or should be- for the Church in this land to be literally exhibited, displayed, manifested by its members, clergy and laity, bodily and visibly assembled in prayer with the Holy Father.

Monday 24 May 2010

Whit Monday Ruminations

Once upon a time, dear young people, not only did Pentecost have an octave, Whit Monday (today) was a Bank Holiday in this country- and I am old enough to remember both! For some unknown reason the Bank Holiday was transferred to the last Monday of the month and renamed "Spring Bank Holiday", although it is still occasionally referred to, incorrectly, by some older people as "Whit Monday".
One year in the mid-sixties the Quarant' Ore devotion came to the church in which I was a chorister during Whit week. As was customary in those days, it began and ended with a solemn high mass which involved, if I remember correctly, a procession and the singing of the litany of the saints. The Octave of Pentecost sort of trumped the usual mass for this occasion- the celebrant, deacon and subdeacon appeared in red vestments and we got to sing the Veni Sancte Spiritus for a second and third time that year. I remember being thrilled beyond words. Dear me! A splash of red and one of the best tunes ever written! How superficial I was! Well: not much has changed.

Sunday 23 May 2010

Saturday 22 May 2010

Veni Sancte Spiritus

Veni Sancte Spiritus- sequence for Whitsunday- attributed to Stephen Cardinal Langton (c1150-1228) Archbishop of Canterbury.
Definitely on my list of the ten best tunes ever written!
And one of my favourite prayers.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Friday 14 May 2010


One of the reasons I feel that the transfer of the solemnity of the Ascension from the Thursday to the following Sunday is regrettable is owing to the loss of two days of the novena of the Holy Spirit. I mean a novena of seven days just isn't a novena. Pentecost, too, has always been one of my favourite feasts and it is bad enough to have lost the octave in the post-1970 calendar without this further loss. That period between Our Lord's Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit seems worth celebrating in itself as presenting, in the Upper Room, an image of the Church- gathered in prayer with Our Lady.

A "Fifties table setting"

Over the years I have been a frequent visitor to France- a country with so many attractions that I have often wondered why refugees and illegal migrants were so keen to escape across the channel to dear old Blighty. The weather is better, the food is great and the booze is cheaper- not that, I daresay, the last-mentioned weighs much with the followers of Mohammed! My own enthusiasm for the country was fixed upon my first holiday there when I visited Chartres Cathedral. I have subsequently notched up a considerable number of great medieval churches of France, thanks to which, together with the pedantry of the Michelin Guides, my offshore islander's view of European history has been greatly expanded. As a Catholic from a land where our great ancient churches are in the hands of the separated brethren I always feel a a particular pleasure attending mass in an historic setting. Few pleasures in this life, however, are unalloyed and mass in French is a mixed blessing. Maybe I'm a chauvinist (despite a good head of hair) but I don't think French is as dignified a lauguage as English.

One of the strangest things I have encountered in French churches is the abhorrence of symmetry. This was first manifested in a tendency for the candles and crucifix to be placed asymmetrically- on one side on the altar. This looked like a self-consciously "arty" gesture and like some trendy table setting from the 1950's. As if this weren't bad enough, by the milennium, even the number of candles had, in many places, been reduced to one candle and a crucifix on one side. This led my son to suggest that since our brothers and sisters in the Church in France
were so poor as to be only able to afford one candle at Mass, we inEngland and Wales should have a collection in order to help them out,

Thursday 13 May 2010

Ascension Thursday et cetera.

Today, as everyone knows- or ought to know- is Ascension Day, but under current arrangements the feast is transferred to next Sunday. Unlike a number of other bloggers I am not going to slag off the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales over this. Not that I am happy with this mucking about with the holy days. Far from it. Nevertheless, I am aware that our bishops didn't jump to make this change. Like many other things it happened elsewhere earlier.

In the year of the Great Jubilee 2000 I took the family to Rome. On the return journey we stopped for a few days on the borders of Tuscany and Umbria. Ascension Day fell on 1st June and I had had the bright idea of going to mass in the church of San Francesco at Arezzo so that afterwards we might feast our eyes upon the Piero della Francesca fresco cycle of The Legend of the True Cross. Much to our surprise we found that only one mass seemed to fit with our visit and that was being celebrated not in the main church but in the chapter house. As soon as I saw the celebrant in red vestments I twigged what was afoot. The Italian Bishops' Conference had already transferred the feast to the following Sunday so that the mass we had arrived for was that of the feast of St Justin, martyr. Had we remained in Rome, no doubt, we would have been celebrating the Ascension. Had we been at home, at that time, the same would have been true.
This I remember quite clearly. I am less clear about my first memory of Communion in the hand but I have a strong suspicion that I saw that happening on the continent before it happened here.

I was slow to adopt the new practice which I did in, I think, Advent 1977, about the time that I discovered the Divine Office- there is, for me a connection. Yet before that I had been in France in 1973 and 1976 where I had observed people receiving in the hand. Only later, if I remember rightly, did this practice cross the channel.

Remember: You read it here first!

Peter Brookes must have seen the post below!

Toffs Rule OK !

That Tony Blair, with his parsonical tone and turn of phrase ("I say unto you,"), should have been characterised as "the vicar of St Albion's" is hardly surprising. Now, however, we have the real toffs: the head boy and his fag! (Eton- left, Westminster- right).

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Saturday 8 May 2010

The General Election - all you need to know

Labour- lost
Tories- didn't win
Liberals- did worse than expected
SNP- no better than before
Plaid Cymru- ditto

In view of the fact that no party commands an absolute majority, it seems to me that a coalition government drawn from all of the above parties would fit the bill nicely. It worked in the Second World War when Churchill famously declared he had nothing to offer but blood, sweat and tears and, given the fact that the current financial situation arguably demands unpopular measures, it would be fair for all the parties to share the ensuing "blame" equally.

Oh... and the member for Brighton should be put out with the other stuff for recycling next week- we are all green now!

The British people have spoken...

...and some commentators think that they/we are unclear. I don't think so. In fact we have what we wanted: a hanged parliament- one where the members of the various parties are forced to pay attention and really listen to each other instead of just grandstanding and slanging each other off. So we could be in for some interesting times.

What else shall I say?

Ah yes! He would have a heart of stone who did not shout and dance for joy at news of the demise of Dr Death! I know I did. I was going to be highly original and call it this election's "Portillo Moment"- except that almost everyone else has beaten me to it!

Thursday 6 May 2010

Vote for the Common Good!

In my experience this means voting for the least bad candidate.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Blessed Martyrs of England and Wales

Father Gerrard Tortured in the Tower

On the third day, the warder came to my room straight from his dinner. Looking sorry for himself, he said the Lord’s commissioners had arrived with the Queen’s attorney general, and that I had to go down to them at once.

“I am ready,” I said, “but just let me say an ‘Our Father’ and ‘Hail Mary’ downstairs.”
He let me go, and then we went off together to the lieutenant’s lodgings inside the walls of the Tower. Five men were there waiting for me, none of whom, except Wade, had examined me before. He was there to direct the charges against me.
“You say,” said the attorney general, “you have no wish to obstruct the government. Tell us, then, where Father Garnet is. He is an enemy of the state, and you are bound to report on all such men.”
“He isn’t an enemy of the state,” I said. “But I don’t know where he lives, and if I did, I would not tell you.”
“Then we’ll see to it that you tell us before we leave this place.”
“Please God you won’t,” I answered.
Then they produced a warrant for putting me to torture. They had it ready by them and handed it to me to read. (In this prison a special warrant is required for torture.)
I saw the warrant was properly made out and signed, and then I answered, “With God’s help I shall never do anything which is unjust or act against my conscience or the Catholic faith. You have me in your power. You can do with me what God allows you to do—more you cannot do.”
Then they began to implore me not to force them to take steps they were loath to take. They said they would have to put me to torture every day, as long as my life lasted, until I gave them the information they wanted.
“I trust in God’s goodness,” I answered, “that He will prevent me from ever committing a sin such as this—the sin of accusing innocent people. We are all in God’s hands, and therefore I have no fear of anything you can do to me.”
This was the sense of my answers, as far as I can recall them now.
We went to the torture room in a kind of solemn procession, the attendants walking ahead with lighted candles.
The chamber was underground and dark, particularly near the entrance. It was a vast place, and every device and instrument of human torture was there. They pointed out some of them to me and said I would try them all. Then they asked me again whether I would confess.
“I cannot,” I said.
I fell on my knees for a moment’s prayer. Then they took me to a big upright pillar, one of the wooden posts which held the roof of this huge underground chamber. Driven into the top of it were iron staples for supporting heavy weights. Then they put my wrists into iron gauntlets and ordered me to climb two or three wicker steps. My arms were then lifted up, and an iron bar was passed through the rings of one gauntlet, then through the staple and rings of the second gauntlet. This done, they fastened the bar with a pin to prevent it slipping, and then, removing the wicker steps one by one from under my feet, they left me hanging with my hands and arms fastened above my head. The tips of my toes, however, still touched the ground, and they had to dig away the earth from under them. They had hung me up from the highest staple in the pillar and could not raise me any higher without driving in another staple.
Hanging like this, I began to pray. The gentlemen standing around asked me whether I was willing to confess now.
“I cannot and I will not,” I answered. But I could hardly utter the words, such a gripping pain came over me. It was worst in my chest and belly, my hands and arms. All the blood in my body seemed to rush up into my arms and hands, and I thought that blood was oozing from the ends of my fingers and the pores of my skin. But it was only a sensation caused by my flesh swelling above the irons holding them. The pain was so intense that I thought I could not possibly endure it—and added to it, I had an interior temptation. Yet I did not feel any inclination or wish to give them the information they wanted. The Lord saw my weakness with the eyes of His mercy and did not permit me to be tempted beyond my strength. With the temptation, He sent me relief. Seeing my agony and the struggle going on in my mind, He gave me this most merciful thought: the utmost and worst they can do is to kill you, and you have often wanted to give your life for your Lord God. The Lord God sees all you are enduring—He can do all things. You are in God’s keeping. With these thoughts, God in His infinite goodness and mercy gave me the grace of resignation, and with a desire to die and a hope (I admit) that I would, I offered Him myself to do with me as He wished. From that moment the conflict in my soul ceased, and even the physical pain seemed much more bearable than before, though it must, in fact, I am sure, have been greater with the growing strain and weariness of my body.
Sometime after one o’clock, I think, I fell into a faint. How long I was unconscious I don’t know, but I think it was long, for the men held my body up or put the wicker steps under my feet until I came to. Then they heard me pray and immediately let me down again. And they did this every time I fainted—eight or nine times that day—before it struck five.
A little later they took me down. My legs and feet were not damaged, but it was a great effort to stand upright.

Sunday 2 May 2010

The Sublime and the Subliminal

While I very much approved of our first hymn at mass this morning, "Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem", by St Fulbert of Chartres, I am inclined to think that the chap responsible for the music rather let a wicked sense of humour get the better of him in the selection of "Praise the Lord, ye heavens adore Him" with its tune of "Austria" by Haydn. The said tune is perhaps better known in its association with the German National Anthem, Deutschland uber alles- guaranteed to raise a smile for most Brits. What an eejit!

Saturday 1 May 2010

Grim News From Liverpool

According to the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral "Weekly Record" all the events during Pope Benedict's visit to Britain, including the Beatification of Cardinal Newman at Coventry Airport, are likely to be "ticket only". I am really miffed at this because I want to be there in solidarity with the holy father. What is the point of having a mass in such surroundings if we ordinary little people can't be there? Indeed, I have been hoping that Catholics would be able to turn out in such large numbers that the anti-papal visit protestors and their media allies would be well and truly swamped.