By Patrick O'Donovan
This year, in our country parish, we once again survived Holy Week and, I thought, we did it rather well. I burrowed a well-cut cassock from our Anglican rector and I have found the sovereign remedy for when you do not know what to do next at a liturgy. Just stand still and look devout.
I have no cure for the stiffness in my legs. I have Holy Week knees from going up and down so often and from kneeling unsupported and there is nothing lithe about me.
There are other essential tips that I have gathered over the years. If you spill the thurible, don't try to stamp out the glowing charcoal. It will not go out. No, kick it off the altar carpet.
A bishop's crozier does not make a good vaulting pole for light-hearted jumping over the faldstool before the Great Ones arrive. Make sure you do not put holy water in the cruet for Mass. Spilling wax over a priest's book makes him extremely cross.
Watch out for the Holy Fire on Holy Saturday. A cigarette lighter counts as steel and flint. It tends to be impossible to light and to bring on the rain and when it is alight, it usually gets out of control and it is wise to have a watering can in the hands of a reliable parishioner.
If you are serving Mass and notice that you have quite forgotten to light any of the candles, do not rush to the sacristy in a flurry of overstarched linen. Gesture gravely to a male parishioner and look reproachful as if the omission were his fault.
And if, at Eastertide, some reference in the sermon makes you glance at the Paschal Candle which someone has made perilous with daffodils, again, do not panic, but rise slowly and tell, preferably, another male parishioner to get into the sacristry and find that tong pole with an inverted brass cone on the end of it and to light the candle. If your timing is good. ten to one the congregation will think it part of the new order of things.
If you are in a strange church with a strange priest and cannot find the key to the tab-rnacle, do not, on any account, use a cold chisel to open it. If you cannot find your reading in some vast lectionary or cannot recall which year it is, again, do not panic, but ask, in a loud, clear, confident voice what you should be reading, thus making it clear that it is someone else's fault — not yours.
A military friend of mine whose mind was not at the time concentrated, heard suddenly a denunciation of sin from the pulpit which he took personally and said, quite clearly: "Steady, Padre" It worked, but it is not recommended except to military men, who get away with more than the likes of us.
I rather liked the Victorian Catholic squire who used to settle in his family pew and lay out eight half crowns in a row in front of him. One of these went back into his pocket for every minute the priest spoke over five minutes. It worked.
I hasten to say that none but the most charming things went wrong during our Holy Week in the country, though I still have a guilty shudder occasionally
about that Paschal Candle on Easter Day. But that list as a whole is the fine, ripe fruit of a lifetime of attending Mass. And should be printed at the beginning of next year's Ordo.
The fundamental thing is that things that go wrong on the altar are funnier than if the same sort of thing happened in the street — simply because they happen in the most solemn place.
Bishops with their mitres put on back to front, altar boys clearly frantic for a loci, faulty altar lights that have burned down with the speed of a "roman candle" -all these things I have loved. And since the Lord God has all the human qualities, I presume that He is not over-offended by occasionally irrepressible laughter on His altars.
But this year, in its bareness, one realised the formal and the significant beauty of the Holy Week liturgy. It is something special to us. The Greeks have a mysticism that works through ritual so that they aim (and, I think, succeed) to bring heaven down to earth.
The Anglicans express the solemn and proper dignity of the State turned towards Clod, ana what they do and sing is one of the great human treasures apart from its God-centred pur pose. We are learning, I think, a new way.
One of the rare pleasures of the world is to walk into a place like St. Stephen's in Vienna and attend a Mass sung by a melodious bishop with full orchestra and choir doing a Mozart Mass.
The great Baroque services of the Roman Church were in fact confined to the great churches. It used to be pretty chaotic in the parishes, but the new simplicity for the smaller families of the faithful seems to me to work. Children listen to the Passion as if it were a play, and the fundamental drama of it all has not been eroded.
Despite the flutter of "missalettes", there is now possible a quiet, dignified and — may I 'say it? — a most English simplicity. It is enchanting to hear a sort of Hampden roar at the more obvious prayers. It is good to see the affection that crowds have for such things as the Veneration of the Cross.
I do not know what happened in your parish, but in ours the simplicity (and the brevity) worked and people enjoyed themselves in their Father's house. Even I did — in spite of that exquisitely camouflaged and unlit candle.
For over ten years now we have seen the departure of priests from their ministry on an unprecedented scale. At the same time it appears that fewer and fewer men are prepared to take on the present obligations of priestly life. Religious orders and communities seem to have fared no better than the secular priests.
It may well be that in an earlier period the stigma associated with departure from the priesthood had a stabilising effect. This stigma has now disappeared, but even so one tends to doubt the extent of its influence now or in the past.
Some statistics from the Vatican may serve to focus our attention on the seriousness of .the present situation. In the year 1971, the total number of secular priests ordained in the Roman Rite numbered 3,794. In the same year 1,8411 priests ceased their ministry, the total gain for the Church being 1,946. These figures ignore the 4,039 priests who died in that period and exclude members of religious orders.
Nearer home, it is interesting to note that the average age of priests in the archdiocese of Westminster is over 50. And only last November,. five members of a well-respected Benedictine community in Belgium left in order to marry, the abbot being among their number, Since statistics can he used to prove almost anything, it is necessary to point out that these figures do seem to form part of a very definite pattern. Whatever we may think about this apparent exodus, I think it is worth saying that in my own experience it is not just the doubtful cases who have departed, but some of the most dedicated people.
It requires little imagination or insight to see the result of this situation. Bishops arc finding the problems of staffing parishes and missions increasingly difficult, and religious orders have been unable to maintain their commitments.
The outcome has been an obsessional concern with the problems of manpower, and for the laity the situation has been n.o less depressing and bewildering.
All kinds of reasons have been tendered to explain what has caused the exodus (if it may be so called) of priests and religious, and the decline in numbers of those willing to take on such a way of life.
There has been much discussion recently about the inability of institutions •to adjust and adapt to new situations, the decline of faith, the failure to accept the option of celibacy and the seeming irrelevance of the work.
I suspect that the problem of institutional change is the key factor, of which-Tee problems are a part. Having said this, it would he difficult to point to any one factor and hold it accountable for the total situation.
Despite predictions to the contrary this numerical trend seems likely to continue, and my feeling is that we are beyond the stage where such a situation should stun and scandalise us in the way that it seems to have done until now.
Rather, the Church as a whole should be prepared to face and accept the possibility that there may he something lacking in the basic concepts underlying the role of the priesthood, which is causing both those within and without its ranks to turn away.
Two further factors may throw light on the discussion so far. The first is that only a very small minority of those who have left the priesthood would deny the fundamental relevance of the Gospel, or doubt that Christianity is completely necessary in terms of human destiny.