LAST WEEK to Cheltenham, attending a meeting of the local circle of the Newman Association. A few years ago the association was a battlefield, and a very important one, for the Church in this country.
It is probably the most sophisticated and most articulate of all the non-specialist Catholic societies. It is run by the laity and it was no accident that it was shaken by internal controversy of considerable intensity over the sort of basic issues which faced the Second Vatican Council, and that was back in about 1963, It has sonic 2,000 members, organised locally in 45 "circles". It is at peace now and conducting a sort of intellectual apostolate. You could say that the rest of the Church has caught up with it except that to say that might be rather arrogant.
Anyone can join it. You do not have to be a university graduate. You have to be a Catholic to be a member and, as always, it is better not to have .some private party line to pursue within the Church.
Anyway, I talked to the circle, which was a dead loss for them; but someone showed me round Cheltenham, which was pure gain for me. And you'll find no false humility in this column.
Cheltenham has a pleasant image in the popular eye. It is known to be elegant. It is thought to be largely given over to retired officers from the Armed Services. And so it once was.
It had mineral springs which were thought to be peculiarly effective on human bodies undermined by long years of tropical climates, diets, diseases and dissipations. It was, in short, fine for the smaller nabobs.
But it is a splendid regency town, with confident Victorian additions and some reasonably well-mannered modern buildings. And the other day it looked well loved and well kept and not noticeably inhabited by the oldish.
Its Victorian Catholic church was designed by Charles Hansom of Bristol, the brother of the designer of the cab. It is one of those complicated Gothic revival buildings with aisles, side-chapels and chantries melting into its sides.
It was done thus in order to achieve that marvellous organic clump of building which medieval England used once produce without any apparent overall planning, taking centuries of collapse and rebuilding in various styles to do it.
Thought of in terms of Victorian, not of medieval building, it is a work of art, and it has a great, extravagant tower and spire which, in a town thickly sown with churches, is the finest thing of its sort in Cheltenham.
It was built to replace a little classical chapel which had been started by a French refugee priest. The new church, built in the 1850s, was the result of one of those energetic national scrounge-arounds for money which are still with us and always will be.
The parish is clearly very alive, with 2,000 attenders. It has a proper Cheltenham town house for a presbytery. Tennyson wrote "In Memoriam" in its parlour.
The church is served by Benedictines, and has been since 1809. The present parish priest is Dom James Donovan from Douai Abbey. He and his people seem to be a hearteningly bold lot who are quite prepared to dice with the ecumenical equivalent of death.
Earlier this month I took this account from Leslie Bill's report in the Gloucestershire Echo the parish joined with others in what they called a "service of disunity".
It began with an Anglican vicar warning the congregation that some might find some of the service uncongenial or disturbing. But he said there were many ways of worshipping God. They began with the vicar and choir singing the Anglican Litany while in procession round the church.
There was extempore worship from Baptist and Methodist ministers. There were three hymns, a guitar, prayers for unity in the town and refreshments served in the John Wesley Room. The Salvation Army Solid Rock Band from Gloucester rattled the roof and Dam James Donovan, OSB taught the Rosary, which really was a test of the temperature of the water!
He said from the pulpit of the Anglican Church of St Mathew that the Rosary was considered to be wholly Roman Catholic with its emphasis on the Virgin Mary, but that others, including John Wesley, had used it in the past and others were now using it more and more.
He said Catholics had many devotions to the Person of Christ, but in the early Church the faithful, honest simple people, were restricted in their praise of God.
The two main prayers they knew then were the Our Father and the Hail Mary, both from the Scriptures, though further phrases had been added much later.
He explained the mysteries, and this form of meditation which could be made anywhere. As for those who prayed the Rosary, they did not need a book. lt was a personal response, the beads slipping through their liners while they said, "Hail Mary" all the time.
"We can be walking along a road, driving a car, sitting down, on our knees in prayer, at any time of the day". He also said it suited any age. It could be said by those who were growing old, by those who had failing sight or hearing.
Personally, I think it only honourable, fair and useful to be frank about such things on ecumenical occasions-to bring them proudly into the open and to display them rather than to excuse them.
Take us or reject us, this is who we are. That is the only method that will touch both hearts and minds. Such honesty pays. I heard no account of any offended reaction.
ONE of the pastimes of a certain sort of Catholic, of which I am one, is episcopal
speculation. This, of course, is the esoteric and useless practice of wondering upon whose head some temporarily empty mitre is going to be set.
Now this is odd, since "preferment" is meant not to be part of any Catholic's vocabulary in this country. And although extremely widespread, such speculation is publicly thought to be in bad taste. More's the pity.
The sources of episcopal gossip are utterly discreet on such matters. It is, of course, possible to make informed guesses which will be slightly less authoritative than those provided about horses by highly-paid racing tipsters in popular papers.
Your prediction will be governed by what happens to be going for or against any individual, and what is the present state of the going.
Nor is it much worth while taking into account the results of the consultation of the priests and the laity. No one really knows the effect of writing to the Apostolic Delegate or to any other chosen authority.
It is, anyway, a bad way of consulting opinion since the majority of those who volunteer their opinions are likely to be the professionals and the selfimportant and those with some sort of holy bee in their bonnet.
And if the advice is confined to the sort of person who should be appointed, the sum of the Vexes Populi is likely to be an unworldly saint with a keen sense of public relations, Even after all these interesting factors have been taken into consideration, there remains Rome lying like a major obstacle on the board of a game of snakes and ladders. There you plunge into real obscurity.
There you must assess a Civil Service with a high prudence rating but which is composed of foreigners who have a large number of other dioceses to think of and who tend not to consider Britain the centre of the ecclesiastical world, It is therefore surprising that it is possible to be right about halt' of the time.
All this is apposite because the Archbishopric of Southwark and two Westminster suffragan sees are empty and waiting on Rome.
But this time the wise speculators have fallen silent. There is too little to go dn. There is always a grave danger of confusing what you think ought to be with what in fact will be.
The highest form of this type of speculation never, ever quite
stops. It concerns who will be the next Pope. Again in the past there have existed overwhelm ing probabilities which have allowed informed observers occasionally to prophesy the succession. But now?
The supreme ambition of the present Pope is said to be to set the Church on an even keel and to hand it on safe and intact in all its essentials to his successor. That must in fact be the ambition of all good Popes.
But in his time the keel has had to sail some very turbulent waters and some of the crosscurrents have been vicious in a new way. His has not been an easy passage. Yet it looks as if he has carefully planned to leave, not a revolution, but the mechanism of a great change behind him.
Consider: In 1910 there were 41 cardinals and 31 were Italians. Of all the 31, only one was not from Europe.
Towards the end of last year there were 136 cardinals: 36 of these were Italian, 33 were from other European countries and 67 were from less favoured continents.
Of those, 118 were under the age of 80 and thus able to vote There was one cardinal in peetore and a few have died since that counting. This Pope has made about 109 cardinals, and that is utterly unprecedented. The rash and public soothsayers seeking a future Pope tend to pick on those European cardinals who appear from time to time in the news. So their room for manoeuvre is limited.
But if, as you must, you throw open the whole world, then a candidate from some part of the Third World -which has no exact geographical or political frontiers seems most likely.
But how will the bereaved College of Cardinals, meeting under pressure, decide? The field is far bigger than ever before. They will have scant time in which to reach a consensus on any one man.
The knowledge of one another that the senior bishops gained during the Council is being dissipated by time, death and distance. Nor can so delicate a topic be now a subject for high-level discussions.
But in bequeathing this healthy uncertainty, Pope Paul has left the Church free in a new way, not to experiment, but to make some bold choice which is not tied down and made acceptable by precedent. And the times seem singularly propitious for this. It will almost certainly not be a Curial figure who is chosen. There seems no obvious Italian anywhere.
At present there is no way of saying where the next man for the City and the World will come from. And the uncertainty itself is a sort of liberation.