Margaret Lant looks back on the faith and practice of her 1950s Catholic girlhood — a time of devotional prayer, hard work and the emergence of a family secret that would, ever after, affect her view of the Church 0 neof the privileges of later life, or perhaps one of those concessions to peccadillo, is the freedom to sit in a chosen corner of the church and drift off into a little reverie during Mass. Those of three score years and ten are no longer expected to jump up and down with the frequency of the younger congregation. In my twenties, of course. I used to be accused of sleeping shamelessly through Mass, which was a calumny in itself. In my thirties I had no such opportunity as I watched my children eagle-eyed in dreadful consciousness of the "tut tutting" and "shushing" their misbehaviour was bound to attract.
Benign is the reverie which has replaced those years of Maternal anxiety. Now 1 witness with great pleasure children running up and down the aisles, racing toy cars along the elbow benches and drawing contentedly on the Mass sheets specially provided for them. There is little room for the minority who disapprove, and most parish priests make it clear that the "family Mass" is just that — for families. There are always the more "sedate" Masses for the more sedate.
This is all a far cry from my own childhood when to take a cuddly toy to church was stretching one's parents' (and the priest's) tolerance. Our heads had to be facing the altar and our hands occupied with a Missal, or at least a child's prayer book. Polished or blanco-cleaned shoes, starched dresses and a hat were also mandatory — and talking under any circumstances was not permitted!
I think it takes 50 years of common sense. enlightenment and good humour to welcome the great changes which have taken place in church, mostly and gradually since Vatican II.
I imagine that I am not alone in taking the habitual practice of my Faith for granted, and I know that I would be hard-put to answer questions like "when did we last have to fast from midnight before Holy Communion'?" or "what happened to the Sunday afternoon devotion of Benediction?"
Yet I am aware, with a sense of loss. of the style and tenor of our Catholic family life which revolved around these very practices, not to mention others, like regular attendance at Confession. Without any argument, these shared commitments, which some critics might today regard as guilt-inducing indoctrination, gave us a closeness and sense of identity which is gone forever. One does grieve for that security, even if at times we were made to feel like creatures of a different species by our neighbours, inhabiting a ghetto they did not wish to understand. I think occasionally we may have revelled in this exclusivity, and hovered on the brink of the sin of pride.
Many of my most cherished memories of our family home life in the 1940s and 1950s are enshrined in that "ghetto" and have proved to be an unshakeable foundation for adult stability. Yet our strict religious observance meant that we were virtually "imprisoned" in a routine which barred any one of us from independent action, or any pursuit of our own outside the home.
Sundays began, cheerfully enough, with breakfast after the 8.30 am Mass. This, after the fast from midnight, was a time for letting go and we would gossip, albeit kindly, about our fellow parishioners.
Sunday lunch, the major family meeting of the week, also passed uncontentiously and was crowned by the real pleasure we four older girls found in the chore of washing up. This was due to the fine voice of my dear sister Anne who would conduct us in true barbershop style from the depths of the kitchen sink. Perhaps we were all trying to forget that Sunday evening lay ahead, and that the buns or scones for tea had to be made before we left for Benediction at four o'clock. I usually tried to skedaddle out of this duty, promising to do the darning and the school uniform pressing later on. But inexorably, the Sunday afternoon devotion had to be faced, and with it, the onset of that ennui which has followed me for the rest of my life.
To this day, I do not know how to eliminate the hours of four to eight o'clock on Sundays, except to forget that they exist. I imagine that this is a fairly universal problem and, as we no longer have Benediction at that time, this truly devotional Devotion was really not responsible for our depression: a consoling piece of rationale, I think.
Sunday tea being finished — we always hoped there would be buns or scones left over as a treat for Monday — we then had the half-hour classic serial on, the radio to look forward to. And then it was time for cards. I would usually try and delay my participation by hastily putting up the ironing board to press the younger children's school uniforms, followed by a rueful inspection of the fistsized holes in my younger brothers' grey woollen socks. I had to be quick though, or Mother would have the card table up in the place I had commandeered.
Actually, she usually beat me to it, having the first hand of whist dealt and everyone not otherwise occupied recruited. So the sound of a clapped-out Ford car with serious ignition problems parking in our . driveway, announcing the arrival of Fr Philip Murray from St Anthony's, Edgware (our neighbouring north London neighbouring parish), was really rather a relief even if he did drive Anne and me mad with his chain-smoking, perpetual coughing, and serial teadrinking.
At least he was a willing partner of the Whist table, and did not complain when mother made one "mis6re" call after another, especially if my father was inclined to offer him something a little stronger than the tea. We didn't even mind him eating all the scones.
It goes without saying that none of us would have dared to utter one word of disrespect for, or dislike of, our clerical visitor. We were too well-schooled in the respect that was owed to the priesthood, and with deep personal reasons as we had a priest in the family. My mother's brother, Fr Joseph Morley.
The story of our ordained maternal uncle shows just how our reaction to human frailty and our acceptance of very fallible judgments has altered — not only with the social revolutions of the last 50 years, but with the softening tenets of our Catholic faith.
Joseph Benedict Morley was born in 1900, oldest child of the four children of Joseph and Mary Morley (née McHale). His devout Irish mother had decided that her only son was destined for the priesthood from his cradle. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 he was already a student at a seminarian school in Surrey. Joe begged to be released for active service when he was
old enough to enlist. He chose the Royal Flying Corps — a love of speed already coursing through his veins — and wrote to his father saying that he wanted to become a professional pilot after the Armistice.
Joseph Morley senior replied that his son would break his mother's heart, and maybe cost her life, if he did not return to the seminary, which, accordingly, he had no choice but to do. He was duly ordained at Wonersh in the diocese of Southwark in 1925. The infuriating part of this stage in Uncle Joe's story is that his father was really only securing his own freedom from his religion-obsessed wife by ensuring her absorption with her son's progress to the priesthood, leaving him free to pursue his separate social life in the Army. Beer drinking and sport were much more to his liking than morning Mass and evening prayers.
At the time of my
the marriage in 1927 Joe was serving as assistant priest in a south London parish. and they were hugely honoured to have him as the celebrant of their nuptial Mass at the Morley family's church in Streatham.
Subsequently he baptised the babies as they arrived: four between 1928 and 1933 when our family lived in a maisonette on Tooting Bee Road. On these official occasions, and on purely social ones, we were always delighted to see and to be with our loving, tubby and mischievous uncle with his great shock of prematurely grey hair which stood straight up like a yard broom.
His welcome was accentuated by the outings he gave us in his bone-shaker of a sports car, and the icecream that was part of the treat. The car had a rumble or dickey rear seat, and I recall disgracing myself by being terribly sick on one outing which led to the exclusion of the ice-cream thereafter. For all the fun and games, however, we never forgot that Uncle Joe was a priest, and our father ever referred to him as "Fr Joe".
We saw very little of him after we left London in 1935. Mary (McHale) Morley died, and we moved to Hertfordshire, the Midlands, and after a short sojourn with our paternal grandmother in Buckinghamshire at the outbreak of World War Two, settled in the north London suburb of Canons Park, between Stanmore and Edgware, for the duration and on into the mid-1950s.
We heard of Joe's commission in the Royal Air Force as chaplain with the rank of Squadron Leader, and he paid us one very brief visit at the time of the baptism of my parents' seventh child, Fliz
abeth, in the summer of 1940. He looked very smart, an impressive figure in his RAF uniform with the insignia denoting his senior rank.
I remember but few references to him over the next four years, except for some occasional sotto-voce exchanges between mother and father discussing "where Joe might be"?
I could not see why anyone would expect to know the whereabouts of any officer on active service, and dismissed the nagging doubts their air of mystery had suggested. That air of mystery was to resurface one evening in the late summer of 1944.
Offering us no explanation of any kind our parents took a short walk after dinner, to a pub over the road on Honeypot Lane (not at all in character for them), and returned one hour later with Uncle Joe between them. Perhaps they were cooking up a story to explain the change in Fr. Joe's appearance, or maybe a beer or two was necessary for its composition.
Anyway, when my uncle eventually emerged gone was the splendid sky-blue uniform, the Roman collar, black stock, and air of invested authority. Instead, poor Joe was down-at-heel and unsmiling, wearing an ill-fitting grey flannel suit, with an RAF shirt frayed at the neck and not even a civilian tie.
We gave him the remains of the leftover supper while mother and father, with great embarrassment, told us that Joe was now on "secret war work" at the prisoner-of-war transit camp, which had appeared on the corner of Honeypot Lane in the wake of the DDay invasion.
For reasons of security, they said, he had to appear incognito as a governmentemployed civilian and not as a priest. For reasons of equal security, we had to accept this version of events.
In the immediate postwar years the embargo on the fortunes of Uncle Joe was never officially lifted, and probably would not have been, had circumstances not forced its disclosure. Inthe early spring of 1950, still six months short of my 19th birthday, I found myself in the role of housekeeper to the family, now numbering 12 — my career, since leaving school in 1947, having failed to qualify me in any quarter that might have brought in a worthwhile salary. Mother, however, despite her fertile childbearing, had never abandoned her own career, and was highly sought-after as a confidential secretary: a first-class PA in today's language. Thus, she
brought home at least half the bacon, and I cooked it — except that we rarely had bacon in the post-war years of continued rationing.
I lived in a dream of fortune finding me, as there appeared to be no chance of finding it for myself. Perhaps some sense of being valuable. even essential, did result from a mission which came my way, without any preamble, close to Ash Wednesday of the year in question. Mother, arriving home in an unusual mood of concern and consideration, offered to eat with father in the kitchen "to save me trouble", and did not complain that dinner was not quite ready or that the fire in the dining room had gone out.
I was doubly amazed when she asked me to sit down with them both after the meal "for a private talk" — alone. My elder sister, Anne, had gone out to choir practice at church, and the younger ones were in bed.
It was a simple enough request. Would I consider looking after an eight-yearold boy for the Easter holiday who was a formerly "unknown" relative of ours? Mother explained that he might be rather upset by being thrown into the midst of such a large family; then she neither waited for my response nor drew breath before proceeding to the next astounding (and as far as I was concerned unconnected) question-cum-statement.
"How would you feel, Margaret, if you heard of a Catholic priest who had to leave the priesthood because he got married and had children?"
There was a frozen silence. I was consciou5 that I didn't want to make things any harder for my mother and my mind raced for a reply. Then my father spoke and, for the first time, told me what had really happened to Joe.
When he was serving as a RAF chaplain, in the early months of I 940, Joe had met and befriended a young Scottish WAAF, who had come to him, a little homesick, asking to be instructed in the Faith. Obviously one confidence had led to another, as has many a citadel of celibacy been stormed, but for all my parents' emphasis on the enticements of Jean (the WAAF in question), I was inclined to judge her for myself.
This I had the chance to do when I travelled clown to St Mary Cray in Kent to fetch young Joseph Morley for the arranged Easter holiday.
The poor little lad greeted me with a tearstained face and a fast hold on his mother, though his younger brother. Donald, smiled and would have accompanied me without demur. Our young guest cheered up a little when regaled with promises of all the exciting trains he would see on his way back to Canons Park.
I found Jean intelligent, modest and not at all threatening, but forbore to ask her if she had agreed to the separation from Uncle Joe — the condition set by the diocese of Southwark, before his application for reinstatement to active ministry could be considered Furthermore, the archbishop was insisting on a divorce. Uncle Joe had to stop living with Jean and the boys so that she could sue him for desertion.
This, naturally, left Joe homeless and a few weeks after his son had returned to Kent he became our house guest for the summer of 1950, bringing me difficulties of management and relationship for which I had neither precedent nor terms of reference.
I did not know how to cater for a travelling salesman. He pretended he did not need to eat and insisted on doing his own washing in the bath. Had 1 not been so irritated by him, I think he would have broken my heart.
He left us early in September, when, because I was becoming quite ill, I failed to ask where he was going next. I saw him only once again: at a cousin's 18th birthday party in spring 1959. The great brush of hair had turned snow white and he cried as we sang old Irish songs. He died in 1963 after spending his later years as a brother with the Benedictines of Ramsgate.
He was never reinstated into the priesthood.
"Hard cases make bad laws" was an aphorism often quoted by my father, which meant in less elegant language: "We don't change things, because things change."
In the case of Uncle Joe he would have seen no middle way, no compromise, despite any human compassion he might have had for Jean and the boys. What would Fr Joe's fate be today? We know the teachings of the Church —
handed down to us in the encyclicals — but how many of us, the "common faithful", really know where we stand between conscience and conduct.