BY DESMOND ALBROW
A delightfully unrespectable Church
ONE OF THE strengths of our Catholic clergy in England has always been its general lack of respectability. Like the cricketers of my boyhood, priests could be both gentlemen and players. Evelyn Waugh has written of taking a priest to lunch at the Ritz. "What would you like to start with," he asked, "oysters, caviare, smoked salmon?". The priest replied: "That will do very nicely." Ile then scoffed all three.
I do not know how much Waugh's delightful sense of comic exaggeration was at work here, but the story has the ring of truth. Yet what Catholics and non-Catholics alike have always expected • from priests in England are men who can understand and cope with human frailty and who are bestowed with the awesome right to say Mass.
In the wartime Services, for example, the Catholic padre may not have been the leading wit and polished raconteur of the mess, but when action began everyone knew that he would be helping the dying and succouring the wounded. He may not have been true officer material but he would never be found cowering in a shell hole.
But there was always something of a paradox at work here. The priests may not have always aspired to respectability, but respectability reigned in their churches. Things were done according to the book. At Sunday Mass the congregation turned up in their Sunday best: the men in suits, the women in frocks and always wearing hats.
The altar servers always wore cassocks and cotters. The choir was similarly garbed. The congregation may have "participated" less than today but they gave an added solemnity to the Mass. Children, despite the inevitable giggle, behaved
themselves. Even babies appeared to sense that they did not cry in church.
If my recent experiences are any guide, we seem to take a pride almost in underdressing for Mass. Some male readers turn up in the pulpit dressed as though for a session of DIY. Female readers, admittedly, show more decorum, but I cannot forget the sight of a woman assisting the priest on the altar with Holy Communion wearing trousers that emphasised her vast, unaesthetic buttocks.
T-Shirts with sexuallyambiguous slogans on their backs are worn by obviously devout men. Some modern parents appear to believe that we shall be frightfully impressed by the sophisticated crying of their babes or the sight of their toddlers racing up and down the aisle.
A church in many ways is like a classical theatre, where distraction can be the death of the most sublime art. Nothing, of course, can destroy the true drama of the Mass, but I am glad that I can recall those days when the old rite had golden periods of solitude when you could forget the world, even your immediate neighbour, and concentrate on the miracle on the altar. The priest, not any lay person, was the sole focus of our attention. This, I know, is not a view that will make me exactly popular with Catholic Herald readers.
WITH THE RECENT departure of the Press Association, the Fleet Street in which I worked and drank (in that order) for more than thirty years is in effect, no more. Journalists have capitulated to lawyers and bankers. In reality there were always more national newspapers outside Fleet Street than in it. The Times, Sunday Times, Observer, Daily Mail, Mirror, News of the World,
People, Sun and the old News Chronicle never had a foot in it.
But the two main Catholic newspapers were there. The Catholic Herald at No 67, almost opposite the Daily Telegraph, and the Universe further up towards the Strand. At one time Mass on holidays of obligation used to be said in the managing director's room at the Herald. Many of the Catholic journalists from the nationals used to attend.
Perhaps this was one of the reasons why the CH always had such good relations with the more profane end of the Street and why we mourned its leaving, little knowing that the same sad fate was uldmately to befall us all.
THERE ARE SOME words that I can never bring myself to use because of their trendy connotations; "caring" , "supportive", "traumatic" and "frustration" are a few of them. I was heartened, therefore, to read recently of someone who referred to frustration as "frozen rage". That's more like it.