Page 5, 20th April 1990

20th April 1990
Page 5
Page 5, 20th April 1990 — Bruce Stewart feels prematurely old, so swift and so many

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Bruce Stewart feels prematurely old, so swift and so many

have been the changes in the church he was born into. In the first of three personal reflections he looks back to the certainties of his childhood

Three ages of one Catholic man

I SOMETIMES think 1 have lived a lot longer than my years, which are considerable enough.

This is because I was born and spent my early years in New Zealand, which was a Victorian society in my childhood of the late 1920s and 1930s. Thus I feel I have been a Catholic for 100 years at a conservative estimate.

Being a Catholic has been a vastly different proposition over that period. I seem to have lived through at least three distinct "modes" of Catholicism. I should like to recall these in this article and the two that follow.

The first mode was a more or less forgotten one now, the mode of the ghetto. It began in the nineteenth century, but still in the 1930s we Catholics all lived in a strange little enclave, secure from the world, afraid of it. I refer of course to the English-speaking countries — Britain, the Empire (as we then were), and also the United States, though mass European immigration there gave the church a status which it did not possess elsewhere.

Our education was exclusivist. Our attitudes were predetermined and pickled in brine. The Protestant ascendancy everywhere threatened us. I was taught from my earliest years that the worst sin possible was that of losing the faith, and that to make Catholics lose the faith was what Protestants were there for.

Clerical rule over a beleaguered, poor and largely ignorant people was thus absolute. It was also for the most part Irish. I would be the last person to belittle the enormous debt English-speaking Catholics owe to Ireland. But in those days Hail Glorious St Patrick was thought to be a team song, and in slang usuage Catholics were all "Micks".

Fr Dunphy, who stands out from my childhood, was probably typical of the priests of the time. I-le was dedicated, authoritarian, and hopelessly narrow-minded. He thought the dangers for Catholics were only multiplied by things like the new radio and talking pictures, and so Sunday after Sunday would rant against modernity, which he considered the creation of divorced Protestants or Jews. (There was no precise antiSemitism in the ghetto: but the Good Friday liturgy spoke of the "perfidious" Jews, and a nod was as good as a wink, et cetera).

Fr Dunphy would refuse communion to any young woman wearing lipstick or stacks. Because people rather understandably tended to slope off before his mass was finished, he would turn to face the congregation whilst reciting the old Last Gospel, fixing the defectors with a gimlet eye, challenging them to leave if they dared.

Fr Dunphy, like most priests then, taught that if you hadn't heard the (first) Gospel you hadn't heard mass, and were thus in mortal sin. Liberals, sly shadows of DDs for the most part, distinguished this by saying that your presence was only actually requileel from the offertory to the second ablutions.

Mass was rattled through in Latin by all priests at great speed. It was a sort of principle, laid down by clerics who had a huge office to get through each day, that speed was no hindrance to devotion. Thus there were priests who said weekday mass in ten minutes.

Since there was no concelebration, and every priest said an individual mass each day, weekday mornings in a church with a large staff could be a great rush of simultaneous Missae Tridentinae.

One old priest I often served as an altar boy had ill-fitting false teeth, which, when they became fouled up in the race of his Latin, he would wrench out of his mouth and bang down on the altar.

I am thus left with a splendidly irrelevant image of religion, to console me in my declining years, of the morning sun filtering through cheap stained glass, gleaming on an abandoned upper set.

Mortal sin, of course, was everywhere. A Jesuit once told us at a school mission that the reason the church required its sons and daughters to confess at least once a year was because in the modern world nobody could hope to be in a state of grace after so long away from the sacrament.

And it wasn't only missing mass on Sunday or consuming a clandestine sausage on Friday that merited hell for all eternity. It was a million other things. We altar boys, for instance, were forbidden to touch the sacred vessels under pain of. When the bishop came, we-had to wear a

special silken scarf to hold his mitre, to touch which with our bare hands would constitute a venial at least, probably much


Of moral matters, particularly sexual, I will not speak. Everything seemed forbidden in that area. A young priest in the confessional once wearily told me in my early adolescence that it was a better policy to put girls right out of the mind until the one "God had singled out" came along. I often wondered how I was to recognize this ill-fated young woman, and then what exactly I was supposed to do about it.

The major evils lying in wait for us out in the Protestant world were efficiently tagged as divorce and the mixed married. Contraception, oddly, was rarely mentioned at this period, at least in public. I think the practice may have been regarded as a bit esoteric, nothing much to do with ordinary folk. But the marriage of Edward VIII to a divorcee after his abdication caused a monumental upset among Catholics who by this stage had been carefully taught to be obedient and respectful to lawful authority, if only to ensure that the church remained in good odour.

Mixed marriages were regularly condemned from the pulpit, even though an increasing number of us were in fact the product of them. (My Own father was a non-Catholic.) Theologians in the colleges opined that even casual outings with Protestants of the opposite sex should be outlawed. Catholics, it was plain, were not to be trusted in the matter of relationships. Give them an inch, and they would begin producing Baptists and Methodists with the abandon required of them in producing new members of the One True Church.

Nuns were thought by most Catholics to be a sort of female equivalent of priests. If there was no special chapel for them in the parish church, they would be given favoured places at Sunday mass. Their voluminous habits spread out, they would sit only live or six to a pew into which a dozen laypeople might be jammed further back.

Extra ecclesiarn nulla so/us still meant in the 1930s that non-Catholics could not be saved. It continued to do so at the popular level right up until the 1950s, when the Jesuit writer Leonard Feeney got himself excommunicated for publicly stating as much.

The most charitable thing that could be said in my childhood was that salvation was God's business, and thus only God could know for sure who would be saved and who lost. But we were left in no doubt that it looked pretty grim for nonCatholics.

Priests, and what priests said, were the name of the game in those far-off, only just departed times. The war began a sort of sea-change, and I shall hope to deal with the "mode" of Catholicism which then became discernible in the next article. But in 1938 I went to a retreat where the Franciscan retreat master was brave enough to say out loud that he thought God saved far many more souls than we cared to admit. It was a question, he informed us, of peoples' basic good faith.

"But," he then added more darkly, "it is very difficult to see how most Protestants are in good faith. The proofs for the Catholic church are so clear, so obvious, that anyone who seriously studies the subject — and Protestants claim to — is bound to come to the only logical conclusion. My dear men," he ended, for it was a retreat of Holy Name men, a sodality which at its monthly mass pledged loyalty to the Pope, obedience to the bishop, and the avoidance of

blasphemy, profanity, and obscene speech, "my dear men, I ask you to pray most earnestly for Protestants, who are probably in a worse spiritual state than the most abandoned of heathens."

Next week: the post-war church contemplates change.

Bruce Stewart is a writer and playwright. His "Flower of Blood" about a Spanish monk in Australia was recently produced for BBC Radio 4.

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