Is it better for a Christian, and a Catholic, to grow up in a Catholic society, where Holy Week is celebrated at full throttle all around? Or to dwell in a secular society in which Holy Week is hardly observed at all by the general culture, and can only be found at the margins?
That is the contrast between the Holy Week which I knew as a young person in Ireland and the Holy Week which I know today in south-east England.
In my schooldays, the entire society, it seemed, was simultaneously participating in Holy Week. There must have been minorities who did not, yet they respected the general tone of a society steeped in Holy Week practices.
From Wednesday of Holy Week, most of the cinemas were closed, and even to sneak to the movies on what was called “Spy Wednesday” was to induce queasy feelings of guilt.
Holy Thursday and Good Friday were entirely austere. Pubs were out of the question. No one had ever been known to hold a dance, much less a wedding, at this time. Radio and television programmes only broadcast the sombre Gospel stories relating to the Passion of Our Lord – and the music which accompanied it by the likes of J S Bach.
This was also partly true in England. If you look back on the archives of the Radio Times, for example, during this period the BBC concentrated on programmes which had some connection with spirituality.
Most of this is now brushed aside, and Holy Week has little more meaning than another string of bank holidays. Devotions are pursued almost as a private matter. And, indeed, most of the general public don’t really know the difference between Holy Week and Easter Week.
And yet, maybe this secular culture all around us could form a better engine of commitment, so to speak. We observed all the rituals of Holy Week back then because they were compulsory; and although many were also beautiful, there was sometimes an element of automatic pilot.
It is instructive to examine the way in which the Jewish community have continued with religious rituals which have had no endorsement in the public sphere. Monday was the beginning of the feast of the Pesach, which celebrates the Exodus from slavery with religious and family ceremonial which involves passing on the traditions to the next generation.
Even Jews who regard themselves as “not religious” essentially still participate because of the sense of commitment, and respect for the faith tradition. But in a way this comes from the consciousness of having been outside the mainstream of general traditional practices.
Maybe we, too, will become more committed to our Holy Week rites and rituals because we, too, are now outside the mainstream of raucous jollities around these bank holidays, as everything from Easter to Pentecost to Ascension is now known. Maybe that’s the way it should be, too.
Here’s a promising date for the diary. Léonie Caldecott in Oxford has written a play about the last days of Pope John Paul II, examining his personality and theology, particularly on young people.
The play is called The Quality of Mercy and it will be performed on April 27, 28 and 29 at 8pm at the Newman Room, Rose Place, St Aldate’s, Oxford. The production team is called Divine Comedy Productions – a great title. Bookings can be made through the Oxford Playhouse at 01865 305305 or through the Oxford Oratory at Oxfordoratory.org.uk.
Drama is a wonderful medium for transmitting stories, personalities and ideas. And didn’t modern theatre start with the mystical and miracle plays of the Middle Ages, often performed within the precincts of a cathedral?
Papa Wojtyła himself loved the drama, wrote plays and even thought of being an actor, so it is particularly apt.
Last week I was the happy object of an “act of random kindness”, and it occurred like this.
I was having snatched supper at the salad bar of the National Theatre in London, after hearing one of Josephine Hart’s inspiring soirées on poetry (Josephine presented Damian Lewis, Harriet Walter and the dashing Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey read Byron, Shelley and Keats). Before running for a train, I went to purchase an ice cream, which turned out to be £3. Before I could rummage in my purse, a man behind me in the queue said: “Let me get this for you.” “Gosh, no,” I half-protested. But he had paid in a trice, smiled and disappeared. He seemed just an ordinary guy, dressed in a check shirt. I hardly had time to thank him. But all the way back to Kent I entertained benign thoughts about how generous people can be, and how inspiring is a “random act of kindness”.