Page 5, 24th January 1997

24th January 1997
Page 5
Page 5, 24th January 1997 — Kneeling in the streets before the Sacrament

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Locations: Manchester, Oxford, Rome


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Kneeling in the streets before the Sacrament

DESMOND ALBROW recalls an era of oh-so-English reluctance to be demonstrative — except when the Sacrament was on display

OD, AS FAR AS I am aware, is not an

nglishman, but God will understand. I have hardly had any trouble with believing in the doctrines of Roman Catholicism: my troubles have come with fitting in with some of the outward show and ritual of my faith.

I suppose that I am one of those English Catholics who, in the words of Evelyn Waugh, prefer to hide behind a pillar at Mass and mumble their sincere if incoherent prayers to Heaven. We have little time for flamboyant gestures such as the modem Kiss of Peace I like to think that I would not shrink from facing a firing squad for my faith (a touch of bogus heroism there), but would run miles rather than ostentatiously display my religion. If I were a Test cricketer you would not see me making the Sign of the Cross when I emerged from the pavilion at Lord's. As in so many instances the child and youth was father to the man.

Until I was 18 and went up to Oxford I had spent most of my life in the old West Riding of Yorkshire. My parents were English, but in many of the Catholic communities of the North in those days was a strong and vociferous Irish element. At church and school there appeared to be as many Murphys, Murtaghs, Fitzpatricks and Barrys as Huttons, Higginbothams, Armstrongs and Thompsons.

The Irish clergy far outnumbered the English in my parish yet we did at least have a German priest, Canon Schreiber, who bravely never apologised for his nationality, even during the 1914-18 war, or allowed it to diminish his devotion and care for his Yorkshire flock. I therefore learned early that my faith could never be equated with nationalism. That, however, did not make it any simpler.

There was, for instance, the constant question of rosary beads. The Irish loved them, regarded them as the talismen of their faith. I did not. If the truth were told I was never very taken with the rosary as such. It was far too repetitive, what today we would call prayer on automatic pilot. Even when quite young I preferred my prayers to be either spontaneous or sonorous. I could not, and still cannot, see anything uplifting in mouthing a series of Hail Marys with the odd Our Father thrown in to break the monotony.

When I told an Irish priest in the confessional that I did not even possess a rosary he exploded in holy wrath and would persist in passing one to me through the grille. I cannot recall ever using it.

Another cause of tension was the blessing of the shamrock on St Patrick's Day. The Irish clergy rightly made a great thing of it, but they evidently expected English schoolboys to wear it in the lapels of their blazers. Poor old St George of England, so far as I recall, was never even given a mention in despatches. Some saints, as was the case with the cannon-fodder in the trenches of the Great War, were obviously expendable.

My English reticence and reserve was also put to the test with the annual blessing of the Ashes. I did not really mind its grubby mark on my forehead in the school chapel or school itself but again, unlike the Murphys and the Murtaghs, I took good care that it had vanished by the time that I had to re-enter the more critical world outside. Oh me of little outward faith. As with the Ashes so with scapulars and with Holy Water that the Irish brought so lovingly from Lourdes and other shrines. Yet at least these were private practices and hardly for the common public gaze. Not so the procession of the Blessed Sacrament through the streets around the church.

These, in my boyhood, were a great annual feature of parts of Northern England. All parishioners, even children, were expected to take part and thus show the power, grandeur and general triumphalism of Rome. In Manchester, I believe, the Protestants also marched on a different day but in my bit of Yorkshire there was little denominational tension and no real reason for the procession. There was, of course, also no ecumenism. We had never heard the word.

But march we did with music from a band, with singing and with young girls strewing petals and with many banners of the saints. One year, when about 11, I was deputed to carry one of these banners. I did it under protest, with bad grace and furious embarrassment. Perhaps some of my non-Catholic cricketing chums might see me in this unaccustomed role of pious servitude. It would be worse than making a duck.

Yet a strange thing happened at the end of the processions when we all stood back to allow the priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament to re-enter the church. We all automatically knelt on the grimy streets of this industrial city as though it was an everyday practice. I did not feel in the least embarrassed. I felt humbly proud to show my faith.

The Murphys, Murtaghs, Fitzpatricks and the Barrys would have approved. I cannot put it any higher than that.

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