Page 12, 24th November 1978

24th November 1978
Page 12
Page 12, 24th November 1978 — Ramshackle temples of compassion

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Locations: Warsaw, London, Rome


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Ramshackle temples of compassion

THERE is something sacred about hospitals. In the past and the present this idea has been used gravely to underpay the young doctors and nurses. It is as if we purposely underfed our priests and nuns because it was sinful of them to complain.

This is not an exact analogy, and indeed it has been the lay brothers., the porters and technicians who are now in most public revolt. None the less, the monsignori too have been complaining, the sort of consultants who have the sort of houses that are burgled once a year — the status symbol of our time.

It would be a pretty churlish person who would not back the lot of them. But apart from their exploitation, there is this measured and august air which commands an impersonal respect, especially in the great teaching hospitals. (This augustitude does not apply to the postulants or students.) This sense of respectful awe that they induce has nothing certainly to do with the architecture. The great teaching hospitals in London — the London. Barts, University College Hospital -(I reckon that one owes me the Old Hospital Tie for frequent if not distinguished attendance) St Thomas's, the Middlesex, all have the signs of planners' blight.

No one has ever got anything right first time, so that they have been so mucked about inside that they have a mazey air. Partitions seem to be temporary. The reception area skimped. The waiting rooms are grim. The corridors lead on and on, always downwards to some borne from which, thank God, most travellers return.

It was not always so. There is the shell of a most beautiful and insanely long building in Malta.

The bottom ward was for slaves. There was a splendid simplicity about this waterside masterpiece. God knows about its hygiene. It was burnt out in the last war.

Take prisons, now — especially elderly ones. You can stand on the centre of the star of blocks that lead off it, tier upon tier, the work of some Early Victorian Piranesi, and, in a similarly elegant way, terrible and unfit for humans. And the place has a blinding simplicity and a threatening solidity.

But your great hospital is as makeshift as a camp for Girl Guides controlled by a lady with a weakness for the gin.

And within this maze of corridors, of mysterious small rooms with shining couches and steel equipment, these wards entered through clusters of muchaltered rooms, there exists a swiftness of action and a purposeful discipline and a good order that takes the breath away.

Of course there is suffering and death;. but without disguising it, it is somehow not paraded. Of course there is fear and terrible indignities to bodies, alive and dead, but they manage to reduce them to the levels of natural necessities.

There is little or nothing that is beautiful except perhaps the people, and even here the staff and the patients can be hell.

And this is shown for most of the time with a carefully but thinly disguised love and compassion; they fill me with the deepest respect.

As you may have guessed, I visited one of these complicated temples last week. I went to see an old friend, a Pole who is a full Communist and a distinguished journalist and has come here for some special treatment.

Having exchanged symptoms we talked inevitably about the new Pope. Mind you, my friend is a Communist and observes the Church from outside and has no affection for it. But he has never misled me or pretended to be other than what he is — which is a little on the Stalin side of EuroCommunism.

I said I thought that Archbishop Wojtyla had been made a cardinal to counterbalance the intransigence and conservatism of the Primate, Cardinal Wyszynski as part of Pope Paul's Os tpolitik.

He said that the situation had slowly changed with the Primate, from the Communist Party view, mellowing and wanting more and more to keep the Church out of politics -in order to be more effective, while Krakow had become more and more activist.

The two Cardinals did not always agree. In Krakow they had had "flying universities", classes held in churches about the history of Poland and the Church. Warsaw would .not allow them.

My friend thought that there would be no revolutionary changes on such matters as the pill, married clergy, or women priests. The Polish Church has had to be very conservative to survive.

But he also though that the Curia would lose a lot of its importance and power and that much more authority would devolve and spread and be shared, and not merely to the territorial Cardinals and Primates, but to bishops and below.

He thought John Paul II would attempt to "democratise" the Church and, as far as such a thing is possbile or desirable, that he would get away with it.

One thing he made no attampt to disguise was his delight in the election. He had been moved when Cardinal Wyszynski had been especially embraced by the new Pope. He also said that the Primate is a sick man. He did not look so to me in Rome.

Consumer report on high Mass

DURING what is for me a very rare weekend in London I. went to High Mass in the Brompton Oratory. It was sung in Latin. It is a thing I have not done for years. Not sing the Mass in Latin, but participate in one and especially here. Here, with love, is a consumer's report.

The place looked exactly the same, except that it is becoming due for another wash and paintup — which must be an appallingly costly operation. The congregation had not greatly changed. True there seemed to be fewer eccentrics. No lady sat under the pulpit with her umbrella up in case the preacher accidentally spat. No old princess came in black gym shoes. But the elegant lady next to me prayed out loud in Latin, getting most of it hopelessly wrong. There was a very high proportion of young people.

Otherwise there was the usual rather elegant attendance which does not preclude devotion. A high proportion come late to this great church. But then I cannot complain since when I was young I tended to time it to come in after the sermon and leave after the priest's communion. (This I believed meant that I had — technically — heard Mass.) Then there was the saunter across the road to the Bunch of Grapes (the "Papal Arms") which was crowded with similarly insolent friends.

But High Mass here is still of a restrained magnificence. There was a deacon and subdeacon in dalmatic and tunicle. No layman read the lessons which were of course in English. Mass was said with backs to the people. A new, advanced altar would look even more makeshift here than it does in Westminster Cathedral. They did the Asperges.

The choir is of a brisk and precise splendour still, with its own style. It is still one of the great national choirs. The celebrants return to the sofa they use as sedilia there for the long and intricate singing. Dean Inge of St Paul's used to dismiss this as "serenading God" while he got on with his studies and journalism, buried in his presiding stall. It was enchanting to hear it again and I did not feel I was at a concert.

The priests raised and replaced their birettas — yes, the slightly squashed looking Oratorian headgear -at all the right places. The drill was unfussed and of an English perfection.

The M.C. however, kept popping behind the High Altar. I am told there is a very practical

loo behind the Altar of the Chair

at the far end of St Peter's in Rome. But it couldn't be that. Perhaps he was telephoning his bookie. Or had he forgotten rather a lot of things necessary for the Mass? Unlikely here. Most mysterious.

Ther sermon .was brief and intelligent and to the point and it was read. They allow you to take Communion in your hands but no-one stood up for it. The choir sang the Credo antiphonally with the congregation. (They don't sing up too well. Just that heavy, liturgical breathing that passes for sacred song in the English Catholic Church.) The people do not exchange the Kiss of Peace.

And the place remains astonishing in its richness and Romania). Everywhere you look there is something of interest and yet it was not a place of bric-abrac. It It still fulfils an essential purpose in London.

Of course much of the elaboration has gone. This is the Missa Normativa not the Tridentine Mass. The essential delight — if such a word is permissable for so devoted an occasion — remains. I love the elegant, civilised, demanding, bare bones of the liturgy as we display them in our church. But only a few churches anywhere in the world can produce such a glory as this.

They were not selling the Catholic Herald in the porch ...

An evening with friends

THE human race seems basically tribal. In a highly developed country the tribalism is perhaps only really obvious in times of war or at important football matches. In less developed countries it may forever be the tribe or the extended family against the world, which make for special difficulties in the process of government.

The solid, muffled London clubs are for class tribes. Monasteries are supportive religious tribes. Regiments in the army gain an extra dash of morale and a pride that leads to extra courage from an essentially tribal spirit. The hermit is the wondrous exception and the loner in society causes unease among his neighbours.

All of which leads up to the fact that I was asked to a Catenian dinner last week. They are a society of committed Catholics organised in "circles". Their purpose is tribal in the best sense. They get together to sustain and help one another and to engage in active charity. They arc certainly not reclusive.

It was started in 1908, to help responsible Catholics take their proper places in society's business and public life. I hear there are some 11,000 of them. They tend to be solid citizens, businessmen, and professionals. And in a way I suppose they were formed as a Catholic Association of the Masonic sort.

But it would be the grossest libel to say that they resemble that curious lot. Although it is now premissable for a Catholic to be a Mason, the Catenians go their own way without secrecy or mumbo-jumbo.

It is not necessary to be a Catenian to get on in Catholic secular life. Once — and for all I know still — it was almost essential to be a Mason to get on in the CID or in the higher ranks of medicine. It helped too in the high ranks of the Army and in some of the Fleet Street unions. And even though there was a smattering of royalty at the top, they were a tribe forever geared to repel strangers.

The Catenians appear to be the antithesis of all this. They are a lay organisation which attracts a quite extraordinary loyalty in its members. And they are a genial and hospitable lot who from time to time enjoy the fellowship of their Faith by dining and making (resonably) merry among themselves and their guests.

It took place in the London Tara Hotel, which name is a fine contradiction in histories, but then it belongs to Aer Lingus which anyway has to straddle the Kingdom ind the Republic. It is one of those huge new places that cope with the still rising tide of foreign tourists. This I would imagine would appeal most to Irish Americans — all part of the ethnic trade. And it has an air of jollity and identity that most of these new places seem to lack.

We had a good deal of formality. Men had titles like Grand Vice-President and Grand Secretary. They called each other "brother". The speeches were brief. Half a dozen musicians from the Irish Guards played dance music with pints of beer under their chairs — just like the London Philharmonic at rehersal. The decibels rose a little -but then almost everyone has been to such an occasion. They are part of the decoration of civilised life. And I am told that the Catenians are particularly helpful when you die.

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