ASKS KEVIN ASPELL
IF you fling down a gauntlet, there is always a chance that the person you challenge will hand' it back to you with a murmured "your glove, I think," clang his visor courteously at you and go on his way. Disconcerting, and damaging to your determination.
For 12 hours a day since Sunday, the Catholic Church has had a gauntlet down in Earls Court, London: has the challenge been taken seriously, or dismissed casually; has it, indeed, been the right one?
Because we must make no mistake about this: the Vocations Exhibition, with its title of Challenge '65, has been more than a call to Catholic youth; it was a wideopen invitation to anyone to come and see what the Church is all about. This is implicit in having a public exhibition at all.
I went to see if this was, in fact, a public exhibition in the proper meaning of the phrase-to see if the high walls of ignorance (some of it our own fault) had come down from around our monasteries and convents, or whether this was a sort of super parish fete, with the cosy feeling that everyone there was "one of us".
After two whole days of touring the six and a half acres of the show (my feet will never be quite the same again) I must report that it was a curious blend of the two. For this the exhibitors must be forgiven: a vocations exhibition by its
very nature looks inward to the young people already in the Church; a public exhibition should essentially show the Church to those outside it; and to try to cornbine the two exercises partly defeats the object of both.
Great exhibition halls covering several acres, lit always by artificial light, and with their ceilings lost in gloom far overhead, are stark places until they are filled. And this exhibition did not till Earls Court. This need not have mattered but for some things that mattered a very great deal.
This arena is shaped like a triangle with each of its corners flattened. Coming into it by the main entrance, which is at the apex of the triangle, I found stands stretching away on either side, following the line of the walls. And 1 did as i watched hundreds of others do later-I turned into the nearest aisle, to find myself in a few minutes with the totally blank plywood backs of stands effectively shutting me off from the centre of the exhibition. And in the centre was the altar,
Now when the core and centre of the exhibition, as it is of the Church, was an altar, it should have been visible from a lot of places. And it should have been used for Masses all day long. But it was idle and empty.
We had instead calls at intervals over the loudspeakers for silence for three Hail Marys, the reason for their recitation being invariably inaudible. There were plenty of Catholic visitors, as well as others, whom I met who would have welcomed continuous Masses on that central altar. Too few, because of faulty communication and a lack of signposts, knew there were Masses going on in a chapel upstairs.
1 toured the exhibition entirely anonymously, not as a Catholic newspaperman. Here and there 1 was taken for a non-Catholic, because I asked questions whose answers a Catholic might be expected to take for granted. But this was because too many of the exhibitors took too much for granted.
Here again we come to the essential conflict between an exhibition directed at those who know, for example, what a catechumen is, and an exhibition which should show those who don't know what the Church is. But the defect went a Iot deeper than this.
It was extraordinarily, even ridiculously, difficult at very many of the stands to find out, by looking at the displays, exactly what the particular congregation does. In too many cases the answers were in leaflets placed at the hack of the stands-and if I were a boy considering the religious life nothing would induce me in that far to take one. Nor. looking at the exhibition from the point of view of someone belonging to another Church or to none at all, which is what we arc primarily doing here, should I be unreasonably expected to accept the validity of goods in the shop window when their purpose and nature is not even explained to me? i am much more likely, quite reasonably, to be put off.
This was more a matter of lack of a professional approach than anything else; it was obvious everywhere that a fantastic amount of work had been done by everyone: what was wrong was that some of it, bearing in mind that this was a public exhibition, failed of its purpose.
And there was the problem of finding particular stands . . Oh, that catalogue! It had a list of exhibitors in stand numerical order: fine. It had an index split into various categories priests, religious brothers and so on: dreadful. It was not in alphabetical order, and there were more than 160 stands listed; further. some of them were shared (would most people know offhand, for example, that the Brothers of Christian Instruction and the Daughters of Providence had the same founder and so shared the same stand?).
These are not small things: we don't. as Cardinal Heenan said at the opening of the exhibition, want In have gimmicks; but we must have the professionalism. the efficiency, to which everyone has now become accustomed, and expects as a matter of course.