In simplicity, in splendour
By Patrick O'Donovan
The -controversy about the present direction of the Church is conducted with venom. The proponents of the "Tridentine” Mass vie with St. Jerome in their denunciations of those who do not agree with them. If the discussion of birth control has become socially insupportable because of its boredom, discussion of the present liturgy had best be avoided if you wish to keep your friends.
But I have come across a most civilised exception. It is a pamphlet" written by a man hardened in the fires of suffering he once taught me history. He was a gentle and authoritative teacher who collected friends as the best stones collect moss and he has produced this most witty and civilised defence of the old order. I find it more or less unanswerable, but, like all the polemics on both sides, I am not utterly sound.
Upon this subject, nothing finally convinces. You approach the altar with ready-made opinions as hard as the altar stone itself. You can look backwards with an infinite sadness or stride forwards into a future of home-made bread and Chianti or express any other cliche' that springs unhidden to your mind and heart but the Fact remains that we are stuck with the present. It is also true that the present does not last long.
I tend to think that my humble obedience (diluted by a tendency to accuse priests of heresy after their sermons) is just about right at the moment. It is distressing that most other people take the same attitude to their own views even when they do not coincide with mine.
But we are at the start of a long process of modification. And I'll wager that some of those early agapes were pretty inelegant and hand-to-mouth and in vernacular which my teacher, and the Oxford Dictionary, describe as, in origin, the language of homehorn slaves.
But as a Catholic travels this country, he can watch the agonising process of creation. Bishops try to restore dignity without losing the new intimacy. (I recommend Portsmouth for this.) Monasteries try to keep their austere splendour in the new manner. (Ampleforth, narurally.) And in parish churches one is never quite sure what to expect next. The real surprise is how well the priests who used to gabble and fumble their Latin now use the great language of slaves. But it is not even as simple as that.
sometimes attend Mass at a house in the country which has a magnificent library block that was once part of a priory. Here, in a low room, Mass is said invariably in Latin-usually in very lucid Latin and by exceptional priests. Of course there is no Last Gospel, though the ancient altar cards are still there as a cultural reproach.
It is all very quiet and still, with nothing but the creaking of an over-taxed prie-dieu to interrupt the slow and splendid flow of words; most of which are still familiar. The vestment is of singular magnificence, with the lilies of France heavily embroidered on it.
Some one described it as "pure Crouchback" and by that he meant it was in the great, recusant, Evelyn Waugh, thank-Godthe-light still burns-before-thealtar tradition. And it is marvellously satisfying and you know you have been to Mass with the certainty that a man can feel who has just banqueted with restrained but decent splendour.
But then I was recently at the Catholic Chaplaincy of the University and Polytechnic of Leeds. it is run by Fr. Alban Byron, S.J. Now I am sure that the little cadre of university chaplains are among the most important priests in the country. As long as they can show any sign of success, there is abundant hope for the future.
There are many of these chaplaincies. At Leeds it uses a couple of pleasant middle-class houses in a dilapidated street. There are 900 Catholic students known to the chaplaincy, but widely scattered. For most of them it is an act of sacrifice to come into the centre.
About 250 come to Mass on a Sunday and about 250 take Communion during the week. There is, in fact, a very high rate of Communions and a low one of Confessions. The atmosphere of the place seemed to me lu be wholly Catholic, unforced, easy but Crouchback it is not.
I went to their evening Mass on the Sunday. They have the Mass in an "L" shaped room made out of knocking the two main rooms of the two houses together. There are no baroque splendours. The music was from guitars (and here the players knew more than the four obligatory chords). It was in tact Wesley plain and yet, as Wesley was, was overwhelming.
About 120 students. Dead scruffy for the most part in a reasonable and practical sort of way, courteous, friendlySalmon pink T-shirts at Mass are not incivil unless incivility is intended.
They had the Liturgy of the Word at a lectern all very cool.
At the Bidding Prayers, the students were invited to add their own. A girl asked a prayer for a friend who wanted to become a Catholic. but whose "going over" would cause others a terrible unhappiness. It was splendid, 'o far, without special vestments or jewelled crucifixes. And the vernacular worked so well that it would have been ludicrous to have Latin in such a -place and before such a company.
And then they picked up their chairs and piled them on one side and stood, alntust accusing, as if at the foot of a Cross, around the altar. They stood quite still. they did not fidget. They stared at the altar as if it were the centre of the world. The silence was absolute. They queued like hungermarchers for the Sacrament. They touched one another for the Kiss ofPeace. They even joined in the hymns.
So no verdict. The liturgy at Leeds was certainly transitional. It was informed by a lack of money and a desire not to be ostentatious. And yet it was splendid. So I do not know, but have been comforted and am now probably the most complacent Catholic in Britain. I'd keep the lot. After all, we always used to do just that in the Middle East, from which we came.
"It Seems To Me.
A paper read to the A.G.M. of Una Voce (Scotland) by T. Charles Edwards.
Copies I5p, post free, from "Una Voce", 6 Belford Park, Edinburgh, EH4 3DP.)
Patrick li'lIonovarl is the distinguished correspnndcnt of The Observer, London,