Thursday 18 May 2023

 The Italian Post Office has produced a handsome new stamp, featuring Pope Benedict. He is not forgotten! You can read about it (in Italian) on Silere non Possum.

Thursday 11 May 2023

Calling Peggy Brosnan

 This is a very long shot indeed. For decades I have been trying to trace my godmother, Peggy Brosnan, about whom I know very little. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe (maybe!) she might have been looking for me. I have a keen interest in my own godchildren, even though I have lost contact with one. I think Peggy was a nurse in the South East of England in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Yes, I know it's a really, really long shot. But registering it here might cause it to attract search engines' help.

Sunday 9 April 2023

Happy Easter, everyone!


Wednesday 22 March 2023


 I strongly resent being lectured that I must 'accept Vatican II' by people who believe less of what that council teaches than I do. They don't, of course, mean that I must give assent of the mind and heart to the many doctrinal and disciplinary teachings of the council. They do not, for instance, think that Latin must be maintained in the liturgical rites; they don't think that the Church is of its nature hierarchical, many would not accept that abortion is an abominable crime, nor much else. What they really mean is that I must 'get with the programme' and sign up to what Pope Benedict called the hermeneutic of discontinuity. I must disavow the past and embrace the Brave New Church about which the Second Vatican Council said little or nothing, but which emerged in its shadow. Vatican II itself is not for these people a test of the new orthodoxy (for the council expresses more or less—though not entirely— the old, or timeless orthodoxy), but rather a shibboleth, a password for Those Who Are Acceptable to flash at one another.

I knew a priest whose literal password on the computer was VATICAN 2!!! and another was PEOPLE POWER!!! And never was there such a tyrant, who did bestride the narrow parish like a Colossus, governing it in splendid isolation and caring not a jot for what others thought.

Part of the point of being a Catholic is that Sacred Tradition is a law to which all, from Pope to Catechumen, must bend. Once you sever the link with Tradition, then all you have is power. Those in power can do what they like. Popes, bishops, parish priests, lay men and women who have read a book once can set themselves up and govern by decree, moderated by nothing by the latest trend or their latest notion and claiming 'the Council' as their mandate. That is tyranny. Vatican II means as little to these people as Trent. What they want is their own opinion to be enforced on others and taught as divine law.

For them, Vatican II means women priests, gay marriage and number of other things that would have amazed the fathers of the Council. But then, the Council is only a shibboleth to them.

Some of these people would not know the smell of the sheep if it came in a bottle marked 'Sheep Stink'. In my thirty years as a priest, my experience is that people simply want to be left to pray in the way that they are used to. If Father insists, they won't protest when he mixes things up, but when things are made more Catholic, there seems to be a sort of collective sigh of relief, of the sort that many of us experienced during the reign of Pope Benedict.

In the 1980s, with a friend I visited a little hamlet in the Black Forest, called Sägendobel I think. Each evening almost the entire population gathered in their little church to say the Rosary together. It was so beautiful, and no doubt they had done this for years, if not centuries. But on our second evening, a lady with a guitar announced that this was all to change. There was Mass instead, celebrated by a Monsignor from Cologne; they—or rather the lady with a few disconsolate children—sang hymns accompanied by the guitar to tunes that were all too familiar to me from the 1960s but set to German words. Nobody but they joined in; there was a sort of stunned silence. Returning the following year, there was no Rosary, and there was no Mass either. 

Do I think that if the Latin Mass were imposed once more on the Church that everyone would welcome it? No, of course not. People have got used to the English Mass, and broadly have come to like it. Any priest who knows the smell of his sheep knows that. And I think that this is a subject to which I should return.

Sunday 12 March 2023

La Suprema

 This German Synodaler Weg stuff is, I suspect, the result of Paul VIs shake-up of the Roman Curia in the sixties and seventies, something earnestly desired by almost everybody in those days. The Curia was perceived by many as being responsible for most of the Church's woes (they really had no idea what woe was, did they?) and it was felt that instead of being legalistic and hidebound, it should be 'pastoral'. The particular change that worked the most mischief, I think, was the downgrading of La Suprema, the then Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office, now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and what it is to be in the future, we must wait and see). Or rather the removal of one of its functions. It is my understanding that in the past, the Holy Office, La Suprema, would give the final stamp of approval to the appointments of new bishops. Now that job was to pass to the Secretariate for State, who would give the nihil obstat to whomever they thought sufficiently one of themselves. Diplomats, nice guys, men who wouldn't rock the boat. Think the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, an extraordinary charming man (as the bishop who ordained me, I knew him quite well). Ostpolitik needed such men, not pugnacious Lions of Münster or Mindszentys whose evangelical intransigence was seen as an obstacle to what diplomacy might achieve.

And so here we are. A church of charming diplomatic bishops who want to get a) on with everybody and b) ahead.

One thinks of Knox's (Ronald, that is, not John) Absolute and Abitofhell (quoted from memory; I don't have the text here):

When suave politeness, temp'ring bigot zeal

Corrected 'I believe' to 'One does feel'

So we have a Church of bishops who for the last fifty years have thought that stoutly defending the faith is not quite gentlemanly; even though they might privately believe the faith, they wouldn't want to be seen to ram it down anyone else's throat. And this has encouraged others to think the same way. Diplomats promoted, believers sidelined. Do they ever wonder what our Lord might make of this?

And so here we are. Germany again leading the Church into schism. 

Sunday 5 March 2023

Tempus adest

 Nearly four years! I do not think that anyone can accuse me of logorrhrea! But with Traditiones Custodes, and still more with the recent Rescript, things have to change. I retain all my reverence for the Petrine office, but its present unworthy occupant is a different matter. Dear God, I have tried to defend him! But no longer. 

Saturday 1 September 2018

So why no posts

My dear friends; I have picked up on the internet that there is a certain sadness that I no longer post regularly on this blog (formerly Valle Adurni). I'm not the only one to cease posting, and I'm sure the reasons are largely the same.

Way back when, Pope Benedict had (in my view) galvanised the Church at a local level. Vocations began to rise, Mass attendance was increasing, and there was a sense that blood was pumping from the centre to the peripheries. I and others wanted to be a part of that.

Then everything went dead.

I don't want to spend my declining years writing damage limitation posts such as I attempted for a while.

I want to look after my parishioners, the ones whom God has entrusted to my poor care. Please pray for them, and pray for me. I genuinely think that this is the only way forward right now.

I will probably continue to post occasionally. But I, in common with others, will not publicly set myself against the the one who occupies and exercises the office of Vicar of Christ. I will simply pray that God's will be done. God will be his judge, and mine.

Thursday 4 January 2018

The Battle for the Shire

A devout and good young man is keen to join the Society of St Pius X. I can understand that. I have always wanted to be simply a priest as Catholic priests are supposed to be. If he is ordained (and he seems to me to be a strong candidate), then he will be able to minister to a largely sympathetic (to the things he stands for, I mean) congregation who will appreciate who he is and what he does. That's the way things are supposed to be between priest and people.

In Lord of the Rings, in a preface Tolkien sharply dismisses the idea that he was writing an allegory. In an allegory one thing directly stands for another; when one has the key, one understands a concrete situation. A myth, however, is something far deeper. It addresses themes which crop up again and again in human history, and tells this in the form of a story whose truth is self-apparent in its root. You can change the story, the characters, but the myth remains essentially the same.

Consider Harry Potter. JK Rowling said that the entire story had sprang into her mind at once. How clever! She conceived of a misunderstood hero who lived away from his natural parents, had extraordinary abilities, had a small group of friends who believed in him, who had a deadly enemy (whom he was the only one able to resist effectively) whom he combatted and by whom he was eventually killed, and who was then raised to life thereby saving everyone else in the story…… Of course it sprang to her mind. It is the greatest story of all, or myth if you will. No wonder a writer without remarkable literary skills managed to write such a bestseller. We all know that story, and it never fails to move us.

I'm conceiving Lord of the Rings in the same way. Right now it seems to me as if the SSPX is Lothlorien. It is necessary that Lothlorien exist, so that we never forget how things should be. Perhaps the FSSP is Rivendell, living to some extent with a foot in two worlds. But we should never forget that the real battle is for the Shire; the parishes and dioceses. If all the soldiers go to live in Lothlorien or even in Rivendell, then the Shire will fall. And if the Shire should fall, then next Rivendell will fall, and eventually Lothlorien too will go. Is Saruman the White now entrenched in Orthanc and holding Gandalf?

You see what I mean about myths?

On Preserving the Faith

For Thomas More, the thing that makes the difference is what is called by others Lex orandi, lex credendi. I mentioned how he had, with Erasmus, mocked what he regarded then as the superstitious practices of the pilgrims at Canterbury. By the time he came to write the Dialogue Concerning Heresies, he had modified his opinion substantially.

These things (pilgrimages, veneration of relics) he considered in some sense to incarnate the faith and hold it together, like a tin can holds soup. They are not the soup, but the soup will spill out without the can. If you damage people's way of expressing the faith, then the faith itself will be endangered. He saw what that had done in Germany and he feared that if the English people clamouring for the same 'reforms' were to get their way there would be a lot more damage done not just to the external expressions of the faith, but to the faith itself.

A long time ago I wrote about how the faith in Ireland was damaged in exactly this way. When the expressions of the faith (Rosaries, pilgrimages to holy wells) were derided as being unliturgical, the soup began to spill out. Yes they were unliturgical, but they were not the soup, merely the necessary can.

If these things have been used for centuries to nourish and support faith, then one needs to be very sure what one is doing before getting rid of them. They may be mere externals, but then so are flying buttresses, and without flying buttresses, cathedrals fall down.

And yes, that does apply to the liturgy too. I'm just not sure what good can be served by scooping up the soup and trying put it back into a wrecked tin. What takes centuries to build can be destroyed in an afternoon.

Tuesday 2 January 2018

St Thomas More and the Church

It is well known that St Thomas More vigorously resisted the Reformation in England and ultimately paid for that resistance with his life. It is less well known, but still known that he had formerly attached himself enthusiastically to many of the things for which the reformers stood–a vernacular Bible, for instance, and with Erasmus he had derided the superstitious behaviour of pilgrims at St Thomas’ shrine in Canterbury.

By the time he came to write his Dialogue Concerning Heresies in 1529, his perspective had altered somewhat. He still thought a vernacular Bible would be a good thing, but a properly translated vernacular Bible, as opposed to Tyndale’s tendentious renderings of certain terms: ‘community’ rather than ‘Church’; ‘elder’ rather than ‘priest’. As part of his thought process, he had to consider just what made Tyndale’s versions ‘wrong’ and the traditional understandings ‘right’.

He pondered whether it could be the authority of the Pope, or the authority of a Council. But in the end, for More it all came down to ‘the common consent of Christendom’.

Eamon Duffy writes in his Reformation Divided:
It is notable that in the Dialogue this appeal to the common life of the church as the ultimate criterion of Christian authenticity never becomes merely or mainly an appeal to hierarchy, or to the teaching authority of the clergy. Though he insisted that Peter was Christ’s Vicar and head of the Church, ‘and alway synce the sucessours of hym continually.’ More never once appeals to the teaching of a pope or a council to clinch his argument. Though the authority of ‘the olde holy fathers’ is repeatedly invoked in defence of current practice, it is always as a witness to the shared faith of the Church as a body. ‘I take not one doctour or twayne but of the consent and comen agreement of the olde holy fathers’ expressing the ‘comen consent of the chyrche’. Even when More’s argument might seem to be leading him inexorably towards an appeal to clerical authority, he steers instead towards this insistence on the shared belief of the whole Church.  p59

This isn’t unlike St Vincent of Lérins’ ‘quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus’, but I think it’s better than that. St Vincent is quite easily answered by saying that there are lots of people who don’t agree, so it can never really be semper, ubique or omnibus. Common consent says something subtly different; it implies that there can be disagreement, but that the body of consent will carry the truth forwards. 

Chesterton’s ‘Democracy of the Dead’ comes closer. Truth cannot be arrived at by simply taking a vote among those currently living, or, worse, a powerful selection of those currently living or worse, a powerful self-selection of those currently living. The whole Church, militant on earth, suffering in Purgatory, triumphant in heaven, has to be consulted. It’s what we call Sacred Tradition.

In recent centuries we have come to see things a bit differently. The Pope, the Vicar of Christ, has come to be seen as the all-powerful discerner of the truth for the entire Church. There are various degrees of solemnity attached to his various teachings, and the higher the degree of solemnity, the more powerfully it binds the consciences of the faithful. A remark to a journalist on a plane might be distressing, but can be respectfully disagreed with. A note published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis is an official act, and can’t be dismissed but is to some degree binding in conscience.

Well, that theory has now been tested hard—some might say to destruction. A publication in AAS has now been set in apparent opposition to the ‘common consent of Christendom’. There are those who argue that it doesn’t contradict established teaching, those who argue that it does and dislike that, and those who argue that it does and think it’s wonderful.

This is to some extent distressing, sure, but it hasn’t disturbed my faith one bit. It has just reassured me that St Thomas More was right, that the locus of the truth of the faith is not the teaching of one individual, even if he be the current Pope, but is the faith of the entire common corps of Christendom. People, even popes, teach truly when they teach according to that faith, and untruly when they don’t. Popes have a special role to strengthen the brethren, to define infallibly should it ever be necessary to expound with ultimate authority the faith of the common corps of Christendom, but they are not the fons et origo of the Church’s faith, still less its master, and not God’s direct mouthpiece on every possible subject. As someone clever once said—as it happens, a Pope teaching according to the faith of the common corps of Christianity—the Pope should be a gardener, not a technician.

St Thomas More has more to say on the subject of how the Church stays true to her teaching, the mechanism by which it holds to the faith. That I'll address in another post.

Thursday 28 December 2017

On whose authority?

Like some of you, I don't find this particular pontificate easy, and I have really tried (see earlier posts). I have been rebuked on Facebook by some (and one in particular) who say that since the Holy Father is chosen by the Holy Spirit, reluctance to embrace all the teaching of the present Pope suggests direct resistance to the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot one can say about that: for a start, if the Holy Father is always the candidate of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit must have been somewhat distracted, let us say, in the tenth century. Cardinal Hume famously said in 1978 that Pope John Paul I was plainly the candidate of the Holy Spirit—that same Holy Spirit who presumably changed his mind 33 days later.

On other people's part, there is also a temptation to identify authority's embrace of their own opinions as 'the work of the Holy Spirit.' We have seen plenty of that at work in the General Synod of the Church of England when one or other item of traditional doctrine has been shelved 'by the Holy Spirit'. All that means is simply that someone thinks the right decision has been made and wants to claim Divine approval.

For some people the unfamiliar path marked out by Pope Francis is a strong test of faith, as, no doubt, were the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI for those of a more liberal persuasion. Does God continue to guide his Church or not? And if so, how?

A parishioner in her very early twenties texted me, distraught, when that letter clarifying what claimed to be the correct interpretation of that footnote in Amoris Lætitia made it to the Acta Apostolicæ Sedis. To her and others it seemed to shake their faith in the Church. I had to reply with a kind of 'calm down, dear'. Frankly, the publication in AAS didn't shake me so much as annoy me. It was irresponsible, not a catastrophe.

What is unthinkable is that Divine Providence would simply have abandoned the Church and left her to her own devices. Perhaps what we need to do is to look at our own presuppositions and ask whether we have got it right. What really is the Holy Spirit trying to teach us in (and perhaps by) this pontificate?

Put simply, I think what is happening is that Ultramontanism is now finally being put into its coffin. It's been a long time a-coming, and its demise was delayed far beyond its normal sell-by date due to the abnormally high quality of most of the various incumbents who have filled the shoes of the fisherman since the mid-nineteenth century. They have led us to expect high-quality teaching that did indeed seem to come straight from the mouth of God.

Truly it seemed as if the Pope's job was to tell us what to believe. He was the earthly shepherd of Christ's flock, striding out while we followed along behind. Or, to change the metaphor, he taught the faith to the bishops, who taught it to the priests, who taught it to the laity who took it to their friends and colleagues. It is as if the Pope was the locus wherein lay the fulness of God's active Word, the fons et origo (on earth, anyway) of Divine truth.

Back in the 1970s, despite a decade of Papal indecision and inaction, Ultramontanism was still alive and well. I stopped believing in it in the mid-eighties. Pope John Paul seems to have believed strongly in it—a cardinal is supposed to have gently suggested abdication once he (JP) was no longer able to walk. The Pope replied firmly 'I don't need two functioning legs to rule the Church!' That made me very uncomfortable, that he saw his role as 'ruling' the Church in that very positive way. I can see why the system might appeal to some from the United States, where strong personal rule is valued in a president (an American friend of mine didn't take to the gentler Benedict: 'John Paul, now, he really kicked ass!') and now we have become accustomed to it.

But is it right? Is that what Christ intended for his Church? I rather suspect that the answer is no, and that we can be grateful to Pope Francis for helping us to see that. I wish I could think of a kinder way of putting this, but it seems as if we have now the reductio ad absurdum of Ultramontanism. You have to believe X because this particular pope teaches X.

It begs the question, though, about what is the locus, the earthly fons et origo of the truth into which our Lord promised that we should be guided by the Holy Spirit?

I'll discuss that in another post.

Monday 7 August 2017

Augustine and Beards

There seems to be quite a row blazing about whether St Augustine was black or not. Does it actually matter? The proposition was first made to me some thirty years ago, and even then I thought it odd, but not in any way objectionable. Some (including Brown, Augustine's most prestigious biographer) have thought that Monica was a Berber name (for those who don't know, that was St Augustine's persistent Mum), but Patricius (his Dad) has a Latin name—though perhaps a rather noveau-riche Latin name (effectively meaning Posh Guy). One thinks of people who call their sons Duke or Lord. This might suggest a lower-middle-class aspiring to poshness. But it says nothing about skin-colour.

I don't personally think Augustine would have very likely been black, any more than most Tunisians and Algerians today are black, if what you mean by black is sub-Saharan black. But of course it isn't impossible, because the Roman Empire mixed all sorts of people up. It placed soldiers all over the Empire in different places from where they were born precisely to provide a genetic or rather ethnic mix in which people would identify as 'Roman' rather than as Palmyran, or Egyptian, or British. The Roman Empire didn't spread into sub-Saharan territory, but it certainly captured slaves and employed mercenaries from there, who would have spread throughout the territories. Unlike slaves in the Southern States of the US, Roman slaves could be, and frequently were, freed, and were then able to set themselves up as businessmen, their descendants becoming citizens, often wealthy and influential ones. The issue was your willingness to buy into the Roman thing, not the colour of your skin. So Patricius could well have been the son of a freed slave, sub-saharan or not. But the probability is against it, I think. Yet why on earth would it worry anybody at all if it were to be found so? A Roman would have had far more problems with me, a descendent of the extra-terratorial, therefore barbarian, Irish, than with a black Augustine.

Here I want to stand up on my hind legs and come to the defence of Professor Mary Beard. In my view she is one of the most illuminating and intelligent teachers of Roman History around these days. As some of you may know, I teach early Church History in a seminary, to trainee priests, and I start the course by asking my students to watch her BBC series on Roman History; the fact that the BBC Store no longer will allow us access to the items we have purchased is deeply distressing, because her course on Rome without Limits was the most wonderful introduction to a Church History course. There are other people around (I won't name names!) who start with their conclusions and then go in search of the evidence, ignoring anything contrary. Television abounds with them. Mary Beard is not one of them. She is not only amazingly erudite, she has the ability to teach, too, without patronising her audience. She doesn't try to bolster a weak argument by provocative dress (or lack thereof), or hop on right-on bandwagons. She is an honest and amazing historian, who deserves our profound respect even if we don't agree with everything she says. Nuff said.

Sunday 30 July 2017


Cardinal Sarah's comments on the convergence of the two forms of the Roman Rite have drawn much comment around the Interweb, not least on the subject of the Lectionary. It goes without saying that I believe the OF can be much improved by the EF; how about the other way around?

I am not one of those who is an 'immobilist', in Fr Mark Drew's memorable word, meaning those who think that there can be no improvement whatever to the traditional rites. But I have a deep reluctance to start tinkering under the bonnet: that has been tried and found to be not particularly successful, not least in my own lifetime. Our Church is a 'we' Church, and that 'we' embraces not only those alive today, but those in Purgatory and in Heaven. Our liturgy has to embrace that 'we-ness', and a liturgy designed only for those of one particular age risks cutting adrift from its moorings. Our liturgy expresses the unity of the Church across space and across time. It is the cry of the whole people of God to its maker, the nuptial song of the Bride to her Groom. It is fundamentally transcendent, going beyond itself, focussing not on pleasing itself, but on pleasing its Spouse.

So making things more entertaining, if I can put it like that, needn't, perhaps shouldn't, be part of the recipe.

Let's consider the Lectionary. A lot of erudite stuff has been floating around recently: Cardinal Sarah's proposal hasn't been received very favourably. At root is the fact that we see the purpose of the Lectionary differently these days. Now we consider it didactic, an opportunity for people to learn from the Word of God Itself. The homily is intended to reinforce that lesson. Yet the more ancient liturgies don't use the Scriptures like that in the Liturgy; many of them have very restricted Lectionaries indeed. The Ethiopian, for instance, confines itself to a handful of Gospel passages and a few bits of St Paul, among which the priest selects whatever he likes. This is because the purpose of the readings is not didactic, but is instead considered an Epiphany of God the Word, a precursor to the coming of God the Bread of Life later in the celebration. Teaching about what the Scriptures contain takes place outside the Eucharist. It's a different mindset.
Certainly other rites had a much richer Lectionary than the Ethiopic, not least the Roman. But teaching was not considered part of the function of the Lectionary really until the Reformation. The Mediæval lectionary was richer simply because the Mediæval liturgy was richer; they thought that richness was a good thing in itself.
When Cyril and Methodius sought a Slavonic liturgy, Rome granted permission as long as the Scriptures continued to be read only in Hebrew, Latin or Greek—precisely the inverse of what we might have thought today. Then, it was considered that the Scriptures should be read only in the three languages which appeared on the titulus of the Cross. A vernacular liturgy was thought less inappropriate than vernacular scriptures.
It is generally acknowledged that parts of the Roman Lectionary are very ancient indeed. Catacomb ancient, in fact. Even the new Lectionary acknowledges this in part, preserving carefully the early Lenten cycle of readings.
Arguments can be made about content: the new Lectionary appears to skirt around difficult passages, for instance, but to my mind this is less important than the change to a didactic purpose to the readings. It goes hand in hand with an insistence on preaching on every possible occasion. Priests really shouldn't be forced to preach; very few of us can do it at all well! I try to avoid preaching whenever I can, because I think that actually bad preaching does more harm than no preaching. I suspect that we are loading far too much onto the Mass right now, which should be simply the worship of God; our small space where we can allow Him to Be in our lives, without being distracted (or possibly bored) by lesser matters such as Fr X's latest twenty-minute variation on 'God is Love' and How Awful Everything Used To Be Before the Nineteen-Sixties (something utterly foreign to anyone born before 1970).
I would resent a full rewrite of the EF Missal lectionary, still less would I welcome an uncritical adoption of the current OF lectionary. But I would not resent an optional widening of the traditional lectionary: what I mean is a provision of a weekday selection of readings, so that one would not be obliged to read the same readings several times on successive days. In fact, such an arrangement was made in the 1960s for a few years; I even have a copy of the lectionary. It isn't perfect, but it's pretty good.
I might come back to this, but I wanted to jam down some preliminary thoughts.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

We are Church

I've been turning over in my mind the proposition that Pope Francis may have some providential role to play in the Church's life. I have to come clean and say that I cannot warm to the man. But in the Scriptures, and in the Church's history, many times have uncongenial people performed unpleasant but necessary tasks which in the long run have benefitted the People of God.

This morning I saw on Facebook a page alleging that Pope Francis had decried the idea that a Christian might have a personal relationship with Jesus. To underline the point, the poster had included a short video clip from a public audience where indeed Pope Francis did say just that…but went on immediately to add 'in private, without also being a member of the Church, the people of God'. In other words, he was exactly right, and the person who had created that post had done a wicked thing, twisting the Pope's words to make him appear to say something very different.

For a long time (maybe mid-nineteenth century on) we have had a very top-down style of leadership. The Pope gives instructions to the bishops, who give instructions to the priests, who give instructions to the laity. I think it was Wilfrid Ward who longed to have a papal encyclical on his breakfast table every morning. Popes became charismatic figures who taught authoritatively on every subject (one thinks of those thousands [well it seems that way] of allocutions to midwives that Pope Pius XII was so fond of making).

The sixties changed all that; 'I've gotta be me, I've gotta do my thing!' People ceased to listen to the distressed bleats of Pope Paul VI and worked things out, each man (or woman) for him (or her) self. As St Paul warned, they wandered about with itching ears, finding teachers to suit their fancy.

Pope John Paul II changed this to some degree, largely by his own overwhelming personality. Once more, the Pope led the Church personally and in his case forcefully. It is said that when he lost the use of his legs the question was asked whether he was now capable of leading the Church. 'I don't need two functioning legs to rule the Church', he is supposed to have growled. At the time this comment struck me as worrying, but it has taken until now for things to gel in my mind.

Are Popes supposed to be absolute monarchs who rule by force of will and personality? I think that maybe American presidents do, for the years of their office, and that is why so many Americans warmed to John Paul II.

The other day I had a pub lunch with one of my Anglican opposite numbers. He is married to a Catholic, and has a woman assistant priest. I like him. He gently sounded me out about intercommunion and about women's orders, as I guessed he would. Fortunately, I had prepared my answer. I knew it couldn't be a hard answer, for that would close the issue off in his mind. So I simply said 'what I personally think about the subject doesn't matter, because in the Catholic Church theology isn't something *I* do, but something *we* do." And that *I* excludes every *I*, from the Pope down to the latest neophyte, whereas the *we* encompasses *every* Catholic Christian; not just those alive now, but those in Purgatory and those in Heaven. Chesterton called this the 'democracy of the dead'.

That gives nobody the right to innovate in his *own* name, except, perhaps, the theoretical right possessed by the Pope to teach infallibly in certain very circumscribed circumstances. Even the famous proclamations of our Lady's Immaculate Conception and Assumption were acts of the *whole* Church: the belief of the living Church was assessed, and the discussions of the past were investigated.

I think this is why Pope Benedict tried to change the character of the papacy. He was never a man for outward show, and I rather suspect that the red shoes and mozzettas were more of a penance to him than anything else. But he saw that he could never dominate the Church like his predecessor: a young American friend of mine didn't really think much of that: he once commented approvingly 'Pope John Paul really kicked ass!' That wasn't Benedict's way; he reminded us that a pope is supposed to be a gardener, rather than an engineer. He has a hieratic function at the centre of the family; he has a particular role, outwardly expressed by liturgical rite and particular dress. But he is not an absolute monarch, even an enlightened one.

Pope Francis sees it differently; he has something personally authoritative to say on practically every subject. Is that really his job? Is that really any Pope's job? This is why I get so uncomfortable when I hear people say things like 'you've got to get with the Pope's programme: he's the Pope, after all, and if you don't do what he says, you're disobeying Christ!' Maybe this is why we have Pope Francis: I hesitate to write this, but maybe he is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the notion of a monarchical papacy.†

Not even the Pope can do theology alone. After all, *WE are Church*.

† just as there are those who consider that Donald Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of a monarchical presidency.

Friday 16 December 2016


Today I went to Tesco—it was on my way, and has usually parking spaces—to buy some fish for lunch. Over the display cabinet was a big sign: "Fish: not only for Friday's". Yes, I reproduced that accurately, apostrophe included.

But it does say two interesting things;

First, that fish once more has come to be associated with Friday.

Second, that supermarkets have noticed that more people than in recent years are buying fish for eating on a Friday (and want to extend that).

I think that, still, England and Wales are the only English (and Welsh!)-speaking conference which has restored Friday abstinence. But notice how it has already impacted one of the largest supermarket stores in the country.

Again, I congratulate my former bishop, Kieran Conry, for having given us back Friday abstinence. Little things sometimes have great impact.

Thursday 13 October 2016

Closing churches

Well, it's been over a year since my last post, so I don't know who will read this, but it's something I want to get off my chest.

The shortage of priestly vocations is something which has now really begun to bite; the worst effect was delayed to some extent by the Church of England's decision to ordain women to their priesthood in 1992 and the consequent influx of refugee clergy. But now the chickens are coming home to roost and we are facing hard times.

The first bishop to close churches was Bishop Arthur Roche at Leeds, satirized unmercifully for it by Damian Thompson. Others have followed. In my own diocese there have been few closures, but many mergers of parishes: my last posting, in the Valle Adurni, was the fruit of one such merger. Mergers can work in a diocese such as this one, where population, including Catholic population, is concentrated in a relatively small area.

This won't work so well where substantial distances and small populations are concerned. So the Diocese of Wrexham (not Menevia, as I previously wrote) has embarked on a savage cull of churches, such as in Aberystwyth, where the shocked parishioners took their appeal to Rome, only to have it denied.

How could this happen?

Well, in the past, most parishes were in the trusteeship of a few senior parishioners. This meant that the parishioners 'owned' their parish property, which is just what Canon Law legislates, designating the parish as a 'juridical person'. During the 1970s, and perhaps before and after, the dioceses went through a process of persuading these parochial trustees to resign their trusteeships in favour of the diocesan bishop and a few other senior clergy. They were clearly not aware of the principle of subsidiarity. A similar process had been gone through in the Church of England, whereby all locally owned assets were acquired by the newly-established Church Commissioners, who proceeded to place all its new eggs in one basket—with the proverbial result a few years later.

In the Catholic Church of England and Wales too, the outcome is that now all diocesan property, including the church buildings, is an asset of what is in effect a large corporation; not national in our case, but diocesan. It means that what is perceived to be a failing church within a diocese can be sold in order to finance another project; anything from employing a new Health and Safety officer or Renewal Coach to (not a frequently chosen option, this) building a new church in some needy area.

When a church is closed, especially where there is resident and still relatively flourishing congregation, as would seem to be the case at Aberystwyth, anguish is the result, and no demonstrable benefit to those who have lost the place where they, their parents and their grandparents were baptised, first Communicated, wed and buried. And quite possibly their great-grandparents had made extraordinary sacrifices to build the place. It is hard to persuade them that a concrete bunker a few miles away would be a lovely place to go to Mass, and that a new secretary in the Safeguarding Office would be an important resource for the Diocese.

I think that Rome should not have supported the bishop. Canon Law is clear that the parish owns the property, even in civil law says that the diocesan trustees do so.

What should have happened is that the bishop simply would withdraw the priest, leaving the parish to make what it could of the buildings. The bishop should have said 'over to you; the diocese can't pay for this; if you want it, it's yours.' The parishioners could have maintained the place and arranged for Mass as and when they could find a willing priest. Somewhere like Aberystwyth, a pleasant seaside town, could well arrange for visiting priests who would say Mass in return for a week's free accommodation. I know enclosed convents who operate this system most effectively. Everybody wins.

As for pastoral care; well isn't this the age of the laity? The universal Church has plenty of experience of running parishes that only have Mass once or twice a year. I have a parishioner here from Guyana where she was the dedicated baptizer for her priestless parish. There are the offices of Lauds and Vespers. There are devotions: surely this is the time to recover some of this stuff and let the parish operate as it did in the past, and yes, we have been here in this country before.

In his autobiography, (variously titled), Archbishop Ullathorne described how in the early 19th Century, Catholic parishes in the north of England carried on without a priest; there would be litanies, rosaries, a sermon read from a book… but the community survived. Not by any means ideal, but once you close the church, you lose the people. Nearly all of them.

But on the plus side, if you close the church, you may have gained a secretary to type the letters to the people who are no longer there.

And, one last thought— I know very little about American law, but if each parish had owned its own property, could dioceses have been driven bankrupt by those punishing fines following on the disgraceful child abuse scandal?

I have been recently corrected on two points by Rev Dr Stephen Morgan, Financial Secretary of the Portsmouth Diocese (who, if anyone, is in a position to know). He observes that parish lay trusteeships were mainly confined to historic parishes, such as the ones I was familiar with when I made my assertion, assuming them to be the norm. Most trusteeships were transferred to dioceses in the 1930s. In the case of the Church of England, property conveyed to the Church Commissioners were glebelands and parsonages, not churches themselves.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Minor crimes in Eire

From Mary Kenny's column in the Catholic Herald, 21.8.15:
When sentencing for minor offences, Irish judges may order the convicted to pay a fine into a charity of the judges' choice; and the list of charities in question has now been made public.
The St Vincent de Paul comes out tops, receiving €129,000 last yer; Sightsavers came second with €120.400; the Christian Blind Mission, next (€120,000);then Ethiopia Aid (€90,000); the Simon Community for the homeless (€53,000); the Society of African Missions (€52,400); the Cappuchin [sic] Day Centre, which provides free meals to the needy (€49,815); St Patrick's Missionary Society (€44,000); and Oxfam Ireland (€38,559). Smaller charities also benefitted adding up to €2m in all. County Kerry paid the highest amount into the "court poor box".
It's an admirable system as it helps charities and also allows a miscreant to feel that he has literally "paid back" something to society.
Isn't that wonderful?

Friday 28 August 2015

The Carthusian Salve

Friday 31 July 2015


What a lot of nonsense is being posted about these supposed Catholic relics at Jamestown! The fact of somebody being buried with some bones in a silver box means very little more than that someone was buried with some of the bones of someone he loved. We could perhaps speculate that this was a beloved relative who died (with the initial M) and for whatever reason these were the only remains recovered. It seems a long stretch to me to conclude from the available evidence that this person was a secret Catholic pretending to be a Protestant in a very severely Protestant community. I'm sure there were better places to be a Catholic than Jamestown.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Lest there be any doubt……

My name does not appear among the signatories of the letter supporting Catholic teaching concerning marriage and family life. I'm not really sure what happened: probably it was my fault by putting a reply on the long finger in a period of busyness. Nonetheless nobody should infer that I thereby disagree with it. I wholeheartedly support it, in fact.

Thursday 19 February 2015


Today I went to the Requiem Mass of a remarkable woman. Her name was Maria Jesusa Gutierrez y Rodriguez, but I and everyone else always knew her as Conchita.

Born around 1926 in rural Spain, the Civil War therefore was the dominant fact of her childhood, and indeed of her life. She came from a profoundly Catholic family; two aunts were Carmelite nuns, and two or three uncles belonged to a men's order, which I forget. It was told today at her Requiem how the communists took her aunts with the rest of the community out of their convent, raped them and shot them in front of the little girl, her family and the village. The memories of her aunts' bare shaven heads, stripped of their wimples, and the look of horror on their faces after the rape stayed with Conchita all her life.

Shortly after that, her uncles were hanged from the town bridge, again in front of Conchita, her family and the other villagers. Their bodies were left to rot on the ropes until wild animals disposed of their remains.

The next to be executed was the parish priest, who was merely shot. The young Conchita, brave girl, managed to get into the sacristy of the church, where she found a box of unconsecrated hosts. She also found the tabernacle key, and went to the tabernacle. She removed the Sacred Hosts, pushed them up her sleeve, and substituted unconsecrated breads, closing and locking the tabernacle, and leaving things as she found them.

Rounding the corner, she ran into a communist band coming to desecrate the church. 'Where are you going?' she was roughly asked. 'Off to play with my friends', she calmly replied, and they let her go.

She took the Hosts to a young priest of her acquaintance—one Fr José Maria Escriva de Balaguer—who gave them in Communion to those with him. Though she was never a member of Opus Dei, she and he continued to correspond for many years, though in later years, her mind failing, she lost his letters.

In later life, she made her way to England where she married and then, when widowed relatively young, and left very well-off, settled on the South Coast of England. There, living simply herself, she spent her fortune on others—for instance she paid for the education of a priest. She was very kind to me, too. And she loved to entertain.

There were six priests today at her funeral (including the priest whose education she had supported, and a representative from Opus Dei), a testament to the strong power of her faith. I think she would have been surprised, for she never thought herself anything special.

Rest in peace, Conchita. I count it a privilege to have known you.

Friday 16 January 2015


Anyone else notice this?

Pope Francis in the Philippines:

The Wizard of Oz:

I'm encouraged that, like Pope Benedict, he encouraged us to have devotion not of the Pope, but of Christ.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Cardinal Kasper: What it's all about

Yesterday a priest friend drew my attention to an interview given by Cardinal Kasper, and printed in the July/August 2014 edition of the periodical Doctrine and Life. In this article Kasper elaborates at length on his favourite subject of mercy. It includes this passage, concerning those living in irregular unions:

To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it's a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian.

Well, there we have it. Heroism is not for the average Christian. Here we have the explanation of the emptying churches in Germany and in the West generally.

Had this been the attitude of the early Christian Church, one wonders what would ever have happened.

Friday 7 November 2014

Galatians 2:11

So why did I go quiet, then?

Well, simply because I found myself in disagreement with some of the prudential judgments of the Holy Father. When I started this blog, I was deeply excited by Pope Benedict and his project of reform and renewal: I had wanted to add my weight to that. Those were wonderful, heady days.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, has made me deeply uneasy. The man is of course a Catholic ('Is the Pope a Catholic?'), but he seems to have, in a frighteningly magnified way, the same instinct that John Paul II had, that, as Pope – however much he may dress it up as being, humbly and simply, the Bishop of Rome – the Church is his to govern as he sees fit. It is a kind of charismatic leadership; 'I know where I'm going; follow me, chaps!' This is a frightening overconfidence that now seems to have implications for doctrinal orthodoxy. And leading so far into uncharted waters smacks to me of a belief in a personal infallibility (rather than a strictly circumscribed infallibility of office) that would have made Pope Pius IX blush.

There is no way that I wanted to be seen to be out of communion of mind and heart with the Holy Father, our very touchstone of communion. So, on the old principle that if you can't say anything nice, say nothing at all, I decided to say nothing at all.

It was a recent article by the very interesting Ross Douthat that made me think again. If Peter's job is to strengthen the brethren, then perhaps we, as a Church, have the duty to strengthen Peter when his arms grow tired on the ship's tiller.

When interest groups try to force the Church onto another course, do not we who are loyal have a duty to state clearly and unambiguously what we understand the Church's teaching to be, that the Holy Father may truly have a sense of the sensus fidelium, and not merely of the zeitgeist?

Let us remember the words of St Paul: 'But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong'. (Galatians 2:11) Perhaps there are times, even while reverencing the Petrine office, we need to strengthen his arms. History provides us with many examples; Pope Liberius and Pope John XXII, to name but two, who needed to be encouraged to stand firm in the faith.

People have talked of the threat of schism recently: mostly journalistic hyperbole, of course. But is the Pope, or Cardinal Kaspar really willing to force this serious division of opinion to the point where it might become a schism? Because schisms do precisely come when there are serious threats to doctrinal orthodoxy.

You need only read history.

Sunday 2 November 2014

I'm back!

The Pastor in Valle has been into his tomb, found it not entirely to his liking, tried poking his nose out as Pastor in Valle Emeritus (it's all the rage, this emeritus thing), and now will stalk the world as Pastor in Monte, though he doesn't know how much posting he will do.

Now we are Aspicientes in Jesum, because that seems appropriate. I hope you agree. The events of the last few months have focussed us all on the essentials, and I can't think of anything more essential that this.

I've changed my name to Pastor in Monte since that seems a good alternative, as I am now living on a (rather steep) hill.

  High on a hill lived a lonely Pastor… Yodel o lo layee…… &c

Thursday 7 August 2014


Well, all good things come to an end. A month from today (7th September) I will be celebrating my last Mass in the Valle Adurni, for I have been reassigned to the Church of the Sacred Heart, Caterham on the Hill in Surrey. And so the Pastor in Valle will become the Pastor in Monte.

I'm not sure what to do about the blog; you'll have noticed that over the last couple of years my posts have become increasingly sporadic, largely for reasons which Fr Ray cleverly analysed a few weeks ago following a conversation we had in a Shoreham restaurant.

Once I go, I won't post any more to this particular blog, I think, since there will be a new Pastor in Valle, but if I feel the muse a-fluttering around, I might start a new one. I'll post up a link here, if so.

Thank you and God bless you for reading, and for the comments and all that stuff. Above all, oremus pro invicem, let us pray for each other and for our holy Mother, the Church.

Monday 26 May 2014


I have just watched a recording of the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem. You can watch it here; there is no commentary or translation, though a lot of it is in English, and though the Holy Father spoke in Italian, there is a translation here. You will need to skip over the first part; for a long time there are security men scuttling around doing not a lot.

The Holy Father's homily was very good, but I was very impressed by Patriarch Bartholomew in particular. Unlike the Pope, he always seemed to know what was going on, and shepherded the Pope around; you could see Pope Francis looking out of the corner of his eye to see what he ought to be doing, seeming rather awkward and unsure of himself. But then liturgy isn't really the Jesuits' strong point, I suppose. Bartholomew has an impressive command of languages; his English appears to be completely fluent, and he conversed with the Holy Father easily in Italian, even translating for him at one point.

There were two things I found rather touching; the first was at the very beginning, when the successors of the brothers St Peter and St Andrew were about to descend a short flight of steps. The Pope said; 'I can't go quickly down stairs', so the Patriarch, much spryer, simply gave him a hand.

And, perhaps most touchingly, I noticed early on that the chain of the Holy Father's pectoral cross had somehow slipped up over his collar and was against his skin, rather unsightly and certainly uncomfortable.

The Patriarch had clearly noticed it, too, and decided to do something about it himself:
Much better!

I was reminded of two elderly brothers, the younger carefully looking after the older. Andrew and Peter.

Thursday 22 May 2014

The Church and the Internet

At last! Something sensible from a bishop on the subject of the Internet, blogs and all that. In this case, it is the coadjutor archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, who includes in his talk a sensible list of 'commandments' for Catholics engaging in the e-apostolate.

1. Be positive and joyful. Offer ‘digital smiles’ and have a sense of humour. Remember that it is the ‘ joy of the Gospel’ that we are communicating, so, as Pope Francis says: no ‘funeral faces’ or ‘sourpusses’!
2. Strictly avoid aggression and ‘preachiness’ online; try not to be judgemental or polemical – goodness knows, there is enough of this online already! Instead, try Pope Francis’ approach of ‘tenderness and balm’.
3. Never bear false witness on the internet.
4. Remember ‘Ubi caritas et amor’. Fill the internet with charity and love, always giving rather than taking. Continually seek to broaden and reframe discussions and seek to include a sense of charity and solidarity with the suffering in the world.
5. Have a broad back when criticisms and insults are made – when possible, gently correct.
6. Pray in the digital world! Establish sacred spaces, opportunities for stillness, reflection amd meditation online.
7. Establish connections, relationships and build communion. Church has always been about ‘gathering’. In this, it is worth considering an ecumenical presence for the Christian churches online. The internet tends to be a place of ethical and intellectual relativism, and often of aggressive secularism. The scandal of disunity among Christians can be easily exploited and exaggerated. Therefore we must seek to share resources so that we can have a powerful Gospel witness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people started noticing online: ‘See how these Christians love one another’.
8. Educate our young to keep themselves safe and to use the internet responsibly.
9. Witness to human dignity at all times online. Seek, as Pope Benedict once said, to ‘give a soul to the internet’. We are well aware of the pervasive prevalence of pornography on the internet which can ‘pollute the spirit’, destroy and degrade human sexuality and relationships, reduce persons to objects for gratification, draw millions into the commodification and commercialisation of sex, feed the monster that is human trafficking.
10. Be missionary, be aware that with the help of the internet, a message has the potential to reach the ends of the earth in seconds. In this regard, let us foster and call forth charisms in younger committed people who understand the power and potential of the net to bear witness.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Adopt a priest

The funny thing about this video is that in France, the priest shown would be considered definitively conservative and, well, rather un-French. Traddies in France wear the cassock; soixante-huitards wear a grey suit with a blue polo shirt and, sometimes, a cross on the jacket lapel. But the 'clergyman' dress, so familiar in anglophone countries, in France is a sort of code for someone who isn't exactly a traddie, but definitely distances himself from most of his ageing confreres.

Wednesday 30 April 2014


I never realised that Cervantes fought at Lepanto. It seems particularly appropriate on the feast of St Pius V that The History Blog should have drawn attention to a search for Cervantes' grave.

Saturday 26 April 2014

Third Class Relic

So Popes John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are now saints. This doesn’t worry me the way it worries some people. I study history, and I know very well that a decree of sanctity is not a declaration that absolutely everything an individual said or did was holy or good. In the Patristic period, you need only look at St Jerome or St Cyril of Alexandria to understand that many saints have had flaws, perhaps serious flaws. To my mind that is encouraging; in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, you can read that the infant St Nicholas was accustomed to refusing his mother’s milk on fast days. That, with all due reverence to St Nicholas, is no use to me. If perfect behaviour from infancy is necessary for me to become a saint, then it is all over with me, because even now I remain deeply flawed, as all my friends will cheerfully confirm. The Church is simply saying that these two men, Pope John and Pope John Paul are in heaven and can intercede for us. I’m fine with that. I don’t need to accept that everything they were, did and said is now part of the extraordinary magisterium.

Pope John was the Pope when I was born; I learnt a real reverence for him from his Journal of a Soul, and I have no difficulty at all in recognising his sanctity. I give no credence whatever to certain accusations of Freemasonry and all that stuff. As regarding his liturgical preferences; well, he reversed some of Pope Pius XII's changes, and published on his own authority Veterum Sapientia, confirming the study and use of Latin in the Western Rites as mandatory.

I have a more nuanced reverence for Pope John Paul. I’m not going to go into it here; you can read about it in abundance on the internet. But I will never forget my own personal encounter with him. During Lent 1990 I had been ordained about six months, and was in Rome for a pilgrimage of thanksgiving. A priest of my diocese who worked then in the Secretariat of State had obtained for me a pass to concelebrate Mass with Pope John Paul in his private chapel at his early morning celebration. Directed by Mgr Dziwisz, and vested in alb and purple stoles, we were ushered in to the papal chapel where the Holy Father was already seated at his chair and prie dieu in prayer. All was in deep silence. It really was rather uncanny; we sat with him as he prayed, but his prayer wasn’t as we prayed; he would, alarmingly, groan aloud and writhe in his chair, and I was rather concerned for him.

Finally he came around, and in front of us vested for Mass, which was celebrated in Italian. 

After Mass, we concelebrants and other guests were herded politely into a sort of receiving line. The Holy Father went to each of us, gave us a rosary, and said a few words. When he came to me, I told him in my halting Italian that I was newly ordained; he put his arm around me and hugged me. Yes, he did! And then he said something to me; I told myself right then that I must remember those words for the rest of my life. I promptly forgot them, and cannot remember them since.

What sticks in my mind? How short he was! He is always in the foreground of photographs, so he looks bigger than he actually was. In fact, he was much shorter than me, and I am only of average height. Second; the collar of his cassock was not very clean; clearly a white cassock is harder to keep clean than a black one.

But I will never forget that encounter. His presence was extraordinary.

Leaving the Apostolic Palace by the St Anne Gate, I encountered a slight figure in a black cassock crossing the piazza towards St Peter’s Square. It was Cardinal Ratzinger, heading off for his daily work at the CDF. I smiled at him, and he stopped. We tried languages; my German wasn’t adequate, neither then was his English. So we spoke in Italian: I simply thanked him for all his work, and said what it meant to me as a newly ordained priest. He beamed back at me, and then went off to work. I date my reverence for that man from that day when he spoke to a simple newly-ordained priest with infinite kindness.

So, I have touched a saint. That makes me a third class relic, and you may venerate me.

Form a line.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Happy Easter!

A picture for Karen. Traditions must be upheld, after all.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Robert Mickens is suspended by The Tablet!

p.s. I think these two screen shots must be the most reproduced without attribution or acknowledgement in recent internet history!

Sunday 23 March 2014

Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo

Within living memory the Church of the low countries—the Netherlands and of course Belgium—was confident and flourishing, sending missionaries around the world. And now……

I have just stumbled across this Dutch site. Look under 'inventory'.

Some will weep, others will rub their hands and reach for their credit cards.

At any rate, if anyone wants to equip his church with Beautiful Things for Jesus (BTJs), he could do much worse than to start here. I haven't dared to ask the prices, though.

Much better these things find a new home in churches than in bars.

Sunday 9 March 2014

The Church of the Future — one vision

As you would expect, The Tablet has been hardly able to contain itself since the election of Pope Francis. Paeans of praise arise from their pages every week for this Joannes XXIII redivivus. There is a feeling of 'we thought it was all over for us, and now, from out of the blue, here come the cavalry!' Robert Mickens is particularly enthusiastic, and rarely does a week go by without him getting in at least one dig at the Pope Emeritus, usually by unfavourable comparison with the present Holy Father. Comparisons are odious, it is said, and his are particularly odious.

When writing directly about the Holy Father, The Tablet says little about his more conservative utterances—as you would expect. There seems to be a sense that the Holy Father has to say these things because of the conservative people his two predecessors filled the Vatican with: he can't move too quickly. But we all know what he thinks really—he thinks like us! All we have to do is bide our time.

So, The Tablet is quickly forming a consensus in its leaders and in its correspondence pages and in most of its articles (I make the noble exception of Christopher Howse whose articles are as excellent as ever). No doubt its purpose is to help the Holy Father form a picture of how the Church should look when he has done the thorough reform which he has embarked upon.

The Tablet's Church of the future will look like this:

• There will be appropriate respect for the person and office of the Holy Father. However local churches will make all serious decisions for themselves.
• In this, there will be real participation by the laity who will have a say in every issue that concerns them. They will participate in the governance of the Church.
• Worship will be liturgical and meaningful, and people-centred. Rites will be respected, but not regarded as shibboleths.
• All seven sacraments will be administered to all who wish to receive them.
• There will be no distinction between men and women, gay or straight, when it comes to deciding who may receive Holy Orders.
• Clergy will be able freely to marry.
• Remarriage in church after divorce will be available to all.
• The Church will firmly stay out of the bedroom.
• The use of artificial contraception will be judged to be both wholesome and responsible.
• Homosexual unions will be respected and welcomed in a loving community as will all LGBT people and relationships.
• While not supporting the practice, the Church will respect and lovingly support those who feel they have no option other than to have recourse to abortion or euthanasia.

It seems to me that The Tablet may be trying to reinvent the wheel. This has all been already done, and if this form of Church appeals to them or anyone else, they might care to have a look at this movement, which will give them everything their hearts desire. [Link] You might even call it an Ordinariate in reverse.

Clergy might like to click here.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

The Virginal Bee of Hereford

Looking with a friend the other day at the Exsultet from the Hereford Missal (you know, the way you do), we discovered this rather wonderful extra bit:

…quas in substantiam pretiosæ hujus lampadis apis mater eduxit.
O vere et beata et mirabilis apis: cujus nec sexum masculi violant; fætus [?] non quassant, nec filii destruunt castitatem. Sicut sancta concepit virgo Maria, virgo peperit, et virgo permansit.
O beata nox, qua exspoliavit Ægyptios……

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Fort Worth and the Extraordinary Form Mass

The action of Michael Olson, the very new Bishop Olson of Fort Worth, a mere three weeks into his pontificate, in forbidding (or, more accurately, attempting to forbid) Fisher More College to celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form has been drawing a great deal of comment around the world.
It seems to have been Rorate Cæli who broke the news, and they did so, understandably, in a tone of outrage.

To summarise the goings-on for those who aren't up to speed; Fisher More College in Texas is a College of Tertiary Education of traditional stamp where the liturgy also is celebrated in the Extraordinary Form.  The bishop (whom, at 47, every source seems to take delight in pointing out is the second youngest in the US) has sent a letter directing the college to cease all its EF celebrations. Given that a Pope, in Summorum Pontificum explicitly gave the right to priests, not to Bishops, to decide when and where to celebrate the EF, presumably precisely to avoid this sort of thing, it seems clear that in fact Bishop Olson has no right to do what he has done. At least on the surface of things; there may of course be more going on under the surface that we know nothing about.

And so indeed suggests 'Tantamergo' [sic], the author of the blog called Veneremurcernui, 'A Blog for Dallas Area Catholics'. Here you can read that Michael King, the Principal of the college, has been adopting a more and more extreme line of late, involving very severe criticism of the hierarchy and of the Second Vatican Council, to the effect that several staff and students have left. This, with other things, has caused a financial crisis which may mean that, despite recent heroic fundraising by the students, the future of the college may be rather brief.

But even if this is so, it seems strange to penalise the students if the faculty is at fault. Surely the effect will be to drive students and staff more firmly into the hands of the Society of St Pius X or some more extreme Sedevacantist body. Even if it could be demonstrated that Bishop Olson has the legal right to do what he has done (and I don't think it can), one would certainly doubt the prudence of his action. And most of all we must deplore the lack of charity. The college had sent the new bishop a spiritual bouquet, and rather lamely, he thanks them for their kindness at the end of the letter in which he has dealt them what they must consider the most severe of blows.

He tells the college that his actions are for their own spiritual good, which would appear to imply that the use of the EF must be harmful. Presumably the bishop takes the commonly-held line that the EF is a rallying point for all sorts of undesirable things and people; suppress the EF and you get rid of the problem.

Yet again we must quote those words of Pope Benedict, from the letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum:

What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. 

Tuesday 18 February 2014

The Western Lenten Fast

People have often admired the rigorous approach to fasting taken by the Eastern Churches. Our Western custom was once similar, but was diminished principally during the two world wars and further following the Second Vatican Council.

These fasts are no longer of precept, of course, but that doesn't mean that their use wouldn't be spiritually fruitful.

This applies particularly in Lent. The Western Lenten fast is as follows:

The Lenten Fast

All weekdays of Lent are days of fasting and abstinence. That means one single meal. Two lighter meals may be taken as long as their combined quantity does not exceed that of the single meal.
Meat may not be eaten, nor, I understand, fish, though I may be corrected on this. I presume it (and remember reading it somewhere, but I can't find it) on account of fish being specified as permitted on Sunday.

Traditionally, the abstinence also forbids eggs and all dairy products, the so-called 'black fast'. (perhaps because of the milkless tea). This had ceased to be of obligation by the nineteenth century.
In practice, this means observing a vegan diet during the week.

Oil may be used (unlike in the east) to cook or dress food at all times.

Sundays in Lent are days of abstinence, but not fasting. Therefore the normal quantities of food may be eaten, but not meat. Fish is permitted.

Fasting and abstinence are only lifted should the day be a Holy Day of Obligation. I don't think any holy days would fall within Lent these days.

Days of Fasting outside Lent

In addition, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays during Ember weeks are days of fasting. Ember weeks are the first week in Lent, (fasting anyway), the Octave of Pentecost, The third week in September and the third week in Advent.

The vigils of the following feasts are days of fasting: Pentecost, Ss Peter & Paul, the Assumption, All Saints, and Christmas Day.

All Wednesdays and Fridays in Advent are fast days.

Should a fast day fall on a Sunday, it is observed on the Saturday. Should a feast fall on a Monday, the fast is also observed on the Saturday.

The only exception to the Friday abstinence traditionally was if Christmas day should fall on a Friday.

Sunday 26 January 2014

Going scarlet

From last week's Tablet, about one of the new Cardinal-designates, Fernando Sebastián Aguilar, former Archbishop of Pamplona, lauded by the writer as a theologian:

Notably, he is a firm believer in the validity of the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms. He recently told his confrère and respected Rome-based liturgist Fr Matias Augé that he recites Eucharistic Prayer II by heart at all his Masses. When the priest pointed out that traditionalists believe EPII does "not adequately express the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist", the cardinal-designate replied: "Don't worry, anyone who says this doesn't understand a thing about the sacrificial dimension of the Mass".
Robert Mickens, Letter from Rome, The Tablet, 18th January 2014

Words fail me. And if they cease to fail me, I think that probably I would never stop writing. Is this really the ultimate boast of a Vatican II theologian, that he uses nothing but EPII, even though most of the Latin world does likewise? And as for the rest…

p.s. I gather he's earned the hatred of the liberals for some rather unconsidered remarks about homosexuality. I found this when I looked for the picture I've posted above.

Monday 13 January 2014

Titles and frivvle

The late Monsignor Alfred Gilbey is supposed to have described the Knights of Malta as 'a very elaborate way of doing very little good'. A most unfair (if amusing) comment, the waspishness of which would incline me to think that its attribution is not right: Mgr Gilbey was a charitable man. But there is a spirit abroad which seems to think that trimming away trimmings is a good thing in itself. There have always been puritans, and there will always be puritans; people with wagging fingers who want to cancel Christmas, and take others having fun as a personal affront.

It is summed up by many in that oxymoronic phrase of Vatican II: noble simplicity—which has, by the way, little to do with poverty or real simplicity. It was in the interest of noble simplicity that officials in the time of Pope John Paul II commissioned set after set of 'simple' (but very expensive) concelebration vestments for the Pope himself and  the assisting cardinals, often used only once, while the elaborate and decorated vestments of ages past lay gathering dust in the sacristies of St Peter's.

I do get it, the idea of simplifying. But we run the risk of making the Church more boring. The difficulty comes when people look at the frills rather than at the thing to which they point. And human nature will mean that some will and others won't. Most won't, though, and the existence of frills doesn't necessarily mean that their users are frivolous.

And now diocesan priests are not to be monsignori until 65. Well, I can't say that I'm particularly exercised about that. In fact I think that it's probably a good thing; in my diocese we have a couple of younger monsignori and canons, and excellent chaps they are. But they would still be excellent chaps without the purple and fake fur. What is so strange (as Fr Michael Brown points out so eloquently) is that the Roman Curial mandarins (supposedly being reformed) can still be monsignori at 35, if they can succeed in not blotting their copybooks for five years (and most of them can manage that).

Actually, I've got no problem with curial mandarins becoming monsignori, and one or two even cardinals. But I do wonder why many of them, sometimes with no pastoral experience at all, are made bishops, with pretend dioceses. Getting rid of that system would really be a reform worth having, I think. Why not let them have all the old ranks of the Monsignorate, with the top one going to the top guy in each congregation? Surely they should only be bishops if they have already been bishop of a real diocese. I don't think that this would make it a duller Church, simply a more focussed Church.

A bit of dressing up, a title here or there; these things make life interesting. And they connect us to the Church of the past and remind us that we have to preserve things for the Church of the future; the Church of 2014, after all, is not the only thing that matters.

Wednesday 18 December 2013


Read this. (Click on it, I mean.)

My shortest post.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Filthy Lucre

Someone asked me: 'so how are Catholic Clergy paid, then?'

Well, there are many different answers to that. Some dioceses collect in all the various myriad methods of income and pay each priest a salary. That makes things very easy for filling in a tax return.

My diocese, like many others, sticks to the ancient system, which is mostly governed by custom. The priest is guaranteed his board and lodging, which (within reason) can be paid for directly from the parish account. We are allotted a weekly sum for our food, for which we do not need to present receipts; the figure, however, has not changed since at least 1995, despite all the inflation since then. This, I gather, is an Inland Revenue stipulation, not the diocese's. Inevitably, a lot of that figure goes on entertaining; people help themselves generally to coffee, milk, biscuits &c on a daily basis, and this is very hard to quantify as generally parishioners on business share the presbytery kitchen with me.

We have to buy our own car, but receive 45p/mile to run it on parish business.

Then there comes private income. Well, this can vary substantially according to the parish we serve. One source is the system of Mass stipends. This is a bit like the mediæval chantry system; basically, you pay a priest to celebrate Mass for the intention you direct. The idea originally was that the sum should keep a priest for a day. Of course these days the sum is usually a token, and I know of no priest who would refuse to say Mass for someone who couldn't pay (if he were to refuse, it would be very redolent of simony, I think). Some priests refuse Mass stipends altogether, a position I have some sympathy with, though in parishes where the other forms of income are lacking or low, (especially where the Church is under pressure for one reason or another) they can be a lifeline.

After this, there are 'stole fees'. There are no charges for the sacraments, but it is customary to make an offering to the priest or deacon who officiates at weddings, baptisms and funerals. Generally speaking he may spend quite some time on each service, with the preparation &c, and this may be reflected in the offering. No figure is specified; it is left to the generosity or resources of the individual to decide.

The other source of income (and the largest) is the two collections at Christmas and Easter. Instead of going into parish funds, the collection taken at Mass is divided among the priests of the parish. This does not include the money paid by standing order, which goes to the parish as usual (I'm not sure people know that), nor the money recovered from Gift Aid (since individual priests are not charities).

So you will understand that working things out for the annual tax return is not much fun, especially if the individual struggles with numbers as I do. The government even require us to estimate the second-hand value of the furniture in the presbytery and tax us on it.

In this country, deacons are not paid at all, other than their stole fees. They do it all for the love of God. And I think their reward will be great in heaven.

That's how it works, folks.


I cannot tell you how glad I am to have the return of Fr Hunwicke, now unquestionably my brother and priest, to the blogosphere. I'm well aware that his calm logical style will not be to everyone's taste, but his simple rational ability to cut through the crap (forgive me!) is just what we need right now. His most recent post on the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate is one of his best. Euge!

Friday 13 December 2013


Today I had a funeral; the deceased (please say a prayer for her) was not practising for many years, nor were her relatives and friends, so the service was in the Crematorium. That was a feature on its own, because the minister who preceded me exceeded his allotted time unapologetically and truncated what I could offer to the deceased lady and her loved ones.

However, some things occurred which interested me. The first was a comment from an undertaker who had had to deal with the preceding service. He is a nice guy, and we chatted about the services at which he assisted. He remarked that he had no time for clergy who stuck their noses into a book and simply read things out; 'I would like to think that my loved ones wouldn't simply have rehashed material' he said; 'I would like to think that this was the first and last time that something had been heard'. I pointed out that I was actually required to perform the rites of the Church, but he wasn't impressed. No good; I don't think we'll be doing his funeral.

Our conversation (it was quite protracted, because the service beforehand was seriously overrunning) then went on to secularist/humanist services. We talked about the fact that secularist service officiants could simply set themselves up as officiants without any training or expertise. He commented that there was a lady locally who set herself up as something of the sort, and also offered training for 'secular' officiants; she charges £600 for the course and is coining it, apparently. The undertaker told me that he would never employ this lady himself for any sort of a funeral; apparently her 'services' are dire beyond belief (no pun intended).

Another common feature these days is clergy who have obtained ordination from some source or another and set themselves up as funeral officiants. Their ordination comes from 'Old Catholic' sources, or 'Liberal Catholic' sources, none in communion with the Catholic Church or indeed with the Church of England or any other mainstream Christian Communion. But these 'clergy' make a nice living at funerals, and are a serious threat to the Church of England clergy. These days the Church Commissioners of the Church of England decree a fee of £160 plus for a funeral: in the past I and most priests have simply said to undertakers who are perplexed by our reluctance to charge a specific fee for a service, 'give us what the Church of England specify'. But £160 seems excessive to most of us, and we generally, in high embarrassment, suggest to the undertakers some lower figure. But not these 'vagi' (vagus=wandering, unattached, cleric) who, having obtained some sort of ordination from once source or another, make a rare old living locally, and no doubt elsewhere in the country. These people are less of a threat to us, though it is not unknown for them to contact the undertaker firms introducing themselves as 'Catholic priests'; we had a case locally, where the Dean had to intervene. Pressed, these vagi will confirm that they are 'independent Catholic priests', but to an undertaker who is having difficulty finding a priest or deacon for a family who won't notice the difference…… And there are lots of these guys around, it seems.

This vagus situation bites particularly hard for the Anglicans who, when in active ministry, are required to hand over all stipends to the Church Commissioners in exchange for their salary. Anyone else (including us Catholics) can simply trouser the fee*. So to see these vagi, ordained by strange wandering bishops, hoovering up their parishioners for a fat fee, when they themselves would have received nothing for the service adds to the sense of annoyance. And it would seem that the word is getting around that this is a lucrative market. And, presumably, as the number of services reaching Anglican clergy declines, the Church Commissioners will be required to put the fees up again simply to try and break even.

The undertaker I was speaking to today commented 'there aren't enough funerals to go around for all the clergy these days!'

*—in our case because we are not salaried at all; our income comes from such sources as these.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Dumbing down

I don't know if anyone else saw that programme on BBC4 this week, Byzantium, a tale of three cities. It was pretty disappointing, so don't rush to see the next episode. When one considers how much they pay to make these programmes, it staggers me that they do not set aside a little bit of the budget to employ someone to make sure they get their historical facts right. I suppose that what they are trying to do is make a good story, so why let facts get in their way? Perhaps it is because they employ scriptwriters to write these things, not historians. A historian would have been able to help a scriptwriter negotiate the sweep of history with greater accuracy, dismissing nutcases or distracting minor stories and helping the larger picture appear.

I don't think there were any actual nutcases in the programme, but there were annoying distractions, such as the guy with a private theory about having discovered Constantine's real tomb, which he identified on the grounds of it having peg holes drilled into the sides (because we know that Constantine's tomb had hangings around it) and a labarum (the Chi-Rho) on a gable end. That's pretty thin evidence; I'm sure more than Constantine's tomb had hangings, and after his time the labarum was in common use.

The two egregious errors that annoyed me most were the definition of Arianism (which Simon Sebag Montefiore pronounced 'arrianism') as being a heresy that said that Jesus was a mere human being, and the assertion that Constantine was converted to Christianity at the battle of the Milvian bridge.

The latter error may, perhaps, be forgiven: it is a common view, and I think that both Eusebius and Lactantius (our main sources for that episode) wanted to create that impression with their accounts. But the evidence paints a much more interesting picture.

Nobody doubts that Constantine died a Christian. He was baptized (by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia, as it happens) on his deathbed. But what happened between the Milvian Bridge and his baptism is not straightforward. Only a short while before the battle, he had had, in Autun, a vision not of Christ, but of Apollo. His coinage for the next ten years carried an inscription of devotion to the sun God (identified with Apollo) soli invicto comiti. Though the Edict of Milan (whose 1700th anniversary we celebrate this year) expressly ended persecution of Christianity, Constantine did not identify himself with it for many years. There seems to have been a sort of syncretistic policy followed of devotion to the 'Summus Deus': a notion of divinity that leaves the individual believer to fill in the blanks according to his own taste. 'We all worship the Highest God; you may call him Christ, I'll call him Apollo.'

Some historians point to the fact that the Chi-Rho / labarum was never used by Christians before Constantine's time. The labarum, not a simple cross, seems to have been the sign that he saw in the sky before the battle; some have suggested that in fact the labarum is a sign of Apollo. But the CH+R can certainly be made to suggest 'Christ', especially if you aren't worried about blurring the two a little.

In the cemetery which lies under St Peter's Basilica in Rome, there is a tomb which is without doubt Christian. In that tomb is a mosaic which would appear to show Christ—but is it Christ? It shows a bright charioteer, which is usually our representation of Apollo. Was there a deliberate policy of identifying Christ and Apollo in those early days of Constantine?

And, more intriguingly, was this the way that Constantine was induced to adopt the Christian faith? And if that is so, then who did the inducing? Who led him from a paganism sympathetic to Christianity to a wholehearted profession of the faith? My money is on a shadowy figure called Hosius of Cordoba. He was with Constantine from at least the Milvian Bridge to after Nicæa as, effectively his closest religious adviser. It was he, probably, who came up with the word 'Homoousios' at Nicæa, and thereby solved one problem and created others. He was to live on to over a hundred years old, being probably tortured into signing an Arian creed in extreme old age.

Can we honestly say that in fact a sort of syncretistic gradualism, or even dumbing down, was used to lead Constantine slowly into the faith? Well, maybe.

Let's go back to that porphyry supposed tomb of Constantine. The significance of that labarum which was on the gable end was missed by the programme. It was set into the loop of an Egyptian Ankh, the symbol of life. The ankh is known to have been used by Christians for a while: you can find it called the Coptic Cross or crux ansata, but it leads me to wonder whether there was more syncretism going on in those days than we might find comfortable. The picture shows a Christian ankh, with an ordinary cross in the loop rather than a labarum.

And here is another thought. It is becoming increasingly clear that, improbably, Celtic Christianity owes a great deal to Egyptian Christianity. Could this perhaps be the source of the famous celtic cross?

I could probably go on, but I must go and do a wedding. Pray for Lisa and Mark, please.