Sunday 29 June 2008

Off to Canada

Tomorrow I'm off to Canada, staying in Toronto, with the Oratorian Fathers for a week. Then on to the States. I'm much encouraged about Canadian liturgy, having discovered here this video of a Byzantine Pontifical Mass at the recent Eucharistic Congress. The sanctuary, in a stadium, was, of course, designed with the N.O. in mind. I'm not sure what success I'll have keeping you posted while I am away—I suppose it largely depends on my access to the internet.

Thursday 26 June 2008

The fly in the ointment

I loved this cartoon I found on the Catholic Cartoon blog. Time magazine, apparently, has noticed that sixties liberalism is finally running out of steam, while Tradition, something they thought was dead, has now returned and is having more of an impact than they thought on their party.

Taking the Mickens

I suppose it was never going to last. Robert Mickens of The Tablet has gone off Pope Benedict again, after a few weeks' softening. In last Friday's edition, he was scathing about the grave insult that Pope Benedict has given the Canadians by not going to their Eucharistic Congress, and merely beaming a homily to the closing Mass. Nothing, of course, to do with the fact that this poor 81 year old man was in North America a mere couple of months ago, and it might have been just a bit tough on him doing it again, and then going to Australia for Youth Thing.
If there are disaffected people in Canada on this issue, I suspect that it has much more to do with the fact that the Holy Father went to the US and not to Canada on this visit — I am told that feelings are rather sensitive north of the border about such matters.
One might wonder why our Micky is feeling quite so sore at Pope Benedict. We don't have to look far. In the next paragraph he complains that a seat on the Papal plane to Sydney will set him back nearly seven thousand Euros, and even then, there's no guarantee that the Holy Father will actually talk to him. Well, would you?

On another page in The Tablet, I read that Bishop Donald Trautperson is at it again, doing his best to scupper the new translation of the Missal. The seasonal propers are now being debated by the US bishops' conference, and ICEL had been confident that the new version would be happily accepted. They underestimated the old Traut's willingness to patronize and underestimate his countrymen. He, apparently, feels that words like 'ineffable' are beyond the average English-speaking Catholic's intelligence, presumably even after having the word explained to them. 'This should be the prayer of the people' he opined. Never mind that during the dinosaur craze after some film a few years ago the average seven year old knew precisely what a Tyrannosaurus Rex was.
I very much doubt (and probably so does he) that his efforts will actually achieve what he wants, but they are certainly capable of causing a nuisance, and have done so in this case. Now the vote will have to be carried out by post, since a great number of the US bishops simply weren't at the meeting, having more interesting things to do than listen to old fish-face tell them, in effect, that the people in their diocese are simply stupid.
Okay, perhaps I'm laying it on a bit. What he means is that Mass should be in the same sort of English that football commentators use, or shoppers in Walmart use. In principle. No doubt he would use words like Incarnational. God became human, God used spittle and mud, so we should not be ashamed to observe the same earthy elements to find God. Well, I see the point, up to a point, but surely God became man so that we might become Divine……
…da nobis, per huius aquae et vini mysterium, eius divinitatis esse consortes, qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus est particeps. And in the meantime, let us seek the things that are above, where Christ is. Christ became human, and, though God, is still, forever, human, but he has been raised to glory. It is, then, in glory that we must seek him.

Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing by
we shall see him, but in heaven,
set at God's right hand on high.

Cartoon courtesy of the Catholic Cartoon Blog.

Tuesday 24 June 2008

One of those things

Just a couple of days ago I began wearing the scapular of our Lady of Mount Carmel. Somebody gave it to me, and I just put it on, without having it properly imposed or blessed. Well, where's a calced Carmelite when you need one? And don't just tell me any priest can do it these days; I know that, but it doesn't really feel right just doing it for myself, and, really it is a Carmelite thing.
Well, whaddya know? Tonight a 'calced' Carmelite priest, one Fr Galvin, turned up at my door needing accommodation for a couple of days……
What are the probabilities of that? It has never happened before to me, as long as I have been a priest.

The musicians' feast

Today, the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist, is, in a way, even more a musicians' feast than the feast of St Cecilia. Why, is a bit interesting.

The hymn at both Vespers (in both ordinary and extraordinary forms) goes as follows:

Ut queant laxis
resonare fibris
Mira gestorum
famuli tuorum
Solve polluti
labii reatum,
Sancte Ioannes.

Free from guilt your servants' unclean lips, O holy John, that they may be able to sing with clear voices the the wonders of your life.

Here's the music:
Now, I suppose, if you're not in any way musical, this will pass you by, but if you look at all the notes accompanying the first syllables at each of the half bars, thus, at UT, REsonare, MIra, FAmuli &c, you'll see that each note is one degree higher than the last, with the exception of the last.

Now put the syllables together, and you get:

Ut, re, mi, fa, so, la.

This comes down to us as the 'scale' or 'steps' of music, sometimes known as the scala aretina, or the hexachord. Several settings of the Mass use this as a cantus firmus (a harmonic base, and/or a recurring theme in the music), such as the English Tudor composer Avery Burton's Missa Ut, re, me, fa, sol, la, or the better known Francisco Valls' Missa Scala Aretina.

And when people thought that 'ut' was a bit ugly, they substituted 'do' instead, adding also 'ti' to make a full scale. Which leads us back to………

Sunday 22 June 2008

Latin for Six and associated matters.

I was very disheartened (though, of course, not suprised) to hear the official response to the shocking news about teenage pregnancy and abortion rates in the UK. More sex education, younger. More condoms.  A lad in this parish was told (some of) the facts by a teacher (required to do so, I understand) in his Year 6 class. That's 10 years old. He came home deeply puzzled, rather distressed, and his parents had to pick apart what he had been told and tell him things years before they judged he was ready for them. I haven't dared to ask whether the poor lad was also told about contraception.
Mac, the Mulier Fortis, always a good read, has a good piece on this. As a secondary (=high) school teacher, her opinion is worth taking seriously on this, as on so many other things.

In the end, is it not profoundly shocking that a schoolgirl may not be given so much as an aspirin in a British school without her parent's knowledge and approval, but she can receive free contraceptives, and even go and have an abortion without them being any the wiser. What sort of a sick world do we live in, where a child's 'right' to have as much sex as he or she wishes as young as he or she wishes comes before all other considerations?

Damian Thompson's blog has moved…

Those who, like me, are used to consult the 'blood-crazed ferret' from time to time will be disappointed if they try to find the old site. Holy Smoke will now be found here.

Saturday 21 June 2008

God and Country - a homily from a few years ago

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Sts John Fisher and Thomas More. I suppose that their biographies must be so familiar that it is scarcely worth going over them again. But I’d like to look at one aspect of their martyrdom.

Among the many jobs I have done, I was once Catholic chaplain to a large public school called Charterhouse. I had the joy, on one occasion, of arranging the first (and the following year, the second) public Catholic Confirmation ceremony ever to have taken place there. On discussing the ceremony with the eighteen boys to be confirmed, we spoke about hymns, and the boys enthusiastically requested ‘I Vow to thee my Country’.

Well, I interposed my veto, and though you might think that an odd thing to do, I think that my reasons were most important. Now don’t get me wrong; I actually think that it is a good thing that the boys have been encouraged to develop a healthy patriotism in the school. Running down one’s country has become rather the fashion these days, and it is good to find English boys proud to be English­—I am Irish, and proud to be Irish. My concern lay rather with the content of what is loosely called a hymn, but which might better be called a patriotic song or anthem. My reason is that the words raise one or two very worrying things which can too easily slip past if one is not careful.

My first objections are in the first lines. I vow to thee my country, all earthly things above, entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love. Now, as we know from our catechism, vows are things that ought never to be rashly taken, and, second, to elevate one’s country to a supernatural status is very nearly blasphemous, quite apart from the matter of considering one’s own country to have this semi-divine nature, and, presumably, superior to other peoples’ countries. But my most severe objection was in lines which follow; the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test, that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best, and goes on to add the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Now, I was not at all happy that my boys should be publicly vowing to unquestioningly obey their country in whatever that country should require. The twentieth century has presented us with all too vivid an illustration of just where that plea that ‘I was only obeying orders’ and ‘My fatherland required it of me’ has got us. It took the trials at Nuremberg to establish firmly in the mind of governments and people that there is a natural law which is written on men's hearts, and which takes precedence over any earthly authority. If they did not know, then they should have known that what they did was evil.

Men were executed for murder at Nuremberg for carrying out orders, because they should have known that such atrocities as were demanded by the Nazis went contrary to Natural Law, which has to take precedence over any earthly command.

A most interesting principle, when you come to think about it, recognised by a civil law, that no government, however powerful, has the right to compel somebody’s conscience to do what it wishes. The mere wishes of an earthly government do not make an act right when it is wrong. This is just what the Catholic Church has been saying all along. We may commit a sin under duress, or pressure of various kinds, whether it be threat of torture or execution, and this may lessen the degree of our culpability, but this pressure can never make a bad act become good.

Perhaps, then, you can understand why I have such an objection to that song I vow to thee my country: despite the poetry of the words, and the very splendid tune, I had no wish to witness my boys vowing to do whatever their country should command them without thinking whether it was right to do so.

For English Catholics, this important principle ought to be particularly clear. The glorious martyrs of the Reformation period were faced with precisely this dilemma. Saints John Fisher and Thomas More were not simply foot soldiers, but very senior officials in the government. Their country demanded something that they knew was wrong, and despite the fact that almost all their neighbours and friends gave way, they held firm, believing that no matter who was commanding this thing, mere pressure or earthly authority could not make wrong right.

And, of course, true patriotism is not about doing whatever the fallible human authorities at the top of the heap order, but about doing whatever is best for one’s country, as far as one can assess. It is about obeying one’s conscience in order to make this country, and indeed the world, a better place. I forget who said those famous words: it is better to light one small candle than sit cursing the darkness—but the words are apposite and true.

All this misinterpretation of patriotism has had a curious spin-off, at least in this country, and probably in others too. It makes people believe that what is legal is what is right. In 1967, I think it is true to say that the majority of people thought that abortion was wrong. But not wrong because it is wrong per se, but because it was against the law. Once the law said it was all right, then public opinion has swung around also. This is the way that history has led us; now the state holds not just our civil obedience, but our consciences as slaves also.

Now, of course, peoples’ consciences do sometimes assert themselves—often after the act has been committed,—and the perpetrators realize that they have done something wrong and seek forgiveness, but the very fact that this does happen should alert us to this real principle of right and wrong that is buried within us, which we call the natural law.

The government is trying desperately at the moment to re-impose some sense of morality. [These were the early Blair days] But they will not succeed. They cannot, because they seek to legislate in this area where legislation is not competent to decree. They are themselves repeatedly morally compromised, and they seek to achieve an internal allegiance of the British peoples to the legal system which they, flawed people themselves, have set up.

This was the mistake of Henry VIII. He sought internal consent to what he decreed, because he decreed that what he decreed was right, just because he decreed it. People may obey out of fear, but internal conscience must not be manipulated in this fashion. Earthly government is incapable of rising above all earthly things—the contrary to the song, which decrees that the country is ‘all earthly things above’. Time and time again we see that it is all too earthly, just like the rest of us.

To make a god of ones country is in the end to commit idolatry, and More and Fisher realized this. There are more important principles than patriotism, however genuinely good and important patriotism is.

Three quotations come into my mind at this moment. The first is from that film of the early 1980s, called Chariots of Fire. You may remember that the film is all about a Presbyterian runner refusing to compete in the Olympics for Britain on a Sunday. One official grumpily remarks to his friend ‘in my day it was country first, God second’. The second quotation is from the [then] Anglican Chaplain at Charterhouse, when I nervously told him of my veto of ‘I vow to thee my country’. He surprised me by agreeing with me—this I had not expected in Charterhouse, that most patriotic of schools—and saying that he had banned it himself, simply saying that there was not a line in the song that could not have been written by a convinced Nazi. The third quotation, and perhaps the most apposite, is from one of today’s saints, Thomas More. His last words, in fact: ‘I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first!’

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos at Westminster

The Latin Mass Society have sent me several very long documents, asking me to post them here. I think that actually you would prefer to read them on their own site, where you can also see photos.
Here is a link to their own press release about the Mass in Westminster Cathedral.
Here is a link to his Eminence's talk at the AGM meeting after the Mass.
And here is the Cardinal's homily at Mass.
And, for those who like this sort of thing (like me), here you can find lots of photos of the great occasion.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Ad Orientem in Toronto

The practice of celebrating Mass ad orientem seems to be spreading encouragingly. The Toronto Oratory have now had a diaconate ordination (of Br. Michael Eades — many congratulations) celebrated by the ordinary in their splendid new church, facing East and in Latin. Churches like the London Oratory have been able to maintain a tradition for facing God, but it is very difficult to (a) start one and then (b) persuade the bishop to go along with it. There are more pictures here.
Someone now needs to buy them a big set of six candlesticks and cross.

Sunday 15 June 2008


I should dearly have loved to have been in Westminster Cathedral yesterday for the Pontifical High Mass celebrated by Cardinal Castrillion Hoyos. I should have been in good company: the eminent Gregory Flash of Juventutem sent me a very good picture of Fr Ray there:

and I am well aware that the occasion was a historical and wonderful one. Congratulations are due to all those who worked for this.

My reason for not being there, though, is a good one. We had our annual procession of the Blessed Sacrament (date fixed a year ago), following our First Holy Communions last week. I should have liked to post pictures of our children, who were the most devout and well-instructed I have ever given first Communion to, but Child Protection Draconian Regulations forbid me doing so. The girls cast flower petals before our Lord, and the boys accompanied the Blessed Sacrament with torches in time-honoured style. I was very proud indeed of all the children. Fr Anthony Lovegrove, one of our Golden Jubilarian priests, generously agreed to preside at the procession, while I and Richard Edwards, our Permanent Deacon, assisted him.

We finished with a (slightly chilly) picnic and a (bio-degradable!) balloon race:

And, in the evening, all that was left was a few rose petals on the lawn, and a happy memory in the two hundred or so hearts that came to honour our Lord (we're only a small parish). Many thanks to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for hosting our procession in their grounds.

Vassula 2

Thank you all for your input: I am now aware that there are deep feelings at work here on both sides of a thorny issue. Thanks particularly to Fr John Abberton; your courtesy in dialogue with people who didn't put their names to what they had to say was admirable, and your argument charitable despite strong opinions on the other side.
As in all these matters, I am thankful that the Church does not require belief in regard to private revelations, and that, as Vatican II declared, no new revelation is expected from the death of the last Apostle until the second coming.
I now think better of those Anglican clergy extending the invitation, though I still deplore the discourtesy involved in doing a mailshot of the priests of our diocese while bypassing our diocesan hierarchy who might well (=almost certainly) have had something to say on the matter. It is ecumenically insensitive, to say the least. And using the words 'authentic and authoritative' is highly misleading, however modified by writing that this is [merely] the opinion of the signatories. It suggests to me that the Rev. Gavin Ashenden and his fellows do not have the same understanding of 'authentic and authoritative' that the Catholic Church does. Once more, it appears to imply the Reformation understanding of private interpretation as being authentic and authoritative, rather than the judgement of the Church to whom the Lord promised the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth.
I shall not be attending the meeting at Chichester Cathedral. There is enough gentle dissuasion in the CDF documents to suggest that this would be the better course. There appears to be a dubium at least on the issue of these—what word should I use—maybe possible revelations. However, thanks to Fr Abberton, I shall not think badly of any of my brethren who will go.
And, as a matter of fact, I can't go: I shall be flying from Canada to the USA on that day. But I'm still glad to have been informed of the issues, and all those who participated have my thanks.
I am, by the way, still happy to post charitable and articulate comments on this subject.

Friday 13 June 2008

Vassula Ryden

Can anyone please clarify the position concerning one Vassula Ryden, a Greek Orthodox lay woman who claims to have visions in which God directly speaks to her?
The clergy of our diocese have received an invitation to go to Chichester Cathedral to hear her speak in July. The letter implies that the Catholic Church thinks she is super.

Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine and Faith [sic], asked the CDF to dialogue with Vassula Ryden to clarify the concerns they had regarding the teachings contained in the True Life in God Messages. This dialogue lasted from 2002 to 2004. Cardinal Ratzinger then wrote a letter to Catholic Bishops who were asking the CDF its assessment of the TLIG Messages, in this letter Cardinal Ratzinger made a statement that clarified all the concerns that the CDF had concerning the orthodoxy contained in the TLIG Messages. I and my fellow signatories to this letter are also of the opinion that the 'locutions' that Vassula Ryden presents to us, are both authentic and authoritative.
(emphasis mine)

Now, it is not clear what this means. The CDF statement 'clarified all the concerns'—this does not necessarily mean 'approved', simply identified the problems. And I very much doubt whether the CDF would do anything so rash as to declare that any private revelations were 'both authentic and authoritative', though the word 'also' implies it.

The letter comes above the signature of one Gavin Ashenden who is, I believe, the Anglican Chaplain to the University of Sussex. The letter is printed on University headed notepaper, no doubt to add gravitas — I wonder what the University might think of its name being used to bolster something like this. I remember this institution as being notably atheistic in its spirit, despite the large chapel/meeting house at its core.

A specific invitation to Roman Catholic Clergy to an Anglican event that bears no signatures of Catholic Clergy (though five Anglicans) seems to imply to me that they felt that Catholic authorities would not approve.

Can anyone shed light on the current status of Vassula Ryden, or on any other aspect of this?

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Oh my; whatever next?

I found this on Fr Z's page, itself borrowing from Chiesa.
On January 12, [1967] Cardinal Journet wrote to Maritain to tell him that he would soon be meeting with the pope, in Rome. Neither of them knew that Paul VI intended to enact the Year of Faith. But Maritain confided to Journet that a few days before, "an idea had come to me," which he describes this way: "The Sovereign Pontiff should draft a complete and detailed profession of faith, in which everything that is really contained in the Symbol of Nicea would be presented explicitly. This will be, in the history of the Church, the profession of faith of Paul VI."
Although Maritain did not ask him to do so, Journet photocopied the philosopher’s letter and gave it to the pope, when he met with him on January 18. On that occasion, Paul VI asked the theologian for his judgment on the state of the Church’s health. "Tragic," Journet answered. Both he and the pope were in shock over the publication in Holland, one year earlier and with the blessing of the bishops, of a new Catechism aimed at nothing less than "substituting one orthodoxy for another in the Church, a modern orthodoxy for the traditional orthodoxy" (a comment from the commission of cardinals instituted by Paul VI to examine the Catechism, of which Journet was a member).
I find this quite shocking. Not the thing in itself, I mean, but that in 1967 Paul VI knew what a state the faith was in, and yet despite this still pressed ahead full pelt with his programme of reforms. Or didn't care. Or had let go of the steering wheel.

Still to come were, among other things: the 1967 recension of the Missal. The new Eucharistic Prayers. The Novus Ordo. The new Ordination rite. The suspension of the minor orders. Standing Communion. Communion in the hand. Lay ministers of Communion. The new Calendar……

Clearly Paul VI can't have been very shocked by the Dutch Catechism or the state of the Church, or else it might have given him pause to think about these other things before he signed up to them. I think his shock must have been along the lines of 'Oh my; whatever next?' .

Unpromising soil

This is a photo of the street side of my garden wall. If you look carefully, you can see, against all possible probability, that two small, pretty, plants are growing in the wall, and even in the area which has been recently pointed and therefore cannot be expected to be able to support plant life.

In a similar vein, I am just astounded to find, apparently strong and vigorous, however small, the survival of something that I honestly thought could not live at all in such barren soil. I'm referring to intelligent, Rome-regarding (for want of a better word), Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England. Which is why I'm putting links to a couple of sites on the left, so you can see for yourselves.

I was told at a recent wedding of a dear friend in London (amazing music—Spem in Alium, and the couple went out to the Cavelliera Rusticana Easter Hymn) that this blog is occasionally read by students at St Stephen's House in Oxford. (Hello chaps, if you happen to see this.) I remember smiling politely but sceptically —I wondered what possible interest this blog might have for such people. If they had any interest in the Church of Rome, surely they would have found the C of E no longer a congenial home. Broad Anglo-Catholicism, I knew, had survived. The Society of the Holy Cross, for instance, still supports male clergy, the seven sacraments, the creeds, the Western rites celebrated decently &c., but what my friend the late Brian Brindley (and, by the way, if you were wondering where the famous cottas are, I've got two of them, including the Marian one, though I don't have the chutzpah to wear them) would call Papalist Anglicanism—well, I thought that was well and truly dead. And so did he. As I was writing this, a comment was made on the last post saying, a little grumpily, 'As an Anglican I must say I have no desire to be in communion with the Roman pope - closer ties with Orthodoxy yes but not with Rome.' That's more or less what I'd expect.

So imagine my surprise at finding, courtesy of the Hound of Heaven (woof!), that Romano-Anglo-Catholicism is still alive. But what has touched me more, in a way, is discovering in it a regard for our present Holy Father very similar to my own. Pope Benedict seems constantly to be bringing surprises. He has built far stronger links with the Eastern churches than we have seen since the Council of Florence. And now it seems he is able to reach into the churches of the Reformation, too. These people resonate with what he is saying and doing in the Catholic Church. This can only be good. So I've established a 'separated brethren' link box on the left. I'm not endorsing everything they might write, but I think you'll find some interesting stuff there.

And now, do I pray that these people be converted to Roman Unity as soon as possible, or ask God to delay it a little so that they can bring more people with them?

Tuesday 10 June 2008

Extraordinary use of the Extraordinary Use

Thanks to a link on the Puppy of Heaven blog, I came across this Anglican site. The following paragraph particularly caught my eye with a sort of surreal jolt…
It may seem an absurd paradox, but somehow the event, a Latin Tridentine Mass, seemed the very epitome of the Anglican tradition as we have appropriated and preserved it since the Catholic Revival.
He was speaking of his 40th ordination jubilee Eucharist. I have to say I enjoyed looking at his blog; it is both erudite and witty, as is typical of so much of the Anglo-Catholic movement. I wish him much joy at his anniversary, and I hope he won't take it amiss if I add a prayer that he may one day find his place in communion with the Holy See.

On Labyrinths

Our local Anglican church has recently opened a (rather good) exhibition focussed around 'The Beauty of Holiness'. One of the largest exhibits is a 'labyrinth', painted onto canvas. This isn't it, in the picture, but one I found on the net. One is supposed to walk the track laid out, and experience, well, something anyway. And there is a book to write in to record your feelings.
It seems that there are a few labyrinths on church floors dating from a long time ago. A famous one is at Chartres. And some people figure that wandering around and having feelings is what they are there for.

The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual tool that has been used throughout the world for over four thousand years. A labyrinth is a circuitous path with one entrance point that leads through a series of switch-backs to its center. A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze, by contrast, has dead-ends and blind alley ways. Its intention is confusion and mystery. The labyrinth, when followed, leads eventually and without making choices to the center. It is designed for one to find his/her way. The labyrinth may be thought of as a map, but as such it should not be confused with the territory that it represents, that is the inner Being and its relationship with Spirit. Two basic principles: One, on the labyrinth, everything is metaphor. Two, there is no right or wrong way to walk the labyrinth. Find more of that here (if you want to, that is).

Others (myself included) wonder whether some bishop of long ago said 'that bit of floor looks a bit dull. Wouldn't a labyrinth look nice there?'

Many people seem to find the experience moving in some way. I have to confess that I just don't get it.

Monday 9 June 2008

Rowan Williams and Leviathan

I just watched the Archbishop of Canterbury being grilled on Newsnight by Emily Maitlis. It was a very instructive discussion. Here's what basically went on:

Interviewer: Kids are being put in prison. Is that right or wrong?
Archbp. It's distressing, certainly. It suggests we don't like children.
Interviewer: Then what do we do about youth crime?
Arch: Ah, well, that's a difficult question. Each case has to be discussed on its merits.
Int: Don't you think that's a bit wet? Shouldn't you be saying something stern?
Arch: No no. Stern things are for Hindus, Catholics, Moslems. And they aren't quite so stern on a case-to-case basis.
Int: So you really think that Christian morality is entirely flexible…?
Arch: Oh, not at all. No, no. As a Christian, naturally I think that morality is a jolly good thing. It's just that the government doesn't, and we have to live in the real world.

I felt for him. He was giving an intelligent response to quite a pungent questioning, and one sensed his increasing irritation by him sensing that the interviewer was trying to push him to make statements he didn't want to make. And he is caught in that very awkward Anglican dilemma of having to serve two masters; God and king (or in this case, Gordon Brown), as illustrated in that picture of Leviathan above. But in the end, as he is trying to say-but-not-say, one has to stand for some principles. He could acknowledge only trees; but trees, in this context, perhaps only make sense as being part of a wood.

Here's my experience. As you may have read, we had First Communions here yesterday. Before the ceremony, I spoke to one lad; a bright, cheery, individual who aspires to be an altar server from next Sunday, now dressed in a very smart suit, and extremely happy to be making his Communion.

Me: Great day, Sammy! (not his name).
Sammy: (big grin) Yeah! Fantastic! I get to see my dad today!

Here is your solution, your Grace, and Mr Brown.

1) Families. Support them, don't make it a actual tax disadvantage to marry, as at present.
2) Legislate to keep families together. Make it difficult for a parent to abandon a family. Even a bad father (or indeed mother) is usually better than no father (except, of course, in some extreme cases).
3) You can't make people behave by threatening them with the law. They will seek to circumvent it. The only solution is to make them want to behave well, unselfishly, for its own sake, not want not to get caught.
4) For 3 to work, you need religion. Yes, atheists are always saying you don't need religion to act well. But is that true? In some individual cases, of course it is true. There are plenty of moral atheists who live responsibly for the common good. But look at our country now. Has our world-without-God made people want to work together simply for the cause of humanity or for the cause of the planet? Of course not. We have never had to have so many people in prison. Never have I seen so many unhappy faces on people dissatisfied with their lot because they can't get their 'rights'.
They have tried to make Hobbes' Leviathan work (civil coercion) instead of religion to get people to behave, and now we are reaping the rewards.

New blog

A new blog has been born: find here the puppy Hound of Heaven. Welcome!

Festal Musings

Today, the martyrology tells me, is the feast of St Columba, or, as I know him (because this is the way he is known in Kells), St Columcille (the second c is pronounced hard—colum-kill). So I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect a little on the town that preserves his memory.
Kells is a midlands town on a steep hill rising above the almost ridiculously green and fertile fields of County Meath. They will tell you that it was a monastic site founded by the monks of Iona fleeing the Vikings in 804, but in fact many strongly suspect that it is much older than that. Its very name derives from Ceann Lios (anglicized as Kenlis > Kells), a variant on Ceannanus Mór, the name it bears officially now: both mean 'head fort' (and the local nobs established nearby the Headfort estate, now a posh school). This is an unlikely name for monks to have given a monastery, and the steepness of the hill makes it a good place for a stronghold.
The monks would have built for themselves their usual arrangement of small churches, beehive huts to live in, a round tower for security, and the usual appurtenances of Celtic monasteries, especially the famous 'Celtic' cross in the grounds. Kells is unusual in that it has no fewer than five high crosses.

This, above, is the Market Cross. I remember it standing at a crossroads in the middle of the town. Every couple of years a lorry would back into it and knock it over. They would simply stand it up again. Finally, they carted it off to stand for years in a warehouse in another town until they turned the grim old courthouse (above) into a museum and put the cross under a little baldachino in front of it. The cross isn't unaccustomed to abuse, though. Cromwell's men, appallingly, used it as a gallows.

This, and the other crosses, stand in the churchyard of the Anglican church of St Columba, on the original site of the monastery. This is the best preserved, standing under the round tower.

There is only a stump left of this one.

And this one was never even finished. There are panels of stone left proud, waiting to be carved. Which shows that these crosses were carved in situ, and not brought finished from a workshop somewhere.

And here's the round tower. The trees are in the churchyard where the crosses are to be found.

The most splendid early building, though, is probably what they call Columcille's House. They think it is tenth century or earlier, though certainly not where Columcille lived—as far as we know, he never lived in Kells. One suggestion is that it was built to house and protect the relics of Columcille when they were brought to Kells from Iona. At any rate it is very sturdily built, and has two little chambers in the roof, accessible only by ladder. You will be told that this was a dwelling place for monks. Rubbish, in my opinion. Who would live there when they had a nice cosy beehive hut? Clearly, it was an inaccessible storage place for the most precious bits and pieces. You'd have a job getting in there, even today, if someone took away the ladder.

The Anglo-Norman family, de Lacy, built a castle in Kells, no doubt a successor to a Carrick fort, of which no traces remain above ground today. The whole town was fortified, though there is only one bastion remaining of the mediæval town walls—I took a picture, but it was hopeless.

The (Anglican) church of St Columba has been rebuilt several times, and the present building is uninteresting except, in a mild way, the tower. The notice stresses that the bishop who built it was Anglican—in a way, he was, since the building took place in 1578, and Kells falls well within the Pale, the area that England considered was hers at the time. But in Ireland, nothing is ever simple. I don't imagine that the bishop thought himself anything but Catholic—it wasn't until the massacres of Cromwell, really, that issues became clear. And in fact, I found this inscription which dates from the same year, and no doubt formed part of the church that the good bishop built; you can clearly see a reference to prayer for the dead:

Now, here comes my beef. I hope I have established my case that Kells has to be considered one of the most interesting and historically important towns in Ireland. But the thing that really seems to impress the Kells town council is the fact that Kells has won the County Meath Tidy Towns competition a couple of times in the 1960s. Go back to the pictures of Coumcille's House. You can see, especially in the second pic, that it is an attractive and interesting building. But look at the first. I took it with my phone, again, but you can see that right up against it has been built (in the 1980s, I think) a vast horrible police station (successor to the equally horrible—and vastly more intimidating—aptly-named 'barracks' that dated from the occupation). If you want to see inside this amazing ancient monument, incredibly, you've got to chase down a lady who keeps the key.
Huge quantities of traffic roar through the little streets of Kells; vast juggernauts from the North shake the foundations of the little houses, jam up the junctions, and run over the locals. Only today are they finally getting around to building a by-pass. The town officials simply don't seem to find Kells interesting, or see that something could really be made of the place. It is better than it used to be (the conversion of the courthouse into a museum is a good start), but there is so much more that could be done. I wonder if there has ever been an archaeological dig there? Most of the stuff will, of course, have been built over, and the ancient monastery has generations of graves where the beehive huts were. But isn't there something that could be done? By Time Team, for instance.

I took these two photos in my Aunt's garden. Her watering cans are sitting on a piece of ashlar that came from something. The Norman Castle? The town walls? A Georgian house?
And this wall is massive; very solidly built for no apparent recent purpose.

As a sort of final claim to fame, the words to The Red Flag were written by one Jim Connell of Crossakiel, just outside Kells. Well, there you go.

Round and about Huntingdon

A few weeks ago, I spent a day with my old friend Fr Nicholas Kearney, who is the parish priest of Huntingdon (the town principally renowned as the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell [hiss]). We toured around a little, and he showed me one or two interesting sites. At Houghton, my eye was caught by this tombstone, right by the church door:

Sorry the pic isn't much good; it was taken with my phone. The stone commemorates one Thomas Garner, a blacksmith, who died in 1826. His epitaph reads:

My sledge and hammers lie declined
My bellows too have lost their wind
My fire's extinct, my forge decay'd
My vice is in the dust all laid
My coal is spent, my iron gone
My nails are drove, my work is done
My fire dried corpse here lies at rest
My soul smoke-like, soars to be blest"

We also visited a little Catholic church. I am kicking myself because I have forgotten where it was. It may have been St Ives or St Neots—perhaps a reader may recognize it. At any rate, here are the pics. Again, you have to forgive the photo quality. The remarkable altarpiece was painted by a son of the famous campaigner, Victoria Gillick. I see on the net that there is a well-respected abstract artist called Liam Gillick, but whether this is the same chap, I don't know. In any event, it is encouraging to see work like this still being done, and done more than competently, too. The church was formerly a nonconformist chapel, and it has been transformed very successfully into a very attractive Catholic church in the early 19th-century style. I'm not utterly convinced that I like the lavender paint, however!

I do wish I'd been able to take a better picture of the painting. The altar actually is not ad orientem, but it looks like it, doesn't it?

Sunday 8 June 2008

First Holy Communion

This morning, twenty or so of our children made their first Holy Communions. I was immensely proud of them; all of them behaved perfectly and reverently, even those who find this difficult for various reasons which are not their fault. Please say a prayer that the devotion with which they made their communions may stay with them, and that their families will continue to encourage the faith which was very evident this morning.

Saturday 7 June 2008

Vivaldi's Women

I have never been a particular fan of Antonio Vivaldi's music, being one of those who are inclined to think that instead of writing several hundred concertos, he wrote one concerto several hundred times. Works of genius, though, there undoubtedly are; the Four Seasons, despite being overplayed and Nigel-Kennedied to death, are nevertheless astounding pieces. And his operas are terrific, too, though I've only heard extracts. I suppose that because he was writing for a school, he had to limit his music to his performers. Which is where I come to the point of this post.
I saw last night on the often-interesting BBC4 channel a documentary called Vivaldi's Women. It was all about the Pietá in Venice, a refuge for abandoned children, where girls and women would often spend all their lives. Around the time of Vivaldi, these unfortunates achieved a wonderful standard of musicality, and people would flock to hear them sing and play from behind their iron modesty screens. In this programme, they attempted to recreate the sound with a female choir and orchestra from England singing in the Pietá church. They demonstrated convincingly that women could provide all four choral parts—even the bass—without the necessity of importing men. And in a sense, what was most impressive was that they managed to get through the whole hour without suggesting even slightly that Vivaldi (or anyone else) behaved in less than a priestly fashion towards the women, or that the Pietá was anything but a good and charitable refuge and home for these unfortunates.
Very sadly, I see on the BBC website that this documentary is not available on iplayer: if it had been, I should have posted a link so that you could see it for yourselves. But here is a link to a site that will tell you a little more, as well as letting you hear the choir and orchestra that was assembled for the occasion.

Friday 6 June 2008

The Irish Question

As for Ireland; well, everyone I knew told me constantly how much the place had changed, but I didn't find it so, at least on the surface. I like Ireland; no, actually, I love Ireland. I feel completely at home there. People look like me and behave like me. For instance: I like looking at people, because I find them interesting. In England, if someone catches me looking at them, I have to pull my eyes away and pretend that I am finding the wall behind them fascinating, in case I get hit, or arrested. In Ireland, they look right back, or else they've got the look in first. And there is no hostility in the gaze, just curiosity like my own.
And then there's children and young people. The teenagers going to school don't, on the whole, have that sullen look so many of them have here. At least, where I was, in Kells, Co Meath. They look intelligent and friendly; the schoolgirls dress neatly and modestly, and though the boys seem addicted to adidas sportswear, they don't seem to have the need to show their underwear at the same time.

The down side is that the lapsation is awful. I chatted to Martin, the parish secretary at Kells, whom I have known for years, and he tells me that marriages and baptisms are relatively rare events now. Mind you, I could see this coming years ago; religion in Ireland has, to a greater or lesser extent, in my view been confined to the obligation of Sunday Mass-going for several decades, both for priests and people, and it is not surprising that this sparse diet should have resulted in spiritual starvation (more below). Sermons were more often than not perfunctory: I was once chided by a brother priest for taking as long as a half hour to celebrate a Sunday Mass (including homily and communions). 'J....s! What kept you?' he said, as I trotted off the sanctuary, breathless. In fact, I had been well aware of what was expected of me, and, having sprinted as fast as I could, I thought that I had done 'well' to keep it under 40 minutes—and I am no slowcoach, as my parishioners will tell you.
I remember as a teenager standing on the road outside the 'Chapel' in Kells (it can seat well over a thousand; I counted the seats yesterday morning) and watching people literally flood down the streets towards Sunday Mass; the church is so large it didn't require more than four Sunday Masses, (all on Sunday morning) there being four priests in the parish, plus one Mass at an outstation. This doesn't happen now. There are only two (friendly) priests, and though there are still four Masses (one on Saturday evening), there are lots of spaces on the pews, several rows of which have been removed to create a new sanctuary on the nave floor.Here's a pic I took with my phone:

But thinking back to then, in the late seventies; people were still arriving by the Gospel and began leaving at Communion. Not by ones and twos, but streaming in and out. At the time, I thought it kind of cute that runners would cross to the Headfort Arms and tell the barman that the priest was at Communion; he would begin pouring the Guinnesses (and, as I'm sure you know, it takes several minutes to pour a good pint) for the stream of people who would shortly invade. Now I think it a sad presage of what was to come; a sign of the indifference that was in many cases to mutate into hostility.

Part of the responsibility, not just in Ireland, but throughout the developed world, has to be borne by the Liturgical Movement. There had been a real and active devotional life among the people, but this was despised by many, who, for perfectly understandable reasons, wanted people to be involved in the Liturgy. In many ways this was admirable; the Office had become a feature in parishes in France—at least Sunday Vespers—but it also had the result which we still see that most priests stopped participating in other, unliturgical, devotions, like the Rosary, Benediction, novenas, which until the 1950s still attracted popular support. So, in the English-speaking world, people then began to stop the popular devotions, but they did not begin to support the more austere Office. So that went, too. The sixties brought social action instead of prayer, leaving Mass the sole devotion of the Catholic faithful.
Don't get me wrong: it is, of course, the Mass that matters above everything else. But if it is not supported by a Christian life beyond it, if it is the sole religious element of a Christian's week, if the only Communions made are (in some cases) sacrilegious because made in mortal sin, then the practice of the faith will soon be seen as a sad burden and be done away with.
I suspect that many Irish pastors, like many here in England and elsewhere, simply lost touch with how to move their people. I do not exempt myself, either, from this charge. Our age is a very sensual one, and the Office has to be done very well indeed to become sensual. The Eastern rites manage it, of course, and there is a real beauty in Choral Evensong when it is well done. Vespers at the London Oratory can be truly wonderful, but we have not succeeded in making the offices, liturgical prayer, a part of the real diet of Catholics in ordinary parishes.
Where do we go from here? I don't know.


I've just paid a very brief visit to Ireland, so I thought I'd post some reflections. The first thing that struck me was the journey. I used to work at Gatwick Airport, and rather prefer it to Heathrow. But, honestly, the experience of flying out of it was not pleasant. I felt like a hamster, being fed along tubes made of cardboard at high speed, the ceilings only just above my head and the heat oppressive. And then being made to stand for over half an hour in one of these minuscule airless corridors while people jostled and pushed for prime position before being allowed on the (Ryan Air) plane. A lot of nasty things are said about Ryan Air, but in the end, you get what you pay for, and at those prices, you can't expect caviar and champagne. But the airport really could sort things out a bit better.
Dublin airport was a huge contrast. It's changed out of all recognition, of course. I well remember, when departing, being able to sit in the bar in the concourse sipping a last pint of Guinness, and, a couple of minutes before the flight, sauntering past the officials checking tickets (How'ya; grand day; 'tis) and onto the plane without raising the temperature one degree. Now, Dublin Airport is like the set of Gattaca; an utter contrast to Gatwick. Vast echoing granite and marble halls and corridors; the only sound being the clack-clack of heels and the rumble of those suitcases designed to trail behind you and trip people up. All the accents you hear are angular and Slavonic—a brogue is rare—and you are hustled from one place to another, not rudely (this is still, just, Ireland), but not nicely, either. On leaving Ireland, once you have been strip searched and the sins of your entire ancestry enquired into, you are squeezed into the most intense shopping mall I have ever seen. Ever since the compulsory lay-over for all transatlantic flights at Shannon, Ireland has been famous for its duty free shops. And at Dublin it feels obliged to continue the practice. But it doesn't really want you to enjoy the experience. The shops are a horrid bottleneck, full of people; there is nowhere to sit down and take a pause in your shopping; the only seats are at the flight gates, and once there you can't return to the shops (even if you felt inclined to walk several hundred miles back again). And the prices are truly appalling. €31 for a 70cl bottle of ordinary spirits! €5 for a limp sandwich in a plastic box! Forget it. I did pay €4.50 for a pint of Guinness, though—I hadn't had a chance at any other point in my trip—and enjoyed it. The flight home was delayed by an hour and a half, and I was very glad that I was in Dublin, not Gatwick. At least I could breathe there.