Wednesday 27 July 2011

500 (d)

This is getting to feel a bit like surfing. The longer one stays on this particular wave, the less secure one feels. But be that as it may, I think there is still more to be said.

One element in Irish Christianity to which I have alluded is what one might call the folk element. I watched a programme on the Electric Television some months ago. Three men shared a boat in Ireland; one of them was Dara O'Briain, the other two were British—Griff Rhys Jones, I think, and an irritating Rory. Somewhere in the sticks they came across a holy well, and there was by it a sight familiar to those who frequent such places. A tree stood hard by, festooned with rags of cloth. One of the Englishmen opened his mouth to say something caustic, but was forestalled by Dara O'Briain who said 'I want to mock that, but I don't want you mocking it.'

Here we have the Irish paradox. Ireland is a country that is intensely proud of its own culture, not least that it has managed to keep it alive under the most unpropitious circumstances. It is highly tenacious of it, but also aware that other cultures have despised it, and non-Irish educated people these days are at best patronising about it. Irish people, especially intelligent and educated Irish people (and there are still plenty of Englishmen who think that that is an oxymoron) feel this tug within them. The same Dara O'Briain, when a guest on that smugfest quiz Q.I. was asked by the host Stephen Fry to comment on various patron saints, among superior chortles from guests and audience. O'Briain got right up on his hind legs and objected to what amounted to the racism being expressed. He is not, I understand, a practising Catholic, but he is very sensitive to the fact that the chattering classes are allowed to be as patronising and contemptuous as they wish about Catholicism and Irishness without the slightest need to devote any energy to understanding what they are criticising. Both are self-evidently beneath contempt.

'But, but……' —I can hear people protesting right now—'surely Irishness has never been so popular. Look at all those Irish pubs, look at Riverdance, look at Enya, look at 'Celtic Spirituality'. This kind of Disney view of Ireland, sometimes called 'Oirishness' has substituted in many (non-Irish) people's minds for the real thing. A charming, out of touch, mediæval cute little land of leprechauns, shillelaghs, and Guinness keeps people from engaging with the reality of a land whose people are peculiarly articulate, with high standards of education (in everything but religion) and a unique and valuable culture which is itself in danger of being Oirished out of existence.

The Irish are keenly aware of how they are viewed, and it makes them somewhat allergic to the somewhat stranger manifestations of folk religion, like rag-festooned trees (and yes, I know that in the past, and even here and there today, such things could and can also be seen in England). This in itself distances the educated Irish from Catholicism, because the dearth of serious catechesis in the last 40 years has exposed them to the stranger elements of folk religion without the intellectual apparatus to understand the real depths of the faith. All they have got has been weak hymnody, poor sermons, inadequate religious instruction—and now clerical child abuse and irresponsible bishops.

That is one result. There is another, which is no less dangerous. I don't think that the Irish have any problem at all with the spiritual dimension of things. It was what (real) Celtic spirituality brought to Catholicism in general. The drive of the Platonic element in Christianity, vitally important though it is, tended to create an attitude to the material creation that was ambivalent at best. Matter was at the other end of the spectrum to Spirit, and the closer one wanted to draw to God, the more one should despise matter. The great Christological crises of the first centuries centred mostly around this strange fact that God, pure Spirit, could take a material nature without diminishing what He was.

I alluded in an earlier post to the (probable) fact that St Patrick never studied Plato in any thoroughgoing way. His education stopped in his mid-teens, and only restarted when he trained for the priesthood in Gaul. At any event, the Irish have never seen any problem with finding God in the material. They have seen wonders all around them, all the time. Sacraments make total sense. The old Celtic gods were primal forces in nature, unpredictable. Christianity (which spread throughout Ireland without any real opposition within a single generation, it is said) gave a whole new meaning to the world around them, and the introduction of the Latin script gave the a means to articulate this joy. The introduction of Egyptian-style penitential monasticism to Ireland was also deeply creative. The desert is a tough place to live, without much to look at, but Ireland is deeply beautiful. Even that monastic rock in the Atlantic, Skellig Michael, lifts one's mind to God. Imagine looking at a sunset from there and not wondering at the might and glory of God who could create such a thing. St Kevin stood up to his neck in the freezing water, but he did so at Glendalough, a truly lovely place. The Christian Romans didn't really look much at scenery, (many pagans did, though—think of Horace, or the villas around the Bay of Naples) but the Irish enjoy looking at everything and everyone with a perpetual and vivid curiosity and see nothing wrong in it.

What I'm trying to get to is that, deprived of proper orthodox catechesis, many Irish people will continue to look around them for the spiritual, because they expect to find it in the world around them. So they will hare off to Ballinspittle to look at moving statues, they will go to Achill Island to hear the latest message from God through Christine Gallagher, they will listen to John Bird's latest predictions concerning the end of the world……

So, there are two results from the atrociously poor catechesis of the last fifty years. The first is a tendency among the more highly-educated elite to throw everything to do with Catholicism over (though with a rather uneasy conscience, because the Irish are naturally spiritual). There's no fear of them becoming Protestants, because that would be to deny their own history. The other result is to flee after signs and wonders.

To believe nothing, in other words, or to believe anything.

For God's sake, for the people's sake, serious catechesis, well adapted for the intelligent, inquiring, mind in the modern world must be reintroduced without delay. But how, and by whom? There is a long path ahead.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

500 (c)

It needs saying again: Irish Christianity/Catholicism is not, and never has been, like that of any other nation. Its roots do not lie really within the Roman Empire, but has other influences, many entirely its own.

It has long been suggested, with a pretty fair degree of certainty, that there are strong links with Egyptian monasticism. This makes enormous sense to me, and explains so much. It explains the strong penitential tradition, for instance, and it also explains the unliturgical expression of the faith.

When St Anthony the Abbot walled himself up in the old fort at Pispir for twenty years, has it never occurred to anyone that he must have gone those twenty years without once receiving Holy Communion or even attending Mass? Those early monastic communities expressed their faith in extreme asceticism, in the recitation of the psalms. They were not coenobitic monks, but hermits or at least ideorhythmic monks, and this is the idea that they took to the far coast of Ireland.

St Patrick was educated as a child but abducted before that education was complete; he never went on to study philosophy, and so Irish Christianity developed its own outlook on the world; free of that platonic distrust of lowly matter it embraced the material world and loved it as God's (albeit fallen) creation.

Ireland never really developed that Imperial system of dioceses and bishops; many think that Ireland never even had a secular clergy until the coming of the Normans. There were simply monks, and there were lay folk. Enormous monasteries might have had one priest to do the sacramental things: it is not impossible that this one priest may even have been in Episcopal orders; at any rate, the bishops were monks living under the authority of the abbot. When Columbanus set up a monastery in Gaul, the local bishops were spitting feathers because of his amused disregard of their authority; he clearly saw his own authority as greater than theirs.

And then there's the liturgy. Have you ever looked at any of the most ancient Irish monastic sites? There are churches, but it would be more accurate to call them tiny little chapels. For the most part, these buildings could have just about accommodated an altar, a priest and a server. Where did the laity go? Where, even, did the monks go? In those early days, did they go to Mass much at all?

With the coming of the Normans, churches got a bit larger, but not much. An Irish Cathedral (outside Dublin anyway, or the Pale) was a small affair. And for the most parts, the Anglo-Normans assimilated to the Irish culture rather than the other way about.

So, if not in the parish church, where was the locus or perhaps focus, of the faith of the Irish? Well, for one thing, it was in the home. Like that of the monks, even the Irish laity's spirituality was ideorhythmic; rosary, holy wells, saints, pilgrimages, penances (Lough Derg, Croagh Patrick), and enthusiastic going to funerals, even those of strangers. They learnt to go to Mass, surely, and developed a love for the sacraments, but an Irish congregation at Mass is a very different thing to a congregation in any other land. They pray, fervently, at Mass, but I do not think, in general, and surely there must be exceptions, that they could be said to pray the Mass itself, even now. The Mass is something that is done in their presence, but even now any idea of direct communal participation is foreign. The responses are muttered by each person at his own speed, the Creed or Gloria being a sort of subterranean murmur that begins, and vaguely ends. People stand, kneel, sit, more or less at random. Mass is rarely more than Low Mass, celebrated quickly. 'High Mass' is a low Mass with a choir singing hymns; it's a very rare parish where the congregation would join in.

Foreign visitors are often shocked at this. But it would be a profound mistake to read into it—as far too many do—that the Irish are entirely unserious about their religion. That is absolutely not the case; it is just that the accent is (very) different to most other places.

And it is not without its advantages; for the Reformation to (largely) succeed in England, it was necessary only to change the liturgy. For English Catholics, 'it is the Mass that matters', and to deprive them of the Mass was to deprive them of the faith. For the Irish it worked differently. The churches were all taken, the liturgy changed, as in England, but people still carried on much as before. Their faith had enough sustenance coming from where it has always come: they continued to go to holy wells, say the rosary, go on pilgrimages, and, when they could, attend Mass at a Mass rock. They educated their children in the home or in hedge schools, just as they had done for generations.

The religion did not depend on the priest: in some ways, one might say that the priest was more of a political figure; a sort of alternative jurisdiction in an occupied country. I'll say more about this in another post.

Suffice it to say that Irish Catholicism has it in itself to survive this present crisis. But for something like a hundred and fifty years people have been badgering the Irish Catholics to adopt the Liturgical Movement. In the last forty years, all the things that have kept them going through the ages have been decried. I was at St Kieran's Well in Co Meath a few weeks ago; my elderly aunt commented sadly to me that when she was young, there were always crowds of people there; on that day it was only she and I. To some extent, the Irish themselves have been keen to abandon all this. For centuries this stuff has been dismissed as 'peasant religion', fit only for uneducated people, and if there is anything true, it is that the Irish value education. That charge, though, would be a telling one, particularly as there are aspects of this 'folk religion' which really do tend to the superstitious.

I have a lot more to say on this, but I'll leave it till the next post.

Sunday 24 July 2011

500 (b)

The 500-strong Association of Catholic Priests are riding high right now for all the reasons that I mentioned in the last post. They are conscientious priests who probably do not spend all their time on the golf course, or else they would not be getting so generally upset over these issues. They do actually care and want real solutions to the terrible problems that they see in the Irish Church.

On the whole, they see the problem as being largely one of a conservative Vatican reining in on all the good things that the Second Vatican Council had brought and returning to a model of 'you will take what we give you, and you will like or or lump it'. Hence their opposition to the new translation of the Mass, and hence their outrage at the insufficient reaction of the hierarchy to the pædophilia crisis.

Here the reader will not be surprised to learn that I part company with them. Not all the way: in the last post I too deplored the way that the bishops have been left undisciplined.

The trouble is that you can't keep your cake and eat it as well.

• You can't abolish sin (original and actual), hell, penance, confession, and the rest, for forty years and then reinvent them for the special case of pædophiles and complacent bishops.

• You can't (in the spirit of collegiality and Vatican II) for forty years protest Rome's interference with local bishops, and now complain that it hesitates to interfere and discipline them.

It really is all of a piece. The Church has two millennia of experience of dealing with sin, but if you are going to tie her hands behind her back and then expect her to deal decisively with a wolf when it descends on the fold, then you are going to be disappointed.

That is why I think that what the Church needs is not bishops like Willie Walsh, much-loved and kind man as he is, but men like Charles Chaput who really get it.

There are not a lot of places in Ireland where what is sometimes called the New Orthodoxy has been attempted. Parishes on the whole are very much what they were in 1970, only not quite so full. Young people have not received the opportunity to encounter the genuine faith and see its power. They just find the 1970s model unconvincing, and its strictures incomprehensible in the light of the fact that it would appear to have so little else to offer them.

I wonder whether something like World Youth Day might not do some good if it were held next in Ireland.

Saturday 23 July 2011


The debate raging in the Irish Church brings me little surprise.

It is my honest belief that the episcopate and the presbyterate in Ireland have been riding for a fall for perhaps half a century, perhaps longer.

I remember a funeral luncheon for an uncle of mine. It was on a Monday; the funeral had been exceptionally deferred from the traditional third day after death to enable me to attend and officiate. I was sat next to the parish priest—actually the Vicar General of the diocese, now deceased—and listened with scant sympathy as he grumbled about his extremely busy weekend. He lamented that that Sunday he had had to celebrate Mass twice, imagine!, and now with this lunch to attend, it might be another hour or two before he could get off to the golf course.

I quietly commented that I had had a relatively easy weekend, with only three Masses on the Sunday and five baptisms (admittedly done in one ceremony), plus the flight to Ireland.

The town is a big one (by Irish standards), with an enormous church (by any standards). In those days (no longer!) there were four priests, and the entire town could be squeezed into the church for four Masses, no more. And all four on Sunday morning. As far as I could work out, there was no pastoral work of any sort done which was not celebrating Mass. There were no youth clubs, no sacramental preparation other than that done in the schools, no care of people because that was the government's job…… you get the picture.

Money, now: that was collected regularly. Giving at Mass has never been good, so there were, and are, 'outside collections' of various types. When my father was young, the names and amounts contributed of all these collections was solemnly read out at Mass.

The only half decent cars in those days were driven by priests.

One place you would regularly see the clergy was at the GAA, the Gælic Athletic Association. The sports pages of the local papers would be covered with photographs of the Parish Priest presenting trophies to the various local sporting gods of the town.

It is little wonder that the same uncle that I buried that day had been disgusted when he heard I wanted to be a priest. He assumed that it was for money and status. He had thought that I was better than that. Though in the past we had been close, he wrote me out of his will, and, a widower having no children himself, he left everything to neighbours. This was some eighteen years ago.

Do not underestimate the anger of the Irish people right now. In the context, it is entirely understandable.

Now let us look at the bishops. Before the 60s, it was normal that episcopal appointments would be finally approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (or 'Holy Office'). Pope Paul Vi changed this to final approval by the Secretariate of State. This is because he wanted to pursue a policy of detente all round; ecumenism and Ostpolitik were the watchwords. So henceforward bishops would be diplomats; nice guys, people who could pour oil on troubled waters, men who would not rock the boat.

These are the men who would not pursue child abusers, for fear that a storm might arise. They are good men, nice men; they are just not what is needed now, if ever.

There has been criticism of the '500' priests. There is much I disagree with them about; however, I think that they are men of integrity who don't always actually understand what is going on.

They are right that the Vatican is not appointing the right men to be bishops in Ireland (with some exceptions). And they are right that serious surgery needs to happen if things are to be rectified. If the Vatican does not hear that the Irish people are seriously angry and need to see justice done, it will not recover the trust of what has been until recently one of the most Catholic nations on earth. Expressions of sorrow on the part of the bishops are not enough; these can be dismissed easily as crocodile tears.

Questions of the new translation of the Mass are entirely secondary right now. Ireland needs bishops of unimpeachable integrity and orthodoxy, and it needs them yesterday.

The Taoiseach's speech had a lot of this anger in it. The reference to the confessional speaks more about clerical unaccountability than demonstrating a real understanding of the issues. People need to grasp that before they get worried that Ireland will place police microphones in every confessional. 

Saturday 16 July 2011

Throwing petrol on embers

I am a great fan of the Catholic Truth Society—at least as presently set up. It has really found its feet, and is producing some first rate material to promote and explain the faith. And, not least, to produce a new Missal which really looks like, well, a missal.

But I am disturbed at this report  of a work published by the CTS; it's a new 'explanation' of Catholic Traditionalism. I rather suspect that CTS commission all sorts of works, and then run them without reading them too clearly–they even once published something of mine, though they never approached me again.

I know and greatly respect Dr Joseph Shaw, the writer of the critique, and the fact that he wrote his article on an iPhone, no mean feat for such a long critique, suggests the depth of his feeling on the matter.

Summorum Pontificum was a watershed. It suggested to all sides that they bury the hatchet, and even laid out an ingenious strategy that would make it possible for almost all protagonists to do so without loss of face. Dr Edwards' reportedly intemperate booklet Catholic Traditionalism would, if Dr Shaw is right, appear to be grubbing up the imperfectly-buried hatchet again (as E.F. Benson put it). Why?

 Dr Edwards even seems to be just as intemperate in his criticism of the traditionalists' opponents—I think this must be the first instance of Annibale Bugnini's honour being defended by a committed traditionalist!

If Dr Shaw is even half right (and I have not yet seen the booklet, though I shall strive to get one a.s.a.p.), this work really needs to be withdrawn. As he says:

The point I wish to make is not about the truth or falsity of these claims, but about the appropriateness of this polemic and speculation in this booklet. Just at the moment when Traditionalists and their various historical opponents are having to learn to live with each other, to share churches, to cooperate in parish life and in Catholic institutions of all kinds, is this spewing of vitriol in all directions really what we need? Wouldn't it be better, as well as more historically accurate, to admit at this point that these old divisions were caused by Catholics who were sincere, intelligent, and serious, but who came to different conclusions about the needs of the time, and the implications of timeless theological and liturgical principles?
This is precisely right. This is not the time for slinging mud. For heavens' sake, can't we live the bitter past behind us now?

Tuesday 12 July 2011

The First Person

This last weekend, I celebrated Mass for a small but enthusiastic parish in Sussex while their priest (ordained the day before I was born) was taking a well-earned post-Jubilee break. Before the Mass, I was informed by the musical directrix that it was to be a 'Folk Mass' that Sunday. Not really my cup of tea, as any reader of this blog will quickly understand. But the whole thing went with a swing; the singing was enthusiastic and there was a very positive atmosphere in the little church. I enjoyed my visit.
Some of the hymns sung have been going round in my head since. So many of the things sung in the folk-idiom use the words of the Lord in the first person; 'come, follow me…' 'I am the bread of life'. Of course these things are quotations from or paraphrases of the words of our Lord in the Gospel, which the priest or deacon reads in the first person, but I don't really feel comfortable with what feels to be taking a liberty with our Lord's words. I don't feel happy singing that I am the bread of life.

Anybody who has even a cursory familiarity with the Church's history will be aware that the phenomenon sometimes called Pentecostalism recurs from time to time. St Paul notes speaking in tongues, for instance, though he gets a bit unsure about it, perhaps later, when he insists that there must always be an interpretation. After that, the phenomenon acquired a dodgy reputation under a Phrygian called Montanus who with his two charming young lady assistants believed themselves to be 'channelling' the Holy Spirit, and would indeed speak in the first person—not quoting scripture, though—adding to it, as it were. Now here we come to another aspect of this pentecostal phenomenon: quasi-authoritative private revelation. The leaders of these groups believe themselves to be in some way divinely appointed to teach and lead. They speak with an infallibility that the Pope could only dream of and their pronouncements must be treated as divine revelation. For the most part these pronouncements are harmless 'I have a word from the Lord: I love you with an endless love' for instance, but they can also be used against individuals 'The Lord says that Mary-Lou Whaletrouser is a disturbing influence in the community, and we should all lovingly treat her like dirt until she repents'. And in some cases these leaders behave as an alternative magisterium teaching doctrine which might be at variance with official teaching (I have experienced this), but which is required to be accepted by the community as the ipsissima verba Domini.

Mgr Ronald Knox's remarkable book Enthusiasm tells the tale of this strange phenomenon in Christianity throughout the ages; it's a bit of a tough read, but very illuminating.

I should, naturally, say that the little parish where I said Mass on Sunday has none of these weird characteristics: they were charming and devout. It was just the 'first person' nature of some of the hymns that got me thinking.

And it's why I feel uncomfortable about using the Lord's words directly like that.

Monday 4 July 2011

On Being a Blogger

There are a number of things that go with the territory of being a blogger. One is the fact that one will never rise in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. That to many is, of course, a relief, but it can be a bit disconcerting. A priest friend of mine had an excellent blog, which personal circumstances caused him to suspend. Having at the time been a curate, he was immediately made parish priest 'now that you've stopped writing your blog'. The blog, regrettably, hasn't re-started.

Another thing is being importuned by other blogs, sites and even advertisers, for free publicity on one's own blog. That makes me quite cross; a blog is one's personal thing, and being pressured to recommend something naturally inclines one the other way.

Or it does if you're me.

If someone asks me to recommend them, the first thing I do is to look at their site and see if they recommend my blog, or even mention it. Quid pro quo, after all. If I see nothing, I conclude that they are insincere, though I still feel guilty for ignoring the request. It doesn't imply that I don't agree with their aims, or think that their blog is poor. I just think that some good manners are as appropriate on the internet as in other parts of life.