Monday, 24 March 2014

Give me a drink...

We are family...

In recent months, following the announcement of an Extraordinary Consistory on the Family, Cardinal Kasper has suggested that the Church might consider permitting second marriages and the admission of individuals in a second marriage to Holy Communion [1]. The Cardinal's comments were born of a genuine crisis in the pastoral mission of the Church as the family, the bedrock of society and image of the Trinity, experiences an identity crisis provoked by the incredible pressures placed upon it by modern life. It was this recognition that prompted Pope Francis to call the consistory and to take a "pastoral census" on issues related to family life. Indeed, the crisis and the fundamental importance of the family was recognised by Cardinal Sodano as he opened the the consistory:
 

"The family nowadays is regarded with disdain and maltreated, and what we ask for is recognition of how beautiful, true and good it is to form a family, to be a family today; how indispensable this is for the life of the world, for the future of humanity." [2]


Holding back the tide

It appears that many within the Church want to submit to the onslaught against the family, recognising its denudation as a fait accompli, establishing in the process a new moral and pastoral basis from which to proceed.


Take for example, Bishop Terence Drainey of Middlesborough who has suggested that the consistory should consider a "radical re-examination of human sexuality that could lead to a development in church teaching in areas such as contraception, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage and cohabitation". [3] Such comments appear patently contrary to Scripture, Tradition and the teaching of the Church but that need not be an insurmountable obstacle if you write for the Tablet which laments the inadequacy of God's plan for the human condition, incredulously suggesting that "the Church has based its teaching about sex, marriage and family life on biblical revelation and natural law... that approach has manifestly failed". [4]
Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce is made clear in the Catechism [5] which bases its understanding on Jesus' own words: "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder" [6] and "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." [7]

On the issue of Communion for remarried divorcees, the comments of Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood usefully summarise the dissenting position where he suggests "provisions could be made for those Catholics [remarried divorcees] to receive the Eucharist in the same way that non-Catholic Christians are permitted to share Communion." [3]

Again, the Catechism rules out this possibility as the civilly remarried "find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law... they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists". [4] As Pope Francis has alluded to, this teaching is not meant as some form of punishment - it is based on the reality of Eucharist itself - the body and blood of Christ. St Paul warns us, "whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord". Those who must refrain from the Eucharist for whatever reason are actually paying testament to the reality of the Body and Blood of Christ, a sacrifice which may obtain for them the graces they require to overcome that which necessitates their abstention.


Wishing Well

Cardinal Kasper's comments are not wholly without merit. He gets to the crux of the issue when he juxtaposes the Church's teaching on marriage with its understanding of hope and mercy: “The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage and the impossibility of a new marriage while the other partner is still alive is part of the binding tradition of the faith of the church and cannot be abandoned or dissolved by appealing to a superficial understanding of mercy at a discount price” at the same time, "there is no human situation absolutely without hope or solution” [3]. How are we to achieve a balance between the two?

As always, the answer lies in the person and attitude of our Lord, conveniently put forward in the Gospel of today where He meets the women at Jacob's Well. [8] Jesus begins the encounter by asking the woman for a drink, and uses it as a pretext to reveal himself as the Living Water. The exchange between Jesus and the woman is extraordinary because it reveals the depths of his mercy - he recognises that the woman is a sinner and elicits in her a desire for salvation; when it is she who should be asking him for a drink, Christ's request is an invitation to serve Him. As Jesus gradually allows the women to see who He is and to understand that He is the source of salvation, He also encourages her to confess those things which are obstacle to her, namely the fact that the man she is with is not her husband. Indeed, it is Jesus' knowledge of this that partly convinces the woman of his authenticity - where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

The Church has a clear duty to the pastoral needs of those who, like the woman at the well, find themselves in situations which offer a potentially significant impediment to their salvation. This cannot however be at the expense of truths which are at the very heart of the Faith and the wellspring of that salvation. Jesus did not spurn the woman - he was willing to spend time with her and to help her with her doubts and difficulties. Like Christ, we have to be patient and do whatever we can can to encourage others to respond to his invitation, recognising always that we too are sinners, subject to the same reliance on grace and mercy.

[1] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/02/28/cardinal-kasper-told-cardinals-church-could-tolerate-some-second-marriages/
[2] http://visnews-en.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/extraordinary-consistory-on-family.html
[3] http://protectthepope.com/?p=10198
[4] http://www.thetablet.co.uk/editors-desk/1/1747/marriage-and-the-real-world
[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1650
[6] Mark 10:9
[7] Matthew 19:9
[8] 1 Corinthians 11:27
[9] John 4:5-42

Friday, 14 March 2014

To whom shall we go...

This is in tolerable
 
The scene is set in the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus has just taught his disciples that He is "The Bread of Life". We pick up the narrative :
 
"When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you?... The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’
 
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go?' [1] And Jesus said to them "In the future, men shall be able to go to your successors, to lament my teaching and they, desiring a quiet life, will heed their cries, silencing those who offend with my teaching".
 
Silence of the lambs
 
This as yet undiscovered passage sheds light of the rather troubling news that a prominent Catholic blogger, Deacon Nick Donnolly of ProtectThePope.org, has been asked to refrain from blogging and observe a period of prayer and penance by his own bishop, Bishop Campbell of Lancaster. [2]
 
I am all for bishops constructively disciplining errant members of their flock but Deacon Connolly's analysis of events, if sometimes rather brash and perhaps lacking in the compassion which would be required for authentic dialogue, is right out of the pages of Catechism. Under Holy Obedience, Deacon Donnolly has rightly submitted to the request of his Bishop and I hope that in time, he will be allowed to continue his posts.
 
As I understand it, ProtectThePope.org was set up prior to the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK as a bulwark to the nonsense which was being reported in the media regarding the Pontiff. After the visit, it expanded it's brief somewhat to cover issues of dissent across the whole church, becoming in the process a sentinel for many who self identify as traditionalists. 
 
A read through ProtectThePope.org can be a rather depressing foray into Catholic blogging. The nature of its remit doesn't leave much room for posts which will enrich one's spiritual life (unless one is inclined to wax lyrical about the ordinariate or Extraordinary Form Mass in the comments section) and it does have the unfortunate tendency to foster a self-satisfied orthodoxy amongst its readership. For all these shortcomings however, I unfortunately recognise that given the current climate of dissent from church teaching, the blog does fulfil a purpose (I say unfortunately because divisions within the Church are a terrible blight on its mission to evangelise). The battle for future of the Church is increasingly being played out in the media and those faithful to the authentic teaching of Christ need voices that understand the terms of engagement.
 
The Usual Suspects
 
As Deacon Donnolly spends his time in prayer and reflection on his enforced gardening leave, his treatment is all the more galling as it is difficult to imagine a dissenting blogger being dealt with in a similar fashion. I recognise that the care of souls sometimes requires that the reeds blow in the wind but we have to stop short of breaking those reeds if the totality of the Faith is to be preserved and observed. Groups like ACTA (which include clergy) who are openly pursuing causes of dissent, thus undermining the teaching authority of the Church, appear to be given free reign in many diocese.
The Church will gain nothing by making accommodations on issues of dissent with the world. The world cannot reciprocate as it nothing to offer which could possibly ameliorate the loss of the Church's very identity. The more the Church acquiesces, the less relevant it will become, indistinguishable from a thousand other well meaning but ultimately impotent institutions - a vision of the Church which Pope Francis' has rejected as inconsequential NGO. 
 
[1] John 6: 60
[2] http://protectthepope.com/?p=10156

Thursday, 21 November 2013

God's gift and Man's best friend

Last month I sadly lost one of my best friends. We'd been inseparable since I was 16, regularly going for walks in the parks and on the beaches around Swansea, playing in the garden after school or work, staying up late to watch Match of the Day or to pray the rosary. He was often the first to greet me in the morning and the last to say good night before I went to bed. When I was sad, he cheered me up. When I was stressed he helped me to relax. When I was in pain, he helped me bear the burden. When I was happy, he shared my joy. When he passed away, I sobbed for a good hour and though I have nothing but happy memories of our time together, I feel the loss most acutely in the little things. I can no longer expect to see him strolling up the drive to meet me after work or to literally chew the bacon on a Saturday morning nor can I pay him a visit when I'm troubled and can't sleep. His name was Buzz and he was the best of buddies.

Buzz in his prime
I get an immense amount of spiritual consolation from the natural world, be it in marvelling at the grandeur of the cosmos, the intricacies of the laws of physics, a beautiful panorama or amazing animal. This appreciation is so strong that for me, it is an irrefutable proof of God's existence. It is a grace which is not given to all but without which I may have struggled in my Faith. "Credo ut intelligam",  "I believe that I may understand", as St Anselm says.

Some of my favourite stories about the saints include their interaction with animals. St Francis is well known for his great love for nature and this love was expressed most beautifully in his Canticle of Creation, Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Saint Francis' inspiration for the canticle was undoubtedly Daniel 3:57-88, one of my favourite bible passages, where creation itself is called upon to worship the creator:

And you, sun and moon, O bless The Lord,
And you, the stars of the heavens, O bless The Lord,
And you, showers and rain, O bless The Lord.
To him be highest glory and praise forever.

The "Fioretti" or "little flowers" of Saint Francis, a collection of hagiographical stories on the life of the saint, are filled with anecdotes of his interaction with creation. My  favourite tales include the story of the Wolf of Gubbio who Francis convinced to protect rather than terrorise the local village by shaking its paw, a dance to music supplied by crickets and a sermon to the birds. The Franciscans have retained Francis' fascination with nature in their art and culture and I am reminded of a beautiful Franciscan Church in Rome (the name escapes me, as do the pictures I took of it) which has frescoes of the Stations of the Cross which depict animals tending to the wounds of Christ as he moves towards Cavalry. I like to think that we were originally designed to have a far deeper relationship with nature and creation but that bond has been damaged by the spiritual turmoil which ensued after The Fall. Saints like Francis offer us a glimpse of how we might have been, better able to interpret the natural world and act accordingly.

Buzz and Brother Snarf
One of the first things I remember studying as part of my Theology & Philosophy A-Level was St Thomas Aquinas' teachings on matter and form. We looked at the difference between anima or spirit and a rational soul and marvelled at the vagarious implications for the created order. For example, plants have spirits (which maybe why my father talks to his tomatoes and why children play with food) and each angel is effectively its own species. Contrary to received wisdom and with great concern, we learned that according to Aquinas, All Dogs Do Not Go to Heaven as this was the dwelling place of rational souls worthy of the beatific vision.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church suggests that "the seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity." [1] To put it briefly, the whole of creation is designed to give glory to God and serve mankind in its earthly existence. Man's dominion over nature is evidenced in the Genesis creation stories where each animal is brought forth to be named by Adam but this dominion is not inalienable - creation belongs first and foremost to God and Man's dominion therefore includes a duty of stewardship. The Catechism tells us that "God surrounds animals with his providential care" and that by their mere existence, they are able to bless and give Him glory. A dog can be no more or less a dog; it fulfills its nature of doginess perfectly. We therefore "owe animals our kindness" and it is "contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly". [2] It is however possible to anthropomorphise animals to such a degree that it undermines both human dignity and the dignity of animals within the created order. It is truly exasperating to see people treating animals like human babies or children. It is certainly possible to love animals without directing the kind of affection which is properly due to people.

So where does this leave Buzz? We do not know what the New Heaven and the New Earth will look like but we do know that the bodily resurrection applies only to those rational souls who have died in Christ. I like to think however that in the resurrection, we shall take with us all that is good in this life, having shed all that is bad. This would certainly include my memories of Buzz and the "good" of creation itself. Perhaps there is hope too from the Book of Revelation which describes the heavenly liturgy where "every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea...", cries out: "To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour, glory and power, forever and ever"[3] Maybe Buzz is sharing a truce with the glorious postmen of heaven, praising God before his throne. Failing that, I'll just imagine he is happy chasing squirrels in Elysium. I wonder what he will do if he ever catches one?

Buzz enjoying the snow

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Catholic Church, 2415
[2] ibid, 2416-2417
[3] Revelation 5:13

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The "New" Rite Mass: The Source of all evils?

Fellow compatriot Ragazza Gallese's most recent blog post [1] offers a lot of food for thought regarding the the relationship between good theology, catechisis and liturgical practice. In it, she exasperates that she is "sick to the back teeth of hearing people complain about clergy who turned (and continue to turn) a blind eye to abortion, contraception, cohabitation, divorce" but still "still regularly (and freely) attend a mass where [there] is ... clapping, ... singing of various dodgy hymns, Communion on the hand, immodest clothing worn by young (and some not so young) girls, ... no catechesis, where the priest celebrates mass with his back to the Blessed Sacrament, .. where lay people distribute Holy Communion as if they were themselves priests, where said lay people then stand around a table and drink what is left of the Precious Blood as if they were finishing off the last dregs of a pint, where confession is rarely available and where the Sanctuary (and indeed the whole church) has been stripped bare of anything that might remind you of the Holy Sacrifice".

I sympathise with much of what she has to say post but am alarmed by the prospect of creating a two tier church of "us and them", a profoundly un-Catholic concept for a Universal Church. I am well aware that there is a de facto split in the Church, largely centred around issues of morality, but allowing these differences to be entrenched in parish life will eventually lead to schism. I could never be an Anglican because accepting diametrically opposed theology makes absolutely no sense.

From my experience, orthodoxy and reverence are in no way intrinsically opposed to Mass in the New Rite. I accept that liturgical malpractice has proliferated under the reformed liturgy but it is disingenuous to suggest that they never occurred under the Old Rite. It is not beyond the realms of plausibility to suggest that it is the lack of belief and true understanding of the Mass that is responsible for the liturgical abuses - I'm quite sure if Rome decreed that every Mass should take place under the Old Rite then liturgical abuse would continue to take place.

One's own soul must take precedence in matters of salvation as one is unlikely to effect the salvation of others if one is in danger of losing Faith. If such a scenario were to arise over the type of Mass at one's local parish then finding a new parish would certainly be warranted. For those of us not in such a situation, if we want to effect change in the Church and promote a more appropriate liturgy which greater reflects the splendour and glory of what actually takes places at every Mass (reverent or irreverent thank God! [2]), then we need to be in our parishes, working for change. 

I suspect that poor catechesis for both priest and laity alike are at the root of these liturgical abuses. It would be impossible to perform poor liturgy if one has a true understanding of what take place at every Mass and this is where those who have received such a grace can help their fellow parishioners. After all, deliberate liturgical abuse is tantamount to "eating the bread", or "drinking the chalice of the Lord" unworthily, a sin which incurs the most grievous guilt of the body and of the blood of the Lord. To be truly culpable of such a sin is grave indeed. Without wishing to be condescending, those with greater depth of understanding regarding the Mass have a duty to help those who do not. If you are interested in developing your understanding of the Mass, I recommend starting with "What Happens at Mass" by Jeremy Driscoll OSB [3]. It's a short and very readable book, which is quite profound in its simplicity.

Speaking mainly as a thirty-something-singleton, I don't know where Ragazza Gallese's opinions on liturgy have been formed but perhaps she too feels left rather bereft by life as a Catholic in Wales. I regularly attend Mass in either one of two local parishes and, while I am thankful for two priests of excellent but different charisms, I cannot shake the feeling that we are rather impoverished in terms of cultural life when compared to some of the parishes I have attending when visiting friends in England. In this however I truly am to blame because I am not making any effort to affect change, nor have I gone out of my way to look for opportunities to support my Faith. Perhaps it's time I made a start...

Addendum 
In thinking more about the issues raised here, I was reminded of letter XVI in C.S. Lewis's Screwtape letters. There the erstwhile demon writes to his diabolical nephew:

Surely you know that if a man can't be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that "suits" him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.

... The parochial organisation should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.


I have already written a little about my university experiences and how liturgy became a divisive topic in Oxford [4] and the final statement from Screwtape describes the results perfectly - certain individuals used the Church and the liturgy to develop their own exclusive club from which they could condescendingly regard those who were not part of it. I am not suggesting that this is the ultimate end for all those who start down the path but it is at least a possible destination. It is a temptation to which I have been guilty of indulging in the past, as I felt a certain superiority to liberal Catholics or Protestants. Thankfully, my University experience forced me to venture outside of the artificial bubble of orthodoxy to which I belonged and I met individuals in whom the Holy Spirit was clearly at work, even though I sometimes  had profound disagreements with their opinions on particular issues. I hope those experiences have remedied that fault in my character - one down and many more to go!

[1] http://ragazzagallese.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/do-you-know-the-blog-post-here-comes-the-rant/
[2] http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/what-does-the-expression-ex-opere-operato-mean
[3] http://www.acnuk.org/products.php/70/what-happens-at-mass
[4] http://lucascambrensis.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/liturgical-wars.html

Monday, 18 November 2013

Red Card: The Tablet


It has long been known that The Tablet has been a mouth piece for dissent but it's most recent editorial appears to have broken new ground in relativism [1]. Having read it, words failed me so I looked for images to express how I felt:

The Picard Facepalm: Good, but not quite enough

The Triple Facepalm: Better, but still not suitably grace
The Ultimate Facepalm: Just right
Tablet bashing is a rather easy sport if one is so inclined but it is difficult to envisage how dialogue is possible with a publication which seems to delight in furthering dissent. We are all in need of salvation and the Church was made for sinners but to suggest that it change its teaching to match the majority view in the pews is profoundly un-Catholic. Christ meets us sinners with open arms, as he met the woman caught in adultery, and he addresses us in the same way :"I do not condemn thee: go, and sin no more." [2] The writers of the Tablet seem to revel in the former but refuse to accept the latter, the true hallmark of a Christian. They dress their rhetoric up in appeals to conscience and the primacy of social justice but they refuse to accept the heaviest burden of the cross, namely interior change and the moulding of the will to that of Christ. 

Jesus encountered many who found his teachings "intolerable language" but they at least had the grace to walk away, hopefully to return less hard of heart. The Tablet however, has committed a grave act of hubris in claiming the voice of dissent as Christ's own. It is difficult to view The Tablet, a true wolf in sheep's clothing with a fleece as woolly as its theology, as accepting "all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization" united "by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion". Indeed, "even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not... persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but 'in body' not 'in heart.'"[4] Actively seeking out and promoting dissent is not the hallmark of an "International Catholic Weekly": it is time The Tablet had the grace to "walk away" and stop claiming to be a part of the Universal Church which it so clearly holds in disdain.

[1] http://www.thetablet.co.uk/editors-desk/1/823/church-s-new-faithful
[2] John 8:11
[3] John 6:60-71
[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church 837

Friday, 4 October 2013

Window of Salvation



After reading a recent Twitter exchange which began by discussing indulgences, the issue of the difference between temporal and external punishment was raised. When we sin, we incur two liabilities - that of guilt and that of punishment. "When someone repents, God removes his guilt (Is. 1:18) and any eternal punishment (Rom. 5:9), but temporal penalties may remain". [1] Christ paid the price for our sins before God but did not relieve us of the obligation to atone for them.

According to Catholic teaching, those who die who are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully accounted for their transgressions must undergo temporal purification in Purgatory because no soul would be able to stand in the glorious presence of God with any taint of sin. This contrasts with the Eternal punishment of Hell, permanent separation from God, for those unrepentant of sin. [2] When we first receive God's forgiveness, especially at our Baptism, we are forgiven. When we subsequently sin and receive forgiveness, we are likewise forgiven. This forgiveness however does not free us from the penalty of physical death, a temporal penalty as Christ has promised us resurrection.

That temporal punishment is a result of the fall is evidenced in scripture and the whole economy of Salvation. Wisdom 10:2, where man is condemned "to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow" despite being led out of his original disobedience and Numbers 20:12, where God forgives the incredulity of Moses and Aaron, but still keeps them from the promised land is often given in support of this teaching. In addition, throughout Salvation History, those who receive forgiveness bear fruit in their repentance in further acts of penitence - alms giving, prayer, fasting and good works. As the nature of indulgences (and their abuse) and the role of temporal punishment were major contributors to the theology of the reformation, the Council of Trent addressed the issue in depth, proclaiming that satisfaction for sins, is made to God through "the merits of Christ by the punishments inflicted by Him and patiently borne", the imposition of the church, and "voluntarily undertaken works of fasting, prayer, almsgiving" [and] other works of piety". [3]

I often think of these things with the analogy of a broken window. If I break a window with a football (sin), I incur the penalties of guilt before the owner of the window (God) and punishment (I must pay to have the window repaired). Even if the window is repaired, the memory of it being shattered still remains. Every time the owner, I or the neighbours look at the repaired the window, they may remember the shards of glass flying in all directions. I therefore give a bunch of flowers to the owner of the window (Christ's sacrifice on the cross) so that now, when the window is considered, it is the flowers that are remembered, rather than the shards of glass. All analogies break down at some point and this one may fail on some important theological
point (please point it out if it does!) but it may be useful in trying to explain what can be a difficult concept for non-Catholics to understand.

[1] http://www.catholic.com/tracts/primer-on-indulgences
[2] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12575a.htm
[3] http://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/TRENT14.HTM

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Liturgical Wars

It's all just a little bit of history repeating...

One of the most common themes which crops up in Catholic Blogs and on Twitter is that of Liturgy. As with most inter-ecclesiastical strife, the battleground is demarcated by the interpretation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the fault line between protagonists is invariably drawn along liberal and traditional axioms. If Sacrosanctum Concilium was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Pope Benedict's Motu Proprio on the Use of the Roman Liturgy was the Treaty of Versaille, we find ourselves living in the uneasy peace of the Weimar Republic as Pope Francis' ability to escape pigeon-holing leads to rumour and intrigue over the direction of his predecessor's reforms.

It is to be expected that any discussion of liturgical practice will evoke strong passions. Mass is after all a celebration which transcends space and time, making present to us Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and the heavenly worship of God as glimpsed by St John in the Book of Revelation. Though an "action of the whole Christ" and an expression of the unity of the body of Christ, as liturgy touches on man's capacity for art and expression, it necessarily embodies a profoundly personal experience, subject to an individual's own tastes and preferences. As the Catechism states, "integrated into the world of faith and taken up by the power of the Holy Spirit, these cosmic elements, human rituals, and gestures of remembrance of God become bearers of the saving and sanctifying action of Christ." [1] Liturgy actually contributes to our salvation, acting as a conduit of grace:

You have no need of our praise,
yet our desire to thank You is itself Your gift.
Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to Your greatness,
but makes us grow in Your grace,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. [2]

Colours of Swansea Bay

Before attending University, I had never really given the liturgy much thought, largely because most of the Masses I attended in Wales were rather generic. To this day, my experiences lead me to believe that there is no discernible Catholic liturgical tradition in Wales - when juxtaposed with my attendance of Mass in England, I am often left feeling spiritual impoverished. I suspect that the overwhelming success of the Reformation in Wales together with English determination to suppress Welsh culture is largely responsible for this phenomenon. Lacking metropolitan centres of ecclesiastical influence, Wales relied heavily on its monasteries for its Catholic identity and their utter destruction forever shaped our spiritual destiny. English Catholicism can freely peruse the back-catalogue of her High-Anglican sister for inspiration but the triumph of  Non-Conformism in Wales perhaps makes liturgical borrowing theologically onerous. It was only on leaving Wales to attend youth conferences or to go to University that I was exposed to the broad tradition of Catholic liturgy, including fundamentally basic practices such as the Divine Office.

This is not to say however I had no opinions on liturgy and music at Mass. As an alter server, I noted that our Parish priest was adamant that the defining characteristics of Mass liturgy should be dignity and appropriateness to the current season. The Easter and Christmas celebrations always filled me with wonder and awe and as I grew older, I began to appreciate how essential it was for liturgy, particularly with regards to music, to reflect the reality of the Mass. I had quite an eclectic taste in music which covered a wide spectrum of styles from rock to opera (excluding rap and R&B) but recognised that what I enjoyed listening to in my spare time would not always be appropriate at Mass. As for the form of Mass, I may have had a vague understanding that an "Old Rite" had preceded the existing form but I had no knowledge of how it differed other than the priest facing the altar rather (a fact gleaned from old prayer cards) and the language being Latin. I can't recall when I first attended an ordinary form Mass in Latin - it may have been arranged as part of my Latin studies when I was fifteen - but I do remember that I very much enjoyed the experience. Up until that point I was rather sceptical of the notion because virtually everyone I met who professed an affinity for the Latin Mass was either a schismatic or, quite frankly, rather odd.

Perhaps the single most informative liturgical experience of my teenage years came via a week long mission which the Headmaster had invited to our school. I'm not sure if the energetic mission team was Catholic or not but their razzmatazz, rock star presentation was everything I had come to loathe in "Catholic Youth Ministry". I felt rather than attempting to stimulate Faith, they fed us emotion and I am firmly convinced that is poor soil for spiritual growth. This was evidenced in the feedback session at the end of the mission - the Sixth Form complained the team were attempting to brainwash the younger pupils who in turn enthused that they thoroughly enjoyed the "performances" but wished there was less religion involved. The "show piece" Mass left me incredulous and deeply hurt as a priest who later claimed to be an expert in "liturgy for children" broke every rule in the book as he neglected set prayers, invented rites and gave the missionary team carte blanche in asserting themselves over the Mass. The recollection of  liturgical dance from the leotarded GCSE drama troupe, the rendition of U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" (one of my favourite songs) and the third Offertory prayer beseeching God to "Bless this money" still makes me cringe. I left school with the conviction that guitars, tambourines, drum kits, beanbags and gaudy posters had no place in the celebration of Mass.

Attack of the Drones

One of great advantages of being a Catholic in Oxford is that Mass is readily available throughout the day, every day. I could attend Littlemore, Greyfriars, Blackfriars, St Aloysius Gonzaga (The Oratory), Holy Rood, Grandpont House or The Catholic Chaplaincy. During the week, I attended Mass where ever best fitted in with my studies but I had a preference for the Oratory because of the style of the Church and the opportunity to hear Mass in Latin. Aesthetically, the worst place to attend Mass was The Catholic Chaplaincy (the main hall is used for well attended Masses and it is a concrete structure more suited to a car park or aircraft hanger) but I always attended Mass there on a Sunday as it was the centre of Catholic Student life and where I met all my best University friends. The Chaplaincy could never compete with the grandeur of the Oxford College Chapels but the liturgy there was dignified whilst the chapel was also very peaceful, prayerful and perfect for post study adoration. Oxford also gave me the opportunity to attend Mass according to the Old Roman and Byzantine Rites, both of which I found intriguing, mysterious and beautiful.

It was within this environment that I first experienced the true vitriol and snobbery that can accompany liturgical preference. There was a not inconsequential group of students who attended The Oratory who would refuse to attend Mass at the Chaplaincy or be part of the Catholic Society. That was of course their prerogative but during meetings of overlapping societies such as the Newman Society which was often held in The Old Palace which adjoins the Catholic Chaplaincy, some would routinely disparage anyone associated with the Chaplaincy. Mass at the Chaplaincy they claimed was "barely valid" and anyone who attended it was clearly a "liberal". I suspect that for the most vociferous of this group, attending Mass at the Oratory had little to do with Faith - it was rather an extension of their class pretensions. Exclusivity is an extremely sought after commodity in Oxford and the Oratory, with its collection of academics, intellectuals, barristers and corporates and Catholicism in general created yet another clique for them to invest in.


Though it might be claimed that Oxford is microcosm and that these traits do not extended to the rest of the country, my experiences since suggest otherwise. A summary of the worst of these idiosyncrasies include:


1) Liturgical Fetishism - A concern for vestments and liturgical aids which borders on the profane
2) Determining Orthodoxy by liturgical preference
3) Questioning the validity of Novus Ordo Masses
4) Snobbish dismissal of the Faith of others
5) Hypersensitivity to poor liturgical practice
6) A propensity to judge spiritual progress on how Mass makes one feel
7) A tendency to link the Usus Antiquior and High Novus Order Masses with the concept of being English


In highlighting these idiosyncrasies, I do not mean to imply that everyone who attends an Old Rite Mass shares in them. The vast majority of people I converse with on Twitter who attend an Usus Antiquior Mass are thoroughly reasonable folk who do so for their own spiritual nourishment. Indeed, I sympathise greatly with their claims that a return to the Usus Antiquior eradicates the worst of the horrific liturgical abuses which occur under the novus ordo and that certain signs and symbols such as the ad orientem aspect of the priest better present the mysteries of the Mass to the congregation. Whatever the reasons behind a preference for a certain type of liturgy, the upshot is that protagonists are effectively creating a "church within a church", where local parishes are abandoned in favour of one where Mass is said "properly", thus polarising opinion and practice even further.

Gentlemen prefer Lauds



Throughout these musings, I have frequently used the term "liturgical preference" but I'm not sure this is useful terminology. Preference involves a subjective choice and though everyone is bound to find certain liturgical practices appealing or not, there should be a certain level of objectivity in all liturgy. Mass has an objective basis in the Sacrifice of Christ and takes its form from the events of Last Supper to the Resurrection on Easter Sunday together with what has been revealed to us in the Book of Revelation:


"A throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne": "the Lord God." It then shows the Lamb, "standing, as though it had been slain": Christ crucified and risen, the one high priest of the true sanctuary, the same one "who offers and is offered, who gives and is given." [3]


St John goes on to describe this liturgy in great detail complete with explanations of signs and symbols and accompanying prayers. The result is an act of worship which has been imparted to us by Divine Revelation, the prototype for every Mass.


I believe that there is objective line that can be drawn which determines if a Mass is dignified and appropriate or not; I'm just not sure how that line can be drawn and how relevant cultural norms are to the decision. I can say that I have a preference for the novus ordo Mass in Latin, with the readings in the vernacular accompanied by traditional hymns and the priest facing ad orientam but to what extent can I say that any of these things would be objectively good for the whole of the Faithful?

Out of Africa

I have already described my intense dislike of the guitar and drums at Mass and for a long time I thought there should be a universal moritorium in their use at Mass. My opinions however changed after attending a few Masses for African and Asian Communities and seeing how the expression of their culture in their liturgy was an immense outpouring of their Faith. I am sure they felt as bemused at what must seem very sombre Mass in Britain as I did at their energetic and lively Masses but at least we share the same conviction that no matter the circumstances, Mass is Mass, recognisable the world over. I'm not sure how these communities celebrated Mass before the novus ordo but I think it would be quite an injustice if the usus antiquior was forced upon them or if they were judged by British standards of appropriateness. 

Question Time


I suppose my views on the liturgy, shaped as they are by past experience, lead to more questions that answers. I believe that there should be an objective norm for liturgical practice at Mass but that it is culturally specific. Who is responsible for deciding where that norm lies and how do they justify their decision? Is it logically impossible for me to insist that what I consider to be cheesy pop music has no place in Mass but accept that the use of the guitar and folk songs is perfectly legitimate practice for different cultures? Should people who are irked by a particular liturgy just grin and bear it or are they justified in nomadic Mass attendance for greater spiritual benefit? Whatever the answer to these questions (please chip in if you have some!), I am convinced that good liturgy is of great importance and that the fault in the life of the Church along liturgical lines is a poor evangelical witness.

[1] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s1c2a1.htm#1189
[2] Preface of Weekdays in Ordinary Time IV
[3] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s1c2a1.htm#1137