Monday, June 28, 2010

On the fear of excellence

Somebody please direct me to the appropriate question in the Summa for this one.* I'm sure the Angelic Doctor might have something to say on this problem. I'm afraid I'm enough of a child of the 1960s to always be looking behind the superficial to something more sytematically wrong. I guess in that decade we lost the ability to accept something at face value giving rise to the popularity of conspiracy theories about anything and everything. In practice it means that whenever I see something that could be much better I smell a rat. I immediately suspect that there is something going on which is seeking to undermine the good that has been achieved and to sully it with the sub standard.

'Ah', but I've heard so often, 'It's an imperfect world'. Sure it is, but surely we shouldn't be happy for things to stay like that. It seems that the cult of the mediocre gets in at every nook and cranny. You can apply it to all aspects of life but when it comes to our life as Catholic Christians it really is a worry if the mediocre offered to God has become the bench mark for what is acceptable. There really seems to be a fear of doing anything that- gasp- might be considered excellent.  Chesterton is credited with the saying 'If a thing is worth doing it's worth doing badly'. At face value I beg to differ. Anyhow Chesterton was referring to hobbies not theological truth or ecclesiastical polity.

Today, in this part of the world, we celebrate the Dedication of our Cathedral and a fine building it is. What's more, what goes on in that building largely aspires to the best possible. Yet it seems all too often that we run up against the attitude that that sort of standard of excellence is too good for the average parish. Patronising bunkum. Yet I'm still dealing with superficial- dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. I'm afraid there is an attitude amongst some 'movers and shakers' that even real adult theology is too much for the poor people in the pew. The truth of the matter is that you are more likely to find the theologically literate Catholic sitting in the pews, day by day, rather than east of the chancel step.

Two factors that  might be perpetuating the problem. (1) In many parts of the world there is an alternative and self appointed magisterium with a personal mandate of self preservation which it achieves through only appointing to it's committees those who will 'tow the line' and not ask too many awkward questions. Statements from these groups tend to aim at the lowest common denominator in language that is not going to 'scare the horses'. It means rather shallow documents of great ambiguity. (2) The false notion that the Catholic Church, at the moment, is a 'real player' in national affairs.  If the political controversies of the last few years have taught us anything it is this; that people of faith are to be 'managed' rather than actually listened to. This management strategy targets the 'B grades' within the alternative magisteria and, flattering their own misconceptions of self importance, easily neutralises what, in more able hands, could have been a real challenge to the status quo.

* Please see the comments. There's an excellent response from GOR.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Where have they all gone?

A chance meeting with a religious priest friend of mine spurs this entry. He's making a valiant effort at providing a 'safe' place for religious vocations within his own order. Some time ago I wrote about the fears that I had for diocesan seminarians as they started their training and formation. (see here). I was very edified by the offers of prayer and material help that were offered. Anyhow, kicking off from my earlier musings, we discussed what the really situation for young men and women wanting to try their vocation at the moment. Specifically those called to a house that sings a full office and has some sort of regular community life intact. This covers a wide range of possibilities in Britain. We could only find one, for women, where the daily 'conventual' Mass would be offered in the traditional rite. I thought we would be luckier with the men but, no, we couldn't think of one where the daily offering matched this.

I've kept a mental tally over the last twenty years of where the vocations I've known about have ended up. To take one year, about eight years ago, I thought back and remembered four people, three young men and a woman, who I met on their way to various noviciates. One man entered a British noviciate, the other two men and the woman went to noviciates on the Continent. As far as I know they are all in situ. Then I looked through my diary for a trip I made to the USA about four years ago. One of the things that struck me was the British presence in the religious houses I visited. In one rather well known conservative and enclosed women's community there were about a dozen all told. In a men's community, apostolic and urban, there were eight. So why the vocations 'bleed' out of Britain when it comes to religious?

Well the first factor must be two fold; (a) the men's communities, haven't hit the real crisis point yet and (b) many of the women's communities have resigned themselves to non existence within the next decade. This doesn't particularly worry me. About 90% of active apostolate communities founded since 1600 have disappeared for very good reasons.

The second factor is this. British religious life maintained, generally, a conservative appearance. Habits and customs, even Latin Vespers, were held on to here much longer and have indeed had a bit of a renaissance in the last decade. Dissent against the teaching of the Church tended to be internally rather than externally manifested  in comparison to other places in the world. The external appearance of normality rather concealed the rot within. The common situation at the moment is that there are vocations at the younger end of many communities and there are those trying their vocations; they are very brave. The modernist gerontocracy still largely holds the balance of power in many houses and the lives of the younger brethren are not easy. One house I know had quite a rush of vocations over a decade however a 'war of attrition' against the newcomers dispatched almost all of them to safer fields. For those not willing to submit themselves to the 'will of the moment' , to endure subtle dissent from the Catholic faith,  the only answer is to decamp somewhere 'safe'.

Religious communities are knocking on the doors of Britain still but the ones that are prepared to found in these islands are exclusively either 'neo-con' or traditional. They don't seem to be getting a warm welcome. This is largely because the existing major superiors are dead scared of what might happen to their own vocation pools if there was a viable option. It's dressed up in other conservative sounding language of course. Local panels 'advising' the bishops are also reticent. Generally counselling against the presence of  new institutes they manage to give their reasons with a wealth of subtext which reads 'No Conservatives Welcome Here' to the trained ear. The 'traditionalist' movement has not always helped. Often preconceptions of what traditional religious life should be has been tightly informed more  by the detailed  reading of Gothic novels and antique picture books rather  than hard cold historical reality.

Until at least a couple of 'safe' places are established for men and women the vocation bleed will continue.  Perhaps with the Psalmist we should pray; Attolite portas, principes vestras:  et elevamini, portae aeternales: et introibit rex gloriae!

Apology; Since writing this it's occurred to me that I'd totally forgotten the Transalpine Redemptorists. My sincere apologies.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


I'm not sure I do 'niceness' very well. It's one of those genes, of which, I didn't seem to  get a full allocation. In my own churlish way I've come to think of 'niceness' as being rather over emphasised. Traddies generally have to do 'niceness'. After all if you get three traddies in a room there's likely to be five seriously held, and mutually exclusive, opinions on any given topic. It's part of the oil which keeps us running as a reasonably identifiable group without to much blood on the carpet- which wouldn't be nice.

Yesterday's Gospel (from the Common of Virgins in this part of the world)  retold the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. (S. Matthew 25). It occurred to me, that if the story was read with eyes of much modern theological method, the Wise Virgins were not playing 'nice'. Surely they should have shared their lamp oil with those disadvantaged, sorry- differently abled, virgins so they could avoid embarrassment when the Master arrived knocking on the door. Perhaps they should have decided to collectively give up on oil and send the saved proceeds to the collective for whatever. Then would be the dilemma. Was the oil ethically sourced? If not, would it be right for the disadvantaged to derive benefit from it? No doubt they would have sat down, over a cup of Fairtrade coffee, and had a community meeting. Meanwhile that patriarchal figure, perhaps a symbol of all oppression, waits at the door knocking. There is a technical name for this type of exposition which escapes me at the moment but it may be isogesis not to be confused with exegesis.

The witness of Sacred Scripture needs to be taken as an entirety and read as such. There's no use in accepting only the nice bits and either rewriting the awkward bits or discounting them all together as some sort of cultural baggage. They are in the Bible for a purpose. All scripture,  inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work. (2 Timothy 3.16). There are aspects of the faith that are harsh, that seem to be 'not nice' and for this reason, in this world, Catholics will often be at odds- if they are holding to the faith we have received. It doesn't matter how much 'spin' you can try to weave with glossy brochures.

It's the same faith however, in it's entirety, which saves us. It's the belief that things can be better than what the world offers, and that we are grown ups who coping with such a notion realise that sometimes, 'hard love' needs to be applied. Embarassment, in the case of the Foolish Virgins, was potentially curative. There's a story that Nancy Mitford had once asked Evelyn Waugh how he could behave so abominably and yet still consider himself a practicing Catholic. "You have no idea," Waugh replied, "how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In defence of Fr Faber

My original opening gambit for this entry was 'OK- The gloves are off!' I had a nice illustration of a pair of Victorian boxing gloves to accompany the entry. I've cooled off- just a bit. One of my heroes has been maligned admittedly by implication. (see page 26  here).  Of course with the beatification of Newman looming there were bound to be comparisons between the Cardinal and Faber. They didn't always see eye to eye, I imagine, and worked in vastly different worlds. Faber predeceased Newman by over 30 years at a time  much closer to the controversies surrounding the restoration of the hierarchy. His literary output was quite different, employing his talents in many directions, but perhaps best remembered for his hymnody - some of  which has maintained popularity for many years. Admittedly it seems rather dated from our current vantage point but it does contain the essential truths of the faith. It was certainly orthodox. One Church. One Faith. One Baptism. But to call Faber 'extreme' - Is that really fair, or informed, for that matter?

Now if you are talking about ultramontanism, which for reasons quite beyond me has become sort of slur in itself, then Faber might be guilty. Faber was just Catholic, as Newman was, finding a way to respond pastorally to the situation immediately facing the faithful in England at the time. He was, essentially, an overworked pastor who, I get the impression, acted and responded as best he could. He died, relatively young, worn out by his endeavours. Yet his cause is not trumpeted.- and that seems to be, from an outsider's point of view, very Oratorian. Go and count the Oratorians who have been raised to the honours of the altar. They are almost as rare as black tabenacle veils.

Isn't it really is a bit of 'cheap shot' to enhance the public opinion of one individual by demonizing another like this? It is also essentially erroneous considering the curiously modern aim of Faber's hymnody- to provide a way for the average man to 'participate' in worship services in what was quite an innovative way at the time. Neither man, I suspect, would have been happy with the notion of division amongst the 'churches'. Division from the Church certainly, but not anything that hinted of parity of truth. Newman was not the great liberal (in the modern sense) that any shabby bit of PR may want to make him. To try and use Faber, out of context, to perpetuate this myth, is shameful!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Natural Selection

Somewhere, if I dug through enough books, I'm sure I'd find a heresy condemned called archaeologism. This could possibly be defined as the irrational belief that if something was done in the first seven centuries of Christian history it must be right and must be restored. Now if you are talking about Conciliar definitions it's one thing but if you are holding up practices that were at best transient and localised can't we say that the lesson has already been learnt? If we accept the precepts of some scholars versus populum existed in some places but, nota bene,  it disappeared. Similarly receiving Holy Communion in the hand may have persisted into the 9th Century in some places but, nota bene, it disappeared. The same can be said of some transient theological notions. Many of the ideas floated today have already been tried in previous centuries and found wanting. Most children learn from experience. 'Touch that and you get burnt'. The child touches it, gets burnt, and retains a cautionary memory.

There's some talk at the moment about the way episcopal candidates are selected. The current practice is largely the product of the 1983 Code, 'revising' the  1917 Code, and involves recommendations being sought from within the bishops themselves who prepare a list of suitable candidates for the local nunciature which, in turn, prepares a terna, a short list if you like, to submit to the Holy See.  The suitable candidates, as determined by the local bishops, are scrutinised by a questionnaires collected from clerics and laity. I've never seen one of these questionnaires but I'm told they are quite lengthy and completed under the condition of complete secrecy.

But it hasn't always been this way. Before 1917 the groups producing lists of candidates extended beyond the episcopate. Certain ranks of priests  within a region were able to produce  lists for submission. Going back into the mists of time the laity may have had a greater direct say. Both possibilities were laid aside although the 'memories' of the earlier practices are enshrined in the liturgical rites. They were found impracticable, not because of any desire to disenfranchise, but,  rather to avoid the unseemly campaigning that went on. So you'll excuse me if I feel slightly uneasy about the calls, from certain quarters, for the direct nomination, indeed election of bishops.

Maintaining the status quo however leaves us with two problems interconnected. (1) Effectively the selection of the candidates is left in the hands of the bishops. In a small pool they will naturally select candidates who fit their particular view so not to cause ripples. A 'safe pair of hands' I gather is the euphemism in use. (2) This means that candidates 'outside the box' (or 'circle' if you like) are not likely to even become known to the Holy Father, who makes the actual selection. Good men, who the faithful see as excellent possibilities, will never 'get a guernsey' let alone be captain of the team.

The Holy See, and specifically the Congregation for Bishops, does read it's mail and if the same name was to come up frequently there would be a chance of that name at least being considered. If anybody was to consider writing a letter it should be quite simple outlining the candidates history and qualifications. I'm told a 'bullet form' CV is quite digestible to the Roman stomach.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jubal's Review

I've tried in several ways, over the years, to promote the work of living composers of sacred Latin music. Largely I think I've failed. It seems that  whilst there are plenty of publishers and websites promoting the work of others the traditional Catholic composer has been pretty much left to fend for themselves. To try and redress the balance I'm 'piloting'  Jubal's Review which, although interested in all Latin text liturgical music, will concentrate on current composers, and their work, through reviews, interviews, short articles and links to the pages that these brave souls maintain. I'm not particularly attached to the format, or the name for that matter, and any suggestions and contributions would be very welcome. Because of the legal issues in music copyright the comments will be moderated. I also hope to build a team of contributors for those areas in which I have little expertise. You can find the page here.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why do we bother?

A friend recently asked the question 'Why do we bother?' Now it was a rhetorical question largely asked because we seem to be having a paucity of good news at the moment. Just as we seem to get our heads above water again another wave of bad news comes rolling in sending us gasping for air. Add to this the constant niggling tit-for-tat that traddies seem to be enjoying at the moment. At least they've got the 'gloves off'. Newchurch tit-for-tat is likely to be more subtle and much more destructive in the long run.  When I'm in one of these moods I tend remind myself that I've often given a retreat on the theme of surviving the Church and it's members. The final text is my first aid for most situations and can be summed up as 'Count your blessings'.

I was giving myself a dose of this morning and was looking for some old blessings to thank the Lord for. I settled on the extraordinary positive influence of three women on my life who were all, very traditional, beacons of light, and great characters. They are three of the great blessings the Lord has sent me. They've all gone to there eternal reward and I remember them as often as I can in the commemoration of the departed in the Canon of Holy Mass.

Before seminary, and whilst I was aspiring to young fogeydom, I got drawn into the circle of an Irish woman whom we shall call Mary. Her enthusiasm for the traditional faith was only equalled (well almost) by her passion for the good things in life. I can't remember any more of her particular sayings, her attitudes were generally extreme, which suited me well, but it was the notion that the faith not only could save us but we could also have a jolly good time getting there.

After I was ordained deacon a friendship with Christine became important. I'd known her for years but I got to know her a lot better visiting her in her retirement home. The daughter of a socialite artist she'd given her life over to being the housekeeper for priests. In reality I'm told she actually ran the administrative side of the parishes she worked in. When I knew her she would spend her day 'looking after the old dears' that she lived with. I should point out that she was over 90 herself at the time. As I was packing my bags getting ready to return for ordination I received a very sweet card from her. She died that day. I guess she taught me to take what God has given me and use it as best as I could.

Finally, a few years after ordination, I met an extraordinary women who had been at the centre of the traditional movement from the beginnings. Indeed I think she may have bank rolled many traditional activities in her long life. Our initial meeting was rather reserved however when I told her that I'd actually attended, as a teenager, ceremonies presided over by the Archbishop  we found a common link. She, of course, knew the Archbishop. The 'pray for the beatification' card framed on my study wall clinched the deal and we knew we could 'do' business. This great lady, shall we just call her Madame, taught me that traditionalism leaps many boundaries that it's enemies want to set up mainly in an effort to try and curb it. At the centre of her life was attending the traditional Mass and she would throw her support behind any group working to this end as long as she knew the faith was there, and being taught, as well.

It's for these three, and the thousands like them that I bother. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Social historians may want to correct me but one of the trends of the current era has been the constant need to innovate, to change. It seems, at times, that the desire for change outweighs any of the values that continuity might have to offer. 'A change is as good as a holiday'. 'If there's no change you're dying'. Add your own truism here if you like. Truisms enshrine a superficial truth but can't be tested to far without problems. All too often they become maxims on which other principles are built. Consequently, these new 'principles' have poor foundations, take on a life of their own and the underlying problem is perpetuated. Logically at some time it should all come toppling down.

What is gained by change? Well certainly things that are wrong need to be corrected. Change is frequently needed to avoid the mistakes we have made in the past. Should we hanker after change for change's sake? Here we are on less firm ground. All too often it can become an exercise not in improving the general situation but in giving the impression that something is being done. Sometimes it's an exercise in 'spin'- putting the best face on a bad situation. At other times it's the favoured activity of an unthinking collective under threat and trying to throw it's weight about. At the worst it's an exercise in deception- creating a smoke screen for something rather dubious going on that they don't want you to know about.

Now I'm not suggesting that we should all shroud ourselves in some sort of time capsule rather that changes do need to be carefully examined for their 'motives'. The indicators of bad change are clear. It has no real foundation historically, philosophically or theologically for that matter. It's imposition produces no real fruit in the long term rather, frequently, the opposite. If no reason can be found, apart from innovation for it's own sake, then these sort of changes need to be set aside.

Oh - and, by the way, Happy Dominica Secunda post Pentecosten!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Resources for the Latter Days

I've had reason, recently, frequently to recommend a book that I've kept to hand for many years. I'm not sure how well it's known so I'm including this post just in case it helps anybody passing by this blog. Now the title The Complete Catholic Handbook for the Latter Days sounds rather daunting if not in theme then in it's potential size. Actually it's only 281 pages long and whilst the typeface might be rather small it is legible. More importantly the volume is pretty comprehensive for the basics. Not the higher eschelons of philosophy or moral theology, mind you, but for what was once referred to as 'the good oil'.

All the major devotions are included and the Mass Ordinary and Proper for all Sundays and the major feasts. What was known in England as the Penny Catechism, in its 1921 edition, is included with footnotes added from later clarifications and some material, it would seem, from the Baltimore Catechism. All this under one cover! I keep a copy of this on my desk together with a copy of Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. The later is very useful not only because it gives abundant references, and an introduction to the levels of certainty, but it also gives details of exactly why and when the major heresies were condemned. Very useful as most of them are still around indeed in vogue.

The publisher-distributor, Carmel Books, is working on a website at the moment which may be 'up' by September. It may be safer to use old fashion 'snail mail', or the electric telephone for that matter, for immediate enquiries.

CARMEL BOOKS. Yeoford Way Marsh Barton Trading Estate EXETER Devon EX2 8LB.  Tel: 01392 824255