Andrew Burnham visited St Jude’s during the Easter Octave
GOING ON HOLIDAY in the Easter Octave is, for the clergy at least, not ideal. Either one seeks out a church where the masses of the Octave will be duly celebrated or one somewhat guiltily stays away. As a parish priest I used to enjoy the Octave hugely: a week of late starts, a beautiful church, the experience of Victimae Paschali day by day –
Christians to the Paschal Victim, offer sacrifice and praise…
Life’s own Champion, slain, yet lives to reign.
– and all the time dreaming of Low Week in Norfolk, and the prospect of seasonal ecclesiastical reporting in the Daily Telegraph of the latest deliberations of the RC hierarchy of England and Wales. (At any rate, that was what it was like in 1993 and 1994 and the memory surely lingers on for one or two of us).
But this year the holiday was in Easter Week and the venue was more South than East. Was there a church where one might not only find masses of the Octave duly celebrated but also make one’s Communion? There was indeed. I shall call it the parish church of St Jude.
St Jude’s is but one part of a town parish. It is disturbingly old-fashioned. The priest faces East for every celebration. (This, no doubt, is more justifiable, liturgically and theologically, than the current passion for celebrating facing West. Though I myself prefer to celebrate West, as do most priests, I cannot pretend that it is justifiable, except by custom and fashion. It is much nicer to see who is there than pray to a brick wall.) We had the English Missal propers, the Creed and the Last Gospel at ‘Low Mass’ on Easter Tuesday at St Jude’s. Otherwise it was the Series 1 permutation of Rite B: the Series 1 Prayer for the Church and the ‘Interim Rite’ Canon (which, I suspect, will shortly become permanent rather than interim).
St Jude’s is clearly thirty years out of date. You just knew that here was a church that was past its best. Yet the priest seemed a kindly fellow and we had a talk afterwards. Yes, he had had a letter from me about the General Synod elections and would do his best to help. No, he didn’t train at St Stephen’s House. Yes, there were women priests at other churches in the town. No, in fact they all got on well. And then I began to find out other things too. He has twenty three boys in the serving team. (Only boys are allowed on the altar). Then there is the Junior Choir. There is to be a Narrated Mass for children – with someone from the local ‘Youth for Christ’ (not, I expect, a regular mass-goer) coming to talk. There are many house blessings going on, encouraged by the parish priest, and, of course, sick visits. There is a local crematorium but it is usual for the departed to be received the night before for a funeral in church. Even in Easter week, there was a coffin lying before the High Altar – black frontal, unbleached candlesticks. For the living meanwhile there was blessed salt on the font and water in the font to help yourself to.
As I realised that this is, in fact, a lively church I remembered what help the Mass booklet had given me. A foreword from the parish priest and some prayers of preparation had helped me get ready for Communion. Afterwards I had had St Ignatius, St Richard, St Patrick and a bit of John Donne (Sermon cxlvi) to read before I left church. Solid Catholic teaching and practical help in praying.
The salutary lesson for a member of the Liturgical Commission – a lesson of which I am always aware, but of which it helpful to be reminded occasionally – is that, compared with faithful pastoral care and catechesis and attention to the needs of both children and the old – the niceties of the rite being celebrated are as nothing. More worrying is the possibility that some of the liturgical renewal we have experienced has been less than helpful in the end. For instance, the Roman Catholic press reveals that attendance at the Sacrament of Reconciliation in Western Europe is critically low. Yet at St Jude’s, dozens of people – and I mean five dozen – are in the habit of using the confessional before major festivals. To the old adage ‘All can. None must. Some should’ it is gratifying to add in this instance ‘Many do’!
I was on holiday. I had not expected such an uncomfortable and challenging experience as I received at the midweek Low Mass at St Jude’s. It did not make me want to retrace my steps to some earlier stage in the reform of the liturgy. Indeed I found it very disorienting to be back in the mid-1960s. Not only that but I felt out of sorts because I felt a bit out of step with the worldwide worshipping community – the very opposite of what one expects to feel when one is following the Catholic way. I had to think whether to bring some devotional practices out of moth-balls. Bow at ‘receive our prayer’? No. Cross myself at ‘and the life of the world to come’? No. Smite my breast thrice at the Domine non sum dignus? No. Should I have eaten that iced bun only two and a half hours earlier? Yes of course. But it did link up with the sympathies I have for what is sometimes called in Roman Catholic circles ‘reforming the reform’. If the generation of 1965-1999 has been busy reforming, I pray and hope that the generation of 2000-2030 will have the sense to slow down and ‘reform the reform’. Thank you, St Jude’s, for reminding me of that.
Andrew Burnham is Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and Chairman of the Catholic Group in General Synod.