Friday, 28 January 2011

Do these accounts reveal something of a Catholic identity?


"When a priest comes to their houses they first salute him as a stranger unknown to them, and then they take him to an inner chamber where an oratory is set up, when all fall on their knees and beg his blessing. If he says he must go tomorrow as he normally does, for it is dangerous to stay longer, they all prepare for Confession that evening. The next morning they hear Mass and receive Holy Communion; then, after preaching, and giving his blessing a second time, the priest departs, conducted by one of the young gentlemen (that is, of the Catholic Association).
No one is to be found to complain of the length of the services. If the Mass does not last nearly an hour many are discontented. If six, eight or more Masses are said in the same place, and in the same day (as often happens when there is a meeting of priests), the same congregation will assist at all. When they can get priests they Confess every week. Quarrels are scarce known amongst them. Disputes are almost always left to the arbitration of the priest. They do not willingly intermarry with heretics, nor will they pray with them, nor do they like having any dealing with them."

This is from an account of recusant life in the 16th century. How has our character changed from period to period? Not too much between the 16th and 19th centuries, I guess. Catholics in Great Britain were thin on the ground during this time and the new dawn of emancipation had not yet arrived. Priests were addressed as "Mr" and, by the early 19th century we had withdrawn behind closed doors.

This is how Cardinal Newman described us:

"No longer the Catholic Church in the country - nay, no longer, I may say, a Catholic comunity, but a few adherents of the old religion, moving silently and sorrowfully about, as memorials of what had been. 'The Roman Catholics' - not a sect, not even an interest, as men conceived of it; not a body, however small, representative of the great communion abroad - but merely a handful of individuals, who might be counted like the pebbles and detritus of the great deluge, and who, forsooth, merely happened to retain a creed which, in its day indeed, was the profession of a Church. Here, a set of poor Irishmen, coming and going at harvest time, or a colony of them lodged in a miserable quarter of the vast metropolis. There, perhaps an elderly person seen walking in the streets, grave and solitary and strange, though noble in bearing, and said to be of good family, and a 'Roman Catholic'. An old-fashioned house of gloomy appearance, closed in with high walls, with an iron gate and yews, and the report attaching to it that 'Roman Catholics' lived there; but who were they or what they did, or what was meant by calling them Roman Catholics, no one could tell - though it had an unpleasant sound, and told of form and superstition......." 

'Roman Catholics live here'


An identity existed then but not one to be particularly proud of although, it was born out of isolation and rampant discrimination.
With emancipation and the Irish Famine came a new flush of growth to build on a small but sound base that owed its existence to the French Revolution and the re-establishment of French religious houses and pastors in Great Britain. A new fervour began and with it a slight imbalance crept in; rural Catholics expecting a priest to arrive to hear Confessions and say Mass would begin to prepare themselves days if not weeks in advance and there were the extremes of fasting and only occasional reception of the Eucharist. Lenten fasts and abstinences invariably meant no meat throughout the whole of that period. This did bring a sort of rigorous reverence with it and, perhaps had much to commend it. But it would have been better had it been tempered a little.
And then along came the 20th century and things did not change too much until after the Great War. My father joined up under age along with so many other young men and was assigned to the East Surrey Regiment - known colloquially as 'The Bermondsey Boys.'
At night they were billeted in Nissan huts, about 60 men to each hut. Each night he would (at the tender age of 17), kneel by his bunk and say his evening prayers - to a chorus of jeers, whistles and catcalls. I could not have done that at 17, I'm not even sure I could do it now. Character forming stuff and definitely a large slice of Catholic identity.
After the War, the rot appears to have set in and a very marked decline in all things Catholic began to take place.
Not all of it was bad, I relish the story of my two oldest brothers doing incendiary bomb watch duty on the school roof at night; accompanied by Sister John, one of the last great nuns, may God have mercy on her soul. She taught my brothers to dance on the school roof at night in the time of the Blitz - never making contact - all dancing was done "air" fashion so all the proprieties were observed - that was part of the Catholic identity,  humour, common sense, love for one's fellow man, as well as reverence and respect, all component parts that help to build and form and give us the desire to aspire ever higher.
After the Second World War, our identity (or character if you prefer) fragmented considerably. The break up of the family unit, a loss of community as men and women moved around the country and overseas to work, divorce and, more recently, the paedophile scandals - all contributed to us being rather less than forthcoming in stating our beliefs. Catholics began to lower their profile, keeping quiet at dinner party abortion debates, afraid to condemn homosexuality. Keen to be accepted as equals in society rather than outcasts.
And now....maybe the beginnings of a sense of something lost. That all is not quite right with the world. That we need to do a little soul gazing and determine exactly what kind of animal we are.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. It made me so much good. The example of the martyres! Martyrs are not only the ones that die for God, are also the ones that live for God in a time of persecution. Centuries of persecution in England...And now again, all over the world, in some places more than others.

    "And now....maybe the beginnings of a sense of something lost."

    Yes, we can fel it already, that strength in our hearts, the courage to show we are different.
    Our Lord is telling to us:

    You will be hated universally on account of my name, but not a hair of your head will be lost.