Lost liturgical heritage

I was minded to look at the newsletter from my old school earlier and have taken the inevitable trip down memory lane. One of these days I really should knuckle down to writing a pseudonymous autobiography, however what jumped out at me was the invitation to attend an Easter celebration at the school, for an “afternoon of creative liturgy and sharing of the Paschal journey”.

This sums up my liturgical background quite neatly and why, unlike some Catholic bloggers, I rarely write about the liturgy, because put very simply, I am liturgically illiterate, for a variety of reasons.

Although technically a cradle catholic, my grandfather was a benefactor of and greatly involved in the rebuilding of Buckfast Abbey, where he is buried and where I was baptised. My mother is a lapsed catholic; she is of the generation who was misled by the press and her priests and felt a great deal of hurt and disappointment when Humanae Vitae was issued. My father was, although he claims he is now lapsed, a staunch Anglican and a fierce admirer of Martin Luther, “one of the greatest men who ever lived”.

Thus my upbringing or Christian formation was far from conventional, religion was barely mentioned, let alone practiced at home, apart from the regular arguments between my parents as to who was the most wicked of the Tudor monarchs and whether Mary or Elizabeth numbered a higher heretic body count, when both would become amusingly tribal. I have a vague memory of asking why lying was wrong and being told that “Jesus doesn’t like it”, which meant nothing and later on in my teens, repeating in an RE essay, my mother’s mantra that the Pope was really very wicked owing to his stance on condoms, in the attempt to be the cool kid and stir up a bit of controversy. But other than the Pope being wrong on contraception, Smithfield bonfires and the merits of Martin Luther, religion didn’t feature at all in our house, unless it came up in the context of school.

My father is rather a fine organist and played for 30 years in our local C of E parish church as well as leading the choir, hence my sister and I were both recruited to join when I was seven and we regularly attended the morning service and Evensong (complete with a copy of the Enid Blyton to read during the boring bits). Evensong seemed to consist of lots of old tone deaf people warbling, hurried putting down of a book, standing up, turning 90 degrees, singing “Glory to the Father and to the Son, And to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and shall be forevermore Amen”, before settling back down to the book again, before another bout of singing. Not to mention burning fingers on the hot water pipes underneath the choir stalls where the books were quickly stowed.

I had absolutely no idea whatsoever that I was a Roman Catholic, or what that meant, until my sister started secondary school, at the local private Catholic boarding school. I remember the night before she started, her hurriedly being taught how to make the sign of the cross, in true nuns on the run style. My mother literally told her, “my father used to have a funny rhyme, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch”, before dissolving into peals of laughter. She was instructed to take communion, simply by joining the queue and copying what everyone else does. When we went to the obligatory Masses on Parents’ weekends etc, I was horrified. Though my parents were totally charmed by the Headmistress in full Joyce Grenfell swing during the pre-Mass warmup of hymn singing “C’mon gels, give it some welly”, it all seemed very evangelical or Pentecostal to me. I equated Catholics with Gospel choirs and the Kenny Everett character with the big pointy hands.

My father was torn between abhorrence, embarrassment and hilarity. He chose the latter. One of the things that I’ve always admired about my father is that from an early age, he always taught me to think for myself and not to give two hoots about what anyone else ever thought. He never does. So during Mass he would literally hold his nose and belt out “Our God Reigns – Down the Drains” or “Jubilate Have a Chapati” as loud as he possibly could, before cackling evilly adding “utter tripe” in a not-so-sotto voce.

When I started at the school, my sister and I were summoned to a meeting at the Rector’s house one Saturday morning. He made the point that given we were both baptised Catholics, yet we regularly attended his church, a decision really needed to be made as to what denomination we were going to be. I was happy to stay as a C of E, the music and weirdness of the nuns at my school frankly terrified me, I had absolutely no interest in being a Catholic whatsoever, but obviously a decision needed to be taken about confirmation. We came home rather confused, told our parents that we had been told to choose, whereupon my mother, who has an inbuilt terror of nuns and consequences of not doing what we were told, rushed off to Sister Mary Francis, who decreed that we absolutely must be Catholics and therefore attend Mass with the boarders every Sunday morning.

So that’s what happened and subsequently I became a boarder. I never had any catechesis or took First Holy Communion, I simply lined up and copied what everyone else did. Genuflecting was never explained, it was just something that we all did in rows upon leaving the school chapel, and it took me years to work out what ON EARTH was that funny thing people did at the start of the Gospel. Why did everyone scratch their nose, chin and neck. I copied doing a funny thing with my thumb without having any idea what it was I was supposed to be doing and hoping that no-one would ever notice. I don’t think that they did.

Despite being an ostensibly Catholic school, there was absolutely no catechesis whatsoever. We all had to take Religion as a compulsory GCSE, but no talk of sacramentals whatsoever. The nuns seemed to do their own thing, so long as everyone went to Mass every Sunday and on Feast days that was it really. I don’t really remember much teaching on Catholic ethics either. It did feature as part of the GCSE, we covered abortion and euthanasia, but that was about it. Contraception was certainly talked about and covered in great detail. We had several informative talks from the local FPA clinics, we all knew about the methods that were available then, about condoms, the pill and the signs and symptoms of STDS, but no-one ever told us not to go and have sex, or that sex was evil, dirty and wicked, contrary to common perceptions about Catholic schools.

The liturgies were chock full of Taise, Farrell and Christopher Walker. We weren’t averse to the odd bit of liturgical dance. Once, as a punishment, from what I recall, a group of us were recruited to join Mr Reece’s Morris dancing club, in which we had to learn to Morris dance in time for the Christmas Carol service. I can never again hear “O Little Town of Bethlehem” without chanting rhythmically “step – caper” at the end of each line. Yes, Clare P and I danced, complete with strap-on bells, jangley sticks and waving of handkerchiefs in the Sanctuary in front of the altar. As did the modern dance group during the Good Friday liturgy. Nobody knew any different.

I could relate various anecdotes for hours, one of these days there is an autobiography dying to be written, but needless to say it was guitars galore. At Easter, everyone, day-girls included, had to stay for the entire weekend, engaging in various Easter activities, from baking Easter chicks with the hard-pressed kitchen staff, to desert island discs in Poles’ common room. (Sarah Askew very daringly brought along Madonna’s Like a Prayer, radical rebel that she was, and I thought it was cool and hard to bring It’s a Sin, by the Pet Shop Boys). There was some bizarre bonfire type activity as part of the vigil, involving people dancing around it in a manic fashion, pretending to be drunk on mulled wine and singing “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is Our Song”. I cringed, wore a black spotty shirt from Kensington Market on top of a Cure t-shirt and pretended I was cooler than the rest of them to hide my embarrassment.

So, given all of that, the fact that I am now a practicing Catholic, is something of a surprise. This is not a post for conversion story, but amusing reflection and reminiscences aside, I actually feel really rather cheated. I appreciate all of the intellectual arguments around the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, but I find it really hard to “get into”, probably because a trendy Novus Ordo is all that I am used to. The demands of young children don’t make this any easier, it is hard enough to concentrate, focus and pray at ANY form of the Mass, when you have 3 children to be keeping an eye on, and because my eldest isn’t used to the extraordinary form either, she finds it terribly boring. I am normally too self conscious about noisy babies and toddlers ruining the silence for other people, to get into the habit of attending. It’s one of the things, I have promised myself I will seriously explore when the children are a little older.

Though I have largely outgrown the happy-clappiness and charismatic music of my schooldays, I prefer the commons all sung and preferably in Latin, this has been an acquired taste, as has plainsong, which has as much to do with my father’s own musical tastes, than any Catholic upbringing. There are many Catholics of my age and older who have experienced, if not as zany, a similar liturgical upbringing. The Novus Ordo is what we are used to, and the Extraordinary Form, just seems alien. Pope Benedict has done much in terms of liturgical reforms, however it isn’t all filtering down to Parishes. The sung vigil Mass on a Saturday night in my parish is an altogether different and more preferable experience to the Sunday morning service which is tailored to families and seems to feature the same four hymns.

It’s a very hard balance, “One more step along the way I go” may be a crowd pleaser, but the problem is, for people who are brought up solely on this stuff, they are missing an important part of our cultural heritage as Catholics. It is not for nothing that we are part of the Latin rite. I am fortunate, in that unlike many I did Latin GCSE at school and hail from a musical family, so the chants are not unfamiliar, my father is also an aficionado of plainsong and high church liturgical music which was passed down to us as children, but for many, “If I were a butterfly” seems a perfectly reasonable thing to be singing in Church.

At the moment there seems to be a rather unnecessary divide between those who would prefer the EF Mass and those who are terrified that it’s going to become compulsory and must be stopped at all costs. I’m not sure that I understand it. In my world it would be horses for courses, those who want the EF should be able to access it as they wish, equally the Novus Ordo should not be spurned for those of us who have grown up with it and can’t quite get to grips with priests facing away from us, a silent canon and lots of incomprehensible gestures. But what we do need to ensure, is that non of our culture, none of our rich liturgical heritage is done away with. Having the Mass in the vernacular is one thing. Holding hands around the altar whilst singing the Caribbean Our Father quite another.

Rather than polarise the two camps, it seems sensible to keep the EF, but also gradually reform the Novus Ordo in order to more properly reflect the changes of Vatican II and get rid of the liturgical abuses that sets everyone’s teeth on edge. In that way, the EF may become more accessible to many and seen as complement, not a threat. The Lord is equally present through the sacrament at both kinds, even though the Heavenly Host may not be singing Colours of Day.

10 thoughts on “Lost liturgical heritage

  1. hello Caroline, Snap, fully agree, at my catholic secondary school it was as if the nuns were there in ‘order’only, as custodians probably more of the buildings than the girls as if they assumed that we knew everything already. Very odd really, and as an adult I also feel cheated, but at the same time also glad that I didn’t have more to do with them. Thankyou for posting, have only recently come across your blog, am part of a generation of women who are really ‘bewildered’ catholic mothers, keep strong in the face of adversity. Ultimately I try to focus on the feeling that Jesus and God and the holy family love and care for me, despite what I find in the priests, and petty politics of my local parishes. God Bless you and your family especially during your pregnancy.

  2. I went to St Aloysius in Oxford yesterday, to the 11 o’clock Latin Mass, i.e., Novus Ordo, but with the priests facing ad orientem (readings in English, of course, though propers in Latin). People knelt at the altar rail for Communion, and most received on the tongue. Beautiful. More accessible than the EF, yet capturing much of its solemnity and reverence. I wonder if that’s what we should have got after Vatican II?

  3. Ha! I went to the crap school in Trainspotting (no rly), so nothing was done on quite the same scale, but, mutatis mutandis, I have a very similar story!

  4. I’m glad I had finished my tea when I read about your liturgical dancing, otherwise I would have spat it all over the computer!

    Having been a Catholic for less than a year, I find some of the liturgy stuff a bit weird. Have a good solid, old fashioned Evangelical upbringing (the type that was completely Christ centric, with a real heart for the poor. Not the middle class, self obsessed new lot) it has taken me a long time to get my head round Catholic stuff and that is via the catholic end of the Anglican church which has its own weirdness.

    Latin mass? Extraordinary mass? At the moment it is just a step too far. What I have discovered this year is a deepening of my experience at mass. For many years the Eucharist has been really important and for a while after we were received into the Catholic Church, I had a loss of any sort of meaning. However out of this came a new experience. Here is my God offering me himself. This I already knew but it now seems to go to a deeper level. I can’t explain it. Probably silly to try. Actually the liturgy is there to support our experience of God. Maybe one day I will go to a mass where the priest faces the wall and I won’t feel like I have walked into a parallel universe, but whatever happens or whatever I feel like, Mass is where I find God in a way that I don’t anywhere else. Or maybe God finds me. Who knows.

  5. This is a very engaging post. I’m sure many readers will connect with the feeling of being unprepared, and having appallingly bad catechesis. I’m with you on the Latin Mass. Let those who want to go find one. To me it’s a bit like watching a Civil War re-enactment.

  6. I found it very interesting to read, especially how you just lined up for Communion without any proper instruction and had to figure it all out by yourself…Did you never do ‘First Communion’ at all? (I didn’t think that was ‘allowed’) I suppose your experience is more common than you think…here I know people who have their children baptised C of E, then go to the Catholic church from time to time, or vice versa…not knowing much of either. ‘It’s all the same’ they say…*sigh*…

    1. No, absolutely no instruction at all. I was terrified for years that I was doing it wrong. I think I was in my twenties when I learned that First Holy Communion was practiced by UK Catholics. Before then I thought it was a continental custom!

      1. Wow! And the Church never asked you to ‘catch up and go through the proper instruction’? It’s like, you did it for so long, it’s ‘okay’? I never really had much instruction either-back in Holland in 1989 I was asked a few questions to make sure I knew enough about the Catholic church, and was then baptised, confirmed and made my First communion all in one day! But I’ve never heard of ANYONE just ‘starting to receive’ and wondered what the rules are on that…I always thought the ‘white dresses’ and stuff was a British custom…in Holland boys and girls just wear their normal clothes (neat, but nothing special)

      2. No-one ever asked, I guess they presumed I had at some stage. It didn’t even come up at confirmation either. Mind you we didn’t get much confirmation instruction either from what I remember.

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