Damian Thompson sniffs the incense of a revolution among Britain’s parish priests
For a moment it looks as if a fire has broken out in the chapel. A cloud of smoke is billowing from the back and rolling down the aisle – and it is fiercely pungent. This is grade A incense, pure enough to guarantee an instantaneous spiritual high.
A young man walks through the door swinging a thurible on a gold chain. He passes it to a priest, deacon and subdeacon – all in gold vestments – who take turns wafting it at each other. Finally, the subdeacon turns round and, bowing low, shoots plumes of smoke diagonally across the choir stalls with the accuracy of a mid-fielder taking a difficult corner.
We are witnessing an unusual sight: a Roman Catholic solemn mass, celebrated according to an ancient Latin rite effectively outlawed 40 years ago. And it’s taking place in the 13th-century chapel of Merton college, Oxford, which has been Anglican for 400 years.
Just for a week, however, it has gone back to being Catholic – but this is not Catholicism as most people know it. I’m at the summer school of the Latin Mass Society which – to the delight of the conservative Pope Benedict XVI and the dismay of trendy British bishops – is teaching priests how to say the Tridentine mass.
The last time Merton chapel regularly witnessed this sort of complex liturgy was in the 1540s, before the Protestant reformers pulled out much of the stained glass and toppled the statues of saints. The organi-sers of the summer school are reformers, too, but their aim is precisely the opposite: to restore Latin services and rich furnishings to their own Catholic parish churches, many of which were stripped bare by modernisers after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
What makes this summer school rather controversial is that most of the bishops of England and Wales disapprove of the return of the Latin mass, regarding its sonorous Latin prayers and intricate gestures as a relic of the Middle Ages. Until recently, the Tridentine mass could be celebrated only with a bishop’s permission, usually granted grudgingly for special occasions. Then, in July last year, Pope Benedict XVI swept away the right of bishops to ban the old services. Most of them were horrified.
So these are tense times. But the 60 priests who have gathered at Merton college – to brush up their skills or to learn the Tridentine mass from scratch – are careful to avoid talk of civil war in the church. All are aware that this autumn, Pope Benedict is expected to announce a successor to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, who presides over a liberal “magic circle” of bishops unsympathetic to the Pope’s reforms. Will Benedict break the circle that has run the English church for 40 years?
Whoever gets the job, however, nobody expects a sudden return to the Tridentine mass in parishes all over the country. The seminaries do not teach priests how to say it and teaching yourself is difficult. A glance at the manual explains why: “Bring the thumb of each hand over the upper front edge of the paten [communion plate], tilting it to let the host slide off onto the crease of the front-centre fold of the corporal [linen cloth]. Place your left hand on the altar and with your right hand set the paten halfway under the right edge of the corporal.” And all the while saying: “. . . pro innumerabilibus peccatis, et offensionibus, et negligentiis meis, et pro omnibus circumstantibus . . .”
Interestingly, the most traditionalist priests here are also the youngest – and I spot four in the choir stalls who are popular bloggers on the internet. Walking down the high street later, I encounter two clergy wearing the old-fashioned soup-plate hats beloved of Italian village padres. One of them has long knotted tassels dangling from the brim, “so I can tie them round my neck when I ride my horse through the parish”.
A priest who looks barely out of his teens explains what he does when unsolicited copies of The Tablet – a liberal Catholic magazine that opposes the Latin revival – arrive at his church: “I painstakingly remove the staples and feed it into the shredder. It’s time-consuming, but God’s work.”
Most of the other priests at the summer school are less extreme: they have come because they are curious about the Latin mass and they can scent change in the air. “We’re not trying to turn them into traditionalists,” says Father Andrew Wadsworth, an authority on the old rite who is conducting classes. “We want to show priests how the underlying principles of the traditional liturgy can deepen their understanding of their priesthood.”
Father John Boyle, a parish priest in Ashford, Kent, recently taught himself to say the Tridentine mass by watching a DVD. “It’s made a profound difference to the way I celebrate the new mass in English,” he says. “There’s greater reverence now. I’m more of a celebrant and less of a compere.”
I sense a huge contrast with the atmosphere at the first Merton summer school in August 2007. Then, I was allowed to poke my head round the door of a training session. Now, Wadsworth lets me watch him take a priest right through the opening sequence of a Latin mass in a student’s room, using a reversed bookcase as an altar.
The priest, Canon Michael McCreadie, is in his fifties – yet today is the first time in his life that he has acted out the ancient gestures. He removes an invisible biretta (it’s a pretend mass). “Now, father, keep your hands joined,” Wadsworth reminds him. “Go to the centre of the altar, not touching it . . . left hand flat on the page. No, you should be over here,” and he gently turns his pupil towards the window.
After half an hour, we are still only five minutes into the order of service, but McCreadie is elated: “I wasn’t looking forward to saying the old mass, but after today I most certainly am.”
It’s only now I discover that he is dean of Leeds Cathedral. A year ago there were no senior main-stream clerics at the summer school. Later in the day, even more significantly, the Rev Malcolm McMahon, the Bishop of Nottingham, celebrates old rite pontifical vespers wearing a jewelled mitre and an embroidered cope that even Cardinal Wolsey might have considered over the top.
McMahon, a Dominican, is left-wing in his politics and certainly not part of a traditionalist faction – but nor does he belong to the politically correct, back-slapping magic circle. At dinner later, he effectively breaks ranks with his fellow bishops by unambiguously endorsing Pope Benedict’s vision of a church in which the old and new rites coexist. The traditionalists give him a standing ovation and a verse of God Bless our Pope.
He also tells Father Tim Finigan, author of the Hermeneutic of Continuity, the most influential of all the conservative blogs, to keep writing. Which is interesting, given that the Bishops’ Conference would dearly like to stop that particular blog.
Afterwards, Finigan writes: “Bishop McMahon has certainly won the hearts of the priests . . . All of a sudden, there is someone that many priests loyal to Pope Benedict will be watching closely . . . ecce sacerdos magnus!”
That’s Latin for “behold the great priest”. Those words will be read carefully in the Vatican, where Pope Benedict has been informed that the magic circle is desperate to install one of its own as the next cardinal. He isn’t pleased. Watch this space.
Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald