Saturday, 29 March 2008

Parish Life 200 Years Ago

Some of you will know Catholic London A Century Ago, first published in 1905 by Bernard Ward (later first bishop of Brentwood). There are some fascinating details about English Catholic life two hundred years ago, in the aftermath of the Catholic Relief Acts of 1778 and 1791:
  • Catholic churches looked very different from the ones built later in the nineteenth century - no side altars, minimal decoration and divisions in the church seating for the different classes of person. The best seats cost a shilling or sixpence and could be found in the 'Tribune' or the 'Enclosure' immediately in front of the sanctuary. You can see such privileged positions in the picture above of the old Sardinian Chapel (the ancestor of SS Anselm and Cecilia, Kingsway). The poorer members stood behind in the 'Body of the Church' and this section often had its own communion rail. I wonder if this is one reason why so many Catholics instinctively tend to sit at the back of the church?!

  • Apparently, 'the subdeacon of the [High] Mass was usually the preacher, but before the sermon he would disappear into the sacristy to take off his tunicle and come out to preach in cotta and stole.'

  • Confessionals were rare. Ward writes that 'there are those still alive who have described the scene on a Saturday evening, when the line of penitents were kneeling all up the stairs of the priest's house, taking their turns for admissions to his room.'
  • There is a wonderful description of Tenebrae that has come down to us thanks to Thomas Doyle, later Provost of Southwark. He wrote (and it is quoted by Ward): 'Dr Bramston used to describe with much effect the Tenebrae in Castle Street, Holborn, where he, a limb of the law [before ordination], and Charles Butler, another limb, and the Rev. Mr Lindow, and Bishop Douglass, met in the “Episcopal palace” in an upper chamber, at the fourth house on the right hand – and a dirty, dingy, shabby-genteel house it was – for the purpose of reciting the Divine Office. They met and separated, too thankful that even that much was done, and hoped for better days.’ Many churches followed the French custom of decorating the 'Easter sepulchre' with empty chalices and other church plate.

  • Priests no longer wore wigs in the nineteenth century but tended to powder their hair - the first to discard the custom of powdering before singing Mass was Dr Weathers, later Auxiliary to Cardinal Manning (ordained priest 1838). When whiskers became fashionable, priests sported what was called the 'clerical inch' so as not to draw attention to themselves. Interestingly, the first priest in England to wear black clothing (rather than brown or other sober colours) was Joseph Berington, considered by many of his contemporaries as an 'arch-liberal' and Cisalpine - his writings shared many of the proposals of the 1786 Synod of Pistoia (eg Mass in the vernacular, greater democracy in the Church, etc).

  • Ward writes: 'A custom of administering wine from the chalice to children with whooping-cough lasted on till my own time - it was administered to myself under these circumstances - but I have never heard of its being done in recent years.' He adds in a footnote that he had heard 'that there are one or two parishes in London in which the practice still obtains' at the time of writing (1905). I assume the wine was unconsecrated. Does anyone know anything more about this strange practice?


Friday, 28 March 2008

The Legend of Borley

An atmospheric English churchyard an hour or so before sunset, complete with clipped yew trees and locked church. Just the sort of place where you might imagine strange goings-on.

As I was touring the Essex/Suffolk border on Tuesday, I noticed a sign to Borley. This tiny village had been a cause celebre in the 1930s, when Borley Rectory (which has since burnt down) was named 'the most haunted house in England.' Many suspect the whole affair was faked but the myth of Borley continues and there is talk of a film being made.

The central figure in the story is that of a phantom nun who could often be seen walking across the rectory garden - indeed, the Victorian Rector, Henry Bull, even built a summer house so that he could sit and watch her pass by.

There were two theories as to her identity. One was that she belonged to a nunnery that had stood on the site before the Reformation (though there is no evidence for this), had fallen in love with a local monk and was consequently - you can guess what is coming - walled-up alive. Of course, such punishments simply did not exist, even in the 'barbaric' Middle Ages. The Jesuit scholar Fr Herbert Thurston showed a century ago how tales of walled-up nuns were a confusion with anchorites who had voluntarily immured themselves in order to live a life of prayer and penance. It is interesting, incidentally, how many seemingly quaint ghost stories have anti-Catholic streaks concerning monks and nuns who meet a sticky end.

The other version of events is more credible. The nun, Sr Maria Laire, had belonged to a convent in or near Le Havre (perhaps one of the many English foundations in what is now Belgium and northern France) but had left in order to marry a member of the Waldegrave family in Borley. This family was Catholic and Mass was often said at their home in penal times. The story goes that the relationship did not work out and that the exclaustrated nun was murdered. A hundred years ago a skeleton was found in the grounds of the Rectory, along with a medal of St Ignatius, which was thought to be that of the poor girl.

I remembered reading about all this years ago, so I was glad to have seen the village. However, we shouldn't be too curious about such stories and can content ourselves by trusting in the Lord and praying for any Holy Souls who need our suffrage. I certainly didn't see anything strange during my five-minute stop at Borley, beyond my travelling companion (a young priest from Southwark) suddenly leaping out at me from behind one of the clipped yews...


Thursday, 27 March 2008


These ruins were once one of the largest churches in medieval Europe - the Abbey at Bury St Edmund's in Suffolk. The tower in the background, which belongs to the Anglican Cathedral, was only completed a few years ago. The first monastic community here was founded in 633 and it had grown in fame and wealth after the translation in 903 of the relics of St Edmund of East Anglia, King and Martyr:

He had been killed by the Danes (869) - captured, shot by arrows and then decapitated, his head later being found by a friendly wolf - and his shrine became one of the great spiritual treasures of England. It is hard to imagine what the great Abbey looked like, though some idea of the magnificence can be gained from this surviving gatehouse:

'Bare ruin'd quires' have been very much on my mind these last few days. Not only did I visit St Edmundsbury on Tuesday but this morning there was a very interesting Radio 4 programme on the Dissolution, with some of our leading historians - you can listen to it over the next week here. You may not agree with everything that is said, but it gives an insight into the cunning tactics of Henry VIII.
Then, the post brought me an Amazon packet containing Geoffrey Moorhouse's new book, The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery. It studies the Benedictine community at Durham and looks not only at monastic life on the eve of the Reformation and the process of Dissolution but also what happened to the monks afterwards.

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Friday, 21 March 2008

Good Friday - and the 400th Anniversary of a Martyrdom

Just returned from today's Solemn Liturgy, followed by some time in the confessional. Switching on EWTN I was pleased to be able to watch some of the action from St Peter's and also to see that the three chasubles we wore here in Hackney were not dissimilar to that worn by the Holy Father (see pictures above, courtesy of NLM)!

On Good Friday we commemorate the death of Our Lord and we pray for the strength to carry our own crosses, whatever they might be. Today, as it happens, is the 400th anniversary of the martyrdom of Blessed Matthew Flathers, who had a very obvious share in Good Friday.

A Yorkshire man by birth, he was educated at Douai and ordained at Arras in 1606. Soon afterwards he returned to the English Mission and was arrested almost immediately, in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.He was banished but managed to return to Yorkshire and, after his second capture, condemned to death 'for his priestly character.' He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Micklegate, York on 21 March 1608.

According to Bishop Challoner, 'he was butchered in a most barbarous manner; for he was no sooner turned off the ladder [to hang], but immediately cut down; and rising upon his feet, attempted to walk, as if half stunned; but one of the Sheriff's men quickly stopt his journey, by giving him a desperate cut on the head with his halberd; another violently flung him down, and held him fast while the executioner ripped up his breast, pulled out his heart, and so completed the butchery.'

Blessed Matthew Flathers, pray for us!

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Thursday, 20 March 2008

Maundy Thursday

I've just celebrated the Mass of the Lord's Supper. There were about 500 present and much excitement was caused amongst the servers when they thought they spotted a member of the Kaiser Chiefs in the congregation (they are an indie rock band and I see from wikipedia that three of them attended a Catholic school in Leeds, so I suppose the sighting is credible).

Although there have been many preparations to make these last few days, it hasn't really 'felt' like Holy Week, perhaps because of the early date of Easter and the unusually cold weather (we're half-expecting a white Easter, even down in the south-east). However, now that the first of the ceremonies is over, there is a sense of the grreat drama of our salvation unfolding. The thing I love about these days as a priest is that all the bureaucracy, meetings and 'other responsibilities' (like, for me, the archive) take a secondary place and we can concentrate on what is truly important, the unum necessarium. This is helped by the ceremonies, with their changing themes and moods - I especially love the sudden change tonight from the splendour of the Mass and procession to the Altar of Repose to the starkness and severity of the stripping of the altars, as we prepare for Good Friday.

Talking of drama, I was very sorry to hear of the death of my namesake, Paul Scofield (though he spelt his surname without an 'h'), the great actor who so memorably played St Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1966). May he rest in peace and may St Thomas intercede for him.

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Tuesday, 11 March 2008

A Link in a Chain

This morning I gave an 'input' at a Day of Recollection for the Westminster Sick and Retired Clergy. There were 18 present, including two nonagenarians and a smattering of monsignori. I was very aware that there were several centuries-worth of priestly experience in the room while I could only claim 5 years!

My theme was the history of the diocese and the fact that we are links in the great chain of faith, acting as a bridge between yesterday and tomorrow. I wanted to pay tribute to the many extraordinary priests who had a key role in the growth of the Church in London (just as much as the bishops!) and who are now largely forgotten. There are Victorian missionaries like Fr Henry Hardy, who single-handedly founded five parishes in Hertfordshire, or Fr George Bampfield, whose Institute of St Andrew (based at Barnet) established many rural missions. There are writers and novelists like Ronald Knox, Robert Hugh Benson and Owen Francis Dudley, and the many pioneer priests from Ireland. One could even mention the two priests of the diocese who died on the Titanic and the Lusitania - Fr Thomas Byles and Fr Basil Maturin.

I was keen also to encourage the priests to record their memories and to look at the personal papers and photos that they may possess. Dioceses are not like religious Orders - there can be little sense of continuity in parishes and old papers often end up in the dustbin. Indeed, priests so often live solely in the present moment and it can be hard to look beyond the current page of the diary! Yet I'm increasingly aware if that if something isn't done about it soon, much anecdotal evidence from the pre-conciliar years will soon disappear.


Another English Grand Master!

Good news from the Order of Malta today:

Frà Matthew Festing, 59, an Englishman, becomes the 79th Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, elected this morning by the Council Complete of State (the Order’s electoral body). In accepting the role, the new Grand Master swore his Oath before the Cardinal Patronus of the Order, Cardinal Pio Laghi, and the electoral body. He succeeds Fra’Andrew Bertie, 78th Grand Master (1988-2008), who died on 7 February.

The new Grand Master affirms his resolve to continue the great work carried out by his predecessor. Fra’ Matthew comes with a wide range of experience in Order affairs. He has been the Grand Prior of England since the Priory’s re-establishment in 1993, restored after an abeyance of 450 years. In this capacity, he has led missions of humanitarian aid to Lebanon and Kosovo after the recent disturbances in those countries, and with a large delegation from Britain he attends the Order’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes with handicapped pilgrims.

Educated at Ampleforth and Trinity College Cambridge, where he read history, Frà Matthew, an art expert, has for most of his professional life worked at an international art auction house. As a child he lived in Malta and Singapore, where his father, Field Marshal Sir Francis Festing, Chief of the Defence Staff, had earlier postings. His mother was a member of the recusant Riddells of Swinburne Castle who suffered for their faith in penal times. He is also descended from Sir Adrian Fortescue, a knight of Malta, who was martyred in 1539.

Frà Matthew served in the Grenadier Guards and holds the rank of colonel in the Territorial Army. He was appointed OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) by the Queen and has served as her Deputy Lieutenant in the county of Northumberland for a number of years.

In 1977 Frà Matthew became a member of the Order of Malta, taking solemn religious vows in 1991. As well as his passion for the decorative arts and for history, for which his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the Order is legendary, as is his very British sense of humour, Frà Matthew spends any free time possible in his beloved Northumberland countryside.


Sunday, 9 March 2008

Displaced Feasts

This year's early Holy Week has caused considerable confusion due to the displacing of some popular feasts. In this diocese, the Solemnity of St Joseph is transferred to Saturday but, strictly speaking, St Patrick's Day (falling on Holy Monday) is not transferable since it is not a Solemnity in this country. However, I think many parishes will be organising some sort of commemoration at the end of the week for 'pastoral reasons.'

Today we remember St Frances of Rome (above), although she is obviously displaced by the Sunday. This is a pity because I rather like her and fondly remember taking the morning off lectures in Rome so that I could pay my respects to the saint at the Tor de'Specchi convent. I wrote a little about her last year, in case you're interested - Santa Francesca Romana.


Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Goodbye to the World

I've just had an extraordinary evening. A member of the parish's young adults group is entering an enclosed Benedictine monastery on Friday. So, tonight a group of us went to a local Indian to bid her farewell. I'm not sure how to refer to such a gathering - not quite a Hen Night but certainly a closing of a chapter in her life! Yet, although the parting of friends is not easy, I think her heart is already in the convent and she is visibly excited about becoming a postulant.

She is the second religious vocation from the parish this year - another girl has just joined the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate. Please remember them in your prayers, together with all young people discerning their vocation.

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Saturday, 1 March 2008

Leeks and St David

St David's life got off to an unpromising start when he was born on top of a cliff during a violent storm. However, since he came from a wealthy (possibly royal) background he was given a good education, thanks to St Paulinus, and eventually became a monk and bishop. He travelled around Wales, Cornwall and Brittany - which formed part of a sort of 'Celtic alliance' that was culturally and politically separate from Saxon England; these regions share many saints. St David founded churches and monasteries, including what is now the Cathedral of St David in Pembrokeshire.

He was involved in the struggle against Pelagianism (a heresy that originated in Britain) and, on one occasion as he was preaching against it during a Synod, the ground rose under him and lifted him up so that all could see and hear him. A dove also rested on his shoulder, a sure sign of God's favour.

But, you may ask, why the association with leeks (sometimes substituted by the more attrractive-looking daffodil)? After all, there are not many saints who are associated with vegetables. There are different theories. Some say that St David got Welsh soldiers to wear leeks in their helmets to distinguish them from the pagan Saxons in battle and that this was regarded as a sign of God's protection - though this could be a later tradition (perhaps associated with the battle of Agincourt, 1415) that was back-dated to the time of St David.

More plausible is the fact that St David lived an austere life, following a diet of water, herbs and vegetables - including the leek. He was known as the 'man of water,' for he drank nothing else and sometimes stood in a freezing cold lake, with water up to his neck, saying his prayers. A strict life that enabled him to reach the age of 147!

So the leek calls to mind the saint's austerities - including his vegetarianism long before it became fashionable - and so is appropriate food for thought as we approach the fourth Sunday of Lent.

St David, pray for us!


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