It is an interesting feature of the Catholic Directory for the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh that the name of an Old Rite priest appears in the official list of clergy, and his order, the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, in the table of congregations and orders attached to the diocese. Moreover, the Old Rite Masses are said, in a proper Catholic church, each Sunday at 11am, with Benediction on the last Sunday of each month. All with the blessing of the cardinal and archdiocese. What is going on in douce Edinburgh?
To find out more, I walked across the city to one of its most exclusive enclaves, and to a magnificent Victorian mansion which is the Edinburgh residence of the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, the Tridentine order of priests that accepts the authority of the Vatican, as opposed to the Society of St Pius X, which is in schism with Rome following the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s unlawful consecration of four bishops in 1988. The whole house, probably one of the finest in Edinburgh, was bequeathed to the Fraternity a couple of years ago by Mary Nielson, a wealthy convert who championed Una Voce Scotland, an organisation dedicated to the preservation of the Old Rite and also the proper and continued use of Gregorian Chant in the liturgy.
I must confess immediately that I approached the whole business with some wariness. I am not a traditionalist Catholic, and some whom I have encountered in the past, both clergy and laity, have come across to me as rather legalistic and constrained in their thinking, although always well-intentioned and kind. They can be so revisionist as almost to deny that the large blank canvas known as The Future actually exists. Too often they would revere customs and practices of the past to the extent that all that has happened since is best disregarded or forgotten about. I know that they themselves would consider this a caricature, but that is how they manifested themselves, to me at least.
It was a pleasant surprise to find that Fr John Emerson, the Fraternity priest in Edinburgh, is not like this. An immensely charming and personable Californian, he immediately put me at ease, being pleasantly inquisitive about any notions I hold about the Old Rite, thus perhaps subtly finding out about my own preconceptions of the whole thing. Although dressed in an immaculate black soutane, his manner was informal and relaxed. I asked him about his Catholic formation. After attending a Jesuit high school in San José, he entered the Dominican order in the Western Province of the United States. The Jesuits at school were excellent academically, but they only said two Masses in the whole school year, once at the beginning and then at the end. However, they were extremely good teachers in some recompense.
I asked what the attractions of the Dominican order were when he joined.
“The ability to go out into the world and be active in the world,” he explained, “and then to return back into the community at night was something I loved. And of course Thomism and Thomist theology.” But slipping standards, together with a desire to maintain the Old Rite, led him to look elsewhere, and that is why he entered the Society of St Pius X, at the time non-schismatic. He emphasised that he is not opposed to all reform, but Vatican II could have been done differently, and the various confrontations that followed could have been avoided. For example, the Old Rite could have been given greater protection and recognition. He remarked upon the support which the Old Rite has always enjoyed in the Vatican, being said regularly by Cardinal Dario Castrillón de Hoyos and the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He notes that Pope Benedict always supported the maintenance of the Old Rite, even during his “progressive” phase in the 1960s.
I asked Fr Emerson what he thought was the significance of the Old Rite. He argued that its preservation was not for the sake of romantic nostalgia or rigid authoritarianism, but because of its beauty and meaning. He stressed the word “re-sourcing” – looking again at the source of spirituality. He freely acknowledged that many people prefer the New Rite, in the vernacular, and since it is a lawful, valid Mass then it is up to them if they prefer to worship in this way. But Catholics should be allowed the option of the Old Rite if they prefer, and that is where he comes in, having an official apostolate within the archdiocese. It is at least worthy of investigation, he says, not least for all those young Catholics who may not have worshipped at Benediction, such is its rarity. Many Catholic churches in Scotland do not have Benediction at all, so this is something which the Fraternity is able to address, at least here in Edinburgh.
I found Fr Emerson refreshingly open-minded and creative in his thinking. He was well aware that society has changed considerably over the last 50 years, many social norms that prevailed then have gone forever and, in many respects, this is a good thing. But, he argued, this does not make the Old Rite less relevant. On the contrary, in this frenetic and fast-paced age, in which ambition and selfadvancement are seemingly everything, and nothing seems certain or secure, the timelessness and serenity of the Old Rite can provide strength and sustenance; this is what he means by “re-sourcing”. The Old Rite underlines the distinction between natural and supernatural, the sacred and worldly, as well as expressing the infinity which is God himself; what the Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols refers to as the “primordial mystery”. The Old Rite embodies, or inscapes, these unknowable mysteries, and that is what gives it power and efficacy.
Fr Emerson commented on the changes in attitudes to the Old Rite over the last five to 10 years. Before then, there was marked opposition to the whole idea if, for example, he visited a university chaplaincy. He was even invited to the Catholic students’ union of Edinburgh University as part of their “Controversial Figures” series back in the 1980s, simply because he was a Catholic priest who celebrated the Old Rite.
Things have changed considerably since then, he observed, and the response now is usually interest and a desire to find out more. People mourn the demise of Catholic parish life, he noted, not just for the changes in liturgy but also the way in which the parish acted as a catalyst for friendships, the maintenance of family contacts, and of course courtship and marriage, as well as the spiritual education of children. The demise of this parish family has proved to be a painful loss that many Catholics seek to reverse, without quite knowing how to go about doing so. I mention that radical social changes will make such a restoration difficult, but Fr Emerson understands things differently; it is because of this loss that many Catholics have learned, the hard way, to value that which has disappeared. This has caused a sense of dislocation, a loss of culture, and it is from this position that many, particularly young people, wish to find out more. The World Youth Day and the “tent city” in Wigratzbad in Bavaria in early August will attract tens of thousands of young people to traditional Old Rite liturgies, under the aegis of the Priestly Fraternity. This is proof that the Old Rite can achieve things with the very age group which the Church most fears losing.
I asked Fr Emerson about his now official apostolate in the archdiocese. He says Mass in the Old Rite on Sundays in a large Catholic church, St Andrews, Ravelston, and most weekdays in a small chapel that is part of the Fraternity’s residence. There is restoration to be completed on the house.
He speaks of the warmth and support given by Cardinal Keith O’Brien to the arrangements, and he comments on how much he loves living in Edinburgh, and how his Sunday congregation is going from strength to strength. It seems to me that this arrangement is a good example of the Old Rite and the New co-existing harmoniously in the same diocese, without the Old being relegated to 4pm on a Friday afternoon in a side chapel somewhere in the sticks.
I asked Fr Emerson what he thought were the chances of rapprochement between the Society of St Pius X (which he left after the events of 1988) and the Vatican. He remarked that as long as the SSPX demand the right to say Mass in a diocese, and as long as the Vatican delegates this decision to permit them to do so to the bishop of the diocese (many of whom will inevitably say no), then any reunion is ipso facto impossible.
As I wandered away from Belford Park I began to realise how some of my preconceptions of the Old Rite were inaccurate, because I am child of the 1960s for whom, as Dylan would have it, all that is modern is good, and all that is old is gone. I don’t suppose anyone or anything can turn this fortysomething, trendy liberal into a traditionalist Catholic, but I was very impressed by Fr Emerson’s commitment and enthusiasm.
He clearly does believe that which he espouses, something I am not always sure of in some clergy I have encountered; too often they seem almost apologetic about the proposals of the Faith, and uneasy about defending those proposals. With Fr Emerson there is certainly no such apology or uneasiness.
The sin of covetousness reared its head as I thought about the mansion I had just visited.
“What a house!” I remarked to myself enviously, imagining myself owning the place and stuffing it full of Heals furniture, before reality intervened and my own considerably more humble dwelling loomed into view.
John Graham is a freelance journalist based in Edinburgh