Over Christmas I read Brian Moore's brilliant little novel Catholics, which I strongly recommend to any readers of the Catholic Herald who have not yet got hold of it. I will not reveal the plot, but the story, set in the nottoo-far-distant future, concerns the attempt by the progressive-minded authorities in the Vatican to stamp out certain uncanonical practices in a little monastery situated off the West Coast of Ireland — practices which include the saying of the Mass in Latin. The theme of the novel is the uneasy relationship between faith, truth and obedience.
In one sense, of course, the story is not new. During the early Dark Ages, the Roman Papacy fought a hitter series of battles to impose its standardised practices on the ancient, churches of the Celtic world — in Brittany, in Ireland and Wales, in Scotland and in Northumberland, What was at issue was not so much the date of Easter, the form of the Tonsure, and other vexed questions which appeared to dominate the debates, as the conflict between a centralised religion, operating through urban bishoprics, and a semi-autonomous, de-centralised monastic way of life.
There is religious truth, and there is the truth of everyday life. The object of the liturgical reforms, I take it, is to bring these two truths into conjunction. The old Latin Mass is an obstacle to this process, for it uses a hieratic
language and emphasises the mystery and splendour of the divine sacrifice. The new Mass is closer to the truth of the Gospel and the realities of the world we live in.
But as Francis Bacon observed: "Truth is a naked and open day-light that doth not shew the masks and mummeries and triumphs of the world half so stately and daintily as candle-lights". Or again: "Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that sheweth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond or ruby that showeth best in varied lights."
Faith is an exercise in imagination, and imagination needs mystery to feed upon; it needs the hall-light. As St. Paul says, "now we see through a glass, darkly". If all is revealed in broad daylight, and every aspect of religion is shown as "relevant" to out ordinary existence, where is the role for faith?
The answer. I think, is that different people need different degrees of mystery, and different degrees of clarity. There is no such thing as a "perfect" liturgy, and it may therefore be a mistake to try to impose a standard one.
Moreover, any religious service depends, to some extent, on the celebrant. The old Latin mass made few demands on the imagination and intelligence of the priest. It was it ritual to be learnt, and its effectiveness lay in its essence.
The new services can be tremendously impressive and deeply stimulating. I know one little country church where the priest, a man of wide learning, great personal presence, a marvellous gift of speech and, above all, an overwhelming and burning zeal in the faith, turns every Sunday Mass into a unique and exciting experience.
But such men are rare. Indeed, if they were common, Christianity would have no problems — except perhaps a problem of authority, for such priests rarely make the lives of their Bishops easy!
As it is, the new services are often conducted in a lacklustre and unimaginative fashion by priests who, through no fault of their own, cannot make them living and relevant, and who would he much more comfortable with the old rites.
The new services, in short, require an elitist clergy, which we do not at present possess. We must either revolutionise the training of the clergy, in such a way as to attract the imaginative, and allow them to retain and expand their imaginations — or we must settle for a variety of ritual.
I have an uneasy feeling that neither course will be taken, and that we may indeed drift into the situation which Brian Moore has so movingly adumbrated.