LOOKING BACK, I still wonder at the positive magic of Midnight Mass. Nothing could have been more discouraging than that this year it should begin on a Sunday night.
And yet there it was, perhaps more than ever an affair of the utmost and most popular drama. It begins at 11.30 and this is a district where decent folk begin to think they are living it up if they are still up and about at 10.30.
The church was strictly standing room only and the pews were crowded like one of those oriental omnibuses which are always falling over cliffs with no survivors.
We had our usual unlovely but well loved Crib. There had been the usual expensive scramble for flowers which this year had to be put in place at the last moment, after the Sunday Mass, before the Midnight one.
I think it happens almost everywhere, at least north of the Alps though not for some reason in Ireland. It happens most of all in a small parish like ours, where people genuinely know each other.
In England, Christmas Eve is not a great occasion for feasting. It is the lull before the storm. But then comes this unique explosion of joy in church which does not happen at Easter or Epiphany.
We had the usual carols and readings. An altar-boy called Dominick began, and read with unfaltering clarity. Indeed eight readers in all took part, and that is not counting the priest.
We knew the carols. Unbelievably — for we have no choir — a group of friends had got together and sang, unaccompanied and astonishingly well, the Introit to Midnight Mass. It is the one that has the versicle which runs to the effect: "Why are the people making such a fuss and all the good people behaving like idiots?"
They sang it in plainsong, which is not a thing likely to be undertaken outside a monastery. Another group sang a Christmas anthem during the interminable Communions.
And although it lasted for an hour and a quarter, the last "Come All Ye Faithful" was sung like melodious thunder.
We have a small and delightful Victorian organ which Anglicans sold to us at a Christian price from a redundant church. On this night, it was augmented by a fiddle and a cello.
There is probably a Motu Proprio against such goings on. No matter, we sounded like a whole 18th century village at prayer with shawins. serpents,
flageolets and cornets in the choir-loft.
And the congregation which roared at God was more than a fair cross-section. The young men had brought their girls, and viceversa. Catholics had brought their non-Catholic partners. The young predominated.
Getting away was an ordeal. Such a kissing in the porch! Such a shouting of wishes across the darkness! Such a slamming of car doors!
Diocese of love and loyalty
I READ that the diocese of Leeds has been celebrating its centenary. I was not there, but Charterhouse sends its congratulations like a shower of rather small copper coins. I bend over this century old cradle with love and wonder.
In fact the Catholic diocese of Leeds is a magnificent part of our Rude Island Story. It is a place of love and loyalty, if not always of loveliness. And the alliteration there was accidental or the result of a natural bad taste.
The Catholic diocese of Leeds includes cities like Bradford and Sheffield and part of York. When territorial bishoprics were restored to the Catholics by Pius IX in 1850, the Bishopric of Beverley was established.
The Catholics were at pains to take none of the ancient and existing titles, so there were no Roman bishops of Canterbury, York, London or Winchester. Their titles were more prosaic and suited better the depressed and industrial nature of their flock.
In addition this restoration of the hierarchy, announced in a somewhat baroque manner by Cardinal Wiseman in a letter from outside the walls of the City of Rome, had aroused a hearty English explosion against an act of "Papal Aggression".
Indeed, the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, had seen "The Ecclesiastical Titles Bill" through the House which made it illegal for anyone to take over any of the ecclesiastical titles in use in the kingdom.
In fact, Rome, seldom very aware of the more exquisite English sensitivities but always full of admiration for English taste and influence, had no intention of doing any such thing.
So now in those cities where there is both an Anglican and a Roman prelate, as there is for example in Liverpool — the Anglican bishopric is in fact of a later creation than the Catholic one.
The episcopal history of the Leeds diocese was at first glance so odd as to be almost eccentric. But, in fact, celibacy seems often to bring out a creative and hilarious eccentricity in both men and women. The funniest university storries are about unmarried dons.
The annals of the Church of England are illustrated by their
unmarried and ever-so-slightly dotty men of God. The bishops of Leeds have been rich in this well loved, though disconcerting. British tradition.
The original diocese set up in 1850 was that of Beverley. This, in 1878. was divided into Leeds and Middlesbrough. William Gordon became Bishop of Leeds in 1890. He was, frankly, a hadtempered man and was known to lash out a bit, and that physically, with his crozier. For his last five years in the See, he was more or less incapable of running the diocese.
In 1910 there was Bishop Cowgill, who loved children and was a great founder of orphanages. He carried sweets for the children, but, a very gentle person, could seldom bring himself to give direct orders or to reprimand. In 1936, there was Bishop Henry Poskitt. He was a convert from the Anglican Faith and was and is, in memory, still greatly loved.
He was a very shy, almost aloof sort of person. He was a holy man, but he was also devoted to innocent agricultural pursuits, to the keeping of bees and pigs and goats. He died in 1950 and the See was vacant for a year.
So Fr John Carmel Heenan was consecrated into this succession. He set out to influence his whole diocese, and if this meant taking his clergy for granted and expecting a suicidal obedience from them, no matter—as long as the people were served and kept on fire with the love of God and the Church.
Those who got to know him well revered him. Those who knew him from afar felt a personal friendship for him. Those who had to deal professionally with him in some routine manner were often disgruntled, and they hankered for the gentleness of Bishop Poskitt.
The present Bishop, William Gordon Wheeler, is the sort of person whom I respect. He is the most gentle and generous of bishops.
Once I had to talk with him about someone. I think I said that the fellow was a bit over enthusiastic, because he was a convert. I remember exactly what the Bishop replied: "Patrick. I quite understand. 1 am one myself."
So to a most civilised bishop, to a most exciting part of England, and to a living and growing diocese — to the whole lot: Ad mottos annos.
THE DEAN of Canterbury, the Very Rev Victor de Waal, began a letter last week to the Catholic Herald with a dire phrase: "It is a great pity that Patrick O'Donovan (December 15) did not take the trouble to make contact with any of the cathedral staff when he visited Canterbury recently".
This is the shot across the bows from the larger and more heavily armed ship that is meant to halt some impertinent freebooter in his course. But not, I think, this time!
It has been my custom in the past to sail on, battered sometimes, sunk once or twice, but anyway trying to avoid con
But the Dean is dead right. It was a pity that I did not consult somebody on the subject of Masses and ecunemical services within the Cathedral. But then I was not writing about that.
I was making the impractical and impertinent suggestion that a chapel be put on one side — until such time as inter-communion becomes a fact — for the use of Catholics who go to Canterbury with full and, if the truth he told, slightly deprived-feeling hearts.
But I am sorry that this little acerbity has developed between my favourite Cathedral and me. I have written several times in The Observer and its magazine about its appeals and its achievements in conservation. I have even helped a little. More than that. I once gave a lecture from the pulpit in the nave.
It was something to do with the anniversary of St Thomas Becket. It was not an altogether happy occasion.
First the Jacobean pulpit there towers like a gibbet and 1 have a great intolerance of heights and held on tight throughout my reading of a carefully prepared script. I was frightened.They were bored.
Then there is the echo. The nave was built by the king's architect, Henry Yevele, who either did not know about acoustics or else they spoke very carefully and slowly to the pilgrims who really were only there for the Shrine.
So your words from on high come rolling back at you like turgid waves and you have to speak as slowly as a magician with a spell. I was asked to speak for 50 minutes and I am afraid I did. Perhaps the Dean harbours the memory of a very legitimate grievance.
The Dean also takes me to task for not having mentioned that in the easternmost chapel of the Cathedral, there is a new memorial to the saints and martyrs of our time. The trouble is that I never saw it and it is not mentioned yet in the handsome guide-book.
True, I was going on about Cardinal Pole to my American guest, but there was a barricade of heaped-up chairs — perhaps as the result of one of these Masses he writes of. I do not know. (There is, incidentally, an historically inaccurate interpretation of Pole in the guide-book.) But how marvellous that in such an urbane and civilised shrine the name of St Maximilian Kolbe shoulld be commemorated somewhere. He was the Polish friar who chose to die in place of someone married while he was in a concentration camp.
And anyone who has been, say, to Auschwitz, will know of the deadly dreariness and vulgarity and banal horror of such places. Kolbe was left to die of starvation and took so long over it that at last they killed the cheerful man with an injection.
Not that Canterbury has always been that safe. I can think of five archbishops who have died violently — Alphege (drunken Danes); Thomas Becket (Norman knights who misunderstood their orders, much as Lord Cardigan did at the Charge of the Light Brigade); Simon of Sudbury (revolting peasants); Cramer (papists!) Laud (AntiRoyalists).
I cannot recall and do not anticipate the violent end of any Dean in history. So — Pax!