The general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, it seems, has been given the job of thinking up ways of revitalising Lent; also of looking into ways of restoring the custom of Friday fasts. Not only that: according to the Herald’s report: “The move comes in a bid to restore public manifestations of Catholicism following the Pope’s visit which was widely hailed as a success.”
Well, cor love a duck. Who’d ’a thought it? The most unlikely people are being drawn in to this incipient wave of Benedict-inspired restorationism. Bishop Kieran Conry, in an Advent message to the fortunate people of Arundel and Brighton, has put his episcopal weight behind what would surely this time last year have seemed to him to be an unseemly nostalgia for an era before all these old popular devotions were swept away by “the spirit of Vatican II”. Anyway, Bishop Kieran, inspired by the Pope, is now all for bringing back fish on a Friday:
“This was one of the most obvious signs of Catholic identity, apart from going to Mass. It determined the diet in places like prison and hospital, and was something that Catholics were instinctively conscious of: we knew that we couldn’t have meat like everybody else that day, and it was a source of a sort of pride – it marked us out as different.
“Today we are perhaps less willing to be marked out, in case we are marked out as not just different, but ‘odd’. And that is what we had been told, and began to believe.
“But the Pope’s visit has said to us that this is not ‘odd’, but that it’s actually important. A few years ago I suggested that we might take up another of those old Catholic practices, grace before meals, if we had lost the habit of it. It’s not difficult, doesn’t take much time, but it’s a gentle reminder.”
You might argue that nothing stops us from eating fish on a Friday as it is. Actually, in our household we do: but the point is we do it now as a sort of private devotion rather than as an expression of the fact that we are part of the life of the Church. We used to do it, in fact, even when we were Anglicans, as a sign of solidarity with the Catholic tradition: that, too was just a personal devotion. It would be wonderful if our bishops now actually said, in terms, that the old tradition is now restored by their authority, and formally pronounced that we ought not to eat meat on a Friday without good reason.
It would be good, too, as we’re on about penitential practice, if Bishop Kieran now publicly changed his mind about regular confession being a waste of time; but that’s maybe going a little too fast for now and we should give thanks that he has said what he has in fact said.
But while we’re about it, if we are bringing back customs that “marked us out as different”, can we now have our Holy Days of Obligation back? I vividly remember, before I was a Catholic, how impressed I was on some such day, perhaps Corpus Christi, walking past Westminster Cathedral and seeing hundreds of people spilling out of church after a Mass that had obviously been attended by many at some considerable inconvenience to themselves. As Pastor Juventus memorably put it just after the craven shift of all holy days to the nearest Sunday had been effected, “as a reminder that the obligation to worship is imposed on us by God himself and is not subject to our convenience, it is my opinion that this universally unpopular change should be reversed forthwith”.
I remember, some years ago, arguing on the radio about precisely this topic with the then (I think) Mgr Conry when he was still in charge of what I always thought of as the Catholic disinformation Office. He had his way in the end: but perhaps, in his newfound enthusiasm for Pope Benedict and for the old ways now being revived in the afterglow of the papal visit, might he now change his mind about this one, too?
I would like to keep the Epiphany on Twelfth Night, January 6, and not, as the English calendar ludicrously lays down this liturgical year, January 2 (I’m not kidding). At St Peter’s, Rome, incidentally, it will be kept on the proper day. What’s good enough for the pope ought to be good enough for the English and Welsh Church. How about it, Archbishop Vincent?