This week’s print edition of The Catholic Herald, in this week’s Charterhouse column, contains a very remarkable article which you will not have seen on this website. It is a stinging critique, by John Gummer (also now confusingly known as Lord Deben), of the actions of the 11 Benedictine monks of Ramsgate Abbey, and in particular of their abbot. The Ramsgate Benedictines have moved into smaller and more manageable premises: and on doing so, they have put up many of their treasures for sale by auction. (For the Herald’s news report, see here.)
“What has shocked many in the Catholic world,” says Lord Deben, was “to put on the secular market the sacred vessels made for the abbey or bequeathed to it by generations of the faithful: chalices used by generations of abbots and inscribed by their donors”:
I went to the viewing to find heartbreaking examples of impiety. Under a table was a cardboard box full of assorted “silver plates and dishes”: the catalogue’s misdescription of patens inscribed in memory of those who loved the abbey and the Faith it had nurtured in them… There were altar candlesticks with the Benedictine insignia, monstrances and reliquaries, incense boats and cruets, higgledy piggledy with games trophies, sports cups and school shields.
Yet most outrageous of all were the chalices and patens. A recusant cup… was pushed in on a shelf of holy vessels displayed as if they were of no more account than a range of golf club tankards. Yet once they had held the blood of the Lamb. Given by the faithful, taken by their shepherds, now left to be bought by whoever, for whatever.
“If the monks felt that they no longer needed what they had been given,” Lord Deben concludes, “they should have given [it] where it could be used and valued”. There is frankly not much more to be said; and many will share his anger and disgust.
How typical of today’s religious is this, in my view, astonishing example of secularity? How is one to know? In the nature of things, lay Catholics know little of what goes on behind the closed doors of a religious community. And yet, there are visible signs that must mean something. In the same edition of the paper, we see (p11) a photograph of Archbishop Vincent Nichols with a group of Sisters representing female religious communities of the Diocese of Westminster. Of 14 sisters, only five (possibly six) are wearing habits: the rest just look like ordinary lay women with handbags (what could be more unambiguously secular than a handbag?) and one is actually wearing trousers and a polo neck sweater.
And yet successive popes have appealed to religious to wear their habits. Pope John Paul II, in his Post-Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata (1996) says this about the religious habit of consecrated persons:
§25 … The Church must always seek to make her presence visible in everyday life, especially in contemporary culture, which is often very secularized and yet sensitive to the language of signs. In this regard the Church has a right to expect a significant contribution from consecrated persons, called as they are in every situation to bear clear witness that they belong to Christ.
Since the habit is a sign of consecration, poverty and membership in a particular Religious family, I join the Fathers of the Synod in strongly recommending to men and women religious that they wear their proper habit, suitably adapted to the conditions of time and place.
True, he also says that “Where valid reasons of their apostolate call for it, Religious, in conformity with the norms of their Institute, may also dress in a simple and modest manner, with an appropriate symbol, in such a way that their consecration is recognisable.” But most of the Westminster ladies in the photograph, even if (which I very much doubt) there are “valid reasons of their apostolate” for them not to be wearing their habit, are wearing no such symbols, nor is their consecration in any way recognisable. The late Fr John Richard Neuhaus wrote that religious should wear their habits, not for tradition’s sake or because the dress matters in itself: what matters “is that the world be confronted by their consecrated lives, by the contrast between their radical devotion and the ways of the world: not to condemn the world but to call ‘the people of the world’ to their own potential for devotion.”
That is what generation after generation of Catholic religious have done: they have presented to the world a sign of contradiction, which lay clothes and handbags cannot do: and nor, in my view, can selling sacred vessels to the general public by the agency of secular auctioneers who describe them as “silver plates and cups”.
In the words of John Paul II in Redemptionis Donum (1984), his apostolic exhortation to religious on their consecration: “The world needs the authentic ‘contradiction’ provided by religious consecration, as an unceasing stimulus of salvific renewal. ‘Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rm 12:2).”
It is a question of the unambiguous witness which consecration to the religious life should present to the world. I ask simply, are we necessarily always getting that witness from our religious today? Perhaps there are occasions when they should ask that of themselves.