I used to be too snooty to appreciate an 'ordinary' Mass. Now lay ministers, altar girls, even an exuberant sign of peace – they don't bother me in the least
At the Easter Vigil, I found myself with my right hand resting on the right shoulder of a young friend, David Oldroyd-Bolt, who was being received into the Catholic Church. On his left shoulder rested the hand of my former Daily Telegraph colleague Dr Tim Stanley, a historian who is also television critic of this magazine.
We were David’s co-sponsors. The priest anointing him was Fr Julian Large, who in a previous incarnation was also a Telegraph journalist; in those days he was still an Anglo-Catholic – or “dyed-in-the-wool Protestant”, as I used to tease him.
David had been an Anglo-Catholic, too, and I’m afraid I subjected him to the same ribbing. That may have been why he did me the honour of asking me to co-sponsor him: at least that way he could prove to me that he’d done the right thing.
What a way to enter into full communion with the Holy See! I don’t just mean the comedy of being surrounded by former and current Telegraph hacks: the service itself was magnificent.
Not since the heyday of the Borgias have such finely wrought gold vestments been displayed to the faithful, worn by clergy with hair parted with rulers and trimmed with the utmost severity by Geo F Trumper of Jermyn Street. Plus vintage specs of a design that even Pius XII might have thought outmoded.
You’ll have worked out that the church was the London Oratory, where they don’t exactly rush the Triduum: I was there for two and a half hours. Services at the Oratory have a grandeur all of their own – choreographed to a standard that you won’t find in Rome or, indeed, Old Rite ceremonies staged by the Latin Mass Society. (Not to be mean, but I’ve never seen so much flapping and semaphoring as I did at the last LMS Requiem I attended.)
Also, counter-intuitively, there’s a refreshing absence of High Church campery at the Oratory. This is a function of the seriousness of its theology: it preaches the Magisterium with a purity that contrasts starkly with the waffle emanating from certain members of the College of Cardinals. You’re never far from the Four Last Things in an Oratorian sermon.
I’d forgotten what an enormous church it is. I ordered my Uber from the front row and by the time I reached the door it was waiting outside. But before I scuttled off I said to David: “Next Sunday, go to an ordinary parish. Then you’ll really get a sense of what you’ve joined.”
This wasn’t meant as an insult. I’ve always liked the title of a book of essays for would-be converts edited by Joanna Bogle: Come on in… it’s awful! When that was published, 22 years ago, the average liturgy was awful and my goodness I banged on about it. But even then, before the “Benedictisation” of worship that is beginning to rub off everywhere, there was a warmth about the celebration of Mass and the welcome afterwards that was and is distinctively Catholic. (That I was too snooty to appreciate it was my loss.)
In the past few years I’ve been reintegrated into the ordinary Catholic Church. The process began when a musician friend started taking me to the low-key Sunday evening Mass at Farm Street. But things really picked up when I began regular attendance at the church opposite my flat, St Mary of the Angels, Notting Hill. My parish priest is the lovely Mgr Keith Barltrop, who has banished the last remnants of BCM (Bad Catholic Music); on Friday the shivers ran up my spine when, as I queued for the Adoration of the Cross, the organ struck up a familiar ground bass and I heard the Crucifixus of Bach’s B Minor Mass, exquisitely performed by a small choir that must have had professional singers in it. I fought back tears, which is how it should be on Good Friday.
Thanks to Fr Keith, there are proper candles in the sanctuary and a “Benedict Cross” on the altar. The servers are nicely drilled. But lots of them are girls and at every Mass there are lay ministers of Holy Communion. The sign of peace can be quite exuberant.
And it doesn’t bother me in the least. These are signs of the comforting “ordinariness” of worship that takes me back to my Catholic childhood. Indeed, the longer I attend, the more I realise that the cradle bits of my Catholicism never went away, though they’re not necessarily very edifying.
For example, my hearts leaps – just as it did in 1975 – when I hear the priest say the words, “the fount of all holiness” because it means he’s gone for the Second Eucharistic Prayer and it’s the shortest. Worse, I groan when the priest settles down for his moment of private prayer after Communion. The 13-year-old in me still thinks: come on, Father, we’re so tantalisingly near the end.
Also, to quote the great Ed West in a tweet, “Hearing the words ‘The Mass is Ended, go in peace’ = instant dopamine squirt”.
I’m not going to try to justify these sentiments to David, my new fellow Catholic; you can’t expect a convert to understand. But they don’t really matter, either, because short Masses can be very uplifting. Parish priests, please note.
Damian Thompson is associate editor of The Spectator and editorial director of the Catholic Herald
This article first appeared in the April 1 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here