Saturday, 21 August 2010

Part 3: Downside Revisited

Day 3: Feria

By now I was getting nervous. We had a Bishop arriving, to sing Pontifical High Mass at the Faldstool. Well; maybe. A whisper had gone round the night before to say he hadn’t been on his plane; hope sprung eternal in my heart of hearts, that maybe we wouldn’t have to go through with all this after all. The Sacred Ministers and I had already had a rehearsal, which I was late for (disreputable clergy led me astray with Gin; which I grant is not a difficult thing: I was always a good Anglo-Catholic). Things had gone well-ish; thanks to the presence of Fr. Southwell, who was unique in having done this sort of thing before; though I must confess I was even more nervous after the rehearsal than when I started, with these sorts of things, one tends to feel more nervous when someone knows what you're supposed to be doing better than you do.

However, the day began much as before: masses of early Masses, then a substantial breakfast (there was bacon, joy of joys!) and first round of tuition, much of which was spent going through the pronunciation of the Mass responses: Latin with a Scottish accent is not something I’ve encountered before, I must say that people did pick things up fairly quickly. I finished early and went to steal servers from the advanced servers’ class to serve the Missa Cantata. This was very smooth and straightforward, but for the first time, I’ve been rumbled as an MC, because, for the first time, people could see my face during Mass, and the strange shade of puce I would turn as there were occasional slip ups; the reason being that the clergy were today in the Monastic choir, behind the Altar. However, there weren’t too many problems, and the celebrant was a friend of mine, Fr. John Cahill of Scunthorpe, who’s Mass I serve on a Sunday afternoon on a weekly basis, so we know each other well. All went smoothly.

After lunch, more tuition, and the next batch of private Masses. It was shortly after this I heard that His Excellency had arrived at the airport. We were back on for Pontifical High Mass at the Faldstool (hereinafter referred to as PHMaF, because I can’t be doing with typing the whole thing. Like the ceremony itself, it’s too much faff.) My heart sank; but I was glad to know his excellency wasn’t being held to ransom by a coalition of 70s liberals and fundamentalist Muslims (though the difference between the two is that at least one can negotiate with the terrorists), but would rather not have to go through with PHMaF (have you ever noticed how it's those who don't have to implement these things that have the bright idea? "Sergeant?" "Sir?" "Take that Command Post" "Yes Sir.")

I first saw Bishop Athanasius after dinner; when I was going to fetch something from the accommodation. He was coming down the stairs for his dinner with Fr. Southwell. I was duly introduced; quick genuflection (boy that was a refreshing change). He took me by surprise; he was wearing a black cassock, zucchetto and Pectoral Cross; he is not a tall man, and I think quite shy and retiring by nature. His English was very good, bearing in mind that he had flown in that day and was probably very tired. We exchanged a few words; he wanted to know if I was a seminarian; then we went our separate ways. I was then stood outside the accommodation about 10 minutes later, talking to some more disreputable clergy, when no lesser person than Leo Darroch (of Una Voce international) hailed me, and said “because you’ve got the youngest knees, we’ve decided you’ll serve the Bishop’s Mass” “Argh” said I; then I hurried off to learn how to serve a Bishop’s private Mass- very straightforward actually: just pass him the maniple at the indulgentium.

So, off I went to rehearse with the Fathers for the PHMaF for a bit (during which I remarked “I'm beginning to see why we had a Council; which elicited a Look from Fr. Southwell), then had to leave them to get ready the Altar where His Excellency would say Mass, which was the old high Altar, with the relics of St. Oliver Plunkett* situated next to them, in a very impressive reliquary- everything but his head is there.

All was readied, and I was vested and waiting nervously for His Excellency in the Sacristy and in he came at the allotted hour (which we had pre-arranged- typical German, he was on time to the second); I assisted his vesting- his patience was amazing, as I fussed round him, tidying him up, and adjusting the hang of his Alb, etc. as one is allowed to do for Bishops. He looked over the Missal, and I asked the magic question “do you need a card for the prayers at the foot of the Altar?” To which I received a firm “no”, which was encouraging.

So off we went to the Altar- the church was dimly lit, apart from our Altar, and we began- it was one of the most moving and beautiful Masses I have ever served- he was word perfect, and motion perfect, and the sanctity was palpable. He was slow and deliberate, but not the slowness of someone remembering what was coming next, rather then slowness of someone who knew what he was doing and knew it was worth doing well and taking time over. There is really nothing else I can say about this, he truly is a holy man, and the remainder of the time he was with us only confirmed this. And, what really impressed me was that he not only knew the Leonine prayers by heart, he knew them by heart in Latin. Now that is ‘igh!

Straight after assisting the Bishop to divest, I made my way to the chapel were we had been singing the office, for Compline. This is one of the highlights of the conferences for me, as it is, by tradition, my only singing part- I sing the lesson at the beginning of the Office: “Fratres, sobrii estoteet relinqua, which always makes me smile a little bit: the Gin flows freely. 5 minutes in the choir loft practising soon had me sorted (though I suspect I made all the same mistakes I usually make, no matter how much practice I have, though people are very kind and don’t mention it. A bit like my spiritual life, really). I love Compline anyway: it is so peaceful and simple- no cottas even, and reminds me of Wordsworth: “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free/ The holy time is quiet as a Nun/ breathless in adoration; the broad sun/ is sinking down in its tranquillity…” and the hush is wonderful as everyone slips out of church at the end, often pausing a few moments at the image of our Lady.

But the work wasn’t over yet, oh no. We still had a servers’ rehearsal for the PHMaF, which was a very fraught hour, during which I suddenly felt very tired, very ratty and very stressed, I must confess, and just wanted everything to be over. We made it as far as the Epistle in the space of an hour (!) and then called it a night, it being 10.30 by then, and some of us having Masses to serve in the morning. I was so tired I didn’t even stop downstairs for a Gin, but went straight to bed and knew no more until I realised I’d overslept the following morning.

If you’d like to see some photos of the Bishop’s Masses, they may be found here: courtesy of the good Dr. Shaw, who is on pilgrimage to Walsingham at present. On foot.

*A small aside. Whenever I hear the name of the last of the English Martyrs, I always think of a great priest of the Middlesbrough Diocese- also called Oliver Plunkett- better known as Ollie Plunkett. It was said that he was once doing a funeral in January, for a lapsed Catholic. The widow was stood next to him, shivering and remarked “ooo Father! It is cold”, to which dear Father replied “It won’t be cold where he’s going.” Gesturing to the coffin. This apparently true. So much for pastoral care. Now read on.


  1. Have you thought about writing excellent and flowing prose for a living, or at least for fun, Father, (mine and others like me, if not yours!!)?

  2. I can only concur with your comments about our Father in God +Athaanius Schiender. He is truly a holy man. To assist at his private Mass on Friday morning was a great blessing. If only the Confence of Bishops in our own blighted land had men of his calibre. We can but hope and pray.