St Hildelitha and Cuthberga's Catholic Church is a suburban parish in the heart of middle England. Yet there are rumbles under the surface redolent of the disquiet Catholic parishoners felt at the so-called Reformation as described in Eamonn Duffy's seminal Stripping Of The Altars
Each Sunday at 10.05 (the Mass is listed for 10am) Fr Kevin Heresy ambles onto the sanctuary with a cotery of female altar servers and a variety of laypeople in various states of dress as a bunch of aging musicians strum out on their guitars, pipe up their flutes or warble what approximates to a hymn. This week it started with "Here I am Lord" (with no discernable connection to the readings for this Sunday's Mass)
Fr Heresy is in a vanguard of priests determined to undermine Catholic teaching and especially in areas of personal morality, but nowhere is Fr Kevin so zealous in his opposition to the Pope as on the issue of the liturgy. Step-by-step he wants to bury the past. 1965 was Year Zero
as far as Fr Heresy is concerned.
There has been a steady decline in attendance at "H'n'C's" as the Parish Consultative Council would like the Parish to be known. "I don't bother counting" says Fr Kevin, "Who cares if a few old stiffs go down the road to Canon O'Reilly or even if they leave the Church altogether. Good riddance. This is progress, this is the future."
It was once a fairly typical parish with a number of priests in the presbytery working together to serve the needs of the different areas of the parish. There was a strong presence of the clergy in the school, the sodalities and regular visits to the housebound. Now Fr Kevin is much more likely to be found on a demo or chairing a committee. The usual service offered in the week is a communion service planned and led by a small, carefully picked group of late-middle aged women (mostly former teachers and social workers). The choir which was led by an accomplished musician was disbanded a few years ago "Man, those motets were torture! All that Latin! I couldn't understand a word." says the self-styled "team-leader" and Fr Kevin's right-hand woman, Joyce (formerly Sr Brigid). Altar rails have been stripped out and thrown in a skip, a modern altar made entirely of glass has been set up in the middle of the nave and the pews thrown out in favour of a circular arrangement of chairs.
But Fr Heresy’s critics fear that their parish is gradually becoming a flagship for the dissent.“Nobody asked us if we wanted this dog-and-pony show. We liked the Mass when it was celebrated here with reverence and dignity. Now all we get is dancing girls on the altar and Kum-Ba-Yah from the “folk group”. We had a choir once that sang the Mass beautifully. Not any more. The Mass isn’t the same from one week’s end to the next.” said one parishioner who did not wish to be named.
“The thing is, we are loyal to the Church” said Maureen, another parishioner. “We have trusted our priests and bishops – we have a respect for the clergy and we don’t go complaining to them but the sacrilege that goes on here is a penance. Dissenters and hippies are always complaining to priests and bishops and that’s how they get their way. Those of us who are loyal, we don’t complain and they ride roughshod over us.”
Another parishioner afraid to speak to the radical priest for fear of “the usual brushoff” complained of a lack of respect for the Blessed Sacrament “The Blessed Sacrament and respect for it used to be a marker of Catholics and the Catholic Church. First the Tabernacle was shunted off to a side-chapel and there is little chance to venerate the Sacrament there. Fr Kevin dismisses Benediction as “mumbo-jumbo” and did away with the Corpus Christi procession. Now he encourages parishioners to chat away in the nave both before and after Mass – often laughing raucously when people are trying to make their devotions. This is no longer a House of Prayer. There’s a perfectly adequate hall next door where people can talk after Mass and enjoy a cup of Fairtrade coffee. Before Mass they should be preparing to receive Our Lord.”
Many had said their children were uniterested in the Church now. “There’s no sense of awe or wonder, no sense of belief in anything beyond a vague idea of being nice or a taste for left-wing politics. ” said one parishioner, a student in her early 20s “ The hymns are a put-off: unchallenging sentimental pap. They supposedly aim the liturgy at the youth, but the hymns are badly written 60s and 70s dirges. Badly performed and embarrassing to hear”. What was alienating parishioners, too, was the notion of lay involvement that merely involved a highly vocal set of Fr Heresy’s close supporters “prancing about on the altar or being appointed to self-important little committees – like the Liturgy Committee that scrapped the choir” said Bernard, a retired bricklayer and lifelong parishioner.
More troubling is the doctrinal content of Fr Kevin’s liturgies. According to Bernadette, a teacher and mother of four in her 30s: “I’ve not heard a solid Catholic sermon in this Church for years. It’s all about how some unoppressed minority (gays, women) are opppressed or about how wonderful Islam or Buddhism are. He genuinely seems either not to get or not to like the Catholic faith. There’s always a sneer when the Holy Father is mentioned or a gibe about Panzers, if he’s mentioned at all”
Others complain about parish retreats. “We used tohave a wonderful retreat each year to the Carmelites nearby - peaceful and prayerful - but Fr Kevin stopped that. I went on one of his to a ‘spiritual centre’ run by two plainclothes nuns. Never again. It was all enneagrams and Mass with no vestments sitting around an ethnic table.”
There is disquiet too about the causes Fr Heresy supports. “Every week there are collections for Palestinians, for non-Catholic NGOs, for charities that conflict with Catholic teaching. What about the missions? What about feeding the poor? Fr Kevin doesn’t seem to like that. It’s always the latest faddy charidee. I have no idea where some of this money goes. 4x4s for dictators, probably” said Paddy O’Byrne a lifelong parishioner.
On the subject of money, some parishioners are said to be disturbed by the use Fr Kevin makes of funds. “Mgr O’Hanrahan who was here before had the same cassock for decades and dressed simply in clericals when out and about. Fr Heresy is never in the same outfit twice. He wears designer this and designer that. I can’t afford clothes like that but he can. You’d never know he was a priest if you saw him in the street.” Other parishioners point to the new vestments Fr Heresy has bought. According to Margaret who cleans the Church despite Fr Kevin’s misrule “I know for a fact there are beautiful sets of vestments that are in that sacristy. I know because my family paid for them along with other families in this parish. Yet every week he wears some polyester multicoloured abomination that’s so badly made it frays in six months. The old vestments are beautiful and so well-made they were in good nick the last time I saw them used but that was years ago. They’ll be mouldering away in the cupboard if he hasn’t sold them or brunt them. Those vestments were paid for by the pennies of the poor – we should be using them.”
Older Catholics fear this uber-liberal parish is a beacon for others. Most have a sense of loyaly to a building and a community that has harboured and succoured their faith for generations and are angered and bemused by the changes. What is to be done? Thankfully there is a generation of good, loyal priests coming out of the seminaries who may see off Fr Kevin. Hopefully by applying the principles of the Benedictine reforms, Fr Kevin and his ilk will see sense and turn. Then, as Jon Snow said recently in another context, will the nightmare be over.[This may be a satire on Elena Curti's piece but consider this: it is actually a distillation of comments I have heard from good Catholics in the dozen or so parishes I have lived in during my adult life (junior doctors have to move about a bit and the Church is sometimes the only place we get to call home)]
Labels: hippies, Liturgy, priests, The Faith