TIMES: Damian Thompson on the unstoppable

Damian Thompson of Holy Smoke has a piece in the Times today.   Some of our friends are mentioned.

Let’s have a look, with my usual emphases and comments.

From The Sunday Times
August 10, 2008
Let us pray in Latin: priests take on Catholics’ magic circle [I am happy to be corrected, but I think this refers to the iron grip the progressivist side has on the hierarchy of the UK.]
Damian Thompson sniffs the incense of a revolution among Britain’s parish priests

For a moment it looks as if a fire has broken out in the chapel. A cloud of smoke is billowing from the back and rolling down the aisle – and it is fiercely pungent. This is grade A incense, pure enough to guarantee an instantaneous spiritual high.  [Remember this?]

A young man walks through the door swinging a thurible on a gold chain. He passes it to a priest, deacon and subdeacon – all in gold vestments – who take turns wafting it at each other. Finally, the subdeacon turns round and, bowing low, shoots plumes of smoke diagonally across the choir stalls with the accuracy of a mid-fielder taking a difficult corner.

We are witnessing an unusual sight: [Increasingly more common, happily.] a Roman Catholic solemn mass, celebrated according to an ancient Latin rite effectively outlawed 40 years ago. And it’s taking place in the 13th-century chapel of Merton college, Oxford, which has been Anglican for 400 years.  [Now that’s more uncommon!]

Just for a week, however, it has gone back to being Catholic – but this is not Catholicism as most people know it. I’m at the summer school of the Latin Mass Society which – to the delight of the conservative Pope Benedict XVI and the dismay of trendy British bishops – is teaching priests how to say the Tridentine mass.

The last time Merton chapel regularly witnessed this sort of complex liturgy was in the 1540s, before the Protestant reformers pulled out much of the stained glass and toppled the statues of saints. The organi-sers of the summer school are reformers, too, but their aim is precisely the opposite: to restore Latin services and rich furnishings to their own Catholic parish churches, many of which were stripped bare by modernisers after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

What makes this summer school rather controversial is that most of the bishops of England and Wales disapprove of the return of the Latin mass, regarding its sonorous Latin prayers and intricate gestures as a relic of the Middle Ages. Until recently, the Tridentine mass could be celebrated only with a bishop’s permission, usually granted grudgingly for special occasions. Then, in July last year, Pope Benedict XVI swept away the right of bishops to ban the old services. Most of them were horrified.

So these are tense times. But the 60 priests who have gathered at Merton college – to brush up their skills or to learn the Tridentine mass from scratch – are careful to avoid talk of civil war in the church. All are aware that this autumn, Pope Benedict is expected to announce a successor to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, who presides over a liberal “magic circle” of bishops unsympathetic to the Pope’s reforms. [It seems I was right about that term.] Will Benedict break the circle that has run the English church for 40 years?

Whoever gets the job, however, nobody expects a sudden return to the Tridentine mass in parishes all over the country. The seminaries do not teach priests how to say it and teaching yourself is difficult. A glance at the manual explains why: “Bring the thumb of each hand over the upper front edge of the paten [communion plate], tilting it to let the host slide off onto the crease of the front-centre fold of the corporal [linen cloth]. Place your left hand on the altar and with your right hand set the paten halfway under the right edge of the corporal.” And all the while saying: “. . . pro innumerabilibus peccatis, et offensionibus, et negligentiis meis, et pro omnibus circumstantibus . . .”  [But… you know… it isn’t that hard.]

Interestingly, the most traditionalist priests here are also the youngest – and I spot four in the choir stalls who are popular bloggers on the internet. Walking down the high street later, I encounter two clergy wearing the old-fashioned soup-plate hats beloved of Italian village padres. One of them has long knotted tassels dangling from the brim, “so I can tie them round my neck when I ride my horse through the parish”[And I know just who that was! o{]:¬)  ]

A priest who looks barely out of his teens explains what he does when unsolicited copies of The Tablet – a liberal Catholic magazine that opposes the Latin revival – arrive at his church: “I painstakingly remove the staples and feed it into the shredder. It’s time-consuming, but God’s work.” [ROFL!]

Most of the other priests at the summer school are less extreme: they have come because they are curious about the Latin mass and they can scent change in the air. “We’re not trying to turn them into traditionalists,” says Father Andrew Wadsworth, an authority on the old rite who is conducting classes. “We want to show priests how the underlying principles of the traditional liturgy can deepen their understanding of their priesthood.”  [Yes yes and yes.  This is really the point.  As WDTPRS has been repeating for a long time now, when priests learn the older form of Mass is changes who they are as priests and changes how they say any Mass.   Summorum Pontificum was above all a gift to priests.   It is one of those rarest of documents which emphasis the rights of priests, rather than of bishops, and it arms them with what they need to speed the revitalization of Catholic identity for which Pope Benedict has been working.]

Father John Boyle, [blogger] a parish priest in Ashford, Kent, recently taught himself to say the Tridentine mass by watching a DVD. “It’s made a profound difference to the way I celebrate the new mass in English,” he says. [See?  See?]  “There’s greater reverence now. I’m more of a celebrant and less of a compere.”

I sense a huge contrast with the atmosphere at the first Merton summer school in August 2007. Then, I was allowed to poke my head round the door of a training session. Now, Wadsworth lets me watch him take a priest right through the opening sequence of a Latin mass in a student’s room, using a reversed bookcase as an altar.

The priest, Canon Michael McCreadie, is in his fifties – yet today is the first time in his life that he has acted out the ancient gestures. He removes an invisible biretta (it’s a pretend mass). “Now, father, keep your hands joined,” Wadsworth reminds him. “Go to the centre of the altar, not touching it . . . left hand flat on the page. No, you should be over here,” and he gently turns his pupil towards the window.

After half an hour, we are still only five minutes into the order of service, but McCreadie is elated: “I wasn’t looking forward to saying the old mass, but after today I most certainly am.”

It’s only now I discover that he is dean of Leeds Cathedral. A year ago there were no senior main-stream clerics at the summer school. Later in the day, even more significantly, the Rev Malcolm McMahon, the Bishop of Nottingham, celebrates old rite pontifical vespers wearing a jewelled mitre and an embroidered cope that even Cardinal Wolsey might have considered over the top.

McMahon, a Dominican, is left-wing in his politics and certainly not part of a traditionalist faction – but nor does he belong to the politically correct, back-slapping magic circle. At dinner later, he effectively breaks ranks with his fellow bishops by unambiguously endorsing Pope Benedict’s vision of a church in which the old and new rites coexist. The traditionalists give him a standing ovation and a verse of God Bless our Pope.

He also tells Father Tim Finigan, [His Hermeneuticalness] author of the Hermeneutic of Continuity, the most influential of all the conservative blogs, to keep writing. Which is interesting, given that the Bishops’ Conference would dearly like to stop that particular blog.

Afterwards, Finigan writes: “Bishop McMahon has certainly won the hearts of the priests . . . All of a sudden, there is someone that many priests loyal to Pope Benedict will be watching closely . . . ecce sacerdos magnus!”

That’s Latin for “behold the great priest”. Those words will be read carefully in the Vatican, where Pope Benedict has been informed that the magic circle is desperate to install one of its own as the next cardinal. He isn’t pleased. Watch this space.

Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. crusader88 says:

    I loved the article, and the commentary. Especially loved the part about the Tablet!

  2. Joe says:

    I appreciate the part about “how the underlying principles of the traditional liturgy can deepen their understanding of their priesthood.” I have never experienced a (an? – is it oosus or yousus in Church Latin?) usus antiquior Mass, but my experiences in the Byzantine Catholic Church have been invaluable in understanding the Mass better (I don’t “add icons” to the Roman Ritual or try to “improve it” by mixing things up, but I’ve seen that done too).

  3. miss book says:

    Does that make two Bishops who have ‘broken ranks’? I am thinking of Bishop O’Donoghue of the Diocese of Lancaster, and his his wonderfully courageous document setting out the vision for Catholic schools in Lancaster, ‘Fit for Mission?’. (if anyone hasn’t had a chance to look at it, its easy to find on the Lancaster website-sorry I don’t know how to make a direct link).This Bishop was required to attend a Parliamentary Select committee (education) and account for his document. He was subjected to some pretty unpleasant interrogation from some M.P.’s.
    The Catholic Education Service (UK)headed by Oona Stannard described ‘Fit for Mission’ as the vision of one Bishop for his diocese.I am not aware that any other Bishop in the UK has commented.

  4. mitch says:

    It is not only the Mass but the theology behind it and all the sacraments. I am curious how a Priest reconciles the two theologies without having one supercede the other? Can they really exist side by side as the Holy See wishes? At one point doesn’t a choice have to be made? The more I learn about the TLM and the deeper I dig into the mindset (I attend a TLM) the more I find some inner conflicts brewing and wonder how a Priest handles this. Can a Priest celebrate the Tridentine liturgy without the other sacraments and be completely at ease with it? Perhaps that is the lure at work. Start with the Mass and you will be drawn in completely with the rest and the underlying theologies. And is it the same for lay people? Are we all content with ust the 1962 Missal for Mass? I am now curious to see weddings and funerals using the older books. Anyone else feel the pull? It would seem to me that Priests who already have so much to do, after taking time to learn the rubrics, would want to and need to use them quite often to maintain them. As stated in the topic above it is not as easy as one might think, positions etc. A serious effort and amount of time is going into this by our Priests, they should be commended, and appreciated for it. As it stands today we as lay people have to request this Mass so they can put all their dedication into visible practice to benefit the Church. I am referring to public celebration, as I think this is what the Holy Father intends for the future…

  5. Louis E. says:

    Interesting that the Dean of the Cathedral in LEEDS is looking forward to celebrating the TLM…how does this gibe with the troubles the Bishop there is giving Father Lawler?

    Perhaps Father Lawler is being freed from pastoral responsibilities so he can take over at Westminster.(And then comes the question as to of which dicastery we will read,”Il Santo Padre ha nominato…il Rev.do Sacerdote John Zuhlsdorf,finora Prelato dOnore di Pontificio Consiglio Blogosferica,assegnandoli la sede arcivescovile titolare di Ager Sabinus”).

  6. toomey says:

    I will be happy to buy that priest a shredder that is capable of shredding stapled documents.

  7. David says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but what is meant by \”magic circle\” in reference to the liberal bishops?

  8. Tomás López says:

    Well, the elite law firms in London are referred to as the Magic Circle (kind of like the Big Eight accounting firms, though I think they are only four of them now). These law firms control the money and the power. So perhaps by extension, the Magic Circle reffered to here is the elite, the powerful, those who control the purse strings in the Church.

  9. Joseph Dylong says:

    Damian Thompson uses the term magic circle in terms of a clique of English Bishops and priests holding onto a liberalist agenda, and a determination that the next Archbishop of Westminster will be ‘one of their own’ rather than in the image of Pope Benedict.

    Do you remember Archbishop Marini book, which attacked the Popes liturgical reform, well, According to Damian Thompson, he had the chance to show his book and share his views in Cardinals throne room in London, which was also attended by the Papal Nuncio.

    This is a good article for the Spectator by Damian: http://www.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/features/783371/part_4/is-the-catholic-church-sliding-towards-civil-war.thtml

  10. Is it just me, or does it seem like there’s a bit more … zest for the Extraordinary Form among the ordained ministry in the U.K. versus what you find in the U.S.?

  11. And by “ordained ministry” I mean the rank and file.

  12. Father Totton says:


    I think you raise a good question, and it has been posed to me before. Once by a parishioner, who has since departed to attend a chapel of the FSSP (her family left before I began saying the E.F. and they have not been back since!). She said it was “not fair” that I could say Mass in the E.F. when I still “had to say it” in the O.F. She saw it as a difficult imposition on any priest to have to switch back and forth. To be perfectly honest with you, I do feel a pull (a “gravitational pull” naturally has more force when it has more gravity) to the Mass and the sacraments in the Extraordinary Form, but to be honest, as a priest, even if I see some deficiencies in the Ordinary Form (some practical in the celebration, some codified in the composition and/or translation) I don’t see such an impassible divide between the two. I think other priests would probably agree (I’d be happy to hear some of them speak on this point) with Pope Benedict about two forms of ONE Roman Rite. On Friday I celebrated my first Nuptial Mass (preceded by the wedding ceremony) in the Extraordinary Form, and I look forward to administering Baptism in the E.F. as well (probably within the next year or so).

    As a pastor of souls, I don’t think it would be prudent or especially helpful to abandon the majority of the flock simply because I can see so clearly what an impact the Extraordinary Form has had on my life. If I were to impose it upon the people of my parish, I know many of them would leave (for other parishes?) and might even cease to have even a reverently-celebrated Mass in the Ordinary Form. On the other hand, if I stick around, and allow myself to be formed by the principles which are so clearly demonstrated by the E.F., even in my celebration of Mass and Sacraments in the Ordinary Form, then so much the better. This, too, could move the souls in my charge to come to better appreciate the Extraordinary Form.

  13. Sue Sims says:

    The original ‘Magic Circle’ was (and is) the association of stage conjurors and magicians: a sort of Guild, or Trade Union (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magic_Circle). In the UK it’s used metaphorically to imply that a group of people or organisations have closed ranks against any outsiders, and are self-perpetuating.

  14. Tecumseh says:

    There is a group of senior priests in England called the Old Brotherhood, quite secretive, I was told by one man who is a member that they never have Bishops or other authority figures in there ranks. I think they “emerged” during the Penal times the idea being that if the Hierarchy were arrested or exiled there would be a “back up” hierarchy lurking out of sight. I wonder what they make of all this talk of Magic Circles, but then they are part of the system themselves.

  15. RBrown says:

    Re the theologies of the Greg Rite vs the Novus Ordo.

    The Greg Rite is based on the Eucharist as a memorial of Christ’s Sacrifice. The rubrics of the mass are appropriate to its Sacrificial theology, e.g., the elevation of the host as a symbol of Christ being lifted up on the Cross.

    The Novus Ordo is based on syncretism, i.e., the (attempted) combination of Catholic and Protestant theology of the Eucharist–as a memorial both of the Sacrifice (Catholic) AND of the Last Supper (Protestant). To a certain extent the Novus Ordo rubrics favor neither–it was hoped the Novus Ordo would be used by both Catholics and Protestants.

    ON THE OTHER HAND, in practice the Protestant side has dominated, and mass is usually said as if it’s a communal meal (cf. memorial of the Last Supper)–thus the the versus populum/vernacular celebration.

    And so the Novus Ordo CAN be said as a memorial of the Sacrifice, but it’s due to the celebrant’s efforts, not to the liturgy itself. As a priest/friend says, to say the Novus Ordo as a Sacrifice, a celebrant needs to pretend he’s using the 1962 Missal.

  16. Tito Edwards says:

    Damian Thompson, in addition to using ‘magic circle’, also refers to them as ‘sandalistas’ and
    tabletistas’ (in reference to the English Catholic mag, The Table).

  17. supertradmom says:

    I am so happy about this, as my little family is thinking about returning to England and as we are going to the TLM here in America, we were worried about the state of affairs in Auld Blighty.

    God bless all these priests and God bless Mary’s Dowry!

  18. Ygnacia says:

    “I painstakingly remove the staples and feed it into the shredder. It’s time-consuming, but God’s work.”

    I love him….is that allowed??…

  19. mitch says:

    Father Totton,

    Thank you for your sincere response. It was a curiosity stirring in me. I desire to see and know more than what is available here. Although not as empassioned to leave the rotating Priest TLM (I now how continuity of the past and Missal but not Priest) I attend for another parish as your experience with a parishoner who I think was looking for the “whole package”. The TLM that I attend is small and my continued presence I feel is essential for support. I understand your explanation and also the position. It makes sense. I was trying to see a little further into the future and what the effect of time will have on Priests who Pray both Masses. It is somewhat sureal that since going back to the 1962 Missal there is no going back. We are all indeed moving forward, backward. Thank God and the Holy Pope for the road. And all Priests who have embraced the MP.

  20. Recidite Plebes says:

    Have any of you seen his latest blog entries about Bp Roche of Leeds attempting to close a parish against the will of the congregation because the PP says both NO in Latin and the EF? It seems that someone in the chancery is attempting to smear the PP on Damien’s blog, and he’s caught them at it!

  21. Someone in Nottingham says:

    The thing about Bishop McMahon is that he always seems capable of saying exactly the thing his current company wants to hear.

  22. Chris says:

    I think it was George Carey, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, who spoke about learning from the Catholic ‘instinct for unity’. As he saw it we had the ability to have profound disputes but remain united as one church, not fracture communion. I can’t help but think that this instinct is on the wane. Commentators regularly attack fellow Catholics, not excluding priests and bishops in the most aggressive terms. People are dismissed as ‘Sandalistas’, or as being part of a ‘magic circle’. This is all done in the name of ‘true catholicism’ and loyalty to Rome, not recognising that such divisiveness hits at the very heart of a worldwide communion.

    The distinction between challenging someone’s ideas and attacking the person is a vital one and we lose it at our peril.

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