12 November 2014

The Catholic Parish In 1863

So what was parish life like, a hundred and fifty years ago?  Closer, I guess, to the experience of the pre-Reformation parish than to today's.  Was it Professor Scarisbrick who reviewed The Stripping of the Altars in The Spectator when it first came out, and, in a rave review, decided that the religion of early modern Catholics was a long way away from ours, with their emphasis on the four last things, the sufferings of those in Purgatory, and the inevitability for many of us of Hell?

Whoever it was, it shows how Catholicism changed in the twentieth century more than demonstrating that the reigns of Henry VII and VIII as some sort of heterodox.  Certainly as we begin to get into the rhythm of parish life, we will see that the awareness of sin and the need for Confession; the need for education and evangelisation; and the place of devotion: are three pillars of the way we all should live.

Let's look at the parish of The Sacred Heart and St Helen in Brentwood.  there are two priests: the Rev John Kyne is the Missionary Rector, and he is supported by the Rev Remigius Debbaudt.  (I wonder sometimes whether J K Rowling had access to a list of priests.)  You will have noted that the priests are Reverend, rather than Father: this is part of the faultline I described last time between the way that English Catholicism had evolved before emancipation and the bold, expressive, Italianate, self-confidence which was beginning to displace it..

They had two Masses each Sunday morning, and had Vespers and Benediction (with a sermon) on Sunday afternoon.  Sunday Vespers is very commonplace in parishes in England and Wales, just as Evensong was for the Anglicans, but only on Sundays.  On Holydays, there would only be a Benediction service in the evening, as there also would be each Thursday evening (preceded in Lent and Advent by Stations of the Cross).  There could be no Mass in the evening, so Vespers and Benediction allowed for further Eucharistic adoration.

In Brentwood, there aren't any of the Confraternities (which have the same role in the parish as the pre-reformation Guilds) which we shall see in other parishes around the country but there are devotions of the Sacred Heart and Benediction after morning Mass on the first Friday, devotions of the Bona Mors on the first Thursday in the afternoon, and devotions to the Immaculate Heart of Mary for the conversion of sinners on the third Thursday.

Most importantly, there is Confession.  In Brentwood it is "only" available for an hour and a half each morning and for three hours on Saturday evening: we will see other parishes in which far more hours are devoted to this sacrament.

Although education was not yet compulsory in England and Wales, the vast majority - more than 90% - of children attended some form of schooling, and the imperative need for Catholic children to receive this schooling in a Catholic education system and not from the CofE was paramount in the mind of the Church. (I muse on what the result of a comparative study of a CofE RE syllabus in 1863 and a Catholic RE syllabus in 2014 might be, but somebody else can do that.)  Anywhere where there were enough Catholic children, schools were to be built and maintained, and teachers paid.  We will see special collection days instituted in each diocese for this noble purpose, and the upper- and middle-classes were expected to pay out serious contributions for this purpose.  In particular, parishes which contained non-Catholic residential institutions - workhouses, orphanages, prisons - were expected to look particularly after the religious lives of those who were inmates.

As important was the construction of new churches for the rising number of Catholics.  Perhaps the simple need to build was more important than the need to build well, or build tastefully; perhaps it was not an age in which taste was given much priority against the need to provide somewhere for Catholics to worship, but this was not a period of great architectural merit.

We will regularly see Sunday afternoon services including a lecture or discourse.  Education and evangelisation were not limited to schoolchildren, or to those who weren't churchgoers.  These are listed separately from Sermons, while some form of homily could be expected at Sunday Mass at least.

Finally, the calendar: the year had its own rhythm and Catholics continued to follow it.  Many of the mediaeval feasts which had been abolished during the Reformation were still marked as Days of Devotion, which those Catholics who could would treat as though they were still Holydays.  Fasting and abstinence were taken seriously at their due time, and national and diocesan feasts were marked by the people in whose territory the feasts were celebrated.  Some have disappeared without trace: this Friday, every parish in England and Wales should be celebrating the feast of the Translation of St Erconwald, a great English Bishop and Confessor who seems to have been completely set aside after the reforms of Pope St Pius X (I will be very happy to be corrected).

The parish wasn't yet a place in which Catholicism could be displayed totemically, and was far from being a place for like-minded people to congregate on a Sunday to enjoy each other's company in a warm haze of good intentions: it was a workshop in which priests toiled to make available to poor sinners the opportunities they needed to conform their lives to God's will.  The comparison doesn't necessarily flatter the typical way of things today.


motuproprio said...

Westminster keeps Ss Mellitus and Erconwald as a Diocesan Memorial on April 24th.

D.B. Thompson said...

Dear Sir,

I am mightily interested in your topic and I do hope to keep up with it as I may. I am curious about one point you made and I should like to as you to say more. To wit, you mention the change, if I understood correctly, from Father to Reverend in addressing priests. Why would Reverend represent a more Italianate exuberance than Father? Any other interesting insights on this topic would be warmly received.


D.B. Thompson

Ttony said...

DBT: apologies if I have confused you. before Catholic Emancipation, priests in England and Wales did not use the title "Father", but instead Reverend or Doctor, but this is the start of the period in which priests, initially priests from the new Orders, began to refer to themselves as "Father".

D.B. Thompson said...

Clarifying. Thank you.

Rubricarius said...

Two things are interesting, to me, from the period both of which you discuss Ttony. One is the considerable time set aside by clergy for the hearing of confessions (contrast that with the praxis now) and also the fact that most sizeable parishes had Sunday Vespers. Some years ago I noticed the difference between an 1893 edition of the 'Catholic Directory' and a 1908 copy I have. Far more churches in 1893 had Sunday Vespers, relatively, than the increased number of parishes in 1908. I understand that the standard praxis for parishes in the first half of the nineteeth century was for sung Mass and Vespers on Sundays.