~from The Independent by Justine McCarthy
I STUMBLED upon a Latin Mass last winter. It was grim, joyless, interminable and disquieting. There was no music. Nobody shook hands or brought gifts to the altar. It was as exuberant a celebration of creation as an expired fly left to rot on a window sill.
The only fanfare that threatened was the persistent, pedantic locking and unlocking of the little gate in the altar railing. A priest passed through this gateway at one stage, came to the side chapel where I knelt and entered a confession box, prompting the formation of a long-faced queue of sinners.
All the while, the officiating priest droned on, with his chasubled back to the congregation. He was, of course, flexing the dead Latin tongue, but it could as easily have been Aramaic or the lingua franca of Mars, such was his incomprehensible mumbling. Clearly, he was having a private conversation with his Maker.
It was when I quit trying to eavesdrop that I noticed the disapproving glances. Worshippers in the centre aisles - youngish, older and oldish men and women, most holding missals with frayed marker ribbons - were squinting disdainfully in my direction. I did a quick inventory. Was I standing in a forbidden place? Did I lack devoutedness? Did I have serpents for arms, was a slimy green monster surging through my buttoned coat?
Then I discerned what was different between them and me: the women over there had their heads covered, mostly with flowing Grace Kelly mantillas, whereas my female head, to the eternal damnation of my soul, was unconcealed. I left before Mass was over.
In the porch, I read a notice listing the regular Latin Mass times and I resolved not to return. As I walked away, I remembered hearing that there used to be two public houses side-by-side in a village near my home town. One was called 'The Ramble Inn'. The other was 'The Stagger Out'. Their juxtaposition was an eloquent synopsis of my morning. I did not feel I had been involved in a religious ceremony. I felt excluded, belittled, resented - an interloper in my own Church, a survivor - for how long more? - of the internal schism that eats away at the insides of the Roman Catholic Church.
How predictable it has become that, whenever the Vatican makes some announcement eroding more of its grudging democracy, the media condemns it as an insult to Islam or Judaism. So it was again last weekend when Pope Benedict lifted the post-Vatican II restrictions on the 500-year-old Latin Mass. What about reconciliation with the Jewish community? demanded the global commentariat, with more than a little justification.
But what about Catholics, for Godsake? What about the indomitable faithful sickened by the grievously sinful institutional cover-up of paedophile priests? What about the AIDS-virus carriers who could have been safeguarded by condoms? What about monogamous, loving gays? What about women?
Most 'liberal Catholics' will again bite their tongues rather than criticise this latest genuflection to the fundamentalist clique because, when you are pro-choice you cannot be a bit anti-choice too.
If some people favour a church rite more appropriate to the 16th century, their preference should be accommodated. As the post-Vatican II hippies put it: different strokes for different folks and amen to that.
But this Tridentinist concession is not a simple toss-up between guitars, tambourines and Kumbaya versus the Council of Trent. The pope's own profoundly political psyche puts paid to such simplism.
This is a man who waged a diplomatic offensive to get God into the EU constitution, who condemned record numbers of theologians when he ran the old Inquisition office in Rome, and who denounced feminism for undermining the structures of society.
This is the man who welcomed the illegal joint invader of Iraq, Tony Blair, to the Vatican as a fraternal visitor while threatening politicians in Mexico and Spain with automatic excommunication for legalising abortion and gay marriage.
This is a moral crusader bringing the liberals of the US and Europe to heel by dispensing reprimands and interdicts, as if he is the landlord of Catholicism.
As long as he reigns, women will not be priests. His holy grail of 'family values' is a pre-'60s kitchenscape of woman chained to the sink by her rosary beads. Being treated as second-class citizens is normal life for Catholic women. Being made to cover your arms by the Swiss Guard and having your president denigrated for wearing a flower in her lapel is par for the course. Still, it beats being burned at the stake.
THE past, however, has crept menacingly closer with this Latin Mass announcement. It is a statement about the priorities of the ruling theo-cons in Rome, at a time when a scarcity of clergy is a pressing concern in Europe.
Last Sunday, when the Tridentine news was percolating through, it was announced in a church not a mile from the one where the Latin version is routinely celebrated that evening Masses were being cancelled due to a shortage of priests.
In politics, as Pope Benedict well knows, emphasis is the message. And the destination on the message board reads: The Middle Ages.