Becoming the Body of Christ

As part of my exploration of the issues underlying Traditionis Custodes, I am delighted to share with you a guest post from Sr Michael RSM, one of the Sisters who taught me at St Anthony’s School, Sunderland. Sr Michael writes about her experience of growing up in Durham and Sunderland in the 1950s.

A Personal View

For many, living in the pre-Vatican church was a golden time, or was it?  Growing up at that time, I remember so much with nostalgia and gratitude: the packed churches for Sunday Masses; the social life built around the church, with social evenings, dances, concerts, exchange visits with neighbouring parishes – the source of many a marriage; Benediction with its incense, hymns and walk afterwards ‘en famille’ round the village back home to a fry-up supper and the Palm Court orchestra on radio; above all, the processions – May, Sacred Heart and Corpus Christi – with banners and statues carried aloft and white dresses and red sashes and singing and even ‘poor Protestants’ standing outside watching longingly, poor things!  as we, the chosen ones processed round the church garden.  We had it all – our own beautiful churches, beautiful church grounds, our own parish hall, our own graveyard and above all, our own priests whom we all knew and loved and were there for us in good times and in bad. There was a structure a hierarchy, a certainty, an assurance. Who wouldn’t want to be a Catholic? This was the way to live, this was the sure way to heaven. 

True, most of the services including Mass were in Latin which we rattled off without understanding,  but many had Missals with the English translation alongside, so where was the problem?  True, the priest had his back to us and many said the Rosary or even lit candles during Mass but it had always been thus – we attended and prayed but did not participate. True, one could say that the packed churches were due to habit and fear in equal measure (with one eye on the Mass Register in schools on Monday morning to check attendance), but during and after the war the Church was a refuge and much needed consolation in times of worry and anxiety. True, the Parish priest was a control figure, even a tyrant, but so was the doctor, the local policeman, the teachers, the old men in the village who would “tell our parents what we were up to when they saw them.” That was the social structure of the time and we ‘paid, prayed and obeyed’ without question. True, the Church wielded harsh and severe authority in moral matters (long queues for  weekly Confession) and could excommunicate for what today would be minor infringements eg mixed marriages were anathema but by and large, families agreed with Church laws – I remember many a family break-up because of a recalcitrant member who had ‘gone astray’ God help them!  True, unbaptised babies and suicides were not given a Christian burial (I remember visiting the forbidden edge of the cemetery with their anonymous graves) but “that was the way things were and it was not ours to question why.” True, we paid door pence, altar money, collection money, Holy Souls box, SVP basket, every Sunday but the Church depended on our generosity so who were we to complain?

In other words, to be a pre-Vatican2 Catholic, was to live in a safe, isolated world with its own laws, traditions, practices, and outlook. We had to be careful not to be contaminated by the world – one of the enemies of the soul, along with the devil and the flesh. Even adults held on the the faith of their fathers as expressed and learned in the Catechism (brayed into them at school as they said – sometimes gratefully, sometimes grudgingly) and this would keep us safe!

In my family and parish, much of this was second and third generation Irish piosity which was still very strong. Prayer books of the time – The Garden of the Soul and The Kingdom of Heaven which many clung on to instead of the new-fangled Missals -attest to this personal  piety and devotion.

Who of my generation, does not remember the Nine First Fridays, the Five Saturdays in honour of Our Lady, the Seven Tuesdays for St Anthony and all the indulgences attached thereto. Not to mention the 30 Days’ Prayer, the Litanies, the Novenas, the Holy Hours? And let’s be honest- I loved it!

In mitigation too, one must say that English and Irish history with its years of persecution had a huge effect on the Catholic mentality and the kind of church we had become. We were a defensive church and had to fight for recognition against prejudice and discrimination (still much in evidence in my childhood). Passing the ‘Proddies’ on our way to school led to regular battles and name-calling. My father had established a business against all the odds – green grocery, a dairy, milk business, a small-holding growing and selling what we now call ‘organic.’ vegetables. We had a sense that he had ‘made it’ and that we were accepted and respected.

What does all this say about our theology and ecclesiology? Only in retrospect do I see the church as stuck, narrow, out- of- date, in dire need of reform. We lived in a ghetto, top-heavy and closed. Converts had to join us, we didn’t reach out to them. But this was the church I loved, in which I chose to enter religious life. Who would or could have thought then of Vatican2? Who would have thought that 50-60 years later people who never experienced this church would hanker after the trappings?

What made us perfect little Catholics?

I came from a very Catholic family, grandparents on both sides coming from Ireland. My father had 6 brothers my mother 4 and all my aunts, uncles and cousins were catholic. So my first influence was from family and then re-inforced by school. Growing up, all my friends and acquaintances were catholic.

I loved my primary school – St Bede’s. We had morning prayers and a hymn together and the the Religious lesson. I drank in everything from ‘black babies’ (half a crown a time ) to learning the Catechism. It was no effort for me. I used to come home and play schools with my dolls and younger brother, teaching them all about why God made me, the Supreme Spirit (the soup-green spirit), sanctifying grace etc enough to make St Thomas Aquinas proud! My brother’s Sign of the Cross was ‘In the name of the Father and of his Son and of his holy goats and hens.’ I was a star at Religious Inspection time and even knew all the explanations!

I vividly remember First Communion and Confirmation (at 6 and 7yrs respectively.) but must admit was more interested in my white dress .  At processions I never carries the statue (too small) or crowned Our Lady, the height of my ambition but I sang my heart out and showed off to all and sundry as we processed around Church and grounds. We had prayer books galore, my favourite being Little Brother Jesus and the books by Fr Daniel Lord.  I devoured the lives of the Saints and imitated each by turn, my favourites of course being St Therese and St Bernadette, the names of my dolls too.

Was this an idyllic religious upbringing? In many ways, yes. In Secondary School it was more of the same for the first few years. I never questioned method or content, practices or traditions – not until I entered religious life and then not for the first few years, in the 50’s. I was at the stage of grinning and bearing it, or, as my mother had taught me, offering it up, until Vat 2 came (out of the blue as I thought then) and rescued me.

And there begins a new chapter in my life.

One reply on “Becoming the Body of Christ”

Comments are closed.