I spend more time on Twitter than perhaps I should, but even so I tend to miss some of the nuances of the increasingly rancorous internecine Twitter arguments taking place between people who, one might think, should be on the same side, and if follower numbers are a guide to moral seriousness (which they are not), should know better. I doubt I have anything very edifying to learn by scrolling back through all the accusations and replies, but one thing which is characteristic of the latest, as of many other, Twitter spats, is that it has come down to catty generalizations about the character of Catholics attending Mass in different liturgical forms, or offered by different categories of priests.
This reminds me of the claim once made by English Protestants, that one is more likely to find one’s umbrella has been stolen from the back of a Catholic church than from a Protestant one. As Oscar Wilde put it, “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.”
It is alarming to see this prim, Pharisaical nonsense raise its head again in online debates among supposedly Catholic commentators seeking to do down those who attend the Traditional Mass, or Masses celebrated by priests of the SSPX, or anyone else. I have zero interest in denying such claims: they should not be answered, but treated with contempt.
It should be obvious that when it is a small group which is at issue, matters could go in two different directions. If it is a well-managed cult, potential recruits will be allowed to see only a carefully curated and thoroughly drilled selection of grinning devotees, who will be terribly friendly and nice. If it is not managed like that, then newcomers’ experiences will depend on who they happen to meet, and may well be dominated by people whose fondness for the sound of their own voice is not matched by intellectual or emotional maturity. Only when you get to know the regulars a bit, does it become clear to what extent the people you first met are, or are not, representative of the congregation as a whole.
This, I say, should be obvious. Casual experience of even a small congregation offers absolutely no guidance in making a fair evaluation of the group.
In larger groups, one can of course find every possible kind of person. I wish I could take some of these Twitter warriors on a tour of London’s great Catholic churches, where I could introduce them to some of the interesting people who attend perfectly normal and mainstream churches. Did I say, attend? Some of them more or less live there. The side chapels at Westminster Cathedral are regularly used by homeless people, sometimes with mental health issues, as a warm place to sleep. Others are there from pious motivations, and shamble up to Holy Communion at certain Masses as regular as clockwork. One individual always carries a large statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Another wears a plastic coat covered in writing about the imminence of the Great Chastisement. Another I know constantly holds in front of her face, while in church, a piece of paper, presumably with prayers written on it. As a priest friend of mine says, “All the crazies come to Jesus”. And you know what? Why shouldn’t they?
The most unpleasant experience I have had at the hands of a fellow lay Catholic was in the middle of Mass at a church I then attended occasionally. A man crossed from one side to the other in order to tick me off at some length about the behavior of my small children. He wasn’t objecting to noise, but seems to have thought I should have had them all on their knees. The experience left me speechless, which is pretty unusual for me. However, because I knew the priest and some of the people there, I was afterwards given a bit of background on this fellow, and a few years later I heard of his death. He died fortified by the Sacraments, having been reconciled with long-estranged family members. It was certainly a bad thing that he’d taken out his frustrations on a young family he did not know, but I am glad that he was never driven away from attending Mass.
Suppose you show me a whole congregation of people like that. Such a thing is possible. Where should they go? What would you do with them? Should they be excommunicated for being annoying?
The best reply to the attitude that Catholic congregations should only be made up of nice people was made by Evelyn Waugh. When challenged for being the rather prickly character that he was, he replied, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” It is no small irony that Oscar Wilde himself ended his life, not at all respectable, a sinner and a broken man, in the arms of Holy Mother Church.
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