After Mass on Easter Sunday, a sweet elderly woman came up to us and gave each of my children £2 because they had been so well-behaved and because she wouldn’t have a chance to see her own grandchildren this Easter.
I say this not to boast about my children’s behaviour in church, which is, shall we say, unpredictable – my son once threw a stuffed toy rabbit five pews back – but to praise a sometimes under-appreciated constituency in the Church. Namely, kindly devout old ladies, especially the ones who smile at your children and tell you that it’s good to have them at Mass and that you’re doing well to bring them. I don’t know whether there is a secret guild or something, but they are a real blessing.
Many years ago, about the time I was received into the Church, I think I was a bit sniffy about them.
I look back on it shamefacedly now, but like quite a lot of men in their early twenties, I was very impressed with my own cleverness and knowledge. As part of my degree, I had studied early Church history and could have explained in some detail the various splits in early Christianity. I had read encyclicals and could bluff my way through discussions of Christian poetry. I probably wouldn’t have said it out loud, but I rather had pretensions to being an Intellectual.
Thankfully, fifteen years of life experience and the workings of grace have knocked all that away.
All the same, I still sometimes feel I owe an apology to all those faithful, devoted people who just quietly and diligently get on with the faith. I almost said “ordinary” churchgoers, but then I remembered my CS Lewis: “There are no ordinary people,” he says. “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”
It is fine to be able to talk knowledgeably about theology, or the liturgy, or church architecture, and it is of course good to be informed and literate. Those may tell us a great deal about why we do the work of the faith — mysteriously, they are themselves the work of the faith, or can be — but they are not the works of charity and mercy and devotion.
Every parish in the land depends on the committed people, often older women, who carefully attend Mass as often as they possibly can, who run the Justice & Peace group and the food bank, who take meals to the sick, and who welcome the young families with a warm smile.
They are Christ’s hands in the world.
Perhaps they couldn’t tell you much about the Council of Chalcedon or the history of Catholic poetry – although you’d be surprised – but they are the heart of the Church’s work, despite what any priggish 22 year olds might think.
Nowadays, whenever I am tempted to feel superior to any of my fellow Christians, I think of that great line from St Augustine of Hippo’s Sermon 19, which echoes down the ages: “Men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others.”
No doubt the old ladies in church have their own failings and faults and blind spots, — we all do — but they are really none of my business and I should not spend any time thinking about them.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.