Ours is a house divided. By which I mean my wife takes the girls to Mass on Sunday and I take John-Jo to Saturday vigil. It’s not ideal. The family that prays together stays together and all that. But in a society where Sunday mornings represent prime recreational real estate, it’s a choice faced by many Catholics. Put simply, if our son wanted to play rugby for his local team, it was Sunday mornings or nothing.
There are compensations. I enjoy the chance to sit companionably with a boy who, with five older sisters, sometimes struggles to be heard. It’s also a relief not to experience Mass as an exercise in crowd control. For years the finer points of liturgy have come second to the suppression of squawks, guffaws, shrieks and tears. “Offer it up,” my wife would mutter as one of our toddlers hurled a chewed biscuit/car key over the balcony onto the congregation below.
Four of our girls are now in their teens, so the pew hooliganism has stopped. It’s been replaced by sulks and stares interspersed by occasional flashes of humanity. In short, I have the better Mass run.
All of us can sometimes be reminded how hard being a parent of young children in church can be. Recently I saw a parish priest forced to gently upbraid a parishioner whose toddlers were running amok. The poor mum, on her own, had two youngsters who were ventilating their lungs with brio. It was one of those situations where, just as she seemed to have pacified them, a new and higher pitch was attained at a moment in the Mass most apt to reverence and silence.
I don’t think the mother was from Britain, and those ever-so-English inflexions of the head, designed to communicate disapproval without melodrama, were a signal too subtle to be translated by a parent preoccupied with the interception of chewed biscuits/car keys.
A decade ago at an English-speaking Mass in Brussels I witnessed an American priest chastise his flock for “tutting at noisy children”, who were, he reminded us, the future. It continues to be a vexed question and not one, I think, inspiring an easy answer. All I would say is that, in a culture where Sunday mornings are no longer ring-fenced for faith, some parents cannot always attend the more “family friendly” services. I do have a choice.
My son could stop playing rugby; no great hardship. But others, less fortunate than me, might find that Sunday means just another shift at work in our 24/7 culture.
I cannot have been alone in being greatly moved by the words of the Catholic composer Sir James MacMillan when he appeared on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs recently. The genius of Roy Plomley’s enduring format is the way different tunes allow a guest’s biographical reminiscences to veer from the breezy to the profound and back again.
Sir James’s selections took listeners on a journey through the Ayrshire coal mines of his youth to the Proms and the international recognition which followed. His inspirations were various. Contrapuntal melodies and plainsong informed his sacred music, but so, improbably, did the away goals rule which knocked Celtic out of the Champions League. Here was a man modest and funny, grateful for his calling to composition (via the humble recorder), and at ease with his fame.
And then, with a catch in his voice, he told us about his granddaughter’s recent death. It was so wholly unexpected, and all the more affecting for that. There had been dark moments, he said, but his faith was there when he needed it most.
After years of talking about it, we finally took the Caledonian Sleeper train to Scotland. The occasion was the 30th wedding anniversary of old friends – Ross and Di – who live in Argyllshire.
Part of the weekend’s entertainment included a boat ride out to the island of Jura. A few miles from shore, the water behaves strangely, forming whirlpools that fade to millpond calm, before stirring to boiling fury. The reason is an underwater ridge, rising from the depths to just below the surface. Di, a strong open-water swimmer, swam across the ridge this summer. It was a short distance in calm conditions. But the ridge created odd effects, forcing her upwards between strokes. It was, she said, as if a giant diaphragm was breathing in and out deep below her. She loved the sensation. To a lily-livered landlubber like me, it sounded utterly terrifying.
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