Recently I stepped inside Fisher House, home of the Cambridge University Catholic Chaplaincy, for a pre-Lenten day of recollection. The last time I knelt there was in my final undergraduate year back in 1990. What struck me as encouraging – and different from the late 1980s – was the sheer amount of spiritual and academic energy fizzing around the chaplaincy – and its lovely bar, the Black Swan, named after the pub in Lion’s Yard which was demolished in 1924 to build Fisher House. According to chaplain Mgr Mark Langham, the former administrator of Westminster Cathedral, numbers are indeed up from the 1980s.
This is clear from the notice board which was jammed with posters for numerous societies. These include the Apologia: Dinner and Theology group that meets every Tuesday for supper to explore the doctrine of the Catholic Church; the Interfaith and Ecumenical Group; The Haddocks (for Catholic medics interested in issues of ethics); The Dolphins (for sporty left-footers); the Quaero (theology for non-theologians); Consider Your Call (for those exploring vocations); a film club, a group for south-east Asian Catholics, the Benson Club (discussing Catholic novels) and the Dante Circle (to discuss cantos from the Divine Comedy). And more.
With all this activity going on, I was a little surprised to arrive at the 9am Latin Mass on Sunday to find Fisher Hall relatively sparse for the last week of term. It was only when I walked into the bar next door and saw a giant TV screen on the wall that I realised the reason why: Cardinal Vincent Nichols was coming to celebrate the 11am sung English Mass and the Black Swan bar was being used for “overflow”.
My only minor gripe was that students have been missing out on reading the Catholic Herald – whose past writers include GK Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene – as the chaplaincy library has not been taking our magazine. I am delighted to report, however, that this is (I hope) about to change and students will soon be receiving a weekly copy. Students will also be learning about a new Catholic Herald graduate trainee scheme that we are seeking to put in place, offering a job (starting with internships this summer) to a youngster who wants to make their mark in Catholic journalism.
It will be one of the very few jobs today where having “fluent in Latin” on your CV might be helpful.
Talking of Latin, last week I attended a magnificent Requiem Mass (Mozart) at the London Oratory for the soul of Maya von Schönburg-Glauchau, the sister of Princess Gloria Thurn und Taxis, who died aged only 60. She was a fervent Catholic who regularly went on pilgrimages.
The Mass was celebrated beautifully by her friend Fr Julian Large, Provost of the Oratory, his heavy 19th-century black and gold vestments (known as the “Bumble Bee” set) hidden in a heavy cloud of incense as he was surrounded by a small army of servers in starched cottas. There were some touching moments such as when Fr Julian doffed his biretta at the name of Jesus (as in the Dies Irae), not unlike in the days when a gentleman used to doff his top hat when greeting a lady at, say, a wedding.
It’s not often that the paparazzi besiege the Oratory’s steps but the snappers (mostly from Germany) behaved with decorum and none of Fr Julian’s priests had to step in to act as bouncers. Nor did the press enter the church to photograph Maya’s many European, British and American friends including Herald owner Sir Rocco Forte and his family, various royals, including Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, and Hillary Clinton. It is always nice to see the London Oratory packed at 11am on a weekday, and as Fr Julian told me afterwards: “We gave her our best.”
Indeed, the Oratory did. It was a Missa cantata in the Tridentine form, which technically wasn’t quite a High Mass as there wasn’t a deacon and subdeacon. There were certainly no concessions to progressive liturgy. Those wanting to receive Communion knelt and received the Host on the tongue.
Although Maya was buried in Bavaria, a catafalque stood present at which Latin prayers were read. The catafalque “represents the mortal remains of the deceased”, and – helped along with the choir singing in D minor – points to the resurrection of our own bodies at our death. She certainly had a “good death”, surrounded by her family saying the rosary, having made her last Confession and received Extreme Unction. This was a “trad” death: no “Anointing of the Sick”, the modern parlance for the final anointing.
In his lucid sermon, his biretta firmly on his head, Fr Julian made this point unambiguously clear. We were not gathered for a memorial service, at which anecdotes and jokes were exchanged to celebrate the life of the deceased. Rather the opposite. “We are here not to avoid the topic of death,” said Fr Julian. “But rather to confront death head-on” – that is, to celebrate her new life that was just beginning, in heaven.