On a sunny, rather warm day in October I walked out of the funky Walpole Bay Hotel in Margate, when who should I see approaching briskly up the steps but Fr Timothy Finigan, our very own agony uncle (Catholic Dilemmas, p24) and author of the celebrated Hermeneutic of Continuity blog. He is known the world over for his defence of compassionate Traditionalism, by which I mean that he does not throw bombs. What a nice surprise, anyway. We’d never met, but I’d seen his picture.
“Fr Tim Finigan?” I said. He looked a bit guarded. I needed a shave and was wearing perhaps slightly grubby chinos. I took the liberty of introducing myself, however, and, to my great relief, he smiled.
“Isn’t Margate terrific?” he said. It’s not quite the reaction one expects from a new arrival, because, at first glance, Margate is a bit of a dump. Fr Tim arrived in September to replace Fr Luke Smith as parish priest of St Austin and St Gregory with St Anne. Before that, he had been parish priest at Our Lady of the Rosary in Blackfen for 17 years and had, famously, formed a strong Traditionalist base there. He offered the old Latin Mass on Saturdays, Sundays and Holy Days, and on other days as well.
I met Fr Tim again last month, by appointment. I arrived at St Austin and St Gregory towards the end of the 12 o’clock Mass, and was delighted to see that, after the dismissal, he knelt before the high altar and said the Leonine Prayers or, as they used to be known, the Prayers for the Conversion of Russia. (These days, of course, it would make more sense to pray for the conversion of the US and the EU.)
This is one of several liturgical changes he has made. Others include the abolition of the Sign of Peace, the re-introduction of Communion under one kind – no more offering the Chalice to lay people – and the “letting go” of the “lay ministers” of Holy Communion.
But… “Isn’t Margate terrific?” When
I knew the town first, in the 1950s, the place was gaudy, well-to-do, honky-tonk, full of Teddy Boys and Americans from the nearby USAF base at Manston. For a 13-year-old it was heaven, but it was too good to last. The Americans left in 1961, and not long after that the package holiday industry took off, marking the beginning of the end of the old seaside resorts.
But perhaps there is to be a new beginning. Certainly, Fr Tim’s enthusiasm is infectious. He loves the retro-chic of the Old Town, with its antique shops and micro-pubs, its mixture of Victorian and Georgian architecture, and its excellent restaurants. He does not care greatly for the Turner gallery, but believes it is helping to bring life and purpose (ie money) back to the town.
Like Margate, the Church faces difficulties as a result of changes made in the first half of the 1960s, but here, too, there
are signs of a new beginning, thanks to the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
“A lot of good, orthodox priests are now coming out of the seminaries,” Fr Tim says. “Quite a few of them say the Old Mass.” Benedict showed us the way forward – via the hermeneutic of continuity and the reform of the reforms.
At St Austin and St Gregory, Fr Tim says a traditional Latin Mass at 6.30pm on Mondays. At some time in the future, he hopes to be able to celebrate the Extraordinary Form on Sundays. But he is going to take it a day at a time.
After lunch we went for a walk on the promenade. The light was beginning to fade, and there were pink streaks in the clouds to the West. “You can see what Turner meant about Margate having big skies,” Fr Tim said. You certainly could. Across the road from us was the Kiss Me Quick souvenir shop whose owner, Billy Keefe, had become friendly with Fr Tim. As well as selling saucy postcards, Billy sells Chicken Balti rock, which, according to Fr Tim, tastes like… Chicken Balti.
No sooner had Billy’s name been invoked than he appeared, miraculously, on the other side of the road. We joined him. He is in his 50s, tough, with a bit of a tan and a broken nose. “’Ere, Father,” he said. “I’ve got something that should interest someone in your line of business.”
He’d been to Gozo, sister island to Malta, and had discovered the most beautiful churches there. He took out his smartphone and showed us pictures of them. Occasionally, he enlarged a picture by spreading a finger and thumb across the image, as though he was showing off the better features of a racing greyhound to a mate.
Fr Tim smiled. He is good with people. He talks and listens. After four hours in his company I was feeling so positive about Margate, and about his ministry there, that if I’d been young – 60, say – I’d have been tempted to relocate to the seaside.
This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (5/12/14)