Life & Soul Life and Soul

Diary of a city priest

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St James’s, Spanish Place, is definitely my favourite church in London. Its elegant vaults are reminiscent of a French Gothic cathedral. Its shadowy interior and its numerous, still-adorned side altars give it that feeling of immemorial devotion which makes stepping into it from the proximity of Oxford Street, Europe’s busiest shopping street, feel like sanctuary.

The church has that actualised silence which only places that have been much prayed-in have. Perhaps this is what gave rise to the now unusual experience of arriving before the start of a Confirmation ceremony and finding the congregation in silence, some kneeling – in contrast to the bedlam of loud conversation and laughter which is the normal precursor to parish Confirmations today. No one came out to remind us to switch off our phones, or suggest that it might be nice idea to prepare with a few moments of silence.

What I appreciated was what one might call the liturgical landscape: the inclusion of the Veni Creator and Veni Sancte Spiritus, the prayerful reverence, as much as the fact that this Confirmation was taking place in the Extraordinary Form. For in reality, the difference between the older and newer rites of Confirmation is not glaringly apparent – at least, not to me – apart from the obvious: that one is in Latin. The other striking contrast is that this Extraordinary Form Confirmation took place outside of Mass and concluded with Benediction.

It feels as though Confirmation both gains and loses something by being distinct from Mass. On the one hand, it felt strange not to mark this completion of initiation into the Mysteries by participating in the sacrifice of the Mass and Holy Communion, since these are what promise and make present this new life in Christ until He comes. Equally, I felt that the rite of Confirmation itself comes into sharper focus by virtue of being separate. It was a refreshing change, for example, not to have to sit through the processions of reluctant teenagers dragooned into reading welcome announcements, bidding prayers or carrying their workbooks up with the Offertory gifts.

Don’t misunderstand me: I take St Philip Neri’s view of young people, that they can chop wood on my back if it helps them do good. But the case that mass participation in the Confirmation liturgy results in ongoing teenage involvement in the Church has long since collapsed. The opposite is more likely because of an important human truth: that the last thing you want to do as a teenager is to be on show.

When added to the impoverished theology of Confirmation pertaining in many places, with its semi-Pelagian emphasis on the sacrament as the occasion when you stand up and confirm your commitment to faith, it is asking too much of a teenager. To tell them that the Holy Spirit is being poured out to them to make them soldiers of Christ retains its relevance with its connotations of strength, self-effacing duty and the involvement with comrades (remembering that the word sacramentum originally meant an indelible mark which identified Roman soldiers).

There were drawbacks to the ceremony at St James’s. Vesting the bishop in front of everyone as though he has lost the use of his limbs seems to me a ritual that has probably had its day. And someone in the pulpit photographing every moment left an uncomfortable feeling, as though the beauty of what it looked like, instead of the invisible power it mediated, needed to be captured.