Why St John Vianney’s heart matters
SIR – I can imagine an atheist reader scoffing if he stumbled on Michael Warren Davis’s account of the tour of St John Vianney’s heart in the United States (US news analysis, November 30). Why, I can hear him asking, would anyone think that a heart that stopped beating in 1859 is the “perfect” antidote to an abuse crisis that has devastated the lives of thousands of people?
But as a Catholic, I would dare to say that your writer is correct. While it is understandable that a materialist regards relic tours as a waste of time, those who believe in the supernatural know that there is far more to relics than meets the eye.
St John Vianney was, as you hint, an exemplary priest at a time of laxity and corruption among the clergy. While he wasn’t the most intellectually gifted priest of his generation – indeed, far from it – he showed the power of holiness to transform even the most unpromising community. When the Curé was appointed to the town of Ars in 1818, it had many of the same problems from which our own communities suffer. By the end of his life, his holy influence extended far beyond Ars. Some 20,000 pilgrims visited him every year, and he spent up to 16 hours a day hearing their Confessions.
The tour of the saint’s heart will uplift thousands of American Catholics who are currently in despair at the state of the clergy. It will give them hope that sin and corruption do not have the last word. In venerating his relics, we do not ignore or downplay the suffering of the abused. We simply pray for more holy priests to take care of the flock.
Can we have our altar rails back?
SIR – My wife and I became Catholic shortly before we got married in the millennium year. Our local church was quite traditional in style, with an air of candlelit prayer.
Shortly afterwards, we moved, and were surprised by what a modern Catholic church was like, with the music and architecture of its time, but we just accepted it and carried on.
We were dimly aware that the cultural revolution of the 1960s had been felt in the Church as well, and we absorbed the received wisdom that this was a good thing. But like most millennial converts, we assumed that the culture battles of the 1970s were a closed chapter in Church history.
Then a more traditional priest came to the parish, and we heard people wondering if the altar rails would return. This meant nothing to us – altar rails? What could possibly make them so significant?
It gradually dawned on us that some people do not see traditional devotions as being safely in the past. Instead they regard the “old ways” as more like a fire that has never been completely put out. At the first sight of a curl of smoke rising from the ground, they stamp on it, as if to make it quite clear that “we are not going back there”.
I do not write these words to support one side or the other in this long-running battle. I wasn’t there. I simply cannot know what the Church in the 1950s was really like. However, my plea is this: whatever the rights and wrongs of the old-versus-new debate, surely enough time has passed that we can now see that certain devotional practices have great value to us, the lay faithful. We don’t regard the removal of altar rails as an important proxy battle in a culture war. We simply see them as a kindness, an aid to those who want to kneel when in the presence of Our Lord.
Genuflecting, kneeling, receiving Communion on the tongue – to a younger generation these are not ill-advised concessions to a still dangerous opponent. They are just helpful practices, physical reminders of the great unseen mysteries.
So can we have our altar rails back now, please? In a few more years I feel I may need them.
SIR – Reading your correspondent Elizabeth Price’s letter (November 23) I was struck by the different vocabulary used by those who favour the Extraordinary Form and those who are opposed to it.
For the former, the priest “says” or “sings” the Mass; for the latter, he “mumbles” it. Its detractors refer to the ad orientem position of the celebrant as “turning his back on the congregation, facing the wall”, whereas for its advocates he is “standing at the head of his people, leading them towards the Risen Christ”.
An outsider would hardly be able to tell that both sides were referring to exactly the same thing.
Vatican out of step
SIR – Ruth Yendell (Letter, November 30) accuses me of “confusing two separate issues”.
Although on a different subject, the letter from Daniel Kowalski immediately above hers perhaps hits the nail on the head better than I did. While he was commenting on the issue of qui custodiet ipsos custodes in relation to bishops, his question – “which model is most likely to restore trust between bishops, priests and the faithful in the pew” – is entirely apposite.
Is there any point in rejoicing in “the unity which the Catholic Church has managed to retain”, as Ruth Yendell does, if that unity is lived out in empty churches because all trust in the hierarchical system has been lost, not only for current Catholics but for those who may be considering coming into the Church?
The sin of the individuals involved in the abuse scandal is great, but it must be acknowledged that the perpetrators constitute a very small proportion of what are otherwise devoted priests and pastors. The sin of the hierarchy in covering up and protecting the institution of the Church and their fellow bishops and priests, rather than the victims, is the greater.
Sadly, in its instructions to the American bishops not to take immediate action to address the issue but to wait until after February’s meeting, the Vatican has shown that it is wholly out of step with the need for urgent and decisive action on the issue. Yet more evidence that the existing model is not fit for purpose and in need of reformation.
SIR – While I have yet to attend a Mass with a “liturgy of money” (Cover story, November 30), I can’t be the only Catholic to be wearied by the second collections after most Sunday Masses.
I recall one parish priest sheepishly announcing a second collection and adding: “In the Catholic Church we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism – and two collections.”
SIR – Thank you for explaining why we genuflect (How to…, November 30). As a convert, I’ve noticed a common variation in which the faithful kneel while crossing themselves at lightning speed, often ending by kissing their hand. Does anyone know where this practice comes from?