On the Third Sunday of Easter I visit St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, for High Mass. I was last in the city for the World Youth Day in 2008 and never imagined that I would return. What a short time ago it feels, and yet the young people I brought with me are now established in careers and vocations.
St Mary’s is a strikingly beautiful example of Gothic Revival architecture. Construction began in 1866 at the behest of Archbishop Bede Polding, who was originally a monk of Downside. (I knew this to be so from one of those synapses that connect apparently random pieces of experience. Among the effects of my friend Gerry after his death three years ago we found a rosary in a case with a note explaining that it had once belonged to Dom Bede Polding, who had given it to Gerry’s grandmother.)
Holding’s cathedral took 60 years or so to complete, to the designs of William Wardell, though twin spires were added at the liturgical west end as a project to mark the year 2000. The church is long and dark, though it has a triforium and clerestory in the style of a French cathedral of the 13th century. But every window is stained glass, some of the finest Victorian glass ever seen, created in Birmingham by the famous Hardman studio and shipped to Australia in the late 1880s.
Oscar Wilde once described himself as “trying to live up to” his blue Sèvres vases, and one knows what he means on visiting a beautiful church only to find that the liturgy doesn’t live up to its surroundings. Today, however, it does. The first notable feature is a willingness to stick to what the missal prescribes. The tendency to improvise is still rife among Australian clergy. One of their objects is apparently to avoid any impression that the priest’s agency is any different to that of a member of the congregation. So after saying “Good morning and welcome everybody”, some priests say “We are invited to begin our Mass ‘In the name of the Father …’ ”. For the dismissal, they say: “May Almighty God bless us …” These subtle changes are an inverted form of humility which substitutes the agency of Christ, who acts personally to bless through the ministry of the priest, with the agency of a facilitator who merely verbalises a hope of blessing in response to collective endeavour.
The cathedral music is beautiful. There is a robed choir of boys and men who sang the Gregorian chants for the Mass and we were all able to join in Godhead here in hiding at Communion. In response to this lack of creativity and rigidity in preferring what the liturgical norms mandate, it is noteworthy that the huge church is absolutely packed with people of all ages and conditions.
The Sunday Gospel of Jesus’s appearance to the disciples and his need to convince them that he is not a ghost, struck me with particular force this year. St Paul alerted us to the truth that the real naïvety is not believing in a bodily resurrection but in believing that the doctrine of a resurrection that was merely spiritual is of any use whatsoever. If Jesus were merely spiritually risen then what the disciples saw was a ghost, for the definition of a ghost is a disembodied spirit.
The logic of modern attempts to demythologise the Gospels has already been proven false by the Gospels themselves. The risen Jesus is at pains to prove he is no ghost because ghosts are merely spiritual and disembodied, and this is not a fullness of being for a human, let alone for the Word Incarnate. Nor is it a fullness of resurrection. Any recently bereaved spouse who been told by some well-meaning person that “he/she is with you still” knows the limited value of a demythologised resurrection. We must resist the temptation to become Ghost Catholics, that is, to accept that doctrine and pastoral practice belong to two different worlds, the first spiritual and disembodied and the latter real, bodily and experiential.
The point about the resurrection of the body is actually that my spirit makes my body who I am, not the other way round. Thus there can never be any question of sinning so that good might come of it. Such a “good”, while flatly contradicting centuries of Catholic praxis about marriage or sexual ethics, may claim to leave its spirit intact. It is “intact” in the same way a spirit is: literally unable to be touched because unreal, disembodied, a ghost.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.