Monday, 18 March 2013

St Mary's RC Cathedral

St Mary’s RC Cathedral
Mass for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Sunday 17 March 2013, 7.30pm
Celebrant: Rev Jeremy Milne (by process of elimination, see below)

It wasn’t a good start to a Sunday. Having stayed up too late the night before, poor little Soul Searcher just couldn’t get her lazy bones out of bed for a morning service. Luckily, St Mary’s holds five masses every Sunday, three times in English and twice in Polish, so I had no excuse not to go to one of them.

I’d decided on a Catholic church this week because of the papal election, but the cathedral wasn’t exactly buzzing with excitement about the new pontiff. They were still reeling from Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation, of course, as was acknowledged in Fr Milne’s homily: “What a Lenten journey this is proving to be for us.”

At least, I’m assuming it was Fr Milne. The newsletter listed four clergy, two of them Polish, and since the priest officiating referred to “what Fr Michael has written in the newsletter”, he could not himself have been Fr Michael, nor did he have a Polish accent. Ergo, he must have been Jeremy Milne … I think.

The gospel reading was John 8:11, the woman caught in adultery, so the theme of the sermon was forgiveness, which “helps to propel us beyond the obstacle of our resentment, anger and bitterness towards the future”, a timely reflection for a congregation that has been “forced to examine how we deal with forgiveness” in recent weeks.

The singing was the worst I’ve heard anywhere so far in my mission. It was impossible to tell whether anyone in the scattered congregation was singing at all, but one grotesquely over-amplified female voice shrieked from the public address system, over a florid Richard Clayderman-style piano accompaniment. There is an organ, and there is an organist, but on this occasion it was just piano and caterwauling. I couldn’t see where the singer was, having sat too far forward, but when I did locate the source of the noise I realised there were four singers, not one. Either there’s a problem with the microphones or they have three silent choristers. 

According to the newsletter, the choir (which sings at the mid-morning service) and the music group (which was what I was listening to) are both looking for new members, if anyone feels like rushing to their rescue. To be fair to the one shrill treble, without her efforts there would have been no singing at all.

The hymns, from Liturgical Hymns Old & New, were all entirely unknown to me and all in the same not-really-with-it-but-trying-very-hard-to-be-contemporary genre. There was a sentimental hymn to St Patrick, it being his feast day, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Daniel O’Donnell album, three other hymns, a responsorial psalm of sorts, and something sung to the Londonderry Air which wasn’t announced or listed on the hymn board and whose lyrics were lost to poor diction. And as for that famous top note … close but no cigar!

I took the opportunity to look up in Liturgical Hymns Old & New the hymn that had troubled me so much at St Margaret's and St Leonard's. Sure enough, the lyrics have been revised; Nostra Aetate has achieved something.

But on the whole it wasn’t a scintillating experience. Maybe everyone else was as tired as I was, and maybe the morning services are a riot, but this one was frankly pretty boring. Perhaps they’ll perk up a bit after their Lenten penance is served and they’ve recovered from their recent traumas. 


  1. I went to University with Jeremy when he studied ecology. He's a nice guy, quite serious, earnest and all round good egg but I don't think he's one to inspire the masses. Given what we now know about organized faith, one needs a good sense of humor (and humility) to hold an audience's attention.

  2. I wonder if you are punning on the word "masses". I suspect I didn't see St Mary's at its best - last mass of a long day, cold and dark outside, everyone just wanting to go home, and the clergy working overtime to cover for the absent cardinal. Maybe things have picked up by now; it's six months since. I hope so. If they're just slaving away every day in a mass factory, going through the motions, it can't be much fun for anyone.

  3. It was (perhaps) unfair to single out Jeremy in the wider point I was trying to make. But in the wake of Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s misdemeanors (and the history of abuse in all organized faiths, not just Catholicism), it seems wholly inadequate for church leaders to don the cloth, refer to parables of forgiveness and then head home for a cup of tea...

  4. For all we know, Fr Jeremy may have spent all night kneeling on a stone floor and flagellating himself. Maybe he gave up tea for Lent.

    But your point is sound. The church is a machine that just keeps on grinding no matter what scandal is brewing or has just broken. I left St Mary's that evening with no real sense of how anyone, lay or clergy, felt about the old cardinal or the new pope or what it all meant for them.