The Stripping of the Altars
(2005-05-28). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
"The blustering scurrilities of Bale or Becon did not seem to the Marian authorities the best model for establishing truth and stabilizing the religious life of the people, for such “pernicious and hurtful devices” could only engender “hatred among the people and discord among the same”. Satire and burlesque are commonly the weapons of those who seek to assail the established order, wedges hammered into the wall to create or exploit a breach. This was how the bishops perceived the position of Protestant controversialists, striving by fair means or foul to shake the religious convictions of centuries. It was the Protestants who needed to make an impression, and who sought to deploy the belly-laugh and the jeer to make their points. The bishops believed that what they needed to do was not to contribute to, but to quieten the babble of alehouse debate. Their objective was to re-establish the order and beauty of Catholic worship and the regular participation of the people in the sacraments, and to underpin it by a regular and solidly grounded pattern of parochial instruction, which would repair the damage of the schism.
This preference for the beauty of holiness over the cut and thrust of debate was not, in any straightforward way, a rejection of the value of scripture-reading or preaching, though there were those, like Gardiner, who were gloomy about the likely impact of either. As we shall see, the Marian church sought to ensure regular parochial preaching and followed Cranmer's precedent in preparing a set of homilies to be used by “insufficient” preachers. Though the Bibles as well as Erasmus's paraphrases were collected up from the churches during the Marian visitations, Bible-reading or the possession of Bibles was never condemned by the regime. Protestant versions of the Bible were suspect, not English Bibles as such. (Cardinal Reginald) Pole, as a member of the evangelically minded Spirituali of Cardinal Contarini's circle, had a deep sense of the value of scriptural preaching and expounded the Bible daily to his own household. A new English translation of the New Testament was one of the projects agreed and begun at Pole's legatine synod at the end of 1555. But he abhorred religious argument and the spirit of self-sufficiency which he believed indiscriminate Bible-reading by lay people was likely to encourage. Better for the people to absorb the faith through the liturgy, to find in attentive and receptive participation in the ceremonies and sacraments of the Church the grace and instruction on which to found the Christian life. This was the true Catholic way, the spirit of the parvuli, the “little ones” of Christ, for whom penitence, not knowledge, was the true and only way to salvation. The object of preaching and teaching was not to impart knowledge, but to cause the people to lament their sins, seek the healing of the sacraments, and amend their lives." (Kindle Locations 12833-12854).
This scholarly book documents Catholic parish life in pre-Reformation England, distinguishes between the Henrican and Edwardian reforms, the Marian restoration, which preceded the last sessions of the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, and the devastation of the Elizabethan reform. While it is certainly not beach reading for summer, it is more than accessible for most readers and does not demand a special preparation so much as it presumes genuine love for the Church and the Papacy, and a desire to love to the point of healthy envy a Catholic world very different from our own.
The most unsettling thing about the book is the sense of déjà vu with which it filled me, thinking about the iconoclasm and willfulness of the last fifty years of my experience, not unlike the excesses of 16th Century Tudor England. Henry VIII may have stubbornly pushed away from Rome in order to marry again, but financing an excessive lifestyle at court, paying debts incurred by the Tudors and just plain greed led to a systematic despoiling of churches and parishes, carrying off precious metals and stones, recycling for secular use textiles which had adorned altars and statues, then smashing the images and whitewashing the temples, and silencing their bells and song. Greed and pride brought down a beautiful edifice of penance, prayer and petition, firmly binding together the Church Militant, Suffering and Triumphant.
"In this emphasis on the positive value of ceremony and sacrament, Pole and his colleagues, so often accused of lacking a grip of the realities of mid-Tudor England, were certainly more closely in touch with the feelings of the laity at large than were the reformers. Resentment and rejection of ritual change had lain close to the heart of both the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Western Rebellion, but it was not only in the dark corners of the land that men and women felt that the repudiation of time-honoured ceremonies was symptomatic of more profound and more drastic discontinuities. Procession, pax, holy bread, and holy water were the formal expressions of the identity of the parish, and the rituals in which pecking-order and precedence were manifested or negotiated. Repudiation of or abstention from such rituals might be a manifestation of the repudiation of neighbourly charity and the unity of the community. Ceremonies which, to the reformers, were unchristian or idolatrous, were somewhere near the centre of things in the religious and communal instincts of the people." (Kindle Locations 12876-12883).
Queen Mary's reform was a rational thing which sought to do what was best. During the reigns of Henry and Edward so many priests had been lost to the service of the altar that she and her emissaries did well to insist upon the restoration of the one high altar in each church, but this paucity of priests precluded the restoration of the side altars and chapels, which had played such a key role in the devotion of the people. This week, a visit for me to the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, Poland, and an innocent question from a young person about how liturgy as we know it could be possible therein, brought home to me once again the shocking reality of the rupture which has destroyed our organic continuity with the past. The life of faith buzzes around those side altars and chapels, even if I doubt that even there Masses can be guaranteed at each one every morning. Maybe from long before the 2nd Vatican Council that iconoclastic spirit brooding in certain circles and wanting to rationalize worship, seemingly for the sake of real development, makes the reparation of harm done seem an insurmountable challenge. For now, I guess, we find ourselves not unlike those who sought the Marian restoration, partial and rational as it was.
For that I return to the wisdom of Pope Benedict's wisdom in urging the mutual enrichment of the two forms of one rite as the path toward, first, even imagining, and then carrying out the restoration which far from being an exercise in nostalgia or archaeology, would touch hearts and bring life, integral life back to our parishes.
PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI