Chapter 26

in which Father Joseph Scott preaches a thunder of a sermon about the moral decline in society.

The Bishop arrived five minutes late at the pro-Cathedral on the Feast of Saint Philip and Saint James, 1937, when he was due to sing pontifical High Mass on the occasion of his sacerdotal golden jubilee. Canon Bonnyboat, however, who was to be master of ceremonies, was glad of the delay, because it gave him more time to decide who was to genuflect to whom and when and who were merely to remove their birettas, as six other bishops were to be in the choir and a host of abbots and priors as well, and even Doctor Adrian Fortescue, in The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, seemed to have neglected to provide for such a beanfeast. Canon Smith, too, was slightly late, because he had been giving instructions to the architect about the new stone nave of the Holy Name which the workmen were now building away at breakneck speed over the old tin nave, and he had to write and thank Elvira, who had sent him another five thousand pounds from America; but he arrived before the Bishop all the same.

There was such a jam of ecclesiastics in the sacristy that there wasn't room for them all, even standing up, and the Franciscans from Kincairns had to sit on the dresser, but Canon Bonnyboat told them not to swing their legs so as not to spoil the varnish. The other bishops and abbots and priors stood round the Bishop and smiled at him as he was helped into his red silk stockings and satin shoes, and the Bishop told them that they had no idea how badly he sang High Mass these days, not at all like when he had been a young bishop of sixty, so he said. Then they all lined up in procession, with the acolytes first and then the priests and then the priors and then the abbots and then the bishops in their purple, and the Bishop himself last of all with his master of ceremonies and assistants in their vestments; and Canon Bonnyboat said that none of the other bishops must give any blessings as they processed round the Cathedral, but only the Bishop, because it was he who was pontificating.

Canon Smith's eyes filled with tears as the organ roared out the Ecce Sacerdos Magnus and they entered the packed cathedral. What nonsense the left-wing intellectuals talked, he thought, when they spoke of 'the phenomenon of our empty churches.' Whatever churches were empty in Britain, the Catholic churches were always full. At four Masses each Sunday the Holy Name was crammed from sanctuary rail to organ loft, and at some of the six Masses at the Cathedral people were standing bareheaded in the porch. And today the Cathedral was crowded as it hadn't been since his lordship's consecration nearly forty years ago. The Lord Provost himself was there and the Lord Lieutenant of the County and the Chief Constable and a Major-General who had come all the way from Scottish Command Headquarters; and, behind and around those distinguished pop-eyed glossy heretics come out to do honour to the Bishop swarmed the great familiar family of God's faithful, from the high-class Lady Ippecacuanha with a missal the size of an encyclopaedia and the nuns all twittering with excitement to the knobbly old charwomen and their grubby brats and the splodges of babies yelping in their mothers' arms at the back of the church near the holy-water stoups.

Father Scott preached the sermon, because he was the best preacher in the diocese, but first he knelt before the Bishop for his blessing. Then Father Scott stood up in the pulpit and said, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,' just like that, and the babies at the back stopped their yowling and the bishops in their purple and the abbots and priors in their habits and the canons and the plain big-eared parish priests all listened mightily, because they had heard what a very fine preacher he was, and behind a pillar in her humble square old coat his mother squeezed his father's hand, because it was their own son who was going to preach before all these holy men.

They were celebrating that day the fiftieth anniversary of their bishop's ordination to the priesthood, Father Scott said, and on such occasions it was customary to preach happy, safe sermons about the wonders wrought in human souls by the operation of sacramental grace. Well, he wasn't going to preach a happy, safe sermon, because the world in which they lived was not a happy, safe world; instead, he was going to preach what some people might call an explosive sermon, nor was he going to apologize for it, because, if Christianity was anything, it was an explosive idea, just as all the sacraments which the Bishop had administered in the fifty years of his priesthood might be said to be explosive sacraments, since the centre of them all had been the Holy Ghost, Who was a dynamite that blasted away sin.

In olden days the reason for most of the world's miseries had been that Christians proclaimed with their lips and dissembled in their hearts; today Christians didn't bother even to proclaim with their lips, and, although some people might laud this omission as sincerity, he thought that it was a bad sign, since it indicated that there were no longer enough true Christians in the world to exact from the less virtuous a hypocrisy which was, in its twisted way, a compliment. Even Catholics, to whom knowledge of the truth had been granted, quickly forgot in the market place what they had learned from the pulpit and aped the manners and the methods of those who claimed that this world was all. This defection of Catholics as a whole could not be denied, for they numbered about a fifth of the world's total population; and if their practice had equalled their faith, the history of the last nineteen years must surely have been different.

For what had they got to show for the more than six thousand days they had lived since the eleventh of November, 1918, when peace for all time had been promised to the world? What except that they could now fly across the Atlantic instead of sail across it, that cinemas now talked and that on the wireless the music went round and round, so that by merely pushing a button one could have Bach for breakfast and 'You're My Sweetie Pie' for tea? But that sort of thing was not progress; on the contrary, it was the reverse of progress, for the superabundance of mechanical diversions stunted men's souls, because they demanded no effort from their imagination. This would have been bad enough even in their fathers' time, when men's occupations stimulated their intellects, but in these days when the subdivision of labour had made most tasks dull, it was almost disastrous.

The causes of these miseries were numerous. Firstly, there was the almost universal agnosticism which came, not from the intellect, but from the heart, which was glad to be able to disbelieve because sin now appeared to be without consequence. Secondly, there was the theory that the sole purpose of education was to teach men to earn their livings, whereas its real purpose was to teach them to love God and humanity, both of whom manifested themselves more clearly outside laboratories and counting-houses than inside them. Thirdly, there was the general decline in honesty and high purposefulness, and, as a result of the literature of disillusion, the conviction that nobody else practised honesty and high purposefulness either. For we were all, in the dreadful phase of the American cinema, wise guys these days and no longer believed that anybody in the whole world acted from disinterested motives, but that everybody had an axe to grind. The test of any project was now purely practical: whether it would work; business was business, so the City men said, which was another way of saying that they could swindle in the name of commerce. Money was as money did, they cried, calling up from the grave the ghost of George Adam Smith, and political economy was a normative science, they said, which aimed at showing how men tended to behave in certain circumstances and not how they ought to behave. Well, the Church of God was not a normative Church, but a thundering, teaching, shouting, preaching Church, crying out to men what they must do if they were to be saved, and he as a priest of that Church had no hesitation in saying that the political economists were talking through their hats, and that money was not as money did, but rather the measure of man's inability to obey Almighty God and love his neighbour as himself.

Fourthly and finally, there was the myth of progress which assumed that men went on becoming automatically and inevitably more and more civilized and that the habits of tomorrow would be as superior as those of today were to those of yesterday. This, too, was a grave error. Moving forward in time did not necessarily mean moving forward in ethics. The citizen of London today was not, because he read the News of the World on Sunday afternoons, superior to the fourth-century-before-Christ citizen of Athens who went to see a performance of Aeschylus' Agamemnon. The young lady who was popular with the men at dances because she had no body odour was not an improvement on Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, who must have smelt quite a lot after succouring her lepers, unless, which was unlikely, the young lady happened to think a better kind of thought than Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. For true progress was moral rather than mechanical: if there were to be more switches, more buttons, more batteries, there must also be more restraints, more austerities, more unselfishness, more humilities, more prayers, more contemplations on the real end of man.

The world was in its present agony because men had not been willing to understand that the lamp of western civilization, which had been lighted by the Catholic Church, had to be tended constantly or it would go out for ever. God's housekeeping had to be done every day afresh, or moth and rust would corrupt the fabric and the furniture wrought by patient men through the centuries. It was because men had refused to do God's chores that the peace of the world was again threatened, as was evidenced by the dreadful civil war at that moment raging in Spain.

Watching the Bishop blessing the incense through the intercession of Blessed Michael the Archangel, Canon Smith wondered how he had taken Father Scott's sermon; but it was not until they were back in the sacristy and the Bishop called him over that he knew.

'Well, Canon, I am afraid that I shall have to move that young man of yours after all,' he said.

'But, my lord, what he said wasn't wrong,' Canon Smith protested.

'It was because that what he said was so right that I'll have to move him,' the Bishop said. 'I am going to make him rector of Our Lady, Mirror of Justice, Gormnevis. Some of the canons won't like it, but they'll just have to lump it, I'm afraid.'

Back to index    This page has been visited
00116 times since July 13, 2016