Friday, 1 April 2016

Another goodbye

The little suburban church was quite full. Mike’s widow, Anne, whom he had married more than half a century earlier, their two sons and their only daughter, each of these three accompanied by a ‘partner’, and their five grandchildren, occupied the front two rows. Behind them sat siblings, in-laws, cousins, friends, neighbours and former colleagues. Neville was at the back.

Anne was wearing a navy blue skirt, of decent length, and matching jacket. Most of the older women were dressed similarly. The septuagenarians and octogenarians among the male mourners were, for the most part, in dark suits, white shirts and black ties. The clothes of those still south of sixty were more casual and less sombre. Mike’s sons dressed like mediocre applicants for mediocre jobs.

After singing a couple of hymns, chosen by Anne for the occasion, and listening to ‘special readings’, only one of them taken from Sacred Scripture, the congregation sat down for Fr. Pat’s eulogy. Fr. Pat, for many years the parish priest, was stepping in for his younger, foreign successor. In his shabby, white chasuble, perched behind the microphone, Fr. Pat looked every inch the ageing Novus Ordo cleric.

‘My dear friends’, said the conciliar levite, ‘we are here today to say a fond goodbye to our friend, husband, dad, whoever ……… Mike hated classifications …………. Mike. We all loved him, each in our own different way. Mike and I were both born in the early 1940’s, so we trod many of the same paths. Mike began life here in England, the son of Irish parents, Patrick and Mary Byrne. His was a conventional Catholic upbringing, starting in the war years and culminating in his coming of age in the early 1960’s and in his marriage, at the age of 23, to Anne. Mike’s mum and dad were good folk, but many of their beliefs and ways of being and doing were, shall we say, of their time. I am proud to welcome here today Mike’s wonderful children and their partners. Mike’s dad would have perhaps raised his eyebrows at the precise form of their relationships, as if God cares about form, but the Church has – thank God – moved on. What is our faith in Christ if not a celebration of love? How can
expressions of love be anathema to the King of Love? Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox and return to Mike.’

‘After putting in a good performance at the local Catholic grammar school,’ continued Fr. Pat, ‘Mike went to work for an insurance company. He did well there, and climbed his way up over the years so that, eventually, he and Anne could have the lovely home that so many of us know. His marriage to Anne, long-lasting and happy, did not prevent Mike and his lovely wife from tolerating the life choices made by others, including their children.’

‘Mike’, the congregation was told, ‘was a regular in this parish. He never missed a Sunday. He was always happy to help out. I remember him organising the first parish disco more than forty years ago. Back then, I was a young priest, full of, as I hope I still am, the spirit of the great Vatican II. I replaced Canon Hardcastle. Hardy, as we used to refer to him in the diocese, was stuck in his ways. He just didn’t understand the new wind that was blowing. Now Mike wouldn’t take Hardy’s nonsense lying down. He and Anne were part of a formidable group of laity who, having prayed and reflected, decided they could not accept the nonsensical teaching contained in Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. They manifested their concerns, as the Council told the laity to do, to Hardy. The old canon wouldn’t listen. So Mike and his friends spoke louder. But still Hardy wouldn’t listen. There were even stories that Hardy was refusing absolution to people who refused to undertake not to use contraception. Of course, the old man tried to hide behind the seal of the confessional and all that.

What were Mike and his friends to do?

They organised a peaceful picket of the presbytery! I am sure Anne still has some ‘photos. If you can look beyond the now rather comical flared trousers and long sideburns, you will see in that picture an image of The People of God at work. So the dinosaur contacted the bishop. The bishop fudged and tried to please both sides. Anyway, soon afterwards Hardy was gone. He went to live with his two unmarried sisters, and showed his true reactionary colours by reverting to saying the Tridentine Mass, which he did on their Victorian sideboard. At his funeral a few months later, said by the vicar general in the new rite, I reflected on how much wasted life and love there was in the old religion. Things quietened down a bit after Hardy’s departure from the parish. I took over. I sorted out the sanctuary. And with the encouragement of the likes of dear Mike and Anne, I put the whole parish on a marvellous programme of renewal. The fine church interior, warm and welcoming but with a striking and modern simplicity, which you see today, is a result of that.’

‘Life went on for Mike’, recounted Fr Pat. ‘He was there for all the great events of the next few decades. For the introduction of communion in the hand, for the replacement of our segregated parish grammar schools with a mixed, ecumenical comprehensive, for the National Pastoral Congress in 1980, for J-P 2’s visit in 1982, for the closure of the convent in the parish and the conversion of the premises to an inspiring “Faith Centre”. The 1980’s became the 1990’s, and soon enough the twentieth century was over. For Mike, retirement came. Sadly, a couple of years ago, came the cancer that has taken him from us. But we should not be sad today. Mike is now at rest. He’s up there now, looking down on us with a great big smile on that familiar face. After this Eucharistic celebration of
his life, his old clothes, for that’s all a dead human body is, will be cremated. And then, I want you all to come back here for the party in the church hall. You’ll be letting Mike down if you don’t eat drink and be merry. That’s an order!’

With that, Fr Pat took his seat to listen to the bidding prayers. The Mass, if it could be called that, which followed was predictable in its irreverence and its blandness. Neville was about the only person who did not receive what purported to be Holy Communion. The final hymn, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, in itself quite a stirring old protestant hymn, was given a dreadful rendition, the awfulness of which was positively encouraged by a grinning Fr Pat.

Poor Neville! He had twice been on the point of walking out. Was it cowardice or respect for Anne that had kept him there? Neville had known Mike and Anne for more than fifty years. If they had once been close friends, the relationship had long since been rather cool and even a bit distant. Neville would not be going to the crematorium and he had decided to avoid the jolly get-together planned for afterwards. Just as he was leaving the church to start the short walk home, he overheard a conversation.

‘Oh! Look at the side altar. I haven’t seen one looking like that since I was a child,’ said a lady well into middle age. ‘It’s used once a week,’ explained a parishioner, ‘by a little group who like the old Latin Mass. For years they had their Mass in a rented hall a few miles away. Some of them were right bitter about things in the Church. Stern old spinsters in mantillas, crusty old gentlemen, fogeyish young gentlemen, oversized families, the odd political fanatic, and not a few who were just plain weird. Anyway, for a couple of years they’ve been coming here. And, you know, they’re quite nice really. At first, they were a bit unfriendly, but they’re really starting to fit in well in the parish.
One or two of their ladies now help with tea after the main parish Mass, and they don’t seem to mind. A few of the older ones have died or drifted off. And they smile, and we smile. I think you’ve got to be nice to people like that, to win them over. And as long as they don’t push their version of religion down my throat, and I am told that their priest has been very good and told them not to do that, then I can get along fine with them. Our parish priest, Fr Roger, has said that niceness and cups of tea are how to cure religious bigots. If you oppose them, it only makes them worse. You know, they even let us use the flowers from their altar for Mike’s funeral. Isn’t that nice?’ ‘Oh that is nice. Let’s go into the hall and have a nice cup of tea.’

Neville was not a regular at the side altar. Despite his worsening arthritis and his meagre pension, he was now making an inconvenient journey across London every Sunday to Mass in a little room, where those who refused the side altar, the niceness and the tea, now gathered. Mike appeared to have died in his religion. Neville, a convert, was determined to die in his or, rather, His.