I am old enough to remember – albeit dimly – the Latin Mass. For younger readers, and non-Catholics, I should explain that until the mid-1960s, throughout the Catholic church, Mass was conducted exclusively in Latin. The priest would deliver the liturgy in Latin, and the congregation, when required to voice responses, would do likewise. The change to the use of the vernacular came about when Pope John XXIII instituted various liberalising reforms. There remain a few recalcitrant diehards – notable among them being the father of Mad Max star Melvin Gibson – who cling to the Latin Mass, although I understand this is much disapproved of by the Vatican, and may even be illegal.
On the council estate where I grew up, there were many Catholics but no Catholic church. To save us from having to trudge a fair distance to St Bede’s, the parish church, an arrangement had been made that a pub on the estate would host our Sunday Mass. Thus every week we would troop into the Moby Dick on Whalebone Lane. We used the main bar area of the pub, with chairs temporarily aligned in rows, though I cannot recall what served as an altar. I do remember that towels were draped over all the beer pumps at the bar. After Mass, a goodly proportion of the congregation, and probably the priest too, would remain in the pub waiting for opening time. My parents were not drinkers, though, so we were herded home.
Around the same time as the introduction of the Mass in English, the service itself was moved to a new community centre on the estate. Thus passed a particular, and in retrospect profound, part of my childhood.
I stopped attending Mass when, as a nincompoop teenager, I turned my back on the faith. Then, and for many years afterwards, if I thought about the Latin Mass at all, it was as a prime example of the stupidity of religion. How preposterous, for people to gather together to listen and respond to what for most of them (and certainly for the infant me) was a babble of incomprehensible gibberish!
It is only recently that I have realised the significance of this early experience. One must bear in mind that for the vast majority of people, there was nothing remotely swinging about the 1960s. Particularly on my council estate, it was a dull, pinched, grey (or beige) time yet to emerge from the austerity of the immediate post-war years. We had no television, telephone, refrigerator, central heating, or other home comforts. Life was uneventful and devoid of any but the most paltry excitements. (I now look back with nostalgia for the peace and tranquility.)
There was thus something quite magical and passing strange about those Sunday mornings. We gathered in the gloom of the pub, while a man dressed – improbably – in often colourfully embroidered raiment stood, with his back to us (as the priests did in those days), intoning a litany of words, and always exactly the same words, which we did not understand, and bore no relation to anything we heard elsewhere, in any circumstances. Indeed there was nothing about it that had anything whatsoever to do with the world we inhabited the rest of the time. It was baffling and bizarre, but, by dint of weekly repetition, comfortingly familiar. And it was deeply, deeply serious.
It has now dawned on me, at long last, that, in my own faltering yet determined way, I have been trying to recreate this numinous childhood experience by babbling, once a week, in Hooting Yard On The Air on ResonanceFM.
What I remember most about Sunday Mass at the Moby Dick pub was the mural of the white whale impaled with harpoons as Captain Ahab and boatloads of sailors were tossed into the foaming seas. The mural spanned an entire wall of the saloon and I spent the entire Mass looking at it. The priest could have said Mass in Swahili for all I cared. I just stared at the mural.
Latin Mass at the Moby Dick Pub sounds thrilling to me. I remember the Latin Mass as a ritual involving incantations and strange movements on the part of our parish priest, a sour Monsignor given to long rants (in English) from the pulpit about money. Apparently, families like my poor parents with six children weren’t coughing up enough for St. Elizabeth’s church. The Monsignor drove a Lincoln Continental and took frequent trips to resorts in the Bahamas. I studied Latin at St. Elizabeth School, so I was able to understand some of it. I am grateful for that and have come to appreciate the roots of so many words in our language. But as a teenager the best part of the Latin Mass was skipping it, and meeting my friends outside for a smoke.
I, too, have early memories of being taken to such services in the 60s, though not in a pub, more’s the pity. Of course, little did any of us know that our every word both on entering and leaving the building was being taken down – in Latin – by that shadowy organisation, Mass Observation.