Sunday, December 30, 2007

Nottingham's Cathedral

The Cathedral in Nottingham (St Barnabas) was built under AWN Pugin in 1842-4. At that time the diocese had not yet been formed, but this commission was to be a great church for the Midlands, second in Pugin's career only to St Chad's in Birmingham. It was funded in part by Bishop Walsh, but mainly by Lord Shrewsbury. As ever Pugin incited controversy, with ever more grandiose designs making his work greater than had been originally intended. It is built in the early English style, with a long low nave and aisles, transepts and crossing, a chancel with three sides built over a crypt, and round the back on the east side are three projecting chapels. It is built in local sandstone, the likes of which I am familiar having grown up in Nottingham and climbed many exciting cliff faces!

Lord Shrewsbury thought the plans would produce a barn-like bare building. But Pugin was passionate about perspective, with "pillar beyond pillar, screen beyond screen". Ironically, Lord Shrewsbury's fears were only realised once the building had been tampered with down the centuries. It became a Cathedral in 1850 with the creation of the Nottingham Diocese, and successive Bishops went about changing the structure entirely, especially that of the sanctuary. The ex-Oratorian Bishop Brindle (1901-15) demolished the rood screen and high altar. Bishop Ellis replaced a later restored high altar with his throne, placing a new altar in the crossing of the nave with the transept. That is where the altar remains today, now being a strangely square affair. I remember the re-orderings of 1994 well, with furnishing by Smith and Roper, new stencilling and painting which I imagine go some way to restore what Pugin had originally intended.

Probably the best way to glimpse back into time, at the intended character of the Cathedral, is to visit the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the south transept - a beautifully stencilled and decorated area of the Cathedral which stands out as the most sacred and prayerful place. Exposition and adoration on a Saturday morning is really a wonderful thing, with confession also readily available at the back of the cathedral.

I often attend the 'High Latin Mass' at this Cathedral on my family weekend visits (albeit when they do not coincide with the monthly Corpus Christi, Clifton Tridentine Masses). They are really a forum for the Cathedral choir to sing Latin polyphony and plainchant, which is of course a good thing. Unfortunately the performance of whichever priest they manage to find is usually out of character altogether, mingling Latin choral singing with typical trendy English folk warmness. On one occasion there wasn't a priest available, so we were treated to the most elaborate Liturgy of the Word and distribution of Communion that I can imagine! A poor seminarian presided, and did a terribly good job in the circumstances. Such is the state of the Church today, I suppose; terribly short of priests even when everyone else is present en masse!

If you find yourself in Nottingham, be sure to visit this gem of Pugin's, which has prime city centre location and always a friendly welcome! And it is of course the seat of the wonderful Bishop of Nottingham Malcolm McMahon, who I hope gets round to celebrating a Pontifical High Mass in his own diocese, as he has in others!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Reminder...

I am certainly excited, and so should you! This is not widely publicised outside the Oratory's newletter, so here's a reminder:

In this joyous time of Christmastide the Birmingham Oratory has changed the time and venue of the weekly Sunday Tridentine Mass to:

9:30 am
in the Main Church
at the High Altar

Please give this 'experimental' change your support if you happen to be spending the weekend in Brum (which I'd recommend; the lovely cosmopolitan city it is)! You can also stick around afterwards in thanksgiving, with the grand High Mass which is sung by the wonderful Oratory Choir in the ordinary form.

God bless you all and Happy Christmas!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Expectation of Oliver

I am pleased to point my readers in the direction of a fellow Brother of the Birmingham Little Oratory - Oliver Hayes. He has recently started a new blog entitled The Expectation of Our Lady. This is the old feast day of December 18, which Oliver is happy to shed some light upon. I think everyone will agree that this image of Our Lady, heaving with advanced pregnancy, is a very valuable one, and close to any mother's heart! I remember quite clearly this stage with Wendy: the feeling of discomfort and eager anticipation, as well as acute awareness of the budding life within.

Most interestingly, Oliver sheds some light on what it is like to be part of the elitist Oratory Choir. I do recommend a read, since it truly enlightened me as to the work that is put in. Oliver failed to mention the wages, but I'm sure they are only paid a pittance!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Blair Crosses the Tiber

Welcome to the fullness of Faith Mr. Blair! I wish you every blessing in your new found communion with Christ!

It is with great surprise that the rumours have been confirmed true: Tony was received into the fold of Our Saviour by the Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Conner yesterday evening. Not only will he now be in full communion with Christ's Church and the Holy Father, but also with his own earthly family of Cherie and children.

Meanwhile Cherie continues her campaign to be elected as the first female Pope in the history of the Church.

Cherie I Pontificus Maximus (QC).

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice. Let your modesty be known to all men: for the Lord is nigh. Be nothing solicitous: but in every thing by prayer let your petitions be made known to God.
I awoke today in a bad mood. The last thing on my mind was rejoicing. Quite honestly, this Advent has run away from me, and with it any contemplation of heavenly things. I have found it far easier getting carried away with earthly worries, like getting through each day at work, and looking for somewhere new to live. Ultimately, I have been preoccupied about my own affairs, and a sort of self-centredness (even if orientated towards my family rather than just myself) had ensued.

I even toyed with the idea of not bothering with Mass at all today. But, as my wife reminded me, the days we feel least inclined to attend Holy Mass are the very days we need it most. And so it was for me. I arrived in the little cloister chapel grumpy and tired, intent on fulfilling my obligation but in no way inclined towards participating fully as I should. However, the Lord had other plans. The liturgy itself begs God; "by the grace of Thy visitation, enlighten the darkness of our minds". This sentiment, uttered in today's collect, reawakened my need to appeal for God's grace and mercy. The Mass was sung, and the Introit "Gaudete, iterum dico vobis, Gaudete" which I opened this post with (from St Paul's letter to the Phillipians) reminded me of this Christian imperitive, and in the context of Advent, the looking forward to Christ's second coming.

The whole setting of the liturgy could not fail to stir my heart towards God, even though I was only expecting a Low Mass with relatively little solemnity. But a further cause for 'Gaudete' is the announcement today that the Birmingham Oratory Fathers have taken into consideration the needs of their faithful flock and, for an experimental period, will move the 1962 Latin Mass into the main church at the earlier time of 9:30am, commencing the Sunday after Christmas. I think this is a more traditional time for Mass, enabling even an overnight fast for those that way inclined. Most of all, it will be fitting that the older use of Mass will return to the High Altar, since Pope Benedict XVI has restored dignity to this use of the Roman Rite. It would be nice if this new slot were supported during the time of ad experimentum. Our family will certainly enjoy the silence and space in the weeks following Christmas very much. I'm afraid we had felt that we'd outgrown the cramped cloister chapel, and are reluctant to segregate ourselves from the rest of the parish to that degree!

The High Mass will follow directly after, as usual at 10:30am, in the Novus Ordo, but mainly in Latin with plainchant and polyphony from the professional Oratory Choir. Perhaps this link between the two will demonstrate further the continuity which the Holy Father is exorting us to realise and implement.

There need not be segregation if we realise we are all Catholics who can understand each other. That is what any Parish Church should demonstrate, and the Oratory is far from a litugical museum as some may think, but rather a living, active and passionate community, often transcending its geographical territory. It will be interesting to see whether having the old Mass in the main Church will open the door to a newer and larger attendence. The best attended Mass on Sunday is incidentally the 12 o'clock Low Mass designated for 'families with small children'. It is indeed encouraging that so many families make it to Church, and are welcome at all masses the Fathers provide.

In conclusion, today's liturgy taught me that, in all our affairs and worries, we must offer to God our whole heart with joy and thanksgiving. Nothing must turn us inwards, and make us feel anxious or concerned about trivial affairs: we must have our hearts and minds on heavenly things, as the cause and completion of our every work. If we struggle to do this, as I have recently, then we should ask God all the more to enlighten the darkness of our human minds with the light of divinity, made perfectly clear in the vivid image of the Nativity.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

St Nicholas

What a jolly feast day! So near to Christmas we are presented with a figure familiar to us all: Santa Claus. But who is he and why do Christians venerate his feast today?

St Nicholas was born in Myra in the third century (now modern day Turkey) during the period of persecution by the Roman Empire. St Nicholas was a very holy and humble man, giving up his wealth and becoming a Priest, and later a Bishop. He helped the sick and needy and is celebrated for his compassionate care of families and children. He famously threw bags of gold into one household's window; three bags for as many daughters, so that their poor father could pay the dowry on their marriages.

He was thrown into prison under the great persecution of Christians, but later released when Rome converted to the Faith. He was present at the Council of Nicaea, and displayed righteous indignation for the Arian heresy by attacking Arius himself. Not so jolly when heresy is concerned, are we Santa? For this he was again, thrown into prison. But an appearance by Our Lord and His Blessed Mother quickly helped to re-establish his office of Bishop.

There are many legends and stories attached to his life, of miraculous protection and generosity. One occasion which particularly demonstrates his affection for the young, concern three theological students travelling on their way to Athens. They were cruelly captured and murdered by a wicked innkeeper, and kept in a vat of pickling water. St Nicholas later happened to stay at this very inn, and in the night had a terribly vivid dream depicting these three young men being killed. Awaking from this apparition, he called for the innkeeper to come at once, and fell on his knees in prayer. Whilst he begged God's mercy and compassion, the three boys miraculously came back to life. It is not known how St Nicholas then took care of the innkeeper!

Even long after his death (6th December 343), St Nicholas' intercession has been attributed to many miracles. He even appeared to a young slave boy and rescued him from his evil Arab master, returning him to his parents in the Saint's home town of Myra, who were desperate for his return. There are also many stories about his assistance with people at sea, and for this reason many seaports have chapels that are named after him. For more on the 'historical' Nicholas, see here.

He is the Patron of children, mariners, sailors, scholars, orphans, labourers, paupers, maidens, innocent captives, even murderers! Although his tomb was in Myra, his relics were rescued away to Bali in Italy, which became a great centre of pilgrimage. He is celebrated among Europeans with acts of generosity, like the giving of gifts. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed up as bishops and begged for alms for the poor. Dutch children leave hay and carrots in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping they will be exchanged for gifts!

All these things can help us understand where the cult of Santa Claus comes from. I think that by celebrating this feast day early on in advent, it keeps the focus on Christ as the centre of Christmas Day, rather than anticipating imaginary visits from sleighs and reindeer on Christmas eve (however fun that may be)!

So I decided this morning, to wake up the little one by donning a Santa costume and gave sacks of presents to go under our Christmas tree. Of course, they will only be opened when the Nativity comes, and serve as a sign within our family of the love we share.