It is Christmas Day today everywhere except Russia, Mount Athos and perhaps one or two smaller Orthodox countries. Even if you are supposed to wait another 13 days, Christmas is in the air today and you sense it (including, right now, the delicious silence of Christmas morning).
Last night, rather on instinct I decided to go to a Latin midnight mass. Something to do with acknowledging that, even if Russian Orthodox, I belong to Christianity in this part of the world and to its traditions. Something to do with a need for quiet decency and anonymity, a service I could quietly relax into, rather than my usual nerve-taughtening and tiring participant role as a deacon, and perhaps a reaction to the inner coldness of the musically exquisite Christmas Carol service from Kings College, Cambridge that I had heard a few hours before on the radio.
Whatever. I ended up at the Society of Puis X (Catholic schismatic) church in the centre of Brussels (the only ‘legal’ midnight mass in Latin was at the other end of town, and an expensive taxi ride back home).
I am not a great friend of the old Roman mass : the way the priest does the consecration in a huddle with the deacon and servers at the far end of the church, with only a couple of ‘in saecula saeculorum’ and hand-bells to tell you where he is at (though to be fair in many Orthodox churches it is no better). I sense also with Pius X the need to do everything ‘by the book’, with no space for real creativity.
What I like though is the space and the pace. A large church, built in what in the 1860s was the chic quarter of Brussels, demolished in the 50s and 60s and replaced by concrete and glass office buildings. With those old-fashioned chairs-cum-kneelers which are a bit low to sit on and a bit high to kneel on. A service taken slowly and with discipline. Servers male only, in cassocks, cotta, lace over-cotta and proper black shoes, (no pre-pubescent girls in oversized albs and trainers), well-behaved at the altar and with a sense of dignity and what they were doing. A good choir, not too large, singing from the organ loft, mostly Gregorian. Priest’s vestments of the old variety, of good quality. The service progressed slowly – what a relief from our ‘if there’s a five-second gap, something has gone wrong’. Properly prepared and delivered sermon.
I was surprised by the large male presence, over 60%, including many in their twenties. Maybe because it was midnight and women were at home with kids. Maybe also schismatic churches tend to attract a certain type of male which needs a ‘harder’ and sharper-edged religion than what the ‘regular’ RCs offer.
The Society of Pius X is a thorn in the side of the official RC church. I am rather glad they are there. While their anti-modernism can be a bit extreme, they preserve certain values, decency, decorum, and simply good behaviour , as well as a certain sharp edge, which need to be preserved somewhere. And yes, a place where an exhausted Orthodox deacon can just flunk out anonymously and let someone else do the work…..