So what is going on at Blackfen? Fr Tim Finigan, the hermeneutic parish priest, was moved recently to Margate. As I understand it, he left behind him a parish at which the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (traditional Latin Mass) was celebrated once every Sunday, alongside the three Ordinary Form Sunday Masses (one being the vigil Mass on Saturday evening). The EF was also celebrated on Saturday mornings and as an extra Mass on major feastdays and former holydays.
The EF was attended both by parishioners, and by a significant number of people who travelled some distance for it.
Some time ago, The Tablet tried to stir up some controversy about it (see here and here) as the editorial line is against anything that might smack of traditional, orthodox Catholicism. Despite their best efforts, there was no real story there; it is true that not all parishioners were happy: Bernard Wynne, a spokesman for 'Catholic Voices for Reform' (and you can guess what kind of reform they want...) was not, and there were a few others of like mind. One, Susan Reynolds, was on the radio saying that her 'heart was broken' by the introduction of the EF Mass (one EF Mass, remember, when the rest of the Sunday Masses were OF). An odd reaction, one might reasonably think; but it seems she and Mr Wynne were in a very small minority in the parish. Fr Finigan's characteristically level-headed assessment was 'there are a few who are very much in favour, a few who are strongly against, and “the substantial majority who simply wonder what Father is doing now”.'
When Fr Finigan's move was announced, regulars were pleased to learn that the incoming priest, Fr Fisher, was also used to saying Mass in the EF, and would continue to do so. That seemed a pastorally sensitive decision, as well as a sensible one, given that the EF Mass was well attended. I am told that 'people were looking forward to Fr Fisher coming, that talk had been very, very positive and that his appointment had been considered a good one among virtually everyone in the parish, particularly those attending the TLM who were delighted that they would have somebody who would understand their attachment to the Mass of Ages.'
His Twitter picture @FrStevenFisher shows him in clerical dress, with a surplice, black cope and biretta, which should be enough to reassure any traditional Catholic. The odd thing is that it is an old photo, from some years back; and indeed his appearance has changed significantly. A more recent facebook profile photo, tweeted by Joseph Shaw, shows him as much leaner, and in civvies, which is apparently more typical now.
On his arrival, things started to change very quickly, and with little or no explanation. That alone was in marked contrast to his predecessor, who introduced change gradually, and explained each step along the way with great pastoral care.
One of the earliest changes was his deciding within very short order that he was cancelling all the EF Masses (about 18) that had been planned for feast days etc, including the Patronal Feast and Christmas Eve. He announced this on the evening of his second day in the Parish. Of course, he has every right to do so: he may have looked at the diary and thought that he would be over-committed. But understandably, that was not the most welcome thing he could have announced to endear himself to those in the parish attached to the EF.
His Thursday Benediction, which Fr Finigan had sung in Latin, was celebrated in English: he announced that Thursday Benediction would now be 'Novus Ordo,' introducing a division which had not been there before. Given that people had come with the expectation of Latin Benediction as usual, that again caused some to wonder about his approach and intentions.
He also removed the gradines and two of the six candles from the altar and made it clear that he did not want them replaced, by leaving a note to that effect on the altar. As above, he has every right to do so, but again, it was not perhaps the way to demonstrate his understanding of certain sensibilities.
For his parishioners, these were the first straws in the wind.
On his first Sunday, he preached a homily about different 'circles of communion,' in which he was at pains to distinguish between parishioners and visitors. Visitors, of course, must be welcomed with charity, but the parish was primarily for parishioners. Again, that caused people to wonder about his agenda.
But the point at which my friends agree that things really seemed to go off the rails was at the People's Communion at the EF Mass. At the 'Domine, non sum dignus,' he paused, holding the Sacred Host in his hand, and announced that there had been considerable confusion and discussion about the correct way to receive Communion at this (the EF) Mass. He then stated that, according to the 1983 Codex Juris Canonici it was permissible to receive kneeling or standing, on the tongue, or, in England & Wales, in the hand. At least some of those present thought that he was deliberately insinuating that the previous instruction (announced by Fr. Finigan at all EF Masses) was incorrect.
There are a couple of related issues here: one is the error. The Instruction Universae Ecclesiae (2011), makes it clear (§24 ff) that the EF should be celebrated according to the rubrics proper to it (and see FIUV position paper here). One would have thought that, given considerable confusion and discussion, he might have done his research.
A second is the symbolic aspect: one of the reasons many are attached to the EF is the degree of reverence communicated by every aspect, including gesture. The manner of reception of communion is the most evident example of this, so an announcement of this nature, particularly at that moment of the Mass, naturally had a very strong impact.
This, I am told, is the point at which several of my friends were seriously upset. They wished to talk with him after Mass, but he apparently appeared in the Parish Centre (not in clericals, but in a shirt and jeans) took a biscuit, joked that he 'followed the Canadian model' (of clerical attire) and left without saying anything else to anyone else.
Somehow Damian Thompson heard about some of this, and tweeted from his @holysmoke account, asking why priests felt the need to change the EF Mass, which did not go down well.
On the following Saturday, he announced from the pulpit that he was shocked that he had been denounced to 'the editor of the Spectator' (he meant Damian Thompson, who is an associate editor there); and that whoever had done so had committed a mortal sin by gossiping about parish affairs outside the parish. Clearly that was a rash thing to say, and did nothing to calm the anxieties already raised.
The Sunday EF Mass, the following day, had about half the usual number in the congregation: many had been flabbergasted at the previous week's Mass. After delivering the same admonition as given on the Saturday, he then announced that the Latin Mass was a wound in the Parish: that he had had spies (sic) at every Mass, and it was only the Latin Mass congregation that was divisive and toxic. Therefore he was going to end the Latin Mass, as of the end of September. He did not deliver a sermon (unless the admonition and winding up of the EF Mass counts as one).
So what has been going on here?
I am conscious that my friends are seeing this from one perspective: that of Catholics attached to the EF, who were supporters of the restoration of tradition which Fr Finigan had gently introduced over many years.
They are clear in their own minds that Fr Fisher arrived with an agenda to change things. Indeed, he said he had had hours of discussion with the bishop prior to coming to the parish, with the strong implication that both Bishop Lynch and Archbishop Smith were backing him up on his approach, and indeed had agreed it with him.
They think that he deliberately did things to upset the EF congregation, in order either to get numbers down, so that he could say there was no longer any demand, or to provoke some to intemperate responses, so that he could point to their toxicity and divisiveness.
If that were the case, he succeeded to some extent on both counts: numbers were down dramatically; and if talking to people like Damian Thompson, or even to friends like me counts as toxic and divisive, then that too has been achieved. I understand one parishioner was so distressed when he was denouncing people for the 'mortal sin' of speaking to a journalist, that she remonstrated with him, reminding him that he was, in Mass, acting in persona Christi. As I heard it told, this was a gentle remonstration, which provoked a very angry response: "I will not be shouted at in my Church!" though the only shouting was, I am told, by the priest. But I can see, from his point of view, that such an interruption during Mass could seem very unfriendly.
However, another source who has contacted me sees it all very differently. Although more remote from the parish, he has known Fr Fisher previously, and believes he arrived at the parish willing to sustain the EF, but was met with such unfriendliness and hostility (and that was the reputation the parish already had) that he felt that he had to confront it.
The problem I have with that explanation is first that it comes from someone who was not anywhere near Blackfen at the time; secondly that it runs so strongly against my other friends' accounts who were there, and whom I trust to tell the truth (as they see it); when I put this to one of them, I was told it was definitely not the case, and that 'we were all terrified we'd lose the EF Mass, and would have done almost anything to see it continue. We had been reassuring each other that at least Fr. Fisher said the old Mass so Fr. Finigan's work would not be lost. He stopped to talk to parishioners after all OF Masses, but didn't stay outside after the EF ones;' and thirdly that it coincides exactly with what my Blackfen friends believe to be the 'black propaganda' that is being used to discredit them and justify the elimination of the EF Mass there.
Or is it simply a case of Greek tragedy: the priest arrived believing the parish to be divided by rabid traddies; the more traditional members of the congregation were suspicious of anyone replacing their much-missed Fr Finigan: both ended up creating the very reality they feared...?
I don't know, of course; but the astute reader will have picked up my strong suspicions.
And if my Blackfen friends' reading of the situation is accurate, that raises a further question: where did this plan to bring the EF Mass to an end originate? With the new Parish Priest, or higher up the ecclesiastical tree?
And in my more paranoid moments, it raises a further, and more troubling, question still: what is it about the EF Mass that arouses such fear and defensiveness, that it must be consigned to oblivion?
I should add that I have thought and prayed about whether to post all this. I have been strongly advised in both directions. The majority of my Blackfen friends wanted me to do so: they believe an injustice is being committed, and that myths about them are being created to justify that.
However, one of them was fearful that anything I might blog might lead people to think that I was in some way speaking for Fr Finigan, and get him in trouble. That is clearly the last thing I want to do, and I can make it quite clear that I have never met Fr Finigan, nor talked to him about any of this. The only communications I have had with him were some years back, in the comments section of his blog, and in a private correspondence resulting from that, which did not touch on any of these issues. He has had nothing to do with this post in any way - one of my concerns is that he will wish I had held my peace.
Another concern is that I may wrong, and almost certainly hurt, Fr Fisher. That too weighs heavily on me. But the hurt suffered by my friends is also weighty, and having heard it at first hand from a number of them, to keep silent would add to their pain.
So I have to reach a judgement: I do believe that it is better to shine a light on troubling things than to collude by maintaining silence. If I am wrong, as I may well be, I hope that this post prompts correction and clarifications, which all concerned will welcome. If I am right, then I think Catholics need to know what is being done to those whose primary offence is attachment to the Immemorial Mass.
Needless to say, prayers for all involved in this situation are of the utmost importance.