They weren’t there. As we gathered at the front of the cathedral, on a day of bitter cold more suited to Christmas than to Holy Week, we had the holy cards and the placard. We were a happy group, enthusiastically greeting newcomers, calling out to old friends, making introductions.
But the Other Group wasn’t there. And this gave us quiet joy.
Let me explain. The Chrism Mass is the occasion when the priests of a diocese gather with their bishop for the consecration and distribution of the holy oils, which will be used for baptism, confirmation, and anointing of the sick during the coming year.
The prayers of blessing are very beautiful, referring back to the olive tree and the fruit from which the oil is made, with many wonderful Biblical allusions. The bishop — or, in the case of Westminster, the cardinal archbishop — breathes on the oils as part of the ceremony. They are brought to the altar by appropriate bearers — young candidates for confirmation bring up the oil with which they will in due course be anointed, while medical students carry the oil used for anointing the sick. And the whole Mass has an atmosphere unique to the occasion — a vast crowd of priests, united in service, in solidarity with their bishop.
For the past several years — I think at least ten — a group of women has picketed the Chrism Mass at Westminster Cathedral, and also at St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark, with a large banner demanding, “WHERE ARE OUR WOMEN PRIESTS?”
A few years ago some of us decided that it was all just a bit too much that some women, representing a vociferous minority group, chose this most sacred and special of days to lobby for female ordination. The Chrism Mass is a central part of Holy Week. It is traditionally celebrated on Holy Thursday, although in some dioceses it is earlier in the week because of the impossibility of bringing together clergy from across a far-flung district on a day when all will need to be back in their home parishes for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening.
We are well aware that Christ ordained only men, and that the Church is bound by this action of the Lord, recognizing its significance. In fact, the debates about priestesses in the Anglican Communion were of value to Catholics in Britain because they tended to show up precisely in the areas where Anglicans and Catholics differed: Did Christ found a Church? Why? Of what does this Church consist? To whom was authority given within it? When? For what purpose? What is priesthood? What is the Mass? How does it differ from any other form of religious prayer service?
Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” wasn’t just about sexual morality; it is much deeper than that. It asks — demands — challenging questions about the nature of human beings: Are our bodies merely irrelevant outer shells for our souls, of no value or purpose? How, then, should we treat them? Does God care which sex we are? Is there a beauty and mystery about each one of us or not? Why is marriage a sacrament? Why did God take flesh as a human male? What is the meaning of all this?
Essentially, I suppose you could say that, for many of us, the debates within Anglicanism helped us to see that God had given the Catholic Church a clear and unchangeable truth to cherish: Over the next centuries we will not only continue to affirm the maleness of Christian priesthood, but we will discover with renewed interest a whole range of rich insights as to why it is so.
We met, we prayed, we thought about it. And we came up with a simple plan, which we initially put into effect in the Southwark diocese: a big placard that simply said, “Thank you to our priests.” And specially printed holy cards, with a message of thanks, a prayer taken from the ordination service, and some nice imagery — a simple gesture from women in the diocese of Southwark.
And it worked. A few phone calls to friends and family produced a cheery team. Children, in particular, were very keen, wanted to help hold the placard — after a while, we found it worked even better to add several smaller placards that they could hold and brandish with enthusiasm — and were especially thrilled at the chance to cheer their own parish priest as he was seen walking along in procession with the others: “There’s Farver!” They got the chance to see a bishop in full style with mitre and crozier. And we found the clergy gratifyingly touched by our gesture.
The campaigning-for-ordination ladies were, I think, a bit taken aback. They’d had things their way for some while. But the wind was changing. Our age profile was lower, our general tone more enthusiastic, our whole theme completely non-confrontational.
A couple of years later, we had expanded to Westminster Cathedral, where the campaigners for ordination have long been a more regular presence, not only at the Chrism Mass but also on other occasions. Now a fresh team of ladies from the diocese of Westminster, with a bright new placard (separate from the Southwark one — each diocese in our group does its own thing and has its own personnel) and their own prayer cards, were welcoming Westminster priests as they walked in procession from Ambrosden Avenue into the great cathedral piazza.
Westminster has its own style: Funds for the placard were donated by a family with five young children who couldn’t make it to the Chrism Mass (the unsuitability of transporting babies and toddlers to central London on a busy weekday), but wanted to make their contribution. They have a core group produced by members of the Association of Catholic Women and wildly enthusiastic independent support from young people at the School of Evangelization run at the lively inner-city parish of St Patrick’s, Soho Square.
For a couple of years all this ran in tandem with the female-ordination campaigners. But this year, suddenly, they weren’t there.
The priests accepted our small thank-you cards, the procession wound its way across the piazza, the young people cheered and the ladies clapped their hands, and from inside the cathedral an aura of solemnity and dignity oozed out as a packed congregation awaited the Chrism Mass.
And instead of a group of lobbyists awaiting the clergy as they processed into the cathedral, and again when they emerged at the end of Mass, there was a sense of gratitude, of unity between clergy and lay people, and of something special taking place during Holy Week, the most solemn and important week in the Church’s year.
The only question we are now asking ourselves is why it took us so long — why didn’t we think of this simple thank-you gesture earlier?
Well, no matter. We are now in for the long haul. Our thanks are deep and genuine. Catholic priests get poor press at present; many, although much-loved and appreciated by the people they serve, don’t get much public recognition for all that they do, and must feel taken for granted much of the time. In modern Britain, where vulgarity and pornographic images set the tone — in the media, on TV soap operas, on advertising hoardings, in public discourse — to be dedicated to the service of God and working with the sick, the dying, prisoners, families at their most vulnerable times, is deeply unfashionable. To have given your life to something where the motive isn’t profit, or even human satisfaction, or even the achievement of excellence in a chosen field is something extraordinary. It challenges and baffles people. Those who know its true meaning should show their gratitude.
We are grateful to our priests. They work hard and deserve our thanks. A small prayer card isn’t much, but it’s an expression of genuine feeling, and we take pleasure in choosing the designs and prayers each year. It’s symbolic, of course, of a deeper thanks that is only put into words a few times in a priest’s life — at his various jubilees, or maybe on some special anniversary, or when he retires.
Thank you, Fathers. Sorry we took so long. But we’re here to stay now, and our thanks will be with you every year, at the Chrism Mass.