SOME CHURCH OBSERVATIONS

I haven't posted on church matters for a while (since 25 February actually) but a couple of things worth recording have come to my notice. One is the enormous change for the better in the liturgy and furnishings at St Francis Xavier's in the Melbourne beachside suburb of Frankston. This late 1950s cream-brick church, not everyone's favourite style but very good of its kind, has suffered sorely at the hands of sundry re-orderers, all no doubt filled with the spirit of Vatican II, or supposing themselves to be. When I first saw this church it was all of a piece, with a handsome marble high altar in the "contemporary" design of the era, rather a rarity. The next time I looked in the altar had gone, leaving a big ugly empty space on the floor, though the gradine that had been behind it remained. The niche where the tabernacle had been was now blocked up and the sacrament reserved in an aumbry to one side with a silly coloured door bearing a "primitive" image in baked enamel of the kind VCE students produce in the art room at school. An ironing-board altar stood at the sanctuary step. A year or two later there had been a further change: a wholesale reordering for which I suspect (though I have not checked) that those architectural serial offenders Prism Designs were responsible. An altar, ambo and font, all circular and on circular legs, were distributed around the chancel on different levels, the ambo highest. They were perhaps the most hideous church furnishings I have ever seen, though from the finishes (lots of blondwood) I daresay they were hideously expensive too.

The altar component of this group has now been removed and a simple altar of proper shape and proportions, with crucifix in the "Benedictine" position, substituted. That simple change has immensely improved the appearance of the church. There is still much more to be done but it's a good start. And the former altar would make a nice round dining table in what I believe is termed a Mcmansion, which would recoup some of the cost.

The liturgy at St Francis Xavier's was as awful as the furniture. The last time I was there the priest (an episcopal vicar no less) celebrated the Mass in a highly informal style. His vesture left quite a lot to be desired. Last Sunday the celebrant, the curate I think, was wearing a handsome traditional chasuble, lined and orphreyed. As I approached the church through the car park, a little late, I could hear chanting. Chanting, in a church alive with the spirit of Vatican II! It was the celebrant chanting the collect and he did it exceptionally well. So perhaps little by little, decent standards in Catholic liturgy are reappearing in the archdiocese of Melbourne. The church, by the way, was packed.

Another step in the right direction has come from a very unexpected quarter. Father Bob Maguire, the former parish priest of South Melbourne who, aided and abetted by the Herald Sun, refused to go quietly when he reached retirement age, has never been noted for his concern for good liturgy. But he of all people is now celebrating an Extraordinary Form Mass every Sunday evening at seven in the church where he served, St Peter and St Paul's. The one I saw was an impressive performance, correct in every detail as far as I could tell, though with a little prompting from the server, but without the elegant faultlessness of the Latin Mass community's celebrations in Caulfield. This, I thought, is what it must have been like in most Melbourne parish churches when the Tridentine Mass was the norm, a liturgy celebrated by a normal old Aussie chap, a bit grumpy in his manner, rather than by smoothly expert specialists. There was no music during the rite, which would also have been the norm. For all his good works Father Bob has never seemed to me the most appealing of personalities - too much self-promotion among other things - but this Mass showed that his heart is very much in the right place.

15 March 2012

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