In the first 18 months of this blog, I wrote about Brian Moore’s first eight novels. Somewhere along the way this process became the Mooreathon, where I determined to read all of my fellow Belfast man’s novels and write about them here. You can read the earlier posts by clicking this link. Since the last, The Revolution Script, I’ve allowed two and a half years to pass, perhaps because that one was the weakest of his novels, or perhaps because I knew the next book in publication order was one I’ve already read twice and I was in no hurry to get to it. Anyway, here we are at last, back on track.
Catholics (1972) is Moore’s shortest novel – at 95 pages, barely a novella – and as much a departure for him as The Revolution Script was. In that book, he moved from studies of an individual at a time of crisis to a documentary ‘non-fiction novel’; here, he dabbles in a parallel universe. OK, that may be going too far: but technically Catholics should count as speculative fiction in the same way as, say, Never Let Me Go. Like Ishiguro, Moore has created a version of our own world as a springboard for exploration of human drama.
This is a world where the Catholic church has enacted not just Vatican II but also Vaticans III and IV. The latter has brought in significant changes to the worship and practice of the religion, including the banning of private confession (it was this that made me, a religious ignoramus, recognise that it was a parallel world) and the ending of the traditional Latin mass. There is a holdout, however: Muck Abbey, on an island off the coast of county Kerry in southwestern Ireland, continues to celebrate its mass as it used to be. As a result, the abbey has featured on a BBC TV programme and now attracts so many tourists that it has to perform special masses outdoors on the mainland to accommodate the “pilgrims”.
Most could see the Mass rock and the priest only from a distance, but all heard the Latin, thundering from loudspeakers rigged up by the townsfolk. Latin. The communion bell. Monks as altarboys saying the Latin responses. Incense. The old way.
Needless to say, this heresy attracts the attention of Rome. A young American priest, Father Kinsella, is sent to Muck (“The fog lifted. The island was there”) to ensure that the liturgical changes are adhered to. This is initially an opportunity for Moore – a northern Irish Catholic who was not so much lapsed as crashed – to explore the potential conflicts in making modernising alterations to the worship of God’s unchanging word. I found it hard not sympathise with the monk, Father Manus, who first confronts the ecumenical priest with the abbey’s way of thinking.
Look, we did nothing to start all this, we went on saying the Mass the way it was always said, the way we had been brought up to say it. The Mass! The Mass in Latin, the priest with his back turned to the congregation because both he and the congregation faced the altar where God was. Offering up the daily sacrifice of the Mass to God. […] And the Mass was said in Latin because Latin was the language of the Church and the Church was one and universal and a Catholic could go into any church in the world, here or in Timbuktu, or in China, and hear the same Mass, the only Mass there was, the Latin Mass. And if the Mass was in Latin and people did not speak Latin, that was part of the mystery of it, for the Mass was not talking to your neighbour, it was talking to God.
The monks deplore the “playacting and nonsense” the Church has introduced in order to make it more appealing to today’s congregations. Moore deals with the issues as efficiently as we might expect (or rather more efficiently, given the skimpy page count), but his forte, as always, is the exploration of personalities. If the abbot of Muck is a problem for the young American priest sent by the Vatican, then the abbot has problems of his own. “It takes a special vocation to live in a place like this. Not many have it. I do not have it myself, I sometimes think.” “But you have lived on this island for most of your adult life?” “That does not mean I like it.” Here, spiritual aims clash with selfish – with human – interests, and the abbot measures himself against his ability to withstand the latter. Father Kinsella, on the other hand, is torn between the clearly devout and sincere practices of the monks at the abbey, and desire to curry favour with his Father General: are his aims godly, or ambitious and ingratiating?
The questions raised by Moore on a liturgical level are no more searching or revealing than those which will have occurred to any observer in the modern age – such as the recent ‘clarification’ by the Church on the theory of Limbo for Infants. “How can something be a miracle one day and not a miracle the next day?” one monk asks Father Kinsella, when advised that the Mass is to be regarded no longer as a miracle, but as a “pious ritual”. The whole book seems, on my third reading, to be somewhat thin fare by the standard of Moore’s other works – perhaps inevitably, given the page count. Nonetheless it has a purity and single-minded vision which makes it more memorable than the likes of Fergus. And his flirtation with speculative fiction, if we can call it that, would give him the confidence for more otherworldly experiments in later novels such as The Great Victorian Collection (which is next in the Mooreathon) and Cold Heaven. Catholics feels like a trying-out and a working-out, but it remains worth reading on its own merits too.