The Real Fortescue
I’ve just read Aidan Nichols’ biography of Adrian Fortescue which is fascinating. His love of Eastern Orthodoxy, his wide travels, his life as a parish priest, are all well covered. He did not suffer fools gladly, and had a biting wit. Here are some examples:
“My Rector was a raving Irishman of the most offensive type”
Of his housekeeper, whom he called “the last surviving Gadarene Swine”
Of the Katholikos Babai II (in office 487-502) “This man marks almost the lowest degradation of the Persian Church. He could not even read, and he had a wife”.
“an exceedingly pious person of the modern Gallo-Roman type, the sort who count special devotion to St Joseph and the adulation of the illustrious incumbent of the Roman bishopric as better than ethical righteousness”.
However, it is his attitude to the Sacred Congregation of Rites (whom he sometimes calls the Stinking Congregation of Rites) that I found most astonishing. He comments:
“To rubricians it is not the history nor the development of rites that matter a bit, it is the latest decision of the Congregation of Rites. These decisions are made by a crowd of dirty little Monsignori at Rome in utter ignorance of the meaning or reason of anything. To the historian their decisions are simply disgusting nonsense, that people of my kind want simply to ignore. It is a queer type of mind that actually is interested in knowing whether the deacon should stand at the right or the left of someone else at some moment.”
Or this: “I never cared a tinker’s curse for what the Congregation of Rites may have decided about the order in which the acolyte should put out the candles after Vespers”.
And Fortescue’s attitude towards the Pope was another eye-opener. Of Pius X he says: “Centralization grows and goes madder every century. Even at Trent they hardly foresaw this kind of thing. Does it really mean that one cannot be a member of the Church of Christ without being, as we are, absolutely at the mercy of an Italian lunatic? Saving a total collapse, things are as bad as they can be. Give us back the Xth century Johns and Stephen, or a Borgia! They were less disastrous that this deplorable person.”
And he writes to a friend about to visit Rome in 1920; “By the way, will you give a message from me to the Roman Ordinary? Tell him to look after his own diocese and not to write any more Encyclicals. Also, that there were twelve apostles and that all bishops are their successors. Also, to read the works of St Paul, also to open his front door and walk out, also that the faith handed to our fathers is more important than the Sacred Heart or certain alleged happenings at Lourdes.”
As Adrian Nichols concludes: “It is one of the bizarre flukes in authorial reception-history in twentieth century Catholicism that it was preceisely for shouldering the ‘hateful burden of verifying in Merati, Martinucci, La Vavasseur, Van der Stappen, what each person does in the course of these interminable ceremonies’ that Adrian Fortescue’s name lingered in the presbyteries of the English-speaking world.”
I cannot resist this last quotation about his avertion to the Italianate title of Monsignor.
(To a friend who had been made a Canon) “So you have not had to add a filthy Italian prefix to a decent English name … for a man who fears the God of Israel, it must be an awful thing to be classed among the sweepings of the Italian gutters who lurk among the backyards and latrines of the Vatican, their greasy palms out-stretched for tips, their oily lips bubbling with servile lies in bad French”.
I have always taken the intricate details of ultra-montane Catholicism and of Fortescue’s “The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite” with a large pinch of salt, and am delighted to find that Fortescue did too.