‘You can't talk to young people about salvation. What does that mean to them?’ Bishop Kieran Conry talks frankly to Andrew M Brown about youth ministry, contraception and the traditional Latin Mass 19 December 2008
The Bishop of Arundel and Brighton: Even after Summorum Pontificum, the traditional Latin Mass 'can't become a regular Sunday Mass'
I went to see Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton at the offices of the Bishops' Conference at Eccleston Square near Victoria station on a Friday afternoon recently. He was standing at the rather cramped reception by the water-cooler. He looks trim and fit for 57 and sporty. In his nylon zip-up jacket, dark jersey and slacks he might be a dad taking his son to a rugby sevens tournament.
When I first knew Kieran Conry, about 12 years ago, he had recently taken charge of the Catholic Media Office in London, a role he performed adroitly. He was always friendly and informal and known simply as "Kieran".
A monsignor at 33, he has experienced promotion without seeking it. As he says "categorically": "I was quite happy as a parish priest in Stafford."
As we sat down in a committee room he quickly asked: "How long will you need?" He had a few more jobs to do before taking the train back to Brighton. In the end we talked for less than an hour.
He was unsure why I want to interview him: "Is this part of a series?" It wasn't, I said; I wanted to interview him to find out what a bishop really thought and I remembered him fondly. He was "congenial", I said.
He thanked me and seemed pleased. It's true that his niceness is what strikes you. Like most Church people he pretends to be above labels like "liberal" and "conservative" but I got the feeling he thinks niceness goes with a liberal tendency.
For instance, he cited approvingly something that Cardinal Hume said - "it was always easier to deal with the loony Left than the conservative Right. He said they were always nicer people." He's also mentally quick, articulate, polished and full of conviction about the kind of Church he wants to belong to.
Kieran Thomas Conry was born in Coventry and educated in north Staffordshire - at Cotton College, a junior seminary, now closed. You can hear a hint of the Potteries in his voice. Then he went to the English College and the Pontifical Gregorian University.
In the late Seventies he went back to his old school to teach English and RE for a while before coming to London in the Eighties to take an important job as private secretary to two successive Apostolic Pro-Nuncios (Archbishops Heim and Barbarito). He was appointed monsignor at that time.
To begin with I laid out for him a scenario that I've heard proposed many times: you have a coterie of liberal English bishops who think the Pope is too conservative and who are privately hostile to his policies.
For example, they're on a "go-slow" when it comes to implementing the Pope's letter Summorum Pontificum. (It liberated the centuries-old Tridentine Mass that some Seventies reformers had tried to get rid of, so that it could be celebrated more widely than before.)
Bishop Kieran was adamant: "It's your classic conspiracy theory, which of course, like all conspiracy theories, is impossible to prove, and for which there is no evidence."
He fairly hammered the point. "I've never refused permission for a Mass. I've never refused to meet them. If they've come to me for permission I've given it. I have never attempted to restrict, shut down, exclude. If anyone could produce evidence that I've attempted to stifle or restrict then I'd be interested to see it. Even a letter." Then he sighed.
Did he, for instance, find some of the traditional ceremonial a bit over the top? "Yes. A bit over the top." And off he went again: "But I've made no attempt to restrict it. I participate in it fully. I've made no attempt to change it."
I've heard it said many times that liberals fear a resurgence of the Tridentine or Extraordinary Form of the Mass because they think it symbolises a retrograde movement and a rejection of the reforms of Vatican II. Did Bishop Kieran think attachment to the old Mass signifies hostility to Vatican II? "I'd never immediately jump to that conclusion. But there is a risk that with some people that's what it signifies."
Is liking the old Mass a sort of code? "No. It's an indicator, it's a sign, for some people." Which are the reforms you think are not being accepted? "Oh, I don't know. Some people just blank out the whole of the Vatican Council and say, you know: 'We either weren't ready for change, didn't want change, or didn't need change.' "
If the Tridentine Mass became too popular would he worry we'd have a situation comparable to the Church of England where people choose "high" or "low" Church? "I don't think there will be a big take-up," he said. "It would be a worry because you'd have two Churches really and in the end it doesn't come down to language or liturgical style, it comes down to your view of Church. Do you accept the reforms of the Vatican Council or not?"
Is there a strong body of people who want the old form of the Mass? "A strong but very small body. Very small. I've had two requests, one from a guy in Horsham who said 'can we have the 1962 Latin Mass in Horsham?' And I said according to the terms of Summorum pontificum you can't because first of all it can't become a regular Sunday Mass, and there must be a request from a 'stable group of people'.
"Well, we can't translate the Latin accurately, 'stable' means a sizeable group in a parish, it doesn't mean you get 50 people from all over Surrey to come together in Redhill and say 'we're a stable group in Redhill' - no. It's not the site, it's where they come from. You can't come to gather at a place and say 'we're a stable group'."
Doesn't that interpretation make it harder for people to have the Tridentine Mass? "No, no, if you look at the LMS [Latin Mass Society] news bulletin, it lists at the back the places in Arundel and Brighton where there is Latin Mass regularly: Mary Mag's, West Grinstead. Again, any permission that's been sought, I've never said no."
What does he really think about it? "It's exaggerated, first of all. It's a very small group of very vocal people. In fact the only comment I've heard recently is when I went to a place called West Hoathly, in Worth parish.
"A small group, three or four people, came along to me and said: 'Please tell us you're not going to bring back the Latin Mass.' And I said: 'Look, things are not going to change.'
If you look at Summorum Pontificum it doesn't suggest significant change. Really because [the Tridentine Mass] does cater for such a small group, it would be inappropriate to stick it onto a Sunday morning in a parish where most people would say: 'We don't really want this.' That's why the Pope will say: 'Have it, but not as part of your standard Sunday repertoire.'"
A lot of conservative enthusiasm comes from the young. Bishop Kieran thinks there are three reasons for this. They are geopolitical more than theological.
"I think it reflects a very natural anxiety about the way the world is. We've got three massive areas of uncertainty. We've got first of all massive climatic change heading our way inexorably. They're going to have to suffer it so they've got that anxiety. Now we're in the middle of enormous economic uncertainty. And the whole threat of terrorism. Even today in the paper reports say that the US has lost it and that China could wage cyber-war."
But surely other forces have drawn young people to traditional forms of worship, such as the wild experimentation that went on under the guise of reform?
"Fair enough. But the theology of the Mass never changed." What about a lack of reverence? "It depends how you express reverence. Because reverence doesn't necessarily imply silence, a sort of liturgical theatricality. There are many ways to express reverence."
The old Mass was more formal, wasn't it? "Oh yes, absolutely. It was very rigid. They used to say you could commit 26 mortal sins in the sacristy by not complying with the rubrics. Any ritual over the years becomes more and more complicated, you add little bits here and there. I remember serving the old Mass. I remember moving the Missal from the right to the left, from the Epistle to the Gospel.
I was very glad when we had a language to the Mass that we could understand and a simplified liturgical expression of it. I thought this made great sense. I could see the argument that some priests gave in to excessive reform experimentation but I wouldn't say there's widespread liturgical abuse."
I found myself using a phrase - "awesome contemplation of God" - to describe worship. He latched on to it.
"That's a moot point: is liturgy supposed to be 'awesome individual contemplation of God'? And the answer to that is probably 'no'. Liturgy is an act of the community." He warmed to the theme. He's not crazy about Latin, but he likes to use Greek words. "Leitourgia: the laos, the people of God, perform an act of worship, not a private devotion."
But Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue of Lancaster said just the opposite only the other day, didn't he? "Well, I would challenge him on it." (Smiling.)
Bishop O'Donoghue said worship is not primarily about community. "It is! It's the action of the people, it's the action of the community. There are two points at which the person in the community says 'I' in the Mass, the rest of the time all the prayers say 'we'. The opening word [of the Creed] is pistuomen, 'we believe', because again the Nicene Creed was expressing the belief of the Church, we believe this, this and this.
"The only time in which the word 'I' is used, really, is 'I am not worthy to have you under my roof' and at the beginning: 'I am sorry'."
So there had been a stripping away of accretions in recent times? "Things develop naturally. Certainly the post-Vatican II liturgy would have more in common with the early Church than the post-Reformation liturgy. The Church [after the Reformation] had to re-state its case very strongly in terms of strictly monitored and controlled liturgical practice. The Church became very controlling and controlled."
We met a few days before National Youth Sunday (Feast of Christ the King). Since the Catholic Youth Services were closed down earlier this year, Bishop Kieran has supervised youth ministry in this country.
A Youth Mass with a liturgy designed to appeal to youngsters had been proposed. The website for it displayed the bishops' logo. Suggestions included distributing tips on high-energy light bulbs, handing out Fairtrade chocolate and in a list of things to be sorry for in the penitential rite: leaving water in your kettle.
Did the bishop think any of the suggested liturgy was a bit silly?
"Well, it might be. But it's youth. We're not going to switch light bulbs on in young people's heads, not at a single event. But it was felt some of that would be appropriate for young people." Leaving water in the kettle? "For young people that's an issue - energy saving."
Could the Church be more radical? Talk about the serious questions - repentance, salvation?
"You can't talk to young people about salvation. What's salvation? What does salvation mean? My eternal soul? You can only talk to young people in young people's language, really. And if you're going to talk to them about salvation, the first thing they will understand is saving the planet. You're talking about being saved and they will say: 'What about saving the planet?' "
Doesn't Jesus talk in black and white terms, as if we might be in danger? "Shoulder my yoke and learn from me," quotes the bishop, "for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light."
Doesn't he also say we should repent, beware of sin - a stark message? "Not stark. According to where you look in the Gospel, and again if you go to Matthew 25, the final parable of Jesus, only in Matthew's Gospel - 'When I was hungry, you fed me ... naked and you clothed me ... you visited me in prison.' That would resonate much more with young people."
Does he think people should have a sense of personal sin? "Yes [firmly]. And I think young people do."
He gives an example: the helpers' reconciliation service on the diocesan Lourdes pilgrimage. It started at nine o'clock and the last young person left the chapel at 11.15.
Is it a good idea to go to Confession regularly? "No, because my own experience when we had Confession every day at St Chad's Cathedral in Birmingham was that regular penitents came back with exactly the same words week after week. So there you would say, actually, there is no conversion taking place."
What about the Four Last Things? Has the Church lost the vigour with which it used to talk about Death, Judgment, Hell and Heaven?
"Again it would be inappropriate to say 'the Church has lost...' People have lost a sense of sin."
So the Church shouldn't bang on about sin?
"No, not necessarily. Because that won't necessarily re-instil ... and you don't know whether you want to face people with a primary experience of Church which is sin." Was the Church morbidly obsessed with guilt and sin in the past? "Might have been, but again I haven't got enough evidence."
Too much emphasis on sexual morality? "It's sometimes distorted. For instance, we rarely talk about economic honesty, financial honesty, we rarely talk about greed and wastefulness.
"But to young people, boiling a kettle, wasting water, saving the planet, that's language they will understand. Then you can move on from there: 'Right, do you understand what saving means? Do you understand what good and bad is here?' And they'll say 'yes' and you can say: 'Right now, if you look at your own life...' And again I think for a lot of the claims there is simply no evidence."
People have the evidence of their own parishes, I said. You don't hear the word "hell" mentioned that often in the average parish church, compared with in the New Testament.
"Why should you? How many times is hell mentioned in the New Testament? Do a word count." I wanted to pin this down: has the traditional homily featuring fire and brimstone been abandoned for the reason that it puts people off?
"No, no, it's not because it puts people off. It's because the truth is that God loved the world so much that he sent his only son to die for us."
He was speaking from the heart, though he couldn't resist lapsing into Greek jargon: "That is the basic kerygma of the Church. It has always been. It's not that you are a sinner, but that God loved the world so much, and you see that is the primitive Church's kerygma, its basic message.
"It's not about us, it's about God, and if we put the emphasis on ourselves we become heretical, we become Jansenists. I become the centre of the Church - an anthropocentric model of the Church, it's all about me and me being saved. It's not, it's a theocentric model of Church which is: God loved the world, this is God's action, stemming from God's love for us. It is not God's wish to condemn."
Is it possible that this image of God seems bland and boring to young people? "No, I would disagree. Young people want to be loved. We all want to be loved." Can they get that from other sources? "They can, but how many do? They need to be told God loves them. They don't need to be told: 'You're heading for hell.' No. I would disagree profoundly with that view, profoundly, profoundly."
Time to move on to something else. It is 40 years since Humanae Vitae. It became acceptable, I suggested, for many otherwise loyal Catholics to routinely disobey a key teaching of the Church.
"Well, first of all, I would disagree that it's a key teaching. The key teachings of the Church are in the Creed. It's not a life issue." To do with the transmission of life, then? "It's to do with what family and married life means, being open to procreation. So it's not a life issue because then you tie it in with abortion. The two are completely different issues."
Does it matter if people disobey that teaching?
"In the great scheme of things I don't think it's high up the list. It became a very public issue which affected a significant number of people, not the majority of Catholics. The majority of Catholics are not in that position, where birth control is an issue. Look around on Sunday morning and see 'is birth control an issue for most people here?' No, it's not.
But it became the place where the tug of war took place: it was to do with dissent and obedience. Can you be a Catholic and dissent?"
He thinks there should be greater emphasis on the virtues. "Why do people never go back to the Beatitudes, 'blessed are the poor in spirit'? You know, are you poor in spirit? No. Does that bother you? No. Do you practise birth control? Does that bother you? Yes. We've got a very distorted view of what we think Christian morality is."
The Church has attempted to codify every detail of our behaviour hasn't it? "Yes, but it rarely in tradition has attempted to codify charity, for instance. Again the basic commandment of God - love God, love your neighbour. That has been left largely unexplored."
Codify charity? "You can't quantify love. The birth control issue becomes easy because it's measurable. You do it or you don't. But love: you do it or you don't do it, how can you measure that? We fight the easy battles but we ignore the bigger ones."
Was Humanae Vitae a mistake? "I don't know. I don't know. But at the same time we've seen the disastrous effects of the devaluing of sexual relationships, to say they don't mean anything, which has had catastrophic effects on society, catastrophic effects on the value of women."
He disagrees with environmentalists who attack the Church's teaching on birth control.
"You get people like George Monbiot saying: 'If the Pope changes his position tomorrow, the world would be rid of the scourge of Aids.' He's talking nonsense. Because, first of all, what percentage of the developing world is Catholic? The biggest growth in population is among Islam, not among Catholics. The Church isn't encouraging people to have children, it's the culture. That's not why they're having large families, because the Church is teaching it."
But is the teaching itself wrong? "It could be. It's not an infallible teaching. Clearly the basic Creed formula, what the Church teaches about the sacraments is infallible but there's only been one strictly infallible statement."
So in a sense it's a matter of opinion? "Well, it's... It is. It's an expression, however, of something quite profoundly important about human sexuality and relationships. If you really love your fellow human being then you'll have profound respect for them and that has clearly disappeared from large sections of our contemporary society."
We got up to leave. My mind turned to the bishop taking the Friday night train back to Brighton, sitting in the carriage in his black clerical clothes. Then I realised he wasn't wearing clerical garb.
He told me a story about how he once came back from a conference in clerical black and two people badgered him with their Da Vinci Code questions. It was a good anecdote. But as an explanation for not wearing clerical clothes, it struck me as only half convincing.