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November 2009


Characters of Reformation II

~ The Unwanted Priest ~



Some years ago, on a crisp and sunny Melbourne morning, during social chit-chat after Holy Mass, a married couple suggested that I consider documenting their post-Vatican II odyssey: a saga which had necessitated a family upheaval and change of lifestyle above and beyond the normal call of Catholic duty, all for the sake of preserving their large clan in the One True Faith.

Although unable to oblige, this request gave me pause to reflect on the number of like cases I had encountered even within my own limited experience: rural families travelling hundreds of miles each week in search of a decent Mass;  those who had moved interstate, or further afield still, with a view not to real estate values but a solid Catholic education and upbringing for their kids; the pot-pourri of itinerant clerics, religious an seminarians scouring the globe for that Catholic pot-of-gold - orthodoxy, pure and simple!

How sobering it is to ponder the diverse kinds of 'dry' martyrdom endured by orthodox souls worldwide since the Council of Lost Opportunity. Students of our self-destructive era might one day attribute to this singular anguish and hardship - "to suffer but not to die" - the same regenerative power normally associated with the bloody seeds strewn down the ages by our 'wet' martyrs.

While often rooted in the educational or liturgical spheres, the magnitude, range and depth of this spiritual martyrdom is yet to be fully explored. A few works, such as my own case-study Death of a Catholic Parish: The Benalla Experiment [1992], have recorded something of the bitter personal sufferings of those faithful now living as strangers in their own Catholic neighbourhoods. But there is still much to be chronicled about the sacrifice involved in all this uncompromising, albeit bloodless, witness to the Faith of our Fathers. The lessons learned. The graces won. The cost and rewards of fidelity to orthodoxy. Not least within the hellish confines of corrupted priestly and religious orders.

For many of those who kept their Catholic heads while all about them were severing the nexus between love, charity and truth - who have insisted with Paul VI that the essence of the Church, Her lifeblood, is orthodoxy - the effort to maintain this fidelity amid rampant heterodoxy and rank heresy has ulitmately reshaped their lives: always profoundly but often, too, in tumultuous and glorious ways. Belloc, who wrote Characters of the Reformation, might have labelled them Commonfolk Characters of Reformation II.

Such a one is the subject of this portrait. A hero or villain, a "single issue" or "crucial issue" cleric, depending on one's own weighted response to the fallout from the Council, his particular reaction may seem incomprehensible to the worldly-wise corps of a Church Militant ever less attuned to the inscrutable ways of Divine Providence. Yet his history is nothing if not testimony to the exquisite care lavished on all who, in these wicked days of cowardice and compromise, abandon themselves with confidence to His merciful designs.

This necessary trust, born of a faith steeped in prayer and fuelled by the wellspring of humility, was embodied in Father Bryan Houghton, the former parish priest of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, England. Near the end, he wrote:

I have always made a mess of things in my life. I had the intellectual capacity to make a brilliant agnostic, but converted to religion. I had studied to become an international banker, then used my inheritance to build schools and churches. Finally, while Secretary of the Conferences on Higher Studies, I was listed for episcopal election but criticised Teilhard de Chardin as heterodox. Here I am, a priest unwanted, unusable even as a curate or convent chaplain, utterly good for nothing.

"Utterly good for nothing." Thus did this convert, priest and author assess his life and times in his autobiography Prêtre rejeté [The Unwanted Priest]. A blend of his renowned wit and understated British humour, penetrating insights on the state of the Church and a quality of prose second-to-none, it was the last of three remarkable books written during his lengthy, self-imposed exile in southern France.(1)

The consummate English gentleman - refined, erudite and of independent means - Father Houghton ‘emigrated’ to the little city of Viviers in 1969, where he resided in a fascinating apartment within a stone tower of an ancient chateau until 19 November 1992, when he passed to eternal life in his eighty-second year.

What prompted him to suddenly quit England after three decades of priestly service in two parishes, one of which he established in a London industrial zone, and pass more than 20 years on foreign soil with neither responsibility nor employment? A very brief history of events must suffice.

Road to Viviers
Liturgical scandals were already commonplace in England prior to the conclusion of Vatican II, burgeoning immediately after the introduction of vernacular language into the Mass in 1963/64. Yet they had not fiddled with the Canon and Fr. Houghton still felt able to offer the Mass of 1964 with a “certain devotion,” even as his peers were switching into experimental mode around him. However, in shrewd anticipation of the liturgical turmoil to come, he wrote to his Bishop submitting his resignation “from the day on which they touch the Canon.” The Bishop, of course, replied that “nobody is thinking of reforming the Canon” and assured him that the bishops were there precisely in order to prevent it from being touched. “Poor dear Bishop!” wrote Fr. Houghton, “he did not have the slightest idea about what was going to happen”.

Five years later this 'suspended' resignation was activated and, with the Bishop’s approval, he resigned as parish priest of Bury St. Edmunds with effect from midnight 29 November 1969. The following day, the New Mass came into force: they had “touched” the Canon and restricted the Old Mass to retired or aged priests, sine populo (alone and in private).

Rather than stay in England and regress under official post-conciliar pressure to a form of Protestantism, bearing the endless quarrels between bishops, priests, reformers and traditionalists (which he had already endured for the best part of a decade), he promptly left. Driving south through France along the right bank of the Rhône until he reached his target, the first olive tree - marking more or less the northern border of “le Midi” (the South of France) - Fr. Houghton purchased a house in La Grande Rue of Viviers that same afternoon. “In terms of sheer speed,” he recounted, “the solicitor had never seen the like of it.”

Prayer and the Mass
And so we find the principal reason for Fr. Houghton’s “rejection;” his “emigration;” the subject at the centre of his memoir and two earlier novels; his raison d’être – the Mass:

A certain dose of interior discipline is therefore required to pass 20 years without responsibility or employment of any kind… But it is precisely the CONTEMPLATIVE nature of the Old Mass which gave me this necessary discipline. Thus you have before you a priest rejected because of the Old Mass, but to whom the Old Mass alone gives life.

The Holy Sacrifice had played a decisive part in converting the young Bryan from Anglicanism and engendered his three favourite subjects – prayer, the Mass and liturgy. One of his former altar boys, a monk of the traditional Benedictine abbey of Le Barroux, recalled Father’s very brief Sunday sermons: “He never developed more than one idea per sermon. There were few quotations: they were personal meditations, Fr. Houghton was a contemplative who didn’t know it.”

Several of these meditations were included in Prêtre rejeté, within the longest chapter - “Prayer, Grace and Liturgy.” Here is how he spoke of prayer:

The Christian, when he prays, assists and supports a super- natural act accomplished by the Holy Spirit ( … ) It is an act of habitual, sanctifying grace. The activity of a man in prayer is therefore an adhesion to grace and the less he encroaches upon the Holy Spirit the better. This interior assent is not achieved through pious thoughts but by hiding oneself in the present moment … He must recollect and empty himself in order to leave room for the operation of the Holy Spirit.

For Fr. Houghton, this Divine initiative emerged in the Mass and his most profound meditations were on this theme. They drew their strength and vigour from an angelic discourse in his early childhood. Sent to France at the end of the war to board at a makeshift school of only twenty students, he encountered Hippolyte. "A packet of nerves,” Hippolyte spent his afternoons perched in an olive tree singing Greek and Latin hymns to Our Lady. One day, Bryan, nine years old and the lone Protestant in this little Catholic enclave, went to join him in the tree. Seventy years later he related the dialogue:

Je suis protestant… I am a Protestant and I would like you to tell me - what is the Mass? I attend it every day but understand nothing.”

“Yes, I've seen you at the back of the chapel. I thought you were a Jew.”

“No, I'm a Protestant. I have attended our Protestant services. They are very beautiful: they speak constantly there about Jesus.”

“That’s it," replied Hippolyte, "there they talk about Jesus. They are surely very beautiful. But it is not the Mass. You see, the Mass IS Jesus." He hesitated a moment, then continued: “You see, God was made flesh in order to redeem us on the cross. At the Last Supper, He left us His Body and His Blood under the appearances of bread and wine, as pledges of our Redemption. That is the Mass: the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. Before such an act, there is nothing to do or to say. One can only be silent. I would love to join you at the back of the chapel.”

From the mouths of babes of yesteryear! What young Catholic today could produce such a definition, so full of serenity and faith? For Fr. Houghton the response was decisive and from this lesson he drew one essential idea and one fundamental liturgical rule:

  • Protestantism talks about Jesus; Catholicism IS Jesus.
  • Before the Redemption, there is no place for any human action other than silence.

Commenting on the Traditional Rite of the Mass, he explained how the priest had to lose himself before the Real Presence:

The Mass is a divine act; it is a liturgy in which God acts, and not men. It includes generous bands of silence in order to permit adoration of the ineffable Presence. What is said in a loud voice is said in Latin to limit intrusions by the personality of the priest.

Could there be a more contrary or radical perception vis-à-vis the Mass as it is currently understood? To stress his point, he did not hesitate to use concrete images:

The priest is barely a craftsman. Basically, he operates the altar like a plumber with his apprentice. Once the water is connected, the tap of Eternal Life opened, he leaves again carrying his tools.

The Lacuna
It was to prayer that Fr. Houghton turned, as early as 1964, to explain the inexplicable: why 98% of priests in his diocese had rushed to embrace a new “active” Mass, requested neither by Pope nor Council, in place of this old “contemplative” Mass which they had said daily for so many years with care and apparent devotion? Obedience, apathy, fear of reprisals, the desire for a quiet life? Certainly all that. But he boiled it down to this: “they could not possibly have loved the Old Mass.” They had considered the Mass as just something “they had to do, and not something that God made.”

Lex credendi, lex orandi: faith governs prayer, prayer governs faith. After close scrutiny of his diocese, convinced that all bar one of his brother priests had the Faith, he concluded that the clerical deficiency lay on the side of prayer. From the outset, unlike his peers, Fr. Houghton was never content to cast a superficial eye over the multiple problems developing at parish level even as the Council sat. The crisis was profound because it emerged from the spiritual depths, resting on the broken link in the relationship between man and God.

Man’s encounter with God, always gratuitous on God’s part, takes place in prayer which, for Fr. Houghton, reached its apogee in the Mass. Before the Council, had they taught seminarians to pray? In a lecture, transcribed in the French revue Itinèraires of May 1981, he responded: “the old seminaries had enormous merits, and I am very grateful myself for what I received there. Yet, from all the evidence, they failed.” A little further on in the same article he explained the reason: “to my knowledge, there is not a seminary in the world willing to integrate into its teaching programme a serious study of prayer: its physics, metaphysics and theology.”

In Prêtre rejeté he further explains that priests of his era were far too busy saying the Mass, reciting the breviary or doing something else to spend a moment in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament: “We encouraged the laity in a form of prayer that we hardly practised ourselves.” His own ascetic formation at the Beda college in Rome had been extensive: “they had taught me how to perfect myself. But they had not taught me to pray - that is, how to adore God.” What he knew of this subject he owed to his reading of mystics like St. Gertrude or St. Teresa of Avila, or writers on spirituality such as Surin and Grou.

As soon as one perceives the difference between ascetism and prayer, he reflected, one can understand the revolution in the Church: “Priests, notably the most efficacious priests - that is the bishops - were fed up with a liturgy in which they had nothing to do. They therefore wanted an ascetic Mass in place of an adoring Mass - action in place of contemplation. They got it.”

This failure of the seminaries explains in large part the current crisis in the Church although, clearly, it is not the only reason. There is always the complicity of weak and cowardly men. But the rejection of Fr. Houghton’s thesis on the basis that it cannot be applied to everyone, is perhaps an indication of how superficial we have become in our analysis and critiques of the post-conciliar Church. In exasperation at the continued failure to transmit essentials of the Faith, in shock before revelations of depravity among the older generation of clergy, our vision is often limited to the sociological aspects of things. This is necessary, but insufficient. To remedy the effects one must return to the cause. As one French writer commented on this theme: “Priests, bishops, cardinals did not suddenly become strangers to the Catholic faith. We had theologians more or less intelligent, more or less faithful,. We did not have men of prayer.”

More precisely, according to the Houghton thesis, we did have men who “prayed” - good priests and good men - but not “men of prayer” adequately versed in why and how to empty themselves  of self in true adoration of God. Without this acquired, contemplative disposition they viewed the Old Mass as a Rite one could change as simply as one changed trousers.

At some time, we have all encountered the seemingly inexplicable clerical mentality implied here. The most striking example in my experience involved the late Monsignor George Kelly, an American priest of Fr. Houghton’s vintage, as he voiced support for the new liturgy during a function in Australia in the mid-1980s. In response to a concern raised about liturgical reform, in which predictably he stressed the sociological “abuse” factor rather than more profound causes and consequences, Msgr. Kelly declared before 1,200 orthodox (mainly neo-conservative) Catholics: “Who wanted to say Mass facing a wall!”

Although at the time a liturgical ignoramus, raised on the New Mass, this statement pierced a tender spot deep within me. It just seemed an awfully perverse thing to say, from every conceivable angle. And yet I admired Msgr Kelly as a man who spoke  his mind, an indefatigable leader of the orthodox fight against Modernism and undoubtedly an excellent priest and pastor. A man who prays. An ascetic. But a “man of prayer”? A contemplative?

If this lacuna - missing link - in seminary training thus affected the cream of Fr Houghton's stalwart generation of priests, rightly admired and beloved by the laity for their dedication and faith, what hope the new breed of clergy trained since the Council and subsisting on a new "active" Mass? Can one truly "surrender" one's soul to Jesus in a liturgy designed for "self-commitment"? Is it possible to practice recollection to the point of self-abandonment when one is urged to "act"? Ultimately, only such priests themselves can really know whether they experience, in the depths of their being, this sublime impression which filled Fr Houghton during his first Mass and at every Holy Sacrifice he offered thereafter:

It was evident that Jesus was the celebrant and that I was only the concelebrant. He played the active role, not me.

The Novelist
All the erudition, wisdom, experience and humour of this priestly soul found full expression in his two novels: Mitre and Crook [1979] and Le mariage de Judith [Judith's Marriage, 1984], which both deserve a wider audience.

Timeless and irreplaceable testimonies of our dismal slice of Church history, I often turned to these books while writing Death of a Catholic Parish - for clarification and understanding of the Catholic position opposed to the Modernist forces at work in the Benalla experiment. In particular, I sought to introduce Mitre & Crook to a wider audience by utilising its central character, Bishop Forester, as both a wise Catholic oracle, analysing the brazen Protestantism of the Benalla Team Ministry, and a penitent episcopal role-model for complicit yet largely unrepentant hierarchies the world over.

When I explained this to Fr. Houghton during our one and only meeting, in Viviers two months before his death, it brought a gentle smile of surprised delight. Perhaps he was recalling yet another unexpected by-product of his novel, which received a cheeky mention in his autobiography:

The French publisher managed to send some copies to Rome. In the response of a Cardinal one reads this: "There are some deeply moving pages that one can only read with tears in one's eyes."

Thus, I made a Cardinal cry! Still, it is something.

Mitre & Crook relates the conversion of Bishop Forester who, one beautiful day in January 1977, decides to put his diocese in order. He does it under the form of a long letter to his clergy in which, among many other things, he grants full permission to offer the Old Mass and also creates a “common” or “mixed” Mass. It comprises the New up to the Offertory, the Old from the Offertory to the priest’s Communion, reverting to the New and vernacular for the Communion of the Faithful and conclusion.

Filling 10 pages early in the novel, it was in fact the very letter Fr. Houghton had sent to the Bishop of Northampton following a semi-serious question from an episcopal friend as to how he would handle the liturgical situation if he were in charge.  Needless to say, the Bishop did not act on it. In the book, however, the letter acts as a veritable “bomb,” provoking multiple reactions from as far afield as Rome - all of which Bishop Forester confronts courageously. The genius of this work is that it is composed solely of letters written by Bishop Forester, through which the reader follows the developing affair. To have succeeded in constructing a whole novel around the letters of the hero is in itself a tour de force. Equally admirable is its enduring relevance.

Despite its epochal significance and immediate (albeit relatively minimal) impact, the traditional makeover set in train by Summorum Pontificum will be fashioned over generations. It will be hastened somewhat by the fact that the present liturgical bondage, like all forms of slavery, is artificially maintained - by the same passé clerical mentality that imposed the revolution on the rank and file in the first place. Even among the ecclesial ruins of devastated France, surveys conducted both pre- and post-Summorum have shown that fully one-third of the faithful would happily attend the Traditional Latin Mass if it were offered in their parish [cf. CSA polls of Nov. 2006 and Sept. 2008]. More remarkably still: since 7 July 2007, 25% of the arch-Modernist French episcopate have either offered or presided over the Old Mass! Such positive portents aside, however, the fact remains that those who find liturgical ceremony, discipline and silence a stifling bore still constitute the vast Western majority. The curse of liturgical 'activism' is so deeply embedded in the post-conciliar psyche that it will take the iron will of a Pope Saint to dislodge it.

In the meantime, therefore, amid the interminable death throes of the Novus Ordo and the inexorable rise of the Pope's traditional leaven, the controversy at the heart of Mitre & Crook retains its topicality and urgency. It confirms a few givens, like the wholesale revision of the New Mass and inevitable dissolution of ICEL, its symbiotic quango, while raising many questions. Not least: Is a Mass restructured according to Fr Houghton's "mixed" arrangement, salvageable? Or would even that apparently sensible compromise merely result in a schizophrenic mix of Modernist profanity and Catholic majesty?

Ongoing episcopal defiance notwithstanding, Benedict's "evolutionary" model, akin to that mapped out thirty years earlier by Fr Houghton, may prove the only effective solution after all: allowing the age-old "extraordinary form" of the Mass to coexist freely and generously alongside the new "ordinary form", with the faithful accepting legitimate differences between them and free to attend one or the other. In other words, let "natural selection" - aka"the traditional preference of the Holy Spirit" - run its course!

While a clever and stimulating creation by a formidable intellect, the warmth and solicitude of a true spiritual Father permeates Mitre & Crook. Always sensitive to the distress of the faithful, particularly through the usurpation of their rights by the clergy, it was to his former parishioners that Fr. Houghton dedicated his most impressive work, Judith’s Marriage, in which he wrote:

In twenty years nobody has published anything to exalt the virtues and mourn the sufferings of the laity. When they tried to protest, one reproached them for being disobedient and disloyal or for being divisive ( … ) I dedicate this little book to my old parishioners of Slough and Bury St. Edmunds. It is only the humble token of my admiration for their attachment to the Faith and my gratefulness for the example of ineradicable piety that they have given me.

In this regard, what struck Fr. Houghton most about the 1969 instruction restricting the Old Mass to retired/aged priests sine populo was the absence of common decency: the total lack of charity in respect of those priests who wished to say the Old Mass, and its failure even to acknowledge “the existence of the unfortunate laity” - an Olympian arrogance rigorously maintained by Modernist leadership to this day. In contrast, of Fr. Houghton’s own attitude to the laity it was said that “he always welcomed them, as envoys from Heaven.”

Judith’s Marriage is a novel more classical in form and probably more accessible to the public. It is the story of a young English woman who, some years before Vatican II, converts to Catholicism after a chance meeting with a young Catholic man and, above all, thanks to the Mass. A romance ensues between the two young people, who marry and establish a true Catholic home. But little by little they are confronted with the progressivism spreading throughout the Church. The Council liberates forces, controlled as well as could be expected until then, which turn the couple’s life upside-down. What attitude to adopt facing the deceitful demolition which strikes the local church and Catholic school?

Dealing frankly with hard realities, like contraception and the ongoing confrontation between exasperated mothers and trendy clerics which still characterise Church life, the situations and dialogue are imbued with a sharp-edge that may not always appeal to those more comfortable with the romantic religious novels of yore. Yet in Judith’s Marriage, as well as the usual ingredients of the genre - romance, twists, suspense - one finds numerous theological considerations simply presented, together with incisive and illuminating reflections on the prevailing Catholic crisis.

As soon as he arrived in Viviers, Fr. Houghton had contacted the Bishop, who gave him permission to say the Old Mass daily (in “private”) at the high-altar of the cathedral, next-door to his residence. It was then not long before Providence also gathered around him a small congregation of about one hundred faithful for whom he offered Mass each Sunday - again with episcopal permission - in a twelfth century chapel, Notre Dame de la Rose.

This little community, like so many others still found in hostile dioceses across our post-Summorum world, consisted of casualties of the ongoing Modernist revolution depicted in his novels: characters of the Second Reformation. In a tribute to their late priest and pastor, one female member of this diminutive ‘parish’ wrote that the faithful who united around Fr. Houghton in Viviers:

... were a faithful people who all, in their intimate life, to varying degrees, had suffered the drama related in Bryan Houghton’s most beautiful book, Judith’s Marriage: to suddenly feel that the visible Church - of bureaus and bulletins, conferences and connivances - scorns and disowns so many humble efforts and obscure sacrifices, so much courageous fidelity and self-denial, all that swept aside as old-fashioned, historically useless, politically non-existent, worthy of a good psychoanalysis… In these bitter times, in a canton of France, some wounded souls, some outraged fathers, some humiliated mothers will have kept the Faith: because a young Englishman, thirty-five years earlier, left his Anglican tradition in order to embrace a higher Tradition.

Indeed, aspects of Fr. Houghton’s own conversion experience are doubtless reflected in those of his heroine, Judith - such as the pivotal role of the Mass and the consequent estrangement from his family. He accepted this separation with the same equanimity he later displayed in uprooting his comfortable parish life, dealing with the considerable publicity and unfavourable mail it generated and quitting his native land.

This internal calm, manifested in a gentle reserve more English than the Tower of London, derived from his estimation that the major events of his life were imposed on him; that he had not had to choose but only to accept; and consequently, that the principal character of his existence was that ineffable mystery - the grace of God. This gave him great peace in his later years: “I have no regrets,” he told me.

“Utterly good for nothing.” He consented, however, to be nothing. And therein lay his success.

“I must confess,” he wrote, “that the ways of Providence in my regard leave me flabbergasted. I am a failed priest… But my situation is not very different from that which I would have if I had flown from success to triumph. I live in a very beautiful house, one hundred metres from a cathedral where I say Mass at the high-altar on weekdays. Every Sunday, I offer Mass in a Roman church just big enough to hold the approximately eighty-five faithful who desire to attend it. In the eyes of God, without any doubt, success and failure are barely distinguishable.”

This God alone – of improbable designs and staggering forbearance – would be his Judge. And to his last breath he had no other desire than to be with Him in Paradise.

Several days before he died, paralysed, reduced to silence, he welcomed all visitors in the same manner. “A simple look, but one which said so much, rested on those who came to keep him company,” wrote his old altar boy, the Benedictine. “And with his good hand, the index finger pointed to Heaven.”


(1)Mitre & Crook, Roman Catholic Books, 1979. (La Paix de Msgr. Forester, Dominique Martin Marin, 1982.); Le mariage de Judith, DMM, 1984. (Judith's Marriage, Credo House, 1987 - out of print.); Prêtre rejeté, DMM, 1990 (original English manuscript unpublished, whereabouts unknown).  All translations from the French in this article are those of the present writer.- MMcG   




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