My first parish priest was a little old man with pebble spectacles who looked like a gorgeously coloured beetle as he bent over the altar in his Roman chasuble. His name was Fr Albert Tomei; my family went to his tiny church – St Margaret’s, Carshalton Beeches, Surrey – on most Sundays between 1966 and 1972.
Those were the years of the great liturgical upheaval after Vatican II, but I can’t say that I noticed many changes at St Margaret’s. Admittedly, I wasn’t paying attention – but, even if I had been, there wasn’t much to see. Fr Tomei did not suddenly turn round to face the people: he flatly refused to install what he called a “kitchen table” in the sanctuary.
He celebrated the New Mass, but usually in Latin. I didn’t listen to his sermons, but I gathered from things my father said on the drive back home that he never missed an opportunity to rail against the new services. My father thought this was bad form, even though he liked Fr Tomei, and from time to time we would escape to a more mainstream parish in Sutton, Wallington or Wimbledon.
When we moved from our Surrey suburb – so leafy that walking along the pavement was like hacking through the jungle – to grim Reading, we were faced with a similar situation. Fr Michael Nugent ran the parish of Christ the King as a benevolent dictatorship. He was almost a caricature of an old Irish PP, with a red face and a booming laugh; his improvised sermons weren’t very tautly constructed, to put it politely. (Not that many of the men in the congregation cared: they were outside having a smoke.)
His conservatism was not consistent, liturgically or politically: when Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party, I remember him saying he could never vote for “that adulteress” (a reference to the fact that Denis Thatcher had briefly been married before). Five years later, “that wonderful woman” could do no wrong.
Fr Nugent celebrated Mass with visible joy: at the elevation his face shone and he blinked, as if the Host was illuminated. But there was a lot he didn’t like about the revised liturgy, and there was a distressing scene when someone tried to receive Communion in the hand. He would celebrate in Latin from time to time, but by the mid 1970s that was a rebellious thing to do. It didn’t help that the local bishop was the icily progressive Derek Worlock, who tried to force Fr Nugent into a brutal reordering of the sanctuary. (He failed, but of course it happened in the end.)
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