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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer


THE services that I have so far noticed are conducted entirely in Latin, and the language of the priest is, as a rule, as inaudible to the people as it would be unintelligible. This has its advantages. The fact that the "mass" is in Latin saves considerable time, as we saw, since the priest seems to think that in Latin he is justified in addressing the Almighty at the rate of 250 or 300 words a minute; whereas, if he spoke a language which the people could hear and understand, he would feel compelled to speak at least as reverently as if he were addressing a belted earl, or a wealthy countess of advanced years. It has the advantage, too, that the ears of the better educated part of a modern congregation are spared a language which might otherwise stir in them feelings of revolt. The whole liturgy, for instance, swarms with allusions to devils, who are supposed to hover about; and the educated Catholic probably has his doubts if those industrious and enigmatic agents do really abound in London and New York.

The priest himself is probably grateful, as a rule, that the Church insists on keeping these rather crude and. worm-eaten sentiments under the veil of a dead language. I never knew a priest who really believed these things. Every priest has at times to bless the "holy water" with which Catholics sprinkle themselves, or are sprinkled. The prayer by which he does this intimates that its object really is to drive the devils out of this common London water, and indirectly keep them from the people sprinkled. I say that I never met a priest who sincerely thought this necessary; but one did not seem to mind doing it in Latin. It would be rather crude and trying in English.

As to the people, while they certainly believe implicitly the doctrines I have described in the last chapter, they treat the devil in rather cavalier fashion. At the beginning of a sung mass on Sunday, for instance, the priest must walk down the church and, with a sprinkler and holy water, do a preliminary devil-chase. Zealous and simple in all things, I, when it was my turn, took care that every lady in the church should have her share of the beneficent water, and I sprinkled generously. After a few Sunday hats had been spoiled, I noticed that people waited in the vestibule or outside until my zeal had expended itself. Indeed, in the end they begged my superior to hint to me-not quite in these terms that they would rather take the risk of the devil and save their hats.

In many such matters the retention of Latin is a merciful dispensation. I have described baptism, but there is a supplementary ceremony, commonly called "churching," which even more urgently needs the decent veil of a dead language. The idea of it is that a married woman who has so far demeaned herself as to add a little citizen to the community is tainted. She is not fit to enter the church with respectable folk. She must remain in the space near the door, where once public penitents stood, and where inquisitive Protestant visitors stand to-day. But she does not do this during a public service. She comes quietly some afternoon, kneels in the penitential area, and is "churched." If ever the prayers that are used - crudely referring to the indelicate antecedents of her condition-are read in English, the archaic ceremony will die in a year.

The reader must not, however, suppose that the services which are conducted in English are entirely free from these ancient crudities. Both prayers and hymns, but especially hymns, are occasionally intolerable in phrasing and sentiment. Perhaps the most popular of Catholic prayers is a prayer to Mary, called, from its opening words, "the Hail Mary." It is one of the first things the little ones learn to lisp; and it talks good Elizabethan English about Mary's position. "Blessed be the fruit of thy womb, Jesus," is the central phrase of it. At what age the little girls begin to understand what they are saying I cannot tell; but a child who spoke thus to her mother or her brother would cause a sensation.

Somehow, they are so accustomed to unreality and eccentricity in the Church language that these things do not seem to matter. Fragments of the hymns of my boyhood linger in my memory, and the thing that startles me now is that they did not startle me then. Two notes, I now perceive, were the most persistent. One was the devil-theory. The world was one vast Colosseum, in which, from our seventh year onward, we fought innumerable and stupendously ingenious and fearfully zealous devils. No ancient Persian or modern uneducated Chinaman could be more concerned. One lyric, set to a gloriously martial tune, drew out all our lungs:

Arm for deadly fight, earth and hell unite,
And swear in lasting bonds to bind me;
Raise the cross on high, Jesus is our cry,
With Jesus still the foe shall find me.
Then we dispersed to play marbles, or to steal fruit out of the priest's garden. There was another hymn which the "children of Mary" used especially to sing. Two or three hundred young men and women in the bloom of life used to pour it into the rafters with tremendous spirit. The music lent itself to emphasis, and it invariably got it. Was it a prayer for the preservation, the decent development, the manly use of their adolescent strength? Not in the least. The refrain of it, rising to a piteous wail, was this:
Holy Mary, let me come; Holy Mary, let me come
Soon to be happy with thee in thy home.

There was not one of them who would not have fainted if a voice from heaven had announced that the prayer was granted.

It seemed possible that even in the course of twenty years some of these monstrosities have been suppressed, and I have consulted a modern American hymnal (Tozer's, 1906) that is available. No; there are all the poetic gems of my childhood, and a few more. Catholics still yearn unspeakably to quit this world, it seems! Here is one which we sang in a dingy suburb of Manchester fifty years ago, and that Catholics, even of Fifth Avenue, sing in New York to-day (No. 168):

O Paradise, O Paradise,
  'Tis weary waiting here;
I long to be where Jesus is,
  To feel, to see him near.

Or the jingle numbered 100:

The earth is but a vale of tears,
  O Maria!
* * * *
When this exile is complete,
  O Maria!

The same reason is generally assigned as in the older hymns: the earth is a vale of tears, millions of devils are on our track (several to each of the two thousand million members of the human race, I calculate), and the chances of hell are merely prolonged the longer we live here. "Hell is raging for my soul," says No. 96; and the reason of the rage is no more apparent than the concern of the victim when he quits church and gets into Hyde Park. Unreality seems to be the first qualification of a good Catholic hymn. Listen to this extremely popular doggerel, which has been sung throughout the English-speaking world with tremendous spirit for forty years or more, to my knowledge (No.113):

O mother, I could weep for mirth,
  Joy fills my heart so fast;
My soul to-day is heaven on earth,
  O could the transport last!

Is it the hymeneal of some fortunate Child of Mary who is about to marry? No. The young ladies are expressing in this hyperbolic bad poetry their appreciation of the fact that Mary did not incur the guilt of Adam's sin when she was born! The quality of the poetry is, in fact, frequently as bad as the sentiments:

O the blood of Christ! it
  Soothes the Father's ire;
Opes the gates of heaven,
  Quells eternal fire.

One could write such verse as this in a state of intoxication. And this, remember, is an American, modern, expurgated collection of hymns. This is the best output for a century of the Church which claims a monopoly of religious and artistic inspiration! These hymns and a few prayers are almost all that the Church suffers in the native tongue. The prayers generally relate to the Virgin and the saints, and the worship of these now calls for consideration.

Rome still sends out yearly innumerable bits of saints' bones, and so forth, because every altar that is raised has to have a "relic" embedded in it; and every relic has to be bought of the Vatican - I mean, you must pay for the case, the wrappings, the carriage, etc. These modern relics are accompanied by very impressive certificates and diplomas, which often prove the existence of the particular relic right into the Middle Ages. The Catholic, having a feeble sense of humour, does not notice that such documents merely trace the object back to the period when the forging of relics was at its height. There can be little doubt, however, that the profitable industry has not been suffered to die out altogether. I have seen in London a Jesuit priest selling (I mean "giving" - for half a sovereign) to pious ladies relics of a certain saint, and it turned out, when we pressed him (for he was poaching on our particular preserve), that they were bogus. He had them from Rome.

The "cult" or "worship" of Mary has a peculiar position in the Church. The earliest Christian centuries knew nothing of it, and in its beginning it incurred the frowns of some of the Christian leaders. As time went on, however, her figure was brought into prominence by the great quarrel about the divinity of Christ. She was very popular in the Middle Ages. Pope Alexander VI is especially noted for his warm devotion to her. The peculiar thing is that, while so many practices paled in modern times, as stars pale when the sun rises, the cult of Mary rose higher and higher. Pius IX had no less devotion to her than Alexander VI. He got her declared "Immaculate," which led to the "transports" mentioned in the American hymn.

And, as is known, it is just in this one department that they have revived, and stubbornly profess,. the medieval belief in miracles.

They occur at many shrines of Mary, but Lourdes, with its commercial organisation, has nearly blotted out rival miracle shops. It is altogether a mistake to suppose that these" miracles" of Lourdes are the innocent illusion of peasants who defy doctors, and of overfed old ladies who get their little ills attended to there. No Catholic is bound to believe them, but even the most cultivated Catholics do. Mr. Hilaire Belloc once paralysed me, in the Course of a debate on "miracles" which I had with him and Mr. Chesterton, by sternly and truculently insisting that the cures at Lourdes are literally miraculous! One notices here again the strange lack of a sense of humour and proportion. The supposed supernatural power at Lourdes could vindicate itself any day, and every day. It could, on Mr. Belloc's theory, raise the dead to life as easily as curing a bunion. It could, as was frequently done in the Middle Ages, when there were no sceptics, fit on again a foot or arm that has been chopped off. But it plays about in that dim region of gradual cures and disputable maladies where natural and supernatural powers are hopelessly indistinguishable. It is a typical medieval survival, or revival.

Mr. Belloc, by the way, insisted in his severe way that the essence of miracles is their "rareness." He rebuked my frivolity as strongly as Mr. Chesterton rebukes my solemnity. A few weeks later Lourdes published its annual report-not balance-sheet, but list of miracles. It claimed more than two thousand in a year! Naturally, if the chances of each sick visitor were as low as Mr. Belloc thinks, the nostrum would not pay. The financial aspect of the matter is as patent as the interest of the rival medieval towns which fought battles because each claimed the Virgin's wedding-ring, and thus lowered the attractiveness to pious tourists of the other. [1]

But these few illustrations will suffice for my purpose. Catholicism is not merely an archaic system of rites and beliefs which people cherish for its historical or aesthetic interest. It is not merely in the Latin ritual or in the Latin tomes of its theologians that you read the extraordinary ideas which distinguish it. It is not merely Mexican or Irish peasants who subscribe to these things. You hear them in quite modern English in Westminster Cathedral. You hear them from the lips of literary men and judges. The reader will feel that some explanation of this "Catholic atmosphere" is needed, and to that I next address myself.

[1] As to the value of the "miracles" see my little work, analyzing the chief cases, The Lourdes Miracles (Watts & Co.).

The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer