The Mass & Nothing But

The history of my conversion to Catholic was long and involved. This I have had the chance to realize, through the fifteen years since I was received, as a man already fifty. One does think back, and shouldn’t dwell, yet in the search for self-understanding one is not a bubble in the present time. Moreover, according to me, one learns from retrospect what one might learn in no other way.

It started when I was six, at the latest. My post-Protestant father, from Canada but teaching in Lahore’s College of Art, had me enrolled at St Anthony’s. Why, given his own worldview, he would put me at the mercy of Irish Marists and Jesuits, was easy to explain. He thought they had the highest academic standards. Nothing more.

They certainly did take knowledge very seriously. “Scientia cum Virtute,” lest I forget.

They also offered a parody, sometimes less than funny, of everything condemned in, for instance, the residential-schools controversy in Canada later on. I got my share of beatings in the schoolyard and more than my share from the brothers themselves. They took no excuses, and pleas of innocence went unheard. If nothing else, I learned plenty about injustice, from a school principal who struck me as psychotic (and later left the Church to join a Buddhist commune in California).

But I learned other things, too, from various earnest teachers; one of which was the Sacred Heart Cathedral, next door. As a white boy, I was compelled to attend. (Until it was discovered that I were a “Prottie,” and duly beaten for having attended.)

What did I learn from there, I hope gentle reader is asking? Something inchoate, that would follow me for years.

At the time I believed what my atheist mama told me, that the Mass is some primitive magical rite, by its nature out of place in our modern, scientific, rational world. At some level, Catholics were as one with barbaric savages. As her Presbyterian ancestors had said, they are superstitious. They do strange unaccountable things, like talking to the dead, and eating wee morsels of bread, under the impression it is human flesh.


But still: we should be nice to them.

What I learned at Sacred Heart is that all this was true, with incense and bells on. (Those were the days of the Latin Mass; when I went back decades later it was Urdu and tamba drums.)

And something more, that took many years for me to begin to make sense of. I learned that I had a Catholic sensibility. Moreover, that I did not have a Protestant one. That in any conflict between the sensibilities, I was spontaneously on the Catholic side. How to explain?

At some intuitive level, it seemed to me that Catholicism was fertile, that the alternative was sterile. Saint John Paul put it with shocking precision when he distinguished the Culture of Life from the Culture of Death, though he didn’t mean anything sectarian by it. He was referring to the same fundamental difference in outlook that happens to set real Catholics apart from almost everything in their modern surroundings.

Now let me retain my focus on the Mass. I became a Christian in early adult life, and then a High Anglican (for the smells and bells), till finally I defected over here. Indeed, I spent a quarter century on the verge of “poping,” every time the Anglicans did something un-catholic. But in the meanwhile I attended many weddings, funerals, even baptisms in more Protestant places, out of trained politeness; and I observed their customs through alien eyes.

This is the first, and perhaps also the last thing to know about our differences: that over there they have “church services.” The Mass, for them, is not “instrumental.” It is a simple memorial, because Christ said, “do this.” They do, at their best, just as they were instructed, but without the magic.

Whereas, Catholics do what we were instructed, but for us the Sacraments have an effect. They are not a memorial, but an act; they accomplish something. It is “the Sacrifice of the Mass,” and our cross tends to have “the little man on it” (as the brainless cashier in a trinkets store once put it). And He looks like He might bleed on your shoes.

I have drawn a contrast between what I call the “instrumental” and the “symbolic.” Symbols, in this sense, are intellectual things. They are bloodless. An academic can write all about symbols, without understanding even one. He may produce long dictionaries of symbols, and manuals of ethnography, too, with cross-references and indexes. He will still miss the point.

Ditto, an encyclopedia of angels and demons, saints, martyrs, leprechauns and fairies, without the slightest belief that anything is real.

That word, “real,” I have used advisedly. I mean to allude back to the medieval conflicts between Realists and Nominalists – which, very plausibly, lie under each of our modern Reformations (of the sixteenth, eighteenth, and now the twenty-first centuries).

At the heart of each is the rejection of Realism – the view that there are real things outside of ourselves that will be real whether we accept them or not. Examples: truth, beauty, goodness. Conversely, an advance of that Nominalism which holds that Man (or “peoplekind,” as our prime minister says) creates reality when he gives it a name. Everything is finally a “social construct,” even male and female, up and down.

To that view, I must have been a sucker for Catholicism from the start. I always believed in reality, and that there were more things in heaven and earth than they could dream. And I have never “outgrown” this, and hope never to outgrow.

I am a Realist. I believe the most primitive savage is fully a man, and so I’m just like him. For men are real, and will continue to be real, no matter what you call them.


*Image: The Adoration of the Eucharist by Jerónimo Jacinto de Espinosa, c. 1650 [Museu de Belles Arts de València, Spain]


David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: