Western People 23.5.2023
King Charles, it appears, is not a very happy king. Even before his coronation, he was given to hissy fits, as when he lost his temper when a biro misfired and his fingers were stained. The face of his queen, Camilla, who witnessed the mini-crisis was enough to convince many that this was not an irregular occurrence.
While it is common knowledge that Charles does not suffer fools gladly and is not blessed with a long fuse, his tense, sombre, even morose expression during the coronation ceremony sent a clear signal that whatever was going on inside his head, here was a man who was not enjoying himself.
It may be that, in Yeats’ words, ‘too long a suffering makes a stone of the heart’. Or in Charles’ case too long an apprenticeship makes an eventual succession in the foothills of old age hardly worth the trouble. After all, Charles at 74 is an old man and his demeanour of tiredness and anxiety may simply be a reflection of the encroachments of old age. For 70 years, since his childhood memory of his mother’s coronation, Charles knew he would one day be ‘the anointed one’ but as the years, nay decades ground slowly, his mother’s exceptionally good health in living almost a full century must have been experienced – despite his filial devotion to her – as at least inconvenient.
At 74, Charles is on the right side of Pope Francis who became pope at 76 but, as Francis has acknowledged himself, he was never happier, even when he bounces around in his wheelchair. We now have, after the winter years of John Paul and Benedict, a pope who is really enjoying himself.
And it isn’t that Charles alone has been disconcerted by republicans on the fringes of his public appearances shouting, ‘Not our king!’ After all, cardinals, archbishops and bishops – all of whom have sworn oaths of loyalty to Pope Francis – regularly and ritually accuse him of being a heretic.
And it isn’t that Charles is worried that the commonwealth is diminishing by the day and that, after his mother’s careful stewardship, all he can reasonably hope to achieve – in the comparatively few years God may allot him – is to manage not arrest decline. Francis, on the other hand, does not seem to be unduly fixated on the problems facing his divided Church. In any event he keeps smiling.
Or it may be that Charles – necessarily nervous about a coronation ceremony well past its sell-by date and more than a bit embarrassed by the medieval clothing and unclothing rituals, the symbols and the insignia, the ceremonials and the regalia, the bowing and the bending – was acutely aware of how the whole endeavour might seem to the outside world as in danger of dipping into farce.
The sight of the politician Penny Mordaunt, a Brexiteer, carrying the ceremonial sword of state and wearing a cape and headband with gold feather embroidery, must have convinced him that it was all a grotesque nightmare or part of a Monty Python sketch.
What took the former politician, Michael McDowell, aback at the coronation ceremony was all the bowing. Possibly not acquainted with the rubrics of liturgical ritual, and with a superfluity of clerics making the most of their minimal moments in the sun, McDowell mused that his only memory of so much bowing and scraping was in the excessive deference shown to Catholic clergy in the past.
No doubt McDowell had in mind the over-attention devoted to ‘princes of the Church’ like Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin who travelled with a retinue of clerical underlings including a bearer of his episcopal train – ‘train’ as in liturgical garment not locomotive – an extensive garment half the size of Leitrim.
It was an example of a comment made, I think, by George Steiner, a respected commentator on culture, belief and meaning, that ‘a yearning for meaning in life is often prone to being engulfed by nonsense’.
The late Cardinal Carlo Martini of Milan, who shared with his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis, an unease with unnecessary ceremony and circumstance, warned that ‘the Catholic Church was 200 years behind the times, the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church grows and our rites and dress are pompous’. After Pope Benedict’s pontificate when ‘lace and Latin’ received too much purchase in our liturgy and ancient papal regalia and insignia were highlighted, Francis is attempting to moderate the excess baggage of the past and to control an obsession (for example) with empty honours, but is being opposed by elements of the Vatican bureaucracy whose positions are threatened by Francis’ reforms.
In recent years, Cardinal Raymond Burke, once a figure of some substance in the Vatican and an inveterate critic of the Francis reforms, has travelled the world trying to resuscitate the old Latin Mass. Some years ago I attended one of the Burke Masses in Knock and witnessed a liturgy that had elements of the recent coronation ceremony: the flamboyant cappa magna (great cape) of violet silk; the pre-Mass disrobing of the celebrant of his cardinal’s clothes; and the re-robing in medieval-type vestments, all of which was attended by a retinue of exclusively male clerics surrounding him with crosses and candles. The whole ceremony wouldn’t hold a candle, so to speak, to a quiet Mass in a small church.
The message from the recent coronation, not I’m sure lost on the next king, the present Prince William, is that if a monarchy is to stand its ground in the modern world much of what we witnessed in Westminster Abbey needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history. The same could be said of the Catholic Church.