Goliards then and now

In the middle ages, there were still clerics and students who lived on the fringes of society in France, England, and Germany. They were not very different from modern university and college students – they thumbed their noses at the power structure, in their case the Church. They are particularly remembered for their drinking songs and parodies of the Church’s liturgy. The Carmina Burana is their most known work. It is in Latin, but translations can be found. Also see this article. They flourished until the early fourteenth century.

These fellows were certainly not very devout to say the least, and were more than cynical about the institution of the Church. They probably remained believers, but certainly gave impetus to the early reforming movement that would eventually lead to the Lollards and the Reformation. The Council of Trent much later decreed that no cleric was to be admitted unless he belonged to proper ecclesiastical jurisdiction, which seems reasonable. The word golias comes from the Latin gula, gluttony. There was also a mythical Bishop Golias, a medieval Latin form of Goliah, the giant who was struck down by little David with his sling – a Bible story I so loved as a little child. There is also the French word gailliard, meaning a jovial fellow.

We would certainly be shocked by the kind of thing these men came up with to satirise the Church and its ceremonies. They had parodies of the Mass and made light of the things we hold sacred. Interestingly, there is presently a French “dissident Catholic” website called Golias which is very left-wing and opposed to any tendency in the Church to accommodate the traditionalists or return to conservative or authoritarian values. In spite of their recommendations for “May 1968” liberal reforms such as the ordination of women and the homosexual agenda, they are not far off the mark when they observe the reality of the majority of baptised people rejecting the Church institution in the name of their quest for authentic Christianity.

Many of us are of the 1960’s “boomer” generation and have a natural suspicion of authority, especially when it is exercised in a heavy-handed way. To this generation, authoritarianism has discredited many aspects of the Church, such as rites, prayers and doctrines that became symbols of that “tyranny”. To get rid of authority, one has also to be rid of the very notion of tradition. There is a certain return to pre-modern authoritarianism among the younger generations, but this return is far from universal, and a profound malaise has to be addressed – distinguishing tradition and liturgical worship from authoritarianism and priesthood from clericalism. It is a hard one. The baby goes out with the bathwater!

I have no sympathy for Golias and the various hotheads who ask for everything and anything, and would not be happy if they got it. Yet, we do need to give the notions of liturgical tradition and priesthood some slack so that they might survive a crisis of authority. I always find something (not everything) “prophetic” in anti-authoritarian groups as I often fail to find in the establishment. Those people meet with disapproval and ostracism in their lifetimes, and posterity nearly always admits they had something good and wise to offer. I use incense in the thurible, not old boot leather and I don’t go to church dragging dead fish on the ground – but I cannot but think of the fous de Dieu in the nineteenth-century Russian tradition, not forgetting St Philip Neri in his eccentricities and St Benedict Joseph Labre who was a total failure in terms of conventional wisdom.

We should open our minds to the unconventional and what is “out of the box”. Life then becomes interesting…

However, I address a serious problem in the Church and clergy of our own time. As I receive e-mails, the picture becomes much clearer to me about the question of priestly vocation and the need to see beyond the dilemma of the ‘normal canonical situation‘ and the priest centring his vocation on his individual person – being a ‘priest for himself‘ rather than for the Church. Over the years, I have noticed that most of the laity neither understand nor care about their priests. They simply find priests useful for their needs. I could go on, but reserve in these questions is absolutely essential – otherwise the priest writing about these questions is whinging and whining or being negative rather than being the absolutely perfect disembodied entity he is expected to be.

So simply, I need not discuss my own situation. Instead, I received a message this morning from a Roman Catholic priest in England who came a cropper in his own way. A priest knows about canon law, so if he breaks it he is assumed to be in bad faith and no discussion is possible. The game is over and the priest in question is welcome to get a job and give money to the Church – which is about all in the event of his canonical reconciliation as a layman.

My objective here is not to run down the Church or encourage joining one of the movements of protestation for married priests, women priests, ordinations of lesbians married to tom cats, you name it… My observation is simply that there are men who are not catered for pastorally and for whom there is no forgiveness (except possibly in the most humiliating terms and after years of waiting). Very often, these men have not turned their back on God but still have an acute sense of their vocation. Since finding themselves in their canonically irregular situation (getting married, joining another Church, whatever) and banished forever, some find themselves in the caring professions. The priest who wrote to me today studied law in order to specialise in advocacy for children, mental health and others unable to speak up for their own legal and moral rights. That job can be done from a purely secular point of view, or from a point of view motivated by Christian morality and spirituality even if religion is kept out of the actual work in hand.

This priest noticed more and more needs outside of the physical confines of the church, which demand no lesser, arguably more, of a priestly commitment than if I were in a parish. Moreover, in all likelihood with the way things are going, I would not have been given the opportunity to meet these people who are apparently outcast and uncared for by the organised parish structures of whatever flavour. So after 10 years out, so to speak, it seems there may after be a purpose in the priestly situation beyond that catered for by formal appointments. Thus I have assisted at dozens of weddings, funerals, sick calls, etc. On one occasion I conducted the funeral of one of my young clients who had been murdered and featured in the media. The bishop is aware but seems reluctant to call me in for some reason.

A priest in such a situation rarely has the people he works with at his Mass. The two are separate.  Most of the time I celebrate alone – at least in the earthly dimension – but often now called upon to say Mass with various groups including [name of group withheld], with whom I have had a long association.

The priest in question wrote several times to his Bishop asking to meet up with him, and the letters are never answered. I have heard this from other priests in other places and countries. I suppose that if a cheque were sent with the letter, the letter would still be ignored but the cheque would be banked – is this the Church of Christ?

Again, my objective is not to gripe against the institutional Church, but to offer something of a response in the howling and deafening silence these men live in. I can’t incardinate them or give them a parish (I do not have such authority in any Church), but I can encourage some kind of movement of solidarity and encouragement for these men to live out their vocation in whatever way they can. Perhaps some of these priests can become Anglicans, and many do, as Anglicanism is tolerant of a Roman Catholic liturgical and cultural expression. Also, Anglicanism is more accustomed to what it calls the non-stipendiary ministry or what is known in France as the worker priest movement.

Many independent churches have had their origin with such priests, some of whom become so-called episcopi vagantes from others who have trodden almost the same path. I see the existence of a whole ecclesial underworld of modern Goliards. The official Churches could do something, as has been done before in history. As recently as the 1950′s, there was always an underworld of prêtres auxiliaires in the large cities of France like Paris, Marseilles and Lyons, of priests who for one reason or another fell short of the mark. Though they lived penitentially and in often appalling conditions of squalor and poverty, their priestly vocations were respected by allowing them to say Mass ‘privately’ in the parish church and help out in the sacristy, catechising the working class children and doing deacon and subdeacon at Sunday High Mass. All that no longer exists. Nowadays, it is all or nothing.

But the human suffering goes on long after sins and errors are repented of and expiated. Men languish unforgiven and unshriven, but they have found forgiveness with God. Seeking to do something where others don’t care is a vocation in itself…

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2 Responses to Goliards then and now

  1. Pingback: New Goliards – a blog for ‘homeless’ clergy | New Goliards

  2. Canon Charles H. Nalls says:

    Very well said, Father–very well said. Advent blessings to you and yours.

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