A message from Father Nick 95

The Christmas card pictured above will be recognised at once by parishioners of St Mary’s Catholic church in Monmouth. This is our cherub window, seen in reverse and painted beautifully from the garden next door by our nearest neighbour. It gives a glimpse of timelessness at the end of 2021 (the year still marked on our paschal candle – a new candle of course will be blessed at this year’s Easter celebration).

In fact, around its core of timelessness, our little church keeps a reminder of particular years when things happened for us while the world was busy with more newsworthy events. On the outside gate a blue plaque explains that 1793 was the year when the first part of our church was built, concealed behind a screen of cottages which were later removed. In this same year George Washington laid a foundation stone for the United States Capitol building. More ominously, this was the year when the French revolutionary “Terror” began: the year when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined.

One of our relics, the portable “Kemble” altar gives the date of St John Kemble’s martyrdom as 22nd August 1678 (it was actually 1679, when the philosopher Thomas Hobbes also died). Our wooden confessional, presented by the Monmouthshire militia, has the year 1875 inscribed on its side (the same year St John Henry Newman wrote to Fr Thomas Abbott, then parish priest of Monmouth, a letter which we treasure in our records). At the entrance to our baptistry is the date 1888, reminding us that the Militia also provided us with our font. This was the year when Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear and the Whitechapel murders began.

But one of our most interesting dates only appeared when work on the bell tower caused us to temporarily remove the bell. We could see then that it had been cast in 1870, the year when papal infallibility was defined. This happened at the Church’s First Vatican Council and was obviously an event of universal significance. Of course, it did not mean that the pope had just become infallible. Rather, in a time of major change and upheaval, it recognised a security already present.

And yet, the definition was controversial because it could so easily be misunderstood. St John Henry Newman, for example, was one of those who thought it “inopportune” in the circumstances. By contrast, a group of other English people fervently promoted it (Cardinal Manning, Monsignor Talbot and W G Ward). Their enthusiasm was hugely influential.

It is worth noting that papal infallibility was defined in a council of bishops; that the Church’s own infallibility was already accepted; and that the meaning of the term was carefully delimited. The definition says:

“The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of Pastor and Doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, by the divine assistance promised him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of the infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed…”

As the definition was agreed, a thunderstorm rolled around St Peter’s, adding extra drama to the scene. But the Council was affected by the war over Italian unification and had to be cut short. When Pope John XXIII summoned a Second Vatican Council (1962-65), he very much wished to add a fuller reflection on the Church and its bishops. His hope remains a work in progress.