Those were the days. We were happy in the knowledge that we belonged to a Faith that claimed to be the one true Faith where there was no such thing as liturgical change. "I can categorically state" said Fr Barry, dipping his hand into a bowl of olives. "That there will never be laymen or women on the sanctuary" (apart from male altar servers, that is). And we believed him, certain that rubrics and doctrinal truths were just that.
Parish life in Hounslow and nearby Heston seemed pretty idyllic. In our parish, out of a combined total of circa 1,000 souls, only one couple were divorced; our lives centred around the church. Saturdays were church cleaning days for the girls whilst the boys served at either the 8am or 10am Masses and then ran chores for the housekeeper, a dear soul by the name of Miss McInernie.
Sundays offered a choice of Masses 8am, 10.30am and 12 noon (where the Irish navvies would gather at the back of the church in their navy blue Sunday suits, leaving before the Last Gospel because the pub opposite was open). And, in the afternoon, Sunday School followed by Rosary and Benediction.
Parish notices were read out before the homily and special attention was paid to donations in the collection plate. Weekly totals of the offerings were announced and special votes of thanks given to the three donors of the ten shilling note (50 pence) and the two donors of the one pound note and the donor of the five pound note (gasps of breath at this stage). The average weekly wage was less than five pounds so a donation of that size would be today's equivalent of more than five hundred pounds! There were no ten pound notes then.
The total number of altar servers was in the region of 30 plus and, at Christmas and Easter, the full number would turn out so that, at the sermon, the smaller boys had to sit in serried ranks on the altar steps; what a picture that must have painted. And, as today, the MC post and that of thurifer, went to the aged ones until a new curate arrived and began training up the eleven year olds. After a few weeks noses were well and truly put out of joint by a precocious eleven year old MC-ing at the Sunday High Mass.
A great sight was to watch these young boy MCs directing large groups of servers at the inclination of the head or a discreet movement of the hand, far better than their older counterparts who appeared to be as subtle as Rome policemen directing traffic.
Socially, we had all the usual groups Children of Mary, Legion of Mary, SVP, Knights of St Columba (and Squires), Cubs, Scouts and Guides and St Stephen's Guild. Every couple of months there would be a parish dance where Catholic girls would meet Catholic boys, inevitably resulting in a Catholic wedding a year or two later.
Young boys began serving on the altar at the age of five and were expected, at the age of seven, to be able to give the Latin responses of the whole Mass without the aid of a missal or a prompt of any kind. You stood beside Fr Steer in the Presbytery and solemnly worked your way through the Mass. If successful you were allowed to serve in what we called the "Right" position at Mass. This was the senior position for Low Masses. The server taking the "Left" position would have done so following a quick consultation process in the sacristy; all others knelt at the side altar steps.
Weddings were always popular amongst the altar boys as you stood a good chance of a small consideration in the form of half a crown (12.5 pennies) for your services. Requiem Masses were less popular due to the fact that mortuary refrigeration must have been pretty basic then and the custom was to receive the coffin sometimes two days in advance of the Mass. This meant that the church stank to high heaven by the time the Requiem was held.
It is quite hard to conjure up a list of what was bad about those times. Liberals would have you believe that we were swamped in a wave of lacy cottas and clerical repression but I would just call it a disciplined way of practising one's Faith. I can only think of one 'bad' practice and that was the overnight fast before receiving Holy Communion at Mass the next day. Masses were always punctuated by one or two people fainting as a result and creating noise and disturbance in so doing. When the three hour fast was brought in, all breathed a sigh of relief and the crashing of bodies in the pews came to a halt.
Change could happen and for the better
Taken with permision from Richard Collins: