It was one in the morning, and my headlights were cutting a tunnel of light above the road through the woods by the Whissonsett turn, when an image suddenly dropped right in front of me like a slide before the lamp of an old-fashioned projector.  It was a hare: not a young, sedentary, Dürer hare, but a full-grown, full-length creature with legs stretched out fore and aft, haring from the overhanging darkness on my left to the symmetrical nothingness on my right, and hanging for a fraction of a second in mid-air—a moment in which I had time to exult in his elegance and to fear for his safety, but not to move my foot from the accelerator to the brake.  I struck him full on.  A thud and a pitiful crunching of bones and he was behind me, his beauty as irrecoverably broken as if it had indeed been etched upon glass.

There has been a lot of death in my life recently.  I hit that hare on the way back from the third funeral I had attended in a month.  The first had been of an Anglican friend in his early 50’s, who had been laid to rest in the churchyard of his Norfolk village with the order of service set down in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.  As the coffin was brought into the perpendicular Gothic church, the parson read the appointed text: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”  An old friend delivered an affecting panegyric.  Another read the Lesson, from the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept.”  We sang Greatorex’s “Lift up your hearts!” upliftingly and heartily.  We followed the coffin on foot to the graveyard.  “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Al-mighty God in his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ . . . ”  After the committal, we walked the hundred yards to the reception in the village hall.  “That was a beautiful service,” said a little old lady to nobody in particular.  “Why can’t all funerals be as dignified as that?”

The answer, of course, is that most people think that they have to settle for services like the one I attended ten days later.  It was held in the Roman Catholic church I had known as a youngster.  From the outside, it is still the high, handsome Victorian Gothic building I remember; but the interior, inevitably, has been “re-ordered” to suit the drab sub-liturgical norms that were left like so much rubbish on the seashore after the storm tide of the Second Vatican Council.  Gone were the grand baldachino and altar rails; the focal point was no longer the tabernacle but a presidential throne.  The high altar had been ripped from its setting to make space for a freestanding stone table over which contemporary celebrants can grin at those gathered before them, and the first dozen rows of benches had been absurdly rearranged in a herringbone pattern that protested against the existence of the nave.  I sat as far away from the catafalque as was decent and put my head in my hands when a funeral director appeared and invited us all to move nearer the front, so that we could “feel more a part of the service.”  But there is no real escape in even the remotest corner of almost any Catholic church nowadays, for every ugly sound made in it is amplified and ubiquitized by the sine qua non of contemporary ecclesiastical furniture, the microphone.  Thus, nobody in the congregation missed one er . . . or ah . . . of the celebrant’s stumbling impromptu preamble, all ears were battered equally by the poetry-blind bathos of the spit-provoking “responsorial psalm,” and each of the nine “happitudes” in the Gospel was hammered into every head in the congregation with a percussively unblessèd thud.  The Mass was followed by a cremation.  Taped piano arrangements of 1930’s band music tinkled from loudspeakers as the curtains closed over the coffin that contained the mortal remains of an old friend’s father.  May he rest in peace.

That funeral was relentlessly, gratingly ugly; its texts, a crude, committee-created mishmash of clumsy mistranslations.  Yet under its ill-fitting mask of outmoded modernity lay a sacramental reality.  For all the poverty of their expression, its words expressed petitions that the Al-mighty take pity on an imperfect soul.  No such request is made in the more elegant service composed by the pointedly Protestant Cranmer, who preached the predestination of the elect, and for whom “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory” was “a fond thing vainly invented.”  Behind the timeless beauty of his 16th-century English lie only the echoes and resonances of the words themselves.  One could be forgiven for thinking that, in a world disintegrated by sin, beauty and truth have been sundered.  But not everywhere.  My last funeral used words that were, to my ears, far more beautiful than Cranmer’s, and its every outward sign reflected the graces it conveyed.

It was, of course, the traditional Roman Requiem Mass, which is still celebrated in some places as a consequence of the unshakable determination of a minority of Catholics.  One of them was Mary Neilson, who had devoted the last 30 years of her life to the fight for the survival of the old Latin liturgy in Scotland.  When she died last autumn, in her 90th year, she was buried, as her will requested, after a Solemn High Mass in the perfect little 15th-century church that had become the chapel of her old school, St. Leonard’s, in the ancient university city of St. Andrews.  The celebrant was an American, Fr. John Emerson, regional superior of the Society of St. Peter, the fraternity established, with papal approval, in 1988 to train priests in the traditional liturgy of the Roman Rite.  The Society now operates all over the world and has 50 students studying at its seminary in Denton, Nebraska, and 70 more in Wigratzbad, Germany.  The existence of such an officially sanctioned setup was unimaginable in the 1970’s, when just about the only authority exercised by the world’s weakened episcopate was directed at condemning anyone who said, attended, or even dared to ask for the Old Mass.  England and Wales enjoyed an indult that allowed for the occasional celebration of a cut-down version of the traditional liturgy, but no such concession was granted to Scotland.  There, as in so many places, the very worst kind of preconciliar clericalism was employed to impose the one remaining ecclesiastical orthodoxy: that Hell (if it should exist) would have to freeze over before a priest would ever again be allowed to say “Introibo” at the foot of the altar.  Unbowed by such bullying, Mary organized a Scottish branch of the international Latin Mass society, Una Voce.  She turned her Edinburgh house into a Mass center, served first by the priests of Archbishop Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X and then, after the Lefebvrist schism, by those of the Society of St. Peter—to which she left the property in her will.

Mary’s was thus a deservedly dignified funeral.  The Mass was celebrated with an ease that fused gesture, sound, and place with time and timelessness.  It was as things were, and as things ought to be.  It was, mind, followed by an extended moment of high comedy in which the car carrying the priest who was to bury her got separated from the rest of the cortege in traffic and then followed the wrong hearse for some miles before it was flagged down and pointed in the right direction.  There was laughter at Mary’s graveside, as well as sadness at her passing—but more than both, there was gratitude, for her efforts had done much to keep alive the ancient liturgy in Scotland during times when it would have been all too easy to have given up hope.

As the fruits of Mary’s efforts begin to grow, those of her opponents are rotting on the vine.  A month after her funeral, the last rites were nearly said over the only Catholic seminary left in Scotland.  With a handful of students occupying a building built for a hundred, the closure of Scotus College in Glasgow was the recommended outcome of a review by Scotland’s Catholic hierarchy, but, when decision time came round last November, the bishops couldn’t bring themselves to make the choice that would mark the end of the self-renewal of Scottish Catholicism.  It was a close-run thing: For months, the closure had been spoken of as a fait accompli.  Glasgow’s Scotus has only 16 students; the handful in the Pontifical Scots College in Rome and the Royal Scots College in Salamanca, Spain, bring the national total to 37.  Twenty years ago, there were 136; ten years ago, 79.  In five years’ time, it is estimated that there will be only 25.  Five years after that—well, draw the graph yourself.  Cast into the postconciliar cauldron of uncertainty, the modernized priesthood in Scot-land is evaporating as fast as it is everywhere else.

But the tide is on the turn.  As the four-decade fad for “animators of eucharistic communities” fades to nothing, the timeless call to the sacrificial priesthood is being heard again.  The few seminaries and monasteries in the world in which spirituality is built upon the traditional liturgy are overflowing with vocations.  Hatred for the Catholic heritage is no longer fashionable.  In April 2000, Bishop Mario Conti—a few months before being appointed archbishop of Glasgow and head of the Catholic Church in Scotland—celebrated the pre-Tridentine Sarum Rite of Mass to mark the 500th anniversary of King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen.  Ten years ago, such an act would have been unthinkable.