Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad and the author of two books, Ceremony of Innocence and Seraphic Singles.

Dorothy has an MA in English literature from the University of Toronto, an M.Div./STB from Regis College and spent two years in doctoral studies in theology at Boston College.

Every so often I get together for coffee and conversation with my friend Catherine. I consider this a treat, especially as Cath is a good listener and doesn’t seem to mind when I go into 10-minute, caffeine-fuelled monologues. Of course, it helps that we agree on a lot, from politics to the collapse of morality after 1963. And it also helps that we normally avoid addressing the one topic on which we passionately disagree: whether or not Benedict XVI is or is not the earthly head of the Church on Earth. 

When I was a child in Toronto, there was tea and coffee after the 11:30 Mass. I remember chairs set up in the parish hall, and urns on long tables placed end to end. There were cookies and, on exciting occasions, baked goods for sale by the youth group or the Catholic Women’s League. And there were an awful lot of grown-ups. Certainly there were more grown-ups than there were kids my age. Thus, although I enjoyed seeing the same adult faces week after week, I did not appreciate after-Mass coffee as much as my parents seemed to do.

But being an adult myself now, I throw myself whole-heartedly into after-Mass coffee. I find its dynamics, rituals and potential for community building absolutely fascinating. I would no sooner miss after-Mass coffee than I would leave church before the organist’s postlude or forget to make my thanksgiving prayers. 

Catholics are encouraged to make regular confessions. Most Catholics — for most Catholics do not go to Mass — do not go to confession at all. But I believe many Catholics who go to Mass go to confession twice a year, during Advent and during Lent. The Council of Trent said that Catholics had to receive communion at least once a year, and this meant making sure you were in a fit state beforehand.   

The problem is that confession is difficult to do. It is not like visiting your therapist. You don’t go to the therapist to admit that you are a bad person, but so that she will tell you that you are a good person. Your therapist expects you to blame your mother for everything; your confessor expects you to blame you. 

The biggest challenge is the flour. It is difficult to bake traditional Canadian Christmas recipes in Edinburgh because British flour is so different from Canadian flour. Canadian flour is much higher in protein,  and the laws of chemistry seem to dictate that any Canadian recipe prepared with British flour will fail horribly. The same can be said of Polish recipes, and when a Polish friend taught me how to make pierogies last week, we sent another Polish friend on his bicycle to the Polish grocery store to buy us Polish flour.

Sadly there is no Canadian grocery store in Edinburgh, and so when it comes to Canadian baking, the only thing I can do is wait for a representative of my family to show up, stunned and jetlagged, with a big bag of economy all-purpose flour in her luggage. This year that was my eldest sister; last year it was my mother. My husband Mark and I had convinced my parents and my youngest brother and sister to spend their Christmas in sunny Scotland. Being in a hospitable mood, Scotland decided to have an epic blizzard before they arrived, and thus my family was treated to a familiar landscape. My sister, who had come from her job in Spain, was ebullient.

Living as I do across the Atlantic Ocean, I still manage to keep abreast of events in Toronto. The Internet is like a seashell, sighing in my ear.

The most recent news is that St. Michael’s Cathedral is altering the order of its famous music, provided since 1937 by St. Michael’s Choir School.

Just in time for the new English translation of the Mass, Ignatius Press has released an expanded edition of Alcuin Reid’s A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on the Liturgical Changes. This slender volume provides a fascinating look into the dismay that greeted the sweeping changes to the Roman rite between the start of the Second Vatican Council and 1971. It is also a postcard from a Catholic world where obedience to authority — of laypeople to priests, of priests to bishops, of bishops (suddenly) to experts — trumped almost every other consideration.

One of the sorrows in moving to a new country is that you leave your friends behind.

Although children and teens are often grief-stricken when this happens, they seem to find new friends relatively easily, thanks to the structures of school. It is not as easy to make new friends when you are over 35;  fellow adults seem to have their social lives worked out. They are usually busy with work and family responsibilities, and if they do have time for friends, these are usually workmates or those with whom they share memories of youth.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s about six weeks since my last Confession. And, listen, I find it hard to prepare for Confession.

I hate having to sit down and recall that I am not as good and prudent and kind as I prefer to believe I am. I find it unpleasant to mull over the times when I could have done better and didn’t. I find it difficult to put excruciatingly embarrassing memories of moral failure into words. It is much easier just to ignore all that until the last possible moment in Holy Week, you know? And, boy, was I freaked out when I showed up on Holy Saturday and you weren’t there!

My husband went to Poland as a teenager and bought a rosary from an old woman at the side of a road. He lost it recently and asked me to buy him a new one. So I found myself on a recent Friday evening in a crowded Warsaw church on Marszałkowska Street, in its tiny religious articles shop. Mass and Benediction had just ended, and people were in no rush to leave.

When I am in Toronto, I go to Mass at St. Vincent de Paul on Roncesvalles Avenue. Roncesvalles is at the heart of the Toronto Polish community, and Toronto Poles have dubbed it “Marszałkowska” after Warsaw’s main street. Thus, I was delighted to be on the original Marszałkowska, for paradoxically it reminded me of home. 

Checking the headlines of Catholic Internet media every day has its down side. The stories are often sad. Catholic journalists, paid and unpaid, professional or amateur, report everything that might be of interest to other Catholics, and thus not a week goes by in which some scandal, minor or major, is presented to the public worldwide. These scandals, I hasten to add, rarely have anything to do with the Gospel. These scandals, more often than not, detail sins of commission or omission committed by priests, bishops or other Catholic leaders. Not only do they disgust and depress Catholics, they erode our trust in God’s ministers and messengers.

Three cases in particular have troubled my thoughts in recent months. One, coming out of Australia, is so vile I dare not discuss it in a family newspaper. The others are merely distasteful and disappointing, so I will confine my thoughts to them.