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01 August 2014


Getting the goose

ONE of my oldest friends - my head chorister when I was a boy treble, in fact - now lives in the centre of Barcelona with his Catalan wife; and I spent a recent short break with them. I had been to Sagrada Família on a previous visit, and so decided that this time I had better visit the cathedral.

Barcelona Cathedral, in all manner of ways, is an exceedingly beautiful building. If you ignore the electric votive-stands, where you put in a coin to light up a plastic candle, and the gilt wood-and-plaster Baroque reredoses, there is some lovely stuff: medieval altarpieces; caskets high up the walls containing the bodies of local worthies, Winchester Cathedral-style; stone animals all over the exterior, including an enormous carved snail slithering his way up the central spire; and the magnificent quire, which once doubled up as the chapel of the local chapter of the knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece. But best of all are the geese.

The 13 geese of St Eulalia - one for each of the tortures inflicted on the child martyr - live in the 15th-century cloister, where they have their own well, and a modest goose-house. There they eat, drink, and sleep, and, when not doing that, waddle around their enclosure, honking obligingly at visitors. Why don't our cathedrals keep animals in their cloisters?

Slain with sword

ST EULALIA, it turns out, was martyred horribly by the Romans during the Diocletian persecution. Her 13 tortures included being crucified, having her breasts cut off, and being rolled down a hill in a barrel stuck with knives. When none of these succeeded in dispatching her, her tormentors finally cut off her head.

Another local Diocletian-era martyr, St Severus, met his end when his captors hammered large nails into his skull. In fact, the diocesan museum next to the cathedral is full of scenes of local saints being beaten, flayed alive, crucified upside-down, sawn into pieces, and generally going to their glory in the goriest ways possible.

In addition to St Eulalia's holy geese, the cathedral has, in a shrine set under the high altar, the bodyof the saint herself. It also has the body of St Raymond of Penyafort, the patron saint of canon lawyers; and that of St Olegarius, the12th-century reforming Bishop of Barcelona, who is described in the guidebook as having been "the best bishop in the history of the diocese". This seems a little harsh on all the others; but his body remains incorrupt; so who am I to argue?

In hoc signo vincit. . .

BACK in London, I have discovered that a vicar friend is involved in a battle of wills. The sign in his parish which reads "C of E Church" and should, by right, point to his church is frequently to be found pointing somewhere else.

The "somewhere else" is the parish church of the neighbouring parish. Now, the neighbouring parish church is, in fact, nearer the sign; but, as the sign is not in its parish, that is, surely, beside the point.

It seems to me a matter of justice that the parish boundary should be respected, and that the sign should point to the church of the parish in which it is located. My friend, then, has taken to keeping an eye on the sign as he pads his parish each day. When he finds it pointing away from his church, being just able to reach it, he moves it back. And then, under the cover of darkness, someone comes and moves it back again.

The problem is that it is not at all clear who is doing the moving back. It may be a diminutive churchwarden, using a set of library steps; it may be a tall parish handyman, under instructions from his clerical overlord; or it may be two altar boys, one on the other's shoulders. Personally, I suspect the neighbouring vicar himself, but it's just a hunch. The battle continues.

Cream of the crop

ONE of the things that I miss most from student days is being able to sing good-quality choral music frequently and regularly; so I was only too glad to accept an invitation to join a friend's choir for the day, and sing evensong on the eve of the feast of St Mary Magdalen at one of our great cathedrals.

I have long accepted that most cathedrals' "house style" is eclectic, and this one proved to be no different. It seemed odd - if not a little impolite - not to be reminded to pray for the bishop of the diocese in his own cathedral church,before being launched into intercession for a bevy of other clergyin the various cycles of prayer which were used; but, presumably, his Lordship is upheld in other ways and at other times in the community's daily life.

We were welcomed warmly by the Canon-in-Residence, and people were very appreciative of our efforts as we sang the praises of God for the great "apostle to the apostles".

Nothing, however, had prepared me for the vestry prayer afterwards, which turned the quire aisle into Heresy Corner. The Canon who dismissed us seemed to think that the Magdalen was not, in fact, already enjoying the beatific vision of her risen Lord in the courts of heaven, and so prayed that she, with all the faithful departed, might "rest in peace and rise in glory".

I must confess that, as I continue to labour under the impression that those whom the Church believes to be already in heaven have no need of our prayers, this was something of a surprise. Perhaps the cathedral's various celebrations of the eucharist the next day were of Requiem. I hope not.


Dr Serenhedd James is Visiting Tutor in Ecclesiastical History at St Stephen's House, Oxford.

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