The road not taken: Simon Callow on the allure of the priesthood – the smells, the bells, the Latin

From an early age I loved the ritual of Catholicism. I revelled in the symbolism and the mysteries.

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I was born and brought up a Catholic. We were not a notably pious family – more of the “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we confess” persuasion – but from an early age I loved the ritual: the vestments changing colour through the church year, the smells, the bells, above all the Latin, whose sound was the music of my young life. I revelled in the symbolism and the mysteries: transubstantiation – Christ magically embodied, after a murmured prayer, in a wafer ingested by the congregation at mass – and resurrection – the mangled, naked, dead and bloodied body of Jesus the man transfigured into a radiantly whole, beautiful, muscular, godlike Christ, wrapped only in a flowing loincloth and headed directly for his heavenly father.

When I was at prep school in Surrey, my fascination became obsession. At Benediction the host is confined in a little glass chamber at the centre of a golden monstrance surrounded with golden rays to be held up to the adoring congregation. After the service the monstrance is confined in a tabernacle. I found my thoughts returning again and again to it, and finally, one Wednesday afternoon, I bunked off games and headed for the chapel. Recklessly, I went up the steps to the altar, feverishly looking for the key to the tabernacle. I was determined to hold Christ in my hands.

One of the nuns who changed the flowers came in before I managed it and I fled, undetected, but my obsession was not over; it simply took a different form, and at my next school, in South Africa, I took to leading the prayers in the chapel on a Saturday night. My memory is of a reasonable turnout, as I improvised pieties and invoked saints. I was by now an altar server, intoxicated by involvement not only in the public ceremonial of Catholicism but in the life of the sacristy, donning my own server’s gear, closely watching the priest as, whispering secret prayers, he put on successively alb, surplice, chasuble, transforming from sober black-clad, biretta-wearing foot-soldier of the faith into divinely ordained, Christ-filled celebrant. 

I was not in the least pious, had no time at all for the catechism, regarded confession as an opportunity for imaginative elaboration of non-existent offences. But the charms of the Mass and Benediction led me to find the idea of joining the priesthood – of donning those vestments, chanting those secret phrases – increasingly attractive. There was no shortage of enticements. Priests were always hovering around my grammar school like vultures, looking for likely ordinands, painting a glorious picture of service to the Lord and the community, generally in some exotic location – Africa or China. I pored over the literature, heart pounding.

And then something happened to abruptly terminate these aspirations. Vatican II decreed that services should be held in the vernacular. And suddenly one was compelled to think about what one was saying, and for the first time the whole gory drama of guilt and reparation, of abject prostration before an all-demanding and implacable godhead, of now gushing, now cloying sentimentality towards the mother of Jesus, was revealed, in the paltry and impoverished English of the new liturgy. It was a view of human destiny to which I had no intention of subscribing. At that moment a light switched off that I have never sought to illuminate again. It was a narrow escape. How many, I wonder, a year or two before me, had been led to the priesthood similarly oblivious of what they were voluptuously chanting, and then found themselves trapped? 

This article is from our “Road not taken” series