Monday, February 21, 2011

A Star Attraction

The Glasgow Empire Theatre was notorious and a source of fear for many British entertainers. Many artistes bombed. If you succeeded there, you were destined for higher things.

Not far from the site of the now demolished theatre is the Jesuit Church of St Aloysius Church recently featured on The Hermeneutic of Continuity ("Photos of St Aloysius Glasgow")

There were some similarities to the two venues.

One priest who lasted many years at St Aloysius and was one of the "star attractions" was Father Alexander Gits SJ (1887 - 1982)

He was born in York the son of a Belgian father and an Italian mother. He was educated at Mount St Mary`s College and entered the Society of Jesus in 1910. He was ordained priest in 1921.

Before going to Glasgow, he gave retreats and worked in parishes. He was superior of the Jesuit retreat house in Birmingham during the Second World War and then worked in St Helens and Sunderland.

He went to St Aloysius in 1949. He stayed there until his death aged 95

His obituary said:

"He was well-known to all the people of Cowcaddens, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, for his generosity. and universal kindness. He was a particular favourite with the children whom he used to entertain with his puppet-show both in the streets and in the classrooms of Garnetlhill Convent School.

He is remembered too for his years of dedicated service in the confessional of St Aloysius, where he gained a reputation among people and clergy as one of the most understanding and saintly priests in the city. Even in his nineties, he insisted on hearing confessions in the church every day, and the constant queues outside liis confessional were a tribute to a priest who truly served the people of Glasgow."

In the 1970s, he was a small thin stooped gnarled old man who walked with a stick. His Jesuit gown was never buttoned and flew round him as he made his way slowly up the steep hill from the Church to the priest`s house. He seemed to be always surrounded by children. Sweets (Candy) used to come flying out from his pocket. Anyone who was fortunate to come across Father Gits always came away impressed. There was something about him. He really was a living legend in the locality and beyond. Not many are given the reputation for saintliness while they are alive. But he was definitely one.

He said his Mass every morning in Latin in the Church at one of the side altars (He must have got an "Agatha Christie" dispensation). He was always surrounded by people especially children. There were always queues outside his confessional.

At his funeral Mass there were throngs

When you joined the (big) queue for his confessional, there was no fear or trepidation unlike in some other queues. It was quite remarkable. You were going to see Father Gits. At the end there was a short penance, a few kindly words, and if you were a child, from underneath the grille came a sweet and/or a holy picture. I don`t think the adults got a sweet. But I could be wrong.

In his eighties he still taught Religious Education. His favourite subject was the Lives of the Saints. It didn`t seem to go down with some others at the time imbued as they were with the exciting Spirit of Vatican II, A few were rather dismissive of him, supercilious even.

But he knew what he was doing and went on regardless. Most people knew he was the genuine article. He was what he taught. And what he taught was good.

When he was younger he penned many written works including pamphlets for the Catholic Truth Society.

His pamphlet on the Life and Canonisation of Saint Maria Goretti can be downloaded as a .pdf file here

The work is remarkably fresh, clear, concise and still worth reading. It is free of the "sugar" of some versions of the life of the virgin martyr. One point he emphasises about the beatification is "the special honour paid by the Holy Father to the child‟s mother. He emphasized over and over again both in his speeches and in the official documents that the heroic daughter was the glory of the mother‟s training."

This work by Father Gits has been taken to task by some women writers especially feminists. Professor Marina Warner on her major work on the Virgin Mary cited the work as an example of old fashioned Roman Catholic teaching.

If you google him on "Google Books" you can piece together a list of some of his works from the 1930s to the 1950s sadly most now out of print and probably out of fashion:

Training for Marriage: a book for Catholic parents (on Casti Conubii)
The Root Cause of the Leakage (on why People gradually leave the Church)
Opium for the People: sketches of real life
Purgatory and Extreme Unction
Escaping Purgatory
Parent, Priest and Teacher
Prenuptial Catechesis
Behind the Scenes: Experiences in the life of a Catholic priest
The Life of St Mungo or St Kentigern
A modern virgin martyr: Saint Maria Goretti
How to Instruct a Convert
Advance! [Contains an urgent plea for the Retreat Movement, and insists that every Catholic should, at some time, make a closed retreat}

A pastoral theologian far in advance of his times.

Interestingly Pope Benedict XVI’s weeklong Lenten retreat this year will be led by Discalced Carmelite Father Francois-Marie Lethel, an author and expert on “the theology of the saints.” The Carmelite’s topic is to be: “The light of Christ in the heart of the church: John Paul II and the theology of saints.” Father Gits would have been pleased.