A Bishop for Boys

Today we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the dedication of our chapel. We have a special devotion to the Immaculate Conception at Chavagnes, and invoke our Lady's protection particularly under that title.

But I'd like to tell you today about something we do each year on 6th December, St Nicholas' Day ...

The tradition of the boy bishop - elected each year on the 6th of December, from among the choristers of Cathedrals, Colleges and large parish churches - is an English custom dating back to the 12th century, abolished by Henry VII in 1542 as superstitious and vain, but briefly revived under Mary in time for her first Christmas on the throne in December 1553. Present also in Scotland, France and the Low Countries, it was in England that the custom was most universally and solemnly observed. Continental references tend to refer to abuses (such as servers throwing a bucket of water over the young prince of the church during the Magnificat instead of incensing him.) There is none of this on the civilised side of the Channel: anything to do with children and Christmas is taken very seriously by Englishmen and always has been.

The boy chosen for this honour was not actually consecrated a bishop, but acted as one throughout much of the Christmas season. The real bishop would symbolically stand down in the Magnificat at deposuit potentes de sede (He puts down the mighty from their thrones). Then the 'boy bishop' would ascend the throne at et exaltavit humiles. Apart from the celebration of Mass and the important Vespers and Lauds of Christmas itself, the boy would officiate at many services and make decrees as to the obligations of the other choristers (usually, extra food, less work, etc.)

It was a popular custom. Eton College elected two boy bishops each year, and all the Cathedrals had them. The boy's reign would end on Holy Innocent's Day, after he had preached a sermon at Mass. The sermon, in exquisite Latin, would normally be written for him by a priest. Afterwards, as the boy bishop relinquished office, his fellow scholars would give him a penny as a Christmas offering.

At Chavagnes, our boy bishop reigns for about seven hours on the Feast of St Nicholas, patron of children, and especially of choirboys. One day is quite enough topsy-turvydom for a modern school to take. A boy treble, about twelve years old, is chosen from the choir. The mitre, cope and other episcopal vestments are laid out on a special altar at the back of the Chapel, where, kneeling on prie-dieu, the youngster is ceremonially vested, kissing his pectoral cross and stole before they are laid upon him. Our chaplain prays for the bishop of our diocese and for all the bishops, and then he prays especially for the chosen boy, asking God to bless him and help him to give honour to God and to the sacred episcopate by the tradition which he is about to enact. The boy then processes to the sanctuary, followed by his young chaplains, to trumpet blasts from the organ, and then presides at Pontifical Vespers. Afterwards his junior Lordship receives the customary reverences from pupils and visitors. All the Masters and boys genuflect and kiss his ring, asking his blessing.

Although the symbolic reign only lasts a day, the boy always makes good use of it. Having discharged his liturgical duties, he presides at dinner, where he pronounces the blessing and grace. It has become customary for the puerile prelate to decree a later bedtime and a film evening for all pupils, while the suitably humiliated Chaplain and Masters clean the tables and sweep the floor.

Perhaps some readers will be thinking that such practices are best left to our extravagant Catholic past, but it seems to me that in this centuries-old sacred game we learn not just about the sanctity of the episcopate and the fragility of human rank, but also (lest the Masters should forget it) the need to show respect to children.

And if one needed to pick just one special day out of the Advent and Christmas season for this kind of thorough-going medievalism, St Nicholas Day (6th December) would have to win hands down. In 11th century Europe the popular new liturgy of St Nicholas gained ground in monasteries and cathedrals everywhere, except in one community where the conservative Prior would not tolerate novelties. When the Prior retired to bed one evening in early December our Saint appeared to him in a terrible rage, dragged him out of his bed by the hair and threw him to the floor. Beginning the anthem, “O pastor aeterne,” and with each new phrase administering a new crack of the discipline, he taught the stubborn cleric to sing the whole liturgy from beginning to end. At last, restored by divine compassion and the intervention of the blessed Nicholas, he confessed to his brethren: “Observe, my dearest sons, that after I refused you I underwent severest punishment for my hardness of heart. Now, as long as I live I will be the first and most skilful chanter of the historia of that great father.”

The martyrology tells us that St Nicholas was born in what we now call Turkey in the third century AD. His wealthy parents died of the plague, leaving him a large fortune which he gave away to the poor. He became Bishop of the port town of Myra and performed numerous miracles, notably saving some young sisters from being sold into prostitution by their father. He did this by pouring gold coins down the chimney (hence Father Christmas). He also found time to raise three little boys from the dead: they had been murdered in time of famine, cut up into pieces and pickled in barrels ready to eat by an enterprising old lady. St Nicholas’ skill at putting them back together again won him the definitive role of protector of children and especially of boys.

The fact that such legends and traditions so patently capture the imagination of the young is a strong argument for their revival and preservation.

Here is a record of this year’s festivities at Chavagnes. Sorry about the shaky camera (not me.)


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