After-Mass coffee is the production of the most senior ladies of the parish. One ducks out shortly after Communion to put the kettle on, and once Mass has ended, two other ladies join her. The ladies are always the same, and they always preside in the same places: one lady on one side of the table with the teapot, and the other ladies on the opposite side spooning instant coffee into cups. There is always a plate of assorted biscuits at the far end of the table, and there is always a bowl for change.
The other parishioners do not hurry to the parish hall. Instead we finish our thanksgiving prayers and move silently outside to the parking lot, where cigarettes are set afire and greetings exchanged with those who really must dash today. Then we stroll into the parish hall and join the tea and coffee queue, which is generally in a bottleneck state. The tea pot seems to exert a gravitational pull that makes it difficult to move onto the plate of cookies or out to the nether regions of the hall. Usually Lily the Guide Dog prowls under the tea table and around the legs of parishioners, seeking what crumbs she might devour.
The empty tables beckon. Some parishioners claim a table as if by right and others hang back to greet others lingering by the table before deciding upon their seat. Parishioners of a particularly outgoing disposition keep eyes peeled for newcomers or parents of small children with no adults as yet with whom to converse. The most senior woman of the parish, who is over 90, is a great pal of the organist, and so they usually sit together. Families tend to sit with other families. Young men in tweed jackets tend to stand in groups with other young men in tweed jackets and wool sweaters and absorb into their midst any new young person who braves the coffee hour. I gravitate towards other women under 60. But there is also a lot of mingling, and our priest moves from table to table.
Catholics are a small minority in Scotland, rather more so in Edinburgh than in Glasgow. Our numbers are greatly increased by foreign students and workers from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, but all the same one can feel like a curiosity or the member of a troublesome sect whose old-fashioned views are out of step with the Scotland of Tomorrow. Therefore, it is a relief to go to the parish hall after Mass and freely share ideas, interests and news that are perhaps a little out of the common way. It is also a safe place for newcomers to Edinburgh to meet fellow Catholics, particularly Catholics who love the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
The Extraordinary Form of the Mass is sometimes critiqued for its lack of “community spirit,” and certainly there is never an invitation before Mass to turn to your neighbour and introduce yourself to him, and there is no protracted Sign of Peace. However, the devotional aura of the quiet liturgy unites worshippers in prayer, and for true affability, there is what I like to call “the Cup of Tea of Peace” in parishes like my own. Having shared a beautiful liturgy together, it is wonderful to have an opportunity to share thoughts about it and Catholic life in general over a cup of coffee or tea, either with long-term parishioners or new students or visitors to Edinburgh.
We know when the coffee hour is nearing its end, for the ladies begin to collect the cups and saucers. The most senior member of the parish has long since taken her tea towel from her handbag and headed for the kitchen. To suggest that she, being over 90, should just sit and relax would be an unthinkable solecism. Anyone who wants to serve can find an active way to do so at the Cup of Tea of Peace.