I’d a lot of catching up to do in Dublin over the Christmas, not having been home from England since February, so it’s probably not surprising that my oldest friend and I sat up talking till past six in the morning when I went to visit him.
My friend’s father, who’d always been an important figure in my own life, had died during the year, and as we talked of him my friend spoke fondly of the sisters who’d looked after his father in his last months. He marvelled not merely at the care and devotion they’d shown him, but at the prayerful life in which their work was rooted. Recollecting the beauty of the hypnotic call and response of the Rosary, he said how we’d grown up taking such things for granted and had taken to dismissing it as superstitious nonsense.
‘If we saw that sort of thing in Tibet or somewhere like that,’ he said, ‘we’d think it was really cool.’
My friend says he’s but a cultural Catholic now, but it was with genuine regret that he added, ‘And it’ll all be lost soon. That generation’s dying out.’
I’m not sure he’s right. The Church in Ireland is bound to get smaller over the next decade or two, but even in the short time I was home I could see real signs of hope for the future.
I attended Mass several times over the holidays in my local parish Church, and was struck by the size of the congregation each time; sure, there are fewer Masses now than in my childhood, but even allowing for that it didn’t take much more than a couple of simple sums to establish that rather more people go to Mass on a typical Sunday in my home parish alone than have become paid-up members of Atheist Ireland.
If the days of lots of people standing along the side aisles are long gone, so too are the days of lots of people chatting in the porch, heedless of what was being read from the ambo or taking place at the altar. In the main, if people are going to Mass nowadays it’s because they want to be there; this was borne out even last Sunday by an uncharacteristically real, if uneven, attempt by the congregation to sing their parts when called to do so, and to engage fully with the improved translation.
That’s not to say that everybody got the new words right every time, but that’s to be expected. Old habits die hard, and we’ve only been using the newly-translated responses for four months; four decades after the Ordinary Form of the Mass was introduced by Paul VI there are no shortage of people who still respond to ‘Lift up your hearts’ with the long-supplanted ‘We raise them up to the Lord.’
Though the congregation tended towards the middle-aged, it wasn’t bereft of younger people; indeed, last Sunday saw a young man who can’t have been more than twenty years old reading at Mass and another commissioned as a new extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, while among the other ministers present at the time was a young mother holding an eight-month-old baby.
A visit to the Dominican Priory in Dublin’s city centre bolstered my belief that the Irish Church may yet have a bright future. An erstwhile student of mine is in formation there, and at his invitation I joined him and his brothers for midday prayer and for a fascinating and highly entertaining lunch.
Whilst praying with the community, drawn into the same beautiful rhythms that had been prayed before me by St Thomas Aquinas, St Catherine of Siena, St Martin de Porres, and so many more, I was struck by the timelessness of the Dominican tradition and by the youthfulness of the Dublin community. With twenty friars in formation at the moment, more than there have been in many years, it’s clear that the Dominicans will play a dynamic and vital part in shaping the Irish Church of the future.
In truth, just listening to my friend speak in the early hours of that December morning, it seemed that even in his own family green shoots were breaking through the frost.
His siblings in America were adamant that their children should go to Catholic schools, he said, because Catholic education ‘grounds them in reality’. Regardless of his own doubts about God, he said he agreed with them, and wanted his own children to experience the opportunities and the grounding in reality that he felt only a Catholic education could offer them.
After decades of bad catechesis of home, such that most of us hardly know our faith, it says something when those who’ve lost their faith still feel there’s something of value in the faith they themselves have lost.
-- from The Irish Catholic, 19 January 2012