As for Ireland; well, everyone I knew told me constantly how much the place had changed, but I didn't find it so, at least on the surface. I like Ireland; no, actually, I love Ireland. I feel completely at home there. People look like me and behave like me. For instance: I like looking at people, because I find them interesting. In England, if someone catches me looking at them, I have to pull my eyes away and pretend that I am finding the wall behind them fascinating, in case I get hit, or arrested. In Ireland, they look right back, or else they've got the look in first. And there is no hostility in the gaze, just curiosity like my own.
And then there's children and young people. The teenagers going to school don't, on the whole, have that sullen look so many of them have here. At least, where I was, in Kells, Co Meath. They look intelligent and friendly; the schoolgirls dress neatly and modestly, and though the boys seem addicted to adidas sportswear, they don't seem to have the need to show their underwear at the same time.
The down side is that the lapsation is awful. I chatted to Martin, the parish secretary at Kells, whom I have known for years, and he tells me that marriages and baptisms are relatively rare events now. Mind you, I could see this coming years ago; religion in Ireland has, to a greater or lesser extent, in my view been confined to the obligation of Sunday Mass-going for several decades, both for priests and people, and it is not surprising that this sparse diet should have resulted in spiritual starvation (more below). Sermons were more often than not perfunctory: I was once chided by a brother priest for taking as long as a half hour to celebrate a Sunday Mass (including homily and communions). 'J....s! What kept you?' he said, as I trotted off the sanctuary, breathless. In fact, I had been well aware of what was expected of me, and, having sprinted as fast as I could, I thought that I had done 'well' to keep it under 40 minutes—and I am no slowcoach, as my parishioners will tell you.
I remember as a teenager standing on the road outside the 'Chapel' in Kells (it can seat well over a thousand; I counted the seats yesterday morning) and watching people literally flood down the streets towards Sunday Mass; the church is so large it didn't require more than four Sunday Masses, (all on Sunday morning) there being four priests in the parish, plus one Mass at an outstation. This doesn't happen now. There are only two (friendly) priests, and though there are still four Masses (one on Saturday evening), there are lots of spaces on the pews, several rows of which have been removed to create a new sanctuary on the nave floor.Here's a pic I took with my phone:
But thinking back to then, in the late seventies; people were still arriving by the Gospel and began leaving at Communion. Not by ones and twos, but streaming in and out. At the time, I thought it kind of cute that runners would cross to the Headfort Arms and tell the barman that the priest was at Communion; he would begin pouring the Guinnesses (and, as I'm sure you know, it takes several minutes to pour a good pint) for the stream of people who would shortly invade. Now I think it a sad presage of what was to come; a sign of the indifference that was in many cases to mutate into hostility.
Part of the responsibility, not just in Ireland, but throughout the developed world, has to be borne by the Liturgical Movement. There had been a real and active devotional life among the people, but this was despised by many, who, for perfectly understandable reasons, wanted people to be involved in the Liturgy. In many ways this was admirable; the Office had become a feature in parishes in France—at least Sunday Vespers—but it also had the result which we still see that most priests stopped participating in other, unliturgical, devotions, like the Rosary, Benediction, novenas, which until the 1950s still attracted popular support. So, in the English-speaking world, people then began to stop the popular devotions, but they did not begin to support the more austere Office. So that went, too. The sixties brought social action instead of prayer, leaving Mass the sole devotion of the Catholic faithful.
Don't get me wrong: it is, of course, the Mass that matters above everything else. But if it is not supported by a Christian life beyond it, if it is the sole religious element of a Christian's week, if the only Communions made are (in some cases) sacrilegious because made in mortal sin, then the practice of the faith will soon be seen as a sad burden and be done away with.
I suspect that many Irish pastors, like many here in England and elsewhere, simply lost touch with how to move their people. I do not exempt myself, either, from this charge. Our age is a very sensual one, and the Office has to be done very well indeed to become sensual. The Eastern rites manage it, of course, and there is a real beauty in Choral Evensong when it is well done. Vespers at the London Oratory can be truly wonderful, but we have not succeeded in making the offices, liturgical prayer, a part of the real diet of Catholics in ordinary parishes.
Where do we go from here? I don't know.