Tuesday, 26 July 2011

500 (c)

It needs saying again: Irish Christianity/Catholicism is not, and never has been, like that of any other nation. Its roots do not lie really within the Roman Empire, but has other influences, many entirely its own.

It has long been suggested, with a pretty fair degree of certainty, that there are strong links with Egyptian monasticism. This makes enormous sense to me, and explains so much. It explains the strong penitential tradition, for instance, and it also explains the unliturgical expression of the faith.

When St Anthony the Abbot walled himself up in the old fort at Pispir for twenty years, has it never occurred to anyone that he must have gone those twenty years without once receiving Holy Communion or even attending Mass? Those early monastic communities expressed their faith in extreme asceticism, in the recitation of the psalms. They were not coenobitic monks, but hermits or at least ideorhythmic monks, and this is the idea that they took to the far coast of Ireland.

St Patrick was educated as a child but abducted before that education was complete; he never went on to study philosophy, and so Irish Christianity developed its own outlook on the world; free of that platonic distrust of lowly matter it embraced the material world and loved it as God's (albeit fallen) creation.

Ireland never really developed that Imperial system of dioceses and bishops; many think that Ireland never even had a secular clergy until the coming of the Normans. There were simply monks, and there were lay folk. Enormous monasteries might have had one priest to do the sacramental things: it is not impossible that this one priest may even have been in Episcopal orders; at any rate, the bishops were monks living under the authority of the abbot. When Columbanus set up a monastery in Gaul, the local bishops were spitting feathers because of his amused disregard of their authority; he clearly saw his own authority as greater than theirs.

And then there's the liturgy. Have you ever looked at any of the most ancient Irish monastic sites? There are churches, but it would be more accurate to call them tiny little chapels. For the most part, these buildings could have just about accommodated an altar, a priest and a server. Where did the laity go? Where, even, did the monks go? In those early days, did they go to Mass much at all?

With the coming of the Normans, churches got a bit larger, but not much. An Irish Cathedral (outside Dublin anyway, or the Pale) was a small affair. And for the most parts, the Anglo-Normans assimilated to the Irish culture rather than the other way about.

So, if not in the parish church, where was the locus or perhaps focus, of the faith of the Irish? Well, for one thing, it was in the home. Like that of the monks, even the Irish laity's spirituality was ideorhythmic; rosary, holy wells, saints, pilgrimages, penances (Lough Derg, Croagh Patrick), and enthusiastic going to funerals, even those of strangers. They learnt to go to Mass, surely, and developed a love for the sacraments, but an Irish congregation at Mass is a very different thing to a congregation in any other land. They pray, fervently, at Mass, but I do not think, in general, and surely there must be exceptions, that they could be said to pray the Mass itself, even now. The Mass is something that is done in their presence, but even now any idea of direct communal participation is foreign. The responses are muttered by each person at his own speed, the Creed or Gloria being a sort of subterranean murmur that begins, and vaguely ends. People stand, kneel, sit, more or less at random. Mass is rarely more than Low Mass, celebrated quickly. 'High Mass' is a low Mass with a choir singing hymns; it's a very rare parish where the congregation would join in.

Foreign visitors are often shocked at this. But it would be a profound mistake to read into it—as far too many do—that the Irish are entirely unserious about their religion. That is absolutely not the case; it is just that the accent is (very) different to most other places.

And it is not without its advantages; for the Reformation to (largely) succeed in England, it was necessary only to change the liturgy. For English Catholics, 'it is the Mass that matters', and to deprive them of the Mass was to deprive them of the faith. For the Irish it worked differently. The churches were all taken, the liturgy changed, as in England, but people still carried on much as before. Their faith had enough sustenance coming from where it has always come: they continued to go to holy wells, say the rosary, go on pilgrimages, and, when they could, attend Mass at a Mass rock. They educated their children in the home or in hedge schools, just as they had done for generations.

The religion did not depend on the priest: in some ways, one might say that the priest was more of a political figure; a sort of alternative jurisdiction in an occupied country. I'll say more about this in another post.

Suffice it to say that Irish Catholicism has it in itself to survive this present crisis. But for something like a hundred and fifty years people have been badgering the Irish Catholics to adopt the Liturgical Movement. In the last forty years, all the things that have kept them going through the ages have been decried. I was at St Kieran's Well in Co Meath a few weeks ago; my elderly aunt commented sadly to me that when she was young, there were always crowds of people there; on that day it was only she and I. To some extent, the Irish themselves have been keen to abandon all this. For centuries this stuff has been dismissed as 'peasant religion', fit only for uneducated people, and if there is anything true, it is that the Irish value education. That charge, though, would be a telling one, particularly as there are aspects of this 'folk religion' which really do tend to the superstitious.

I have a lot more to say on this, but I'll leave it till the next post.


Mairead said...

Jesuit in our church last St Patrick's day told us St Patrick went to study under St Germanus on an island in the river Yonne below Auxerre.I thought this sounded cool.

Mairead said...

Jesuit in our church told us last St Patrick's Day that St P. had studied under Germanus on an island in the river Yonne below Auxerre. I thought this was cool. Why were we only ever taught about Slemish and the pigs.

Pastor in Monte said...

St Patrick studied for the priesthood in Gaul, yes; this was, of course, after his escape.

Rubricarius said...

A very interesting analysis.

Where does Maynooth fit into the overall scheme of things? I was struck that some of the early nineteenth century Deans there were highly liturgical - indeed one of O'Loan's books on Pontificalia is the most detailed I know of written by someone who both clearly knew his theory and practical liturgy.

GOR said...

"There are churches, but it would be more accurate to call them tiny little chapels."

Interesting point, Father. I recall as children we never referred to the parish church as 'the church'. It was always 'the chapel' - appropriately located on Chapel Street. It was a large Gothic structure built to accommodate 1,600 people, but could hold over 2000 at a pinch. But it was still called 'the chapel'. Similarly we never spoke about 'going to church' on Sundays. It was always 'going to Mass'. Protestants went to church - we went to Mass!

I think you're on to something also as to where the basis of the Faith was located traditionally - i.e. in the family. In a recent video from Dublin, Michael Voris interviewed people in the street about Mass attendance. To the few who admitted going to Mass on a regular or semi-regular basis, Voris asked why they went. The answers were revealing: "My parents make me go" "I go with my grandma. It makes her happy" "I only go because my parents go", etc.

While necessary for Mass and the Sacraments, the priest was not really that important in terms of maintaining the Faith for many people years ago. Priests came and went in my parish (with a PP and 5 - 6 Curates back then). Mass was in Latin and people had their Missals, Prayer books or Rosaries in hand during it. If there were hymns, there was a choir to take care of that - not my concern. Priests were distinguished by two things - the length of the daily low Mass (fast = good, slow = bad) and the length of the sermon (short = good, long = bad).

Devotions outside of Mass were plentiful - Rosary and Benediction, Stations of the Cross, Holy Hours. We had a Men's Confraternity and a Women's Confraternity. There was the annual 'Mission' given by priests of a religious Order - Passionists, Dominicans, Franciscans, etc. In addition there would be an annual Retreat - one for men and one for women - in a nearby house of religious. The year was marked out by these observances, not to mention pilgrimages to Croagh Patrick, Lough Derg, Knock and some local Holy Wells. With increased prosperity, Lourdes, Fatima, Rome and Lisieux would be added.

However, in the past 50 years things have changed. The family is not the bedrock of the Faith it used to be. Prosperity and secularism have taken their toll. Many of the young people of today don't have the basic convictions about the Faith that their parents and grandparents had and maintained through thick and thin - either with the help of the clergy or in spite of them! Failures of the clergy we have always had, though less well-known than today, but our Faith was not tied to individuals. Restoration of the faith life of the family is, I believe, the bigger challenge today. And it is being met in places in Ireland - but it has a long way to go.

Pastor in Monte said...

I've added a link to you, as I see you've finally added one to here. I'd be grateful, though, if you would make any comments you post here actually ad rem and not just gratuitous self-advertisement! When you have something relevant to say, I'd be glad to read it and post it up.

Sir Watkin said...

The sort of "folk Catholicism" that you describe sounds very similar to that which persisted in Wales amongst the mass of the population, until displaced (ironically) by Calvinistic Methodism (and other forms of protestant nonconformity) from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards.

shane said...

It is a myth that the Irish Church held out against the Liturgical Movement. I fear too many people have uncritically accepted the narrative of events presented in Thomas Day's Why Catholics Can't Sing. The defining event of the Irish Church in the 19th century was the Synod of Thurles (the first national synod since the 12th century). It dealt with correcting penal practice and reforming Church discipline and liturgy, including music. For instance, Decree No. 38 of the Synod prescribes that "no singing is to be carried out in the churches unless it is solemn and Ecclesiastical in nature. The Rectors in seminaries must ensure as a primary responsibility that their students are well instructed in chant so that they may properly learn the sacred ceremonies." Decree No 39 specifies that only Latin is to be sung in Solemn Masses and "neither is anything to be found outside of Mass in churches unless it is contained in the approved Ecclesiastical books".

Church Music throughout Europe was at a low ebb generally at the beginning of the 19th century but the Liturgical Movement of Dom Guéranger was far from having passed Ireland by. The Maynooth historian Prof. James MacCaffrey identified some significant factors in the reform of Church Music in Ireland: the foundation of the Irish Society of St Cecilia and its monthly journal Lyra Ecclesiastica (1878), the endowment of a choir at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin to be trained in plain chant and classical polyphony, and also the work by the Commissioners of National Education in promoting Sacred Music in the primary and secondary schools. I would highly recommend Keiran Daly's scholarly book on Catholic Church Music in Ireland, 1878-1903 published by Four Courts Press. Maynooth Seminary (which has had a special chair of Sacred Music since 1888) always maintained a high standard in liturgy and music.

The 'second stage' of the Liturgical Movement (that of Bouyer, Jungmann, Bugnini) was promoted in Ireland by 'The Furrow' (founded in 1950) and by the Irish Liturgical Congresses (founded in 1954) held at Glenstal Abbey. (The papers of each year's Congress were published in The Furrow)

shane said...

For an interesting take on the state of Irish congregational participation on the eve of the Council, see (then auxiliary bishop of Armagh) William Conway's speech to the eighth Irish Liturgical Congress in 1961 (Conway, William. "The Mass and the People in Irish Parishes." The Furrow 12.9 (1961): 519-530).

Pastor in Monte said...

There are always exceptions, and a seminary would naturally be one of those. Also, I'm not writing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries exclusively, but of the entire sweep. Generalizations are, of their nature, general!

Pastor in Monte said...

And the same answer would be true for you, Shane. Thanks for the information, but one can't argue from the particular to the general.
Naturally there have been all sorts of efforts to encourage liturgy in Ireland, but they haven't really achieved a great deal as far as the average parish is concerned.

Anonymous said...

This is so interesting to read, Fr. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

1569 Rising said...


I remember being rather shocked at one facet of Irish Catholicism which I witnessed on many occasions in the 1980's. This particular phenomenon seemed to be usual in, or rather outside, churches in Armagh, Roscommon, Waterford, Cork, Galway, Belfast and Dublin.

The practice seemed to involve the men of the parish standing outside church chatting, reading the papers, smokeing etc until the Offertory, then going inside to join the women until the Communion, when they would all depart and resume their socialising outside.

Doesn't say much for the depth of commitment to the Faith, does it?
But, there again, I'm an English Catholic.

Pastor in Monte said...

You are writing of a situation in which 95%+ of the inhabitants of a town would be present (at least to some degree) at Mass. It seems strange, from an English perspective of a far lower rate of practice, to cavil at the back-wall-boys. Are you suggesting that had they been English they would be in the front pew participating enthusiastically?
In the first draft of this post I put in a mention of these men, but then removed it, because you don't see them any more. The practice rate has fallen even in Ireland, and so the back wall boys can stay at home nursing their hangovers without making the church look untidy.

Robert said...

Is Ireland divorcing from the Catholic Church?


Marie said...

This is exactly what happens in rural Sicily. (personally known)
Would your readers approve of the popular piety here?
You cannot doubt the enthusiasm and marvel at the numbers:

Spirito Santo di Gangi


Cc. Father Ray Blake

. said...

Fr, it's always nice to know that someone else remembers the Egyptian church! Isn't there a legend of seven Egyptian monks going to Ireland? And come to think of it, didn't they recently find fragments of papyrus inside an old Irish liturgical book?

I think the link is interesting, particularly in the remote locations chosen for monasticism. And of course, the Desert Fathers seem to have had little time for bishops.

"They pray, fervently, at Mass, but I do not think, in general, and surely there must be exceptions, that they could be said to pray the Mass itself, even now."
Hence, perhaps, the Anglo-Irish "trad" obsession with the Low Mass, and dislike of the Solemn High Mass?

1569 Rising, interesting, but not necessarily indicative of weak faith - if you've ever been to an Eastern Rite liturgy, the faithful wander in for 10 minutes at a time, before leaving again for a bit, before going back in again... nihil novi sub soli!

And perhaps less seriously, but if the Mass could take place in, eg, York Minster, where a wall effectively separates the clergy from the congregation, so that they're in separate rooms, why could the men not still be attending the Mass while sitting outside? And if they're chatting - well, in the Old Rite, most of the congregation inside would be praying private devotions while the Mass went on at the altar, not engaged with the Eucharistic sacrifice at all apart from the occasional responses.

All right, so the men weren't praying, but were they really any less involved in the Mass than the old lady sitting facing a statue of the Virgin and praying the rosary?.

John said...

The chapel-vs-church question is an interesting one. It's in part something of a holdover from the early legal status of the various churches in Ireland. The Church of Ireland was at one time the only legal "church" in Ireland. Going to church meant Church of Ireland. Everybody else - Catholics, Presbyterians, or what have you - only had chapels, whatever their size.

If I can veer even further off topic for a sentence or two, it's kind of interesting that prior to disestablishment Presbyterians, Baptists, and so forth were not legally Protestants as the only Protestant church was the CofI.

Fr John Abberton said...

As an English priest with Irish forbears I have to say that I am confused about Irish Catholicism, but I very much appreciate your post and the discussion.

There is much here that needs careful thought, and we can apply some of the questions to other places. I think you have made some excellent points about the Normans, and there are things to be said in that connection about Church architecture.

On the other hand we must be careful about canonizing the past in any way. The Eucharist is the most powerful and greatest thing on earth and it is surely right that the Catholic Mass developed as it did. This being said we surely have problems now regarding the celebration of the Liturgy - just about everywhere except where there are Greek Catholics. The Byzantine Rite has kept its grandeur and its reverence. So much that has passed for Liturgy in the Latin Rite over the last 30 years or so has been very poor by comparison. With all that, I nevertheless think there is a greatness in the Irish spirituality and in the piety of the people that will purify the Church there. The good people of Ireland are still incomparable and, Mass or no Mass, they have and will keep the faith.

epsilon said...

Mary Kenny is right - especially her final paragraph - thanks for the link Robert

I'm in Cork now and determined to get in to the part ii of fota iv on this friday 29th july even though the only thing posted up in the entrance to st peter and pauls church is for a dinner that night at a cost of 40 euros.

The hatred directed towards the catholic church in Ireland is really a form of self hatred -there's no facing up to the fact that Irish society is in a mess

Francis said...


The Irish -- to a very large extent rightly -- are able to attribute their historical woes to outside agency: the Normans, the English, Cromwell, the Penal Laws, Churchill's partition, the Black and Tans, the British Army, Dr Paisley, etc. etc. etc.

The abuse scandals and the Euro bailout are the first major problems that the Irish can't easily blame on foreigners. But isn't it interesting how the reflex action is to blame outside agency and start railing at Brussels and the Holy See?

Conor said...

You write elsewhere:

" when the sacred Liturgy becomes something we look at rather than look through to heaven. An end in itself, rather than a means."


A post from you on the theatricality that does not encourage prayer would be very helpful.

Anonymous said...

These are excellent posts on Ireland and its religion. But, as an English reader, may I comment on some aspects of Irish society that seem irrefutable?

When the abuse of children is considered, it was Irish men and women who committed the abuse, whether clerical or religious. The majority of these people came from peasant backgrounds where abuse within the family was often endemic. It can safely be hazarded that the abusers were themselves abused. In desperately poor families sex was the only escape from a harsh reality, as a Passionist laybrother once told me when talking of North Dublin.

None of this had anything to do with the Vatican, yet the Vatican is senselessly being blamed for causing a national crisis. Ireland has a genius for finding scapegoats for its own ills. One commentator has pointed out that the recent anti-Catholic reaction is a form of self-hatred. I do not see how this can be refuted.

As for the illiturgical nature of Irish Catholic worship, surely this explains the low liturgical standards to be found throughout the western, English-speaking Catholic world sustained for a long time by Irish missionaries. The curse of the short Mass and sermon remains with us still. The Irish international influence on the Church is entirely disproportionate to the size of the Irish population, past and present.