“Ego sum lux mundi,” read the ancient words of Christ engraved in the weathered, grey stone above the high altar of St. Colman’s church in the quiet country parish of Ballindaggin, County Wexford, Ireland. “I am the light of the world.”
I was there to pay my respects for a deceased relative of a nun with whom I had become quite close over the last year. Following traditional Irish funeral observances, it seemed like the inhabitants of the entire village had packed the church for the customary removal service. These traditional Catholic prayers recited at the church in the evenings before funerals are about as ingrained in the Irish consciousness as their love for piping hot tea, spuds, the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), and commiserating about the weather. We were there to pray fervently for the commendation of this dearly departed soul to heaven, that she would in turn pray unceasingly for us from there with the eternal communion of saints, in the company of Christ and our Blessed Mother.
No instructions were given at any point in the ceremony about when to sit, kneel, or stand; the people around me just knew.
The parish priest sprinkled holy water over the casket, and the moment the prayers were finished, everyone leapt from their seats in a rush to shake the hands of the grieving family members, while the many conversations among the mourners elevated the noise level in the church to a dull roar. Our religious duties accomplished, we spilled out of the mid-19th century church–the men headed straight to the village pub, the women congregated outside for the latest gossip, and I strolled pensively around the small cemetery nestled against the church walls, waiting for my companions to emerge so we could make the hour’s journey home.
As we remember the souls of the faithful departed in this month of November, I find myself increasingly struck by the visceral manner in which the Irish honor, mourn, and think about the dead. Families and local communities band together immediately following the death of a loved one: they fill normally-empty church pews to the brim in order to somberly commemorate “anniversary Masses,” and to pray en masse for the deceased at removal services, wakes, and funerals. Conversations about death in Ireland are quite open–almost bruisingly candid–and happen over a cup of tea, in the street, or out at the pub. The famed Irish wakes still happen–albeit less often now, due to the rising popularity of funeral homes–and are completely unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The open casket lies in state in the family’s living room, mourners sit in chairs around the body and take turns swapping humorous or emotional stories about the deceased, and a seemingly endless supply of scalding hot tea and coffee, and freshly-baked cakes and scones in the adjoining rooms provides much-needed spiritual and bodily nourishment, and still more cathartic conversation.There is a freshness in the Irish perspective towards death and dying, however unsettling it may be to a young American in her mid-twenties, who, before moving to Ireland, had attended only a couple funerals–all with closed caskets, all conducted as swiftly and discreetly as possible, the reality of death too uncomfortable for the American psyche. In Ireland, though, I see the true embodiment of Christian hope lived out each day; even in the throes of sorrow and grief, death here is no frightening spectre, but an almost-friend–a constant, quiet companion on life’s journey.
Here, mourning is a public act, and the healing process truly is communal. Churches see their numbers swell dramatically in the month of November in Ireland, as the annual remembrance of the dead draws people from all walks of life–the old, the young, the rich and poor, Travellers and settled, the faithful, and, surprisingly, those who have drifted away from the Church. They are all connected in their grief, and their desire to remember the ones they have lost. The liturgies of this month in particular somehow seem to tap into the deepest recesses of the heart, compelling all of us to congregate, remember, and pray for our loved ones, that they might, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.Pope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, tenderly refers to death as a sister: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no one living can escape.” There is an inexplicable comfort in this Month of the Holy Souls here in Ireland, for alongside the heartache of loss accompanies a lingering sense of peace, and hope.
After a whirlwind last few months of liturgical music ministry in our home parish of Clonard, the House of Brigid volunteers were given a weekend break! This meant that, for the First Sunday of Advent, I had the rare opportunity to attend Mass at one of the primary churches in town.
Consecrated in 1858, the Bride Street Church of the Assumption is a towering Gothic monolith of sandstone and granite that houses soaring wooden rafters, richly detailed stained glass windows, a plethora of statues lining the aisles, and a communion rail—the polar opposite of my carpeted and fan-shaped modern home church built in the late 1990s. The church was filled to the brim for its annual Remembrance Mass, in which the bereaved friends and families of all the Bride Street parishioners who had passed away in the last year came together to hear the priest read the names of the dead, to honor their memories, and to grieve in the company of loved ones. It was a particularly astute move by the parish priest to have the Remembrance coincide with the Mass celebrating the beginning of Advent, because at a critically important time in the liturgical calendar it filled the building with many who had drifted away from the Church and organized religion altogether. While waiting for Mass to begin, I hoped that, even though their primary reason for attending may have simply been for the sake of their deceased loved ones, doing so would offer a chance for the Holy Spirit to fasten within them the first tendrils of interior conversion.
There are no hymnals to be found in most Irish Catholic churches, but when the organist began to play the opening strains of one of my favorite Advent hymns, “Creator of the Stars of Night,” I presumed to be confident enough to recite the words from memory. The choir began to sing, and I stood and enthusiastically joined in for about a split second—before realizing they were singing it in Latin. I faltered. I knew enough of the first verse to stumble along, and remained silent for the second. Hearing the ancient Conditor alme siderum sung in Latin at an Irish parish in 2014, I was stunned. Considering the
violent backlash against all things traditionally religious in the wake of the clerical abuse scandals that rocked Ireland in the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly within my own diocese, I would never have expected to hear Latin spoken (much less sung) at Mass. Further along in the liturgy, the choir sang the Sanctus alone, once again in Latin. Not since the first Mass I attended after the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal in 2011 was I so compelled to truly stop and assess how something “new” in the liturgy affected myself, and the others who remained silent in the congregation. Of course, my affinity for more traditional sacred music rejoiced, but how did the rest of the congregation feel about it? Did they even care? Did they have any idea how monumental this experience was? Could this have been a deliberate effort on the part of the parish priest or the choir director to preserve the great musical traditions of the Church? Would this type of musical evangelization actually work?
There have been so many eloquent, beautiful, and thought-provoking posts about Advent recently on Oblation. But being immersed in the daily life of a parish has required me to contemplate the practical applications for how liturgy can inspire inner conversions of the heart. Questions we ask ourselves on a regular basis are: What will make people want to open their mouths to sing? Even more importantly, what will make people want to even come back to the church next weekend? What kind of liturgical environment will achieve this, and how can we avoid any sort of watering-down of our great traditions? Such questions never fade away, and we must continue to ask them regularly with freshness, creativity, and enthusiasm.
Here, I find myself turning to my trusty copy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. For the liturgy is not simply a human action, but a cosmic one; it encompasses the divine movements of exitus and reditus, of going out and returning. The exitus is God’s free act of creation, which humankind freely and lovingly responds to in the reditus. Although our original relationship with our Creator was ruptured in the Fall, our liturgical participation in the Pasch of Christ every Sunday offers us a path of return, in which we offer our entire selves in worship. Regarding music in the liturgy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes: “The cosmic character of liturgical music stands in opposition to [the] two tendencies of the modern age…music as pure subjectivity, and music as the expression of mere will” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 155). Furthermore, “the great cultural tradition of the faith is home to a presence of immense power. What in museums is only a monument from the past, an occasion for mere nostalgic admiration, is constantly made present in the liturgy in all its freshness” (155).
In the moments the choir sang ancient hymns above a silent congregation at Bride Street, what we experienced was not music as the expression of mere will or pure subjectivity. Rather, on a much deeper level, we listened to and joined in with the singing of the angels. There was a dialogue between the priest on the altar and the choir in the loft, in which we experienced the reditus, the response to God’s call for us to gather together in worship. Faltering and remaining silent while the choir sang Conditor alme siderum helped me to see more clearly the spirit of Advent as awed, anticipatory, wondrous, still, and dark, with the promise of radiant light as Christmas draws closer. I still find myself wondering if just one person in the congregation had noticed something special in that liturgy. Even if no one else had, this Advent liturgy inspired me to undergo a most profound period of contemplation—and perhaps, an inner conversion.
“Creator of the Stars of Night”
Creator of the stars of night,
Thy people’s everlasting Light;
Jesu, Redeemer, save us all,
And hear thy servants when they call.
Thou, grieving that the ancient curse
Should doom to death an universe,
Hast found the med’cine, full of grace,
To save and heal a ruin’d race.
Thou cam’st, the Bridegroom of the Bride,
As drew the world to evening-tide;
Proceeding from a Virgin shrine,
The spotless Victim all divine.
At whose dread Name, majestic now,
All knees must bend, all hearts must bow
And things celestial thee shall own,
And things terrestrial, Lord alone.
O thou, whose coming is with dread
To judge and doom the quick and dead,
Preserve us, while we dwell below,
From ev’ry insult of the foe.
To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One,
Laud, honor, might, and glory be
From age to age eternally. Amen.
As my feet pounded against the pavement and wound through Dublin’s narrow streets earlier this week, my thoughts wandered amidst the surrounding cacophony of the marathon—the rumble of footsteps from the tens of thousands of runners around me, the exuberant cheers from spectators along the race route, the shouted words of encouragement and motivation passed from one runner to the next; the deep, controlled breaths of the seasoned runners, and the short, shallow gasps of the neophytes. My interior self was thrown into turmoil, too, with thoughts of proper pacing, constant checks for the slightest indicators of injury, perhaps too-regular calculations of the remaining distance—not to mention all the everyday doubts, fears, uncertainties, and expectations fighting for their place in the mix as well.
The monotony of running 26.2 miles became particularly apparent at mile 14. As the prospect of running another 12 miles sank in, the first twinges of exhaustion coursed through my body. At mile 16, I noticed some of the faster runners begin to walk. At mile 19, increasingly more competitors appeared to have suddenly stepped into a mire of molasses; the 20-mile marker poster seemed to mock us, stretching farther and farther away. My muscles protested at the continued exertion, the heat of the sun blazed down, the road began to incline, and the discomfort of it all became nearly unbearable. Insidious thoughts of ending the pain altogether and quitting the race clashed against my halting determination, and threatened to become too convincing to fight for much longer. As a first-time marathoner, I naïvely expected my months of training would be enough to get me to the finish line—but they weren’t. Something far deeper, though, would.
Inexplicably, the words of the Ave Maria slowly, languorously laced their way through the mêlée to reach the core of my innermost self. What I most needed in this moment was hope—the kind that comes not from within, but from above. How in the world did I think I could ever accomplish this Herculean effort on my own? In that interminable 19th mile, I decided to draw strength from the tradition of the Church during my own hour of need—the very prayers that sustained saints and martyrs in their times of distress. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, I would be “guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints” (Spe Salvi, §34). Too delirious to formulate a proper theological interpretation of this internal struggle, praying the Rosary on my fingers while running became a vehicle of active hope.
Despite my ragged breathing, the ancient words flowed freely with each step. In those last few miles, I journeyed with Christ and the Blessed Virgin by reflecting on the five Glorious Mysteries, the splendor of the Gospel message made real and present in my very human search for strength. In the most unlikely of times and places, I somehow felt more a part of the Church than ever before. I meditated on the hope and endurance of the great saints and martyrs who came before me and experienced all manner of suffering and persecution:
“In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown ‘thing’ is the true ‘hope’ which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity” (Spe salvi, §12).
While I was only praying for the strength to finish the marathon, Benedict XVI’s words resonate on a deeper level. My self-inflicted suffering could be considered a stand-in for the very real and heartbreaking suffering that occurs every day in this world. Fortunately for all of us, “the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise” (Spe salvi, §37).
Through praying the Rosary, my pain and exhaustion were thus transformed into a hymn of praise and thanksgiving. I completed the marathon running strong, the opening words of the Salve Regina echoing at the edges of consciousness:
“Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.”
This past Saturday night, my Irish parish celebrated its 40th anniversary at a spectacular Mass celebrated by the Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, along with our bishop, parish priests, and clergy from all around our diocese. During this momentous liturgy, the nuncio formally commissioned this year’s House of Brigid volunteers, which made things extra special for us!
Archbishop Brown, a fellow Notre Dame graduate, had kindly accepted my request earlier in the week for an interview after the Mass. What follows is a beautiful, articulate, and thought-provoking summation of the Catholic Church’s current situation in Ireland, which encompasses a range of important social, theological, and ecclesial issues:
How do you think young adults perceive the Catholic Church as an institution both in Ireland and in the global community?
That’s a great question. I think, you know, that the challenge for us as Catholics is precisely to get young adults not to perceive the Church as an institution. The Church, in the end, can only be understood completely through the eyes of faith. Certainly, as your question implies, in large segments of the young adult population, the Church is seen as a human institution. It does a lot of good for people, it takes care of a lot of poor people, it’s like Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in a certain sense, or in Ireland, the GAA, which is the Gaelic Athletic Association. People see the Church as an institution, and our challenge, really, is to get young people to see that the Church is the presence of Jesus, and the Church is Him. The Church is the encounter with Jesus fundamentally in the Eucharist. And that is a non-institutional way of seeing the Church– seeing the Church not as an institution, but as the presence of Christ, seeing Him at the center of the Church, understanding the entire thing as a relationship of love between ourselves and the person of Jesus Christ.
The Church, of course, in a theological sense, She is described as the spouse of Christ. St. Paul has a beautiful imagery in his Letter to the Ephesians of the Church as His bride, “washed and made clean” in baptism. That spousal relationship between Christ and the Church, that relationship of love, that mystical relationship, that interpersonal relationship is what we need to communicate to people and get them away from seeing the Church as another human institution with its scandals, and difficulties, its structures, its money, its organization and all of that. And when people make that switch, when their eyes are opened to the reality of the Church, that God is here, that the Eucharist is Him, that in the Scriptures, He is speaking–then something changes in their hearts, and they fall in love with the Church. So that’s what our challenge is.
Recent surveys have showed a marked difference in the percentage of young adult Irish Catholics who attend Sunday Mass versus older Irish Catholics of the previous generation. As these young adults have children of their own, studies have shown that it is often the grandparents who take children to Mass. What kind of formation do you think needs to take place in order to encourage those children to continue going to Mass, and also, in turn, the parents?
Your question reflects the reality of the situation quite precisely. That’s quite clearly the situation. The Church in every country has a different history, a different heritage, a different background, a different experience. We should always remember that Ireland is the only English-speaking country in the entire world with a Catholic majority. The only Catholic, English-speaking country in the entire world– there’s no other country where everyone speaks English and is Catholic as in Ireland. It’s a bit unusual. Most of us English-speaking Catholics live as a minority, in America, in England, in Australia, and we’re used to being a minority. And I think that in some ways, there are challenges of being a minority, but there are also some advantages. Because as a Catholic, when you’re in a minority population like in America or in England, or in parts of northern Ireland, you grow up with a sense of being different. In the sense that you realize little by little that you’re Catholic and you’re not just like everybody else. That’s more difficult, that kind of mentality, in Ireland, where everybody is Catholic. Basically everybody is baptized, more or less. It’s more difficult for people to take a step back and be a little more critical of the surrounding culture, when that whole surrounding culture is basically Catholic, or was Catholic. It requires a different way of seeing things. I guess my point in simple terms is, it’s easier I think to be a Catholic in a minority population.
Being in a majority population, as in Ireland, presents its own difficulties. There certainly is the difficulty here of lower Mass attendance among young people. Overall Mass attendance in Ireland, if you look at the overall population, and the number of people at Sunday Mass, it’s not that bad at all, statistically. In fact, it’s probably about what it is in America, or maybe slightly higher here. But as your question points out, the population that’s going to Mass here would be older than the population in America. Now, we have to evangelize young people. We have to get them to become excited about the Church, in the terms in which we discussed your first question–getting them to realize that the Church is this encounter with Christ, this encounter with a living person, God made man, who loves them.
Now how do we do that if they’re not coming to Mass? One of the things which is to the advantage of the Church is that most of the schools here are Catholic schools. In fact, the great majority of schools are Catholic schools. So as part of the normal schooling, to which all the kids are coming, there is a Catholic connection to that. I think that, whereas it’s true that in Ireland there will be some Catholic schools in some areas that will be given to the State in order to run secular schools—that will happen—it’s still extremely important that that Catholic Church keeps a large number of its schools so that we can have contact with young people and their parents; because in the Catholic schools in Ireland, they’re preparing for their First Communion and Confirmation. That is a connection to people who are not practicing. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t see those people. It really is something we need to take advantage of, and see as something that really can bring people into contact with Christ.
What are some of the challenges you and the Irish Church face in promoting the New Evangelization?
The major challenge, I think, would be the legacy of scandals in the Church. Today in 2014, I can say there is NO institution anywhere in the world that has more rigorous child protection standards than the Catholic Church in Ireland. And the Church is exemplary in what it’s doing today in terms of child protection. But there’s a legacy of scandals–we’ve had two decades of scandal. We have to realize that faith is caught, not taught. When people are presented constantly for a long period of time with counter-examples, not of saints and holiness, but of criminals and failures, it creates a spiritual deadness in people’s hearts. Now how do we overcome that?
We overcome that by being zealous, by being holy, by praying, by realizing that Ireland was converted by men and women who were immersed in prayer and the liturgy–the monks and nuns. That’s how this Church began on this island– these miracle-working, ascetical men and women who went to live the monastic life, they became people of prayer, witnesses of faith, ascetical witnesses, spiritual witnesses. That’s exactly what we need: a new generation of saints in Ireland, a new generation of those kinds of people. And they are here! I’ve seen them with my own eyes. They’re not heralded, people are not writing articles about them, but there are saints in Ireland today– people who are living their faith with great generosity, with great fervor, with great commitment, and that’s what will change the situation. We have un-canonized saints who I think would be wonderful if the Church moved towards canonization, like Matt Talbot in Dublin, an amazing figure; the Jesuit Fr. John Sullivan, an incredible hero of the faith. We need to promote those figures and give people the experience of holiness, to show people that holiness is possible, in order to counteract this legacy of the scandals, where people are presented with a series of criminals and failures.
Over the past decade, the economic situation in Ireland has changed a great deal. The boom of the Celtic Tiger has given way to higher rates of unemployment and economic recession. Has there been any indication that financial difficulties have prompted a resurgence of cultivating a spiritual or liturgical life by people returning to the Church? Is there a way in which the Church can be reaching out to those whose lives have been impacted by the recession?
Well, the second part of it would be an easier question to answer. The Church does reach out to people who have been negatively impacted by the financial crisis. The amount of charitable work done by the Catholic Church in Ireland is immense: food kitchens, the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul…a huge amount is going on, largely unheralded and really very, very impressive. On a practical level, the Church is doing a lot in that area. I don’t think that the economic difficulty in itself will correlate to a spiritual rebirth, I really don’t—it’s a great question, though. I think what we need, again, are witnesses to faith, holy men and women who pray, who live their faith with conviction, who aren’t afraid to speak about their faith. That’s what will convert, and re-convert people in Ireland to the Catholic faith. The fact they’re a little bit richer or poorer…I don’t think that will have a huge effect on that. I don’t think the pure economics will have much effect on people’s faith.
What are some of the effects you’ve seen in the Irish Catholic Church since the 50th International Eucharistic Congress held here in 2012?
I think that the liturgy–for example, people used to complain, I used to hear this a lot when I was in America, actually I worked at an Irish parish in the Bronx at the beginning of my priesthood in the late ’80s. People used to say the liturgy in Ireland wasn’t celebrated with great devotion, it was kind of mechanical and rapid, with an over-emphasis on simply the ex opere operato, the idea of just doing it and getting it finished. I think the Eucharistic Congress was a tremendous gift to the Church in 2012; it focused our attention on the liturgy. I wouldn’t want to say it changed in itself the liturgical situation, but it focused our attention on the liturgy. I’ve been all over Ireland in the last almost three years–north and south, east and west–and I’ve seen the Mass celebrated with devotion, with beautiful music, with good preaching.
So I think the liturgical situation in Ireland is quite good actually, and improving, with good music, and good participation in general; of course there’s always going to be small defects here and there, that’s always the case. But I think the Eucharistic Congress helped us to focus our attention on Jesus in the Eucharist, on the dignified, reverent, prayerful celebration of the Mass. And that has been my experience of what’s going on in Ireland. People want a dignified, prayerful celebration of the Mass. You know those stories of Mass being over in 11 minutes? I’ve never seen that, and I don’t know if it happens anymore. So I think there has been a liturgical rebirth here.
Since we share an alma mater and there will be Notre Dame students, teachers, and people in the ND community reading this article on our blog, looking back on your experience as an undergraduate studying at Notre Dame, how did you find the liturgical life? Did it affect you in any particularly significant way?
I arrived at Notre Dame in the autumn of 1977. I think we would all probably say that the 1970’s were not the liturgical zenith in the Church’s history, you know? So all of the kind of trendiness of the 1970’s was in painful, cringe-worthy evidence at the time. All I would say is, that the Church in general, and Notre Dame in particular, and I’m holding in my hand this beautiful new Newman Hymnal, which is an absolute work of art, beautiful, fantastic music…I think in all honesty, the experience of liturgy at ND in the late ’70s, for me, was not spectacular. It’s gotten only better. I was actually back at Notre Dame for a sabbatical year from 2006-2007, and the liturgy was absolutely splendid. Extraordinarily beautifully celebrated. I couldn’t speak more highly about the way the liturgy is celebrated at Notre Dame now. The 1970’s were only ten years after the end of Second Vatican Council, there was a lot of euphoria, experiments going on, some of it was cringe-worthy, but a lot of it’s been purified. I think at Notre Dame now the liturgy is celebrated quite beautifully. It’s wonderful, it’s really great.
What are some of your thoughts on the value of the liturgy today?
The liturgy is our life—there’s so much one can say about that. People are converted by the liturgy. If I’m not mistaken, Cardinal Lustiger, the Cardinal of Paris—who’s now deceased, he’s gone to God–born into a Jewish family in Paris, he wandered into Notre Dame on a Holy Thursday liturgy. He saw the liturgy and basically was converted by the liturgy on Holy Thursday.
The liturgy is so important, it’s our encounter with Christ. It’s a foretaste of the life of the world to come. It should be a moment of heaven on earth, really. Liturgy does not detach us or separate us from everyday life, but it brings us into the encounter with Christ, who is our life. So I think it’s incredibly important that liturgy should be celebrated beautifully, and reverently, and prayerfully. If liturgy is celebrated prayerfully, everything else will follow. Everything else will follow. I can’t think of anything more important than celebrating the liturgy properly and beautifully.
Last question! So as people in general, and the media in particular, continue focus on declining Mass attendance, lower rates of financial contributions to the Church, and continued allegations of misconduct within the institutional Church, it can be very easy for people to become discouraged. And yet there are parishes in Ireland and throughout the world who persevere in living the Gospel and bringing the Good News to others. Where have you observed signs of this hopefulness in Ireland?
I think parish life in Ireland is undergoing a renewal. The parish where you are here in Clonard is extraordinary in what’s going on: the different ministries, the enthusiasm for the faith. That’s one very, very positive thing. There are groups in Ireland who are involved in evangelization, which are very, very effective, and very beautiful—NET Ministries, have you heard of them? They’re really great, they’re terrific, I’m a huge fan of NET ministries. There’s another group called Youth 2000, they’re great. I preached at their summer retreat– they had a thousand kids at it, and this is Ireland, too which is a small country, a thousand young people at their retreat, beautiful. A third group for young people is Pure in Heart, which is a smaller group kind of focused on St. John Paul the II and Theology of the Body, an excellent group doing great things. Another thing that’s becoming more and more widespread in Ireland, especially in certain diocese, is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Eucharistic Adoration. There is a HUGE correlation between dioceses and parishes where adoration of Christ the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is practiced and an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. There’s a lot of adoration going on in Ireland, which I think is a real sign of hope.
But your question makes clear that we also have the counter-witness that is propagated all the time by the media. Just do a very objective experiment: go to Google News, take the word “priest” and put it in Google News, now that’s a computer searching stories all over the world in English for the word “p-r-i-e-s-t.” And then look at the twenty stories and ask yourself, these stories that come up, are they positive or negative stories? Then do the same thing with the word perhaps “journalist,” and see what you find. It’s completely objective, it’s a computer doing it, so you’ll see this kind of negativity that’s being propagated, you’ll see it very clearly if you do this little experiment.
In the midst of that, we need to live our faith joyfully and courageously, as Pope Francis says so beautifully, with “contagious apostolic fervor.” That’s exactly what we need, contagious apostolic fervor. That people catch faith from us. Faith comes from hearing–what does that mean? When the disciples saw Jesus praying and they asked him, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” It’s seeing people praying, it’s seeing people of faith that elicits faith in us. So we have to be people of prayer. And the liturgy is prayer par excellence, the center of prayer. And so, a lot of it comes down to the liturgy.
I have to thank His Excellency Archbishop Charles Brown for being gracious enough to take a half hour out of his incredibly busy schedule to sit down for this beautiful, enlightening interview. Archbishop Brown’s words inspire a real, tangible hope for the renewal of the Irish Catholic Church today!
For six long years I was closely involved in the liturgical life of a Catholic university, as a chorister and cantor, sacristan and accompanist, lector, and extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. The majority of faces I gazed upon at Mass were similar to my own: students in their early 20s, bags under their eyes from late nights studying, and possibly wearing pajamas and slippers if it was an evening dorm Mass. Any exceptions to this occurred during the more formal Sunday morning liturgies in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart—I can still picture the shocked, gleeful expressions on my fellow choristers’ faces when we gazed down from the choir loft to see a particularly large, adorable family enter the church and fill an entire pew! These novel experiences grew more familiar during graduate school, as an increasing number of my friends started to navigate the waters of balancing academics, marriage, and budding families. Yet, it was not until I moved to Ireland to serve full-time in a Catholic parish that I began to truly understand the incredible significance of young adults and the family in the life of the Church around the world.
My own reflections on the international Church, family life, and the liturgy happen to coincide with the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which is currently in full swing at the Vatican. It is a massive undertaking in preparation for the larger Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod in 2015, one that seeks to facilitate open and frank discussion of the pastoral challenges facing families today. Pope Francis, deeply aware of the profundity of the occasion and of the importance of liturgical prayer to the family and to the Church, led a candlelight prayer vigil in an overflowing St. Peter’s Square on the eve of the Synod’s opening. Drawing from his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis stressed the profound role of marriage and family life in society:
“the communion of life assumed by spouses, their openness to the gift of life, the mutual protection, the encounter and the memory of generations, educational support, the transmission of the Christian faith to their children…With all this, the family continues to be a school without parallel of humanity, an indispensable contribution to a just and united society” (EG, §66-68).
At its core, the family offers a crucial stability that much in this world cannot provide; and yet, families young and old draw their strength from somewhere.
This wellspring of strength for families, Francis advocates, is the Church—by fixing our gaze on Christ, and by embodying and living out the love Christ shares with us daily. His words on the subject of the synod, therefore, may also apply to the family itself: “If we truly intend to walk among contemporary challenges, the decisive condition is to maintain a fixed gaze on Jesus Christ–Lumen Gentium–to pause in contemplation and in adoration of His Face.” Such contemplation and adoration naturally flows forth from the “fully conscious and active participation” in the liturgy that Sacrosanctum Concilium advocated in 1963. In pastoral practice, I have come to realize just how essential the family is in contributing to the liturgical life of my parish, and thus to the Church at large.
According to the 2011 report published by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, “Practice and Belief among Catholics in the Republic of Ireland,” only 18.6% of 18-24 year-olds attend Mass weekly in Ireland–compared to 67.7% of primary school children and 79.1% in the 65+ age demographic. These statistics play out every day in my parish in a myriad of ways; grandparents often take the lead in bringing their young grandchildren to Mass, and yet our weekly children’s liturgy is packed with entire families. Teenagers are a sight few and far between, but those who make the effort to be involved in the parish provide an inspiring witness to the faith. Sacramental preparation for First Communion and Confirmation allows dedicated parents to take charge of passing on the faith to our little ones. When families come to Mass in full force, their effect is simply awe-inspiring. Pope Francis’ words spill forth faster than I can think:
“The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children” (EG, §63).
Francis recognizes that pastoral activity “needs to bring out more clearly the fact that our relationship with the Father demands and encourages a communion which heals, promotes and reinforces interpersonal bonds” (EG, §67). And so, popular piety itself “can be the starting point for healing and liberation” from the breakdown of the family today (EG, §69).Through renewed active participation in the Mass, devotionals, and other forms of liturgical prayer, the family can begin to reverse the breakdown in the way Catholics pass down the Christian faith to our youth. Gradually, we may be able to keep teenagers and young adults interested in the liturgy, and bring an almost entirely lost generation back into the fold.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger recalled the words of St. Irenaeus (cf. Adv. Haer. 4, 20, 7) in The Spirit of the Liturgy: “The glory of God is the living man, but the life of man is the vision of God.” I propose, for the purposes of this article, that ‘man’ be replaced with ‘family.’ The glory of God is thus the living family, and the life of the family is the vision of God, reflecting the most Holy Family in the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and Jesus Christ. Through participating in the liturgy, we immerse ourselves in the Church that gives us strength to overcome our sorrows and challenges. Families grow closer, and become stalwart foundations of our parish communities; they become the place where parents pass on the faith to their children in such a way that the very Church itself may be renewed.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life