A few years ago my mother took me to a remote glen in County Tyrone near where our ancestors had lived for centuries. She showed me a small memorial marking the site of a Mass Rock. It was there, during Penal Times when the Mass was outlawed, that the faithful secretly came to hear a priest with a price on his head offer the Holy Sacrifice.
Alone, we stood and prayed: prayers that no sword or edict had managed to extinguish. Eventually, in silence—no further words being needed—we turned and walked quietly away.
To paraphrase Belloc: Ireland is the Faith and the Faith is Ireland.
Recently, the Irish government issued an invitation to Pope Francis; it comes almost exactly 35 years after the first reigning pontiff set foot on Irish soil.
The current Holy Father would, however, be visiting a country greatly changed from the one to which his predecessor came.
The reception John Paul II received was what one would expect from a Catholic country, especially one with a history of persecution. It is estimated that approximately 1,250,000 people, one quarter of the population of the island—one third of the population of the Republic of Ireland—attended the visit’s opening Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. More than 250,000 more attended a service near the Irish Border later that same evening—most of those present travelling from British-controlled Northern Ireland. Later again, hundreds of thousands lined the streets of Dublin as a night time motorcade made its way to the Presidential Residence. The next two days were to be similar in their exuberance, for this was more than just a “welcome”; it was closer to a national celebration, and one that seemed to say that, in spite of everything, the Faith had not only survived but had triumphed.
In the midst of the spectacle that was the Holy Father in Erin’s Four Green Fields, what was missed, and then subsequently forgotten altogether, was what he had come to say to the Irish. This is especially true of the Pontiff’s words spoken on the final day of the visit, when he presented Ireland with a clear choice between Christ and the world. Unfortunately, it was to be an opportunity missed, with those words falling on barren soil, and yet, now, sounding eerily prophetic given what happened next in that nation’s story.
The choice would indeed be made. But, as the pope took his leave, what then seemed to matter most was simply the fact that the visit had taken place, and for that reason alone it was deemed a success—measured as it was in cheers and bunting.
It was to be a false dawn, however, as the 1979 visit marks an ending. It was thereafter resolved, determined by forces seen and unseen, that the moment had come, Catholic Ireland should fall. Fifteen hundred years of fidelity were to be broken. On that September day, as the papal jet’s engines started up, and the final salute of the military guard of honor was taken, what was then not fully understood was that the last act of one story was ending just as the first of a very different one was beginning, appropriately, with the departure of the Vicar of Christ.
In southern Ireland, when Pope John Paul had arrived, abortion was criminal, contraception unavailable, and marriage was between one man and one woman for life, divorce being illegal. Church attendance rates remained among the highest in Europe. The Church controlled almost all schooling, and much of the medical and social service provision. The State was Catholic in all but name; as testified by the Irish Constitution, specifically its Preamble, invoking as it did the nation’s Christian heritage: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred…”
All looked to be in order. It proved an illusion, however.
The end of the papal visit marked the beginning of years rich in disaster for the Church in Ireland. In the North, war and civil strife continued, with the Pope’s words for a cessation of violence roundly ignored; and, even when a cease-fire did at last come, the peace was cruel with its ghosts later leaving unquiet graves to wander abroad seeking justice. There was stagnation in the public discourse, as year after year things went ill socially, and little better economically. Throughout it all, the Church was increasingly moved to the margins. In any event, it was to make little difference, as scandal infected some of the clergy, with the consequence that what they had preached was publicly ridiculed. The media smelled blood and attacked what it had once feared. All priests were tarnished, however, regardless of guilt or innocence. Silenced, the Church stood and watched as a “new Ireland” was now erected, one very different from anything yet seen. On that overcast day in 1979, when Pope John Paul spoke to Ireland of the choice she had to make—between Christ and all the empty promises of the prince of this world—it was to be the last day of his visit, and very nearly the last for Catholic Ireland.
By the next year, the Southern Parliament, the DÁil, had legalized contraception. It was a start of a process, some might say a “war,” and, by the end, the forces of “progress” had won every battle. So much so that, 30 years after Pope John Paul had flown out of Ireland, the nation’s social fabric looked just as much of a mess as any other European country. The choice had definitely been made.
Perhaps it is no surprise that, as the Faith declined, prosperity increased. The Irish Republic had never known such riches, and proceeded to mismanage them to the point of bankruptcy. Some blamed the bankers, others the government; of course, somebody had to be blamed otherwise everyone was to blame. And as repossession signs appeared all over the land, Ireland’s young, and not so young, were yet again loaded onto planes bound for North America, Australia, or Europe, as once more families were torn asunder.
By then, this was a nation financially broken. And while church attendance plummeted and parishes closed, crime rose, as did family breakdown, equally so illegitimacy, woes of differing shades now began to gather. But then, when things looked as if they couldn’t get any worse, there came the coup de grace.
July 12 is commemorated by Ulster Protestants for a battle in 17th century that effectively ended the power of Catholic Ireland, thereafter to be ruled over by an Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. It was fitting then that it was to be on that date in 2013 that the Irish parliament voted to legalize abortion.
Abortion, a matter of conscience in most countries, was deemed not so in the “Irish Free State.” Anyone who voted against it in the ruling party, Fine Gael, was effectively expelled. One such, who had wavered, in the end decided she would vote for the bill, not wanting to “damage her long term career prospects”—such was the depth of the debate, and this from the very party who at the previous General Election had indicated there would be no changes to the law on abortion.
In the end, the debate in the DÁil, on this of all issues, had the finesse of a bar room. Forced to have an all-night sitting by an impatient political elite, the parliamentarians’ priorities came to the fore: ensuring that the DÁil bar remained open throughout the night’s proceedings. And so, in the witching hour, there was the spectacle of a steady stream of inebriated representatives filing back into the chamber to pronounce their “ta” [Gaelic for “yes”] before promptly returning to half-finished pints of stout, having just signed the death warrant for thousands of their future citizens.
And yet, by this act, these guardians of the res publica had enacted legislation that appeared to contravene their own Constitution, for Article 40.3.3° reads as follows:
The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
But how many of them had ever bothered to read it? After all, this is the “Republic of Ireland,” the latest incarnation of a state that now, just as with the Northern Catholics 90 years before, abandoned the unborn Irish to their fate.
Today, now as morally bankrupt as it is economically, it gets harder to recognize those Four Green Fields that with each passing day grow steadily more distant.
But then my thoughts return to my late mother and that Mass Rock.
Sometime in the not too distant future, when Ireland is long since buried under the Culture of Death’s debris and the Faith seems but a folk memory, and, fresh persecution gets underway for those who remain faithful to the teachings of the Church—treated as non-citizens or imprisoned for “thought crimes”—while at the same time throughout the island is to be found only misery and despair in a seemingly perpetual Night: fear not.
Somewhere, perhaps in some far flung ruin, just as dawn is breaking, candles are being lit and genuflections made, as, once more, it begins:
Introibo ad altare Dei…