Fr Kevin Hegarty
Last weekend, the first of spring, Gaelic football became serious again. The National League has started. Sport in Ireland is a source of great stories. In the late 1950s Galway, powered by Sean Purcell and Frankie Stockwell, were the dominant force in Connacht football. One summer Sunday their team thrashed Sligo in the Championship. The Sligo free-taker had a very poor game. Every time before he took a free he blessed himself and every time he missed. In the last few minutes, as the sad Sligo crowd were sidling towards the exit, Sligo were given a close-in free. Once again the Sligo free-taker stepped up, blessed himself and missed. One of the teams’ mentors was heard to comment ruefully to another ‘whatever about us losing the game, there is no danger of us losing the faith’.
Is there a danger of us losing the Christian faith in Ireland today? The curtain is coming down on traditional Irish Catholicism. The artist John Butler Yeats records a priest telling him, in the early years of the 20th Century, that when he – the priest – returned from a holiday in America, a parishioner said to him she was glad to see him back because ‘while you were away there was a colour of loneliness in the air’. There is a deep colour of loneliness about Irish Catholicism today. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life have plummeted. Many religious properties have been put up for sale. The Children’s’ Christmas Mass in a Dublin parish, last year, was an all ticket affair but the weekend reality is different. Attendance has declined, often stealthily, sometimes as rapidly as snow under a midday sun.
So what of the future then. I have no panacea for our predicament. I once heard a fable about the futility of theoretical blueprints. A hippo fell in love with a butterfly. He asked advice of the wise old owl. “You must become a butterfly,” the owl told the hippo, “and do it right now.” The hippo was delighted. He plunged back into the jungle only to return shortly. “How do I become a butterfly?” he asked the owl. The bird of great wisdom responded: “That’s up to you. I only set policy. I don’t implement.”
I have no panacea but may I suggest on thing? Giving into fatalism is the final frontier of despair. I believe we can discern today whispers of alienation from our head-long pursuit of wealth, that point to the human need for God. I feel we have begun to experience what Vaclav Havel, philosopher and politician, once described:
“Much has been written about the hopeless, desolate atmosphere of Sunday in large cities, and there are many evocative cabaret songs about it. Essentially, it is what sociologists call the problem of leisure time, modern man has lost touch with the original mythical significance and substance of festive occasions, and all that remains is emptiness. Perhaps my Sunday depression is merely an extreme form or a distorted echo of a common problem of civilisation called Sunday. I personally see this mood as one of the typical fissures through which, nothingness, that modern face of the devil, seeps into people’s lives.”
There are quiet, yet insistent voices in Ireland also who are evoking and analysing our present condition. Many of those voices are in the world of literature, art and music. One of them, Dennis O’Driscoll has written a poem, ‘Missing God’, from which I quote some stanzas:
“Yet though we rebelled against Him
like adolescents, uplifted to see
an oppressive father banished-
a bearded hermit-to the desert,
we confess to missing Him at times.
Miss Him during the civil wedding
when at the blossomy altar
of the registrar’s desk, we wait in vain
to be fed a line containing words
like everlasting and divine.
Miss Him when a choked voice at
the crematorium recites the poem
about fearing no more the heat of the sun.
Miss Him when we stumble on the breast lump
for the first time and an involuntary prayer
escapes our lips, when a shadow crosses
our bodies on an x-ray screen, when we receive
a transfusion of pouring blood
sacrificed anonymously to save life.”
I believe that theses voices will have a crucial role in the evolution of a spirituality that can inspire, celebrate and challenge Irish society. I like to believe that the Catholic Church in Ireland can be part of this creative discourse. In a prophetic essay, written in 1947, Seán Ó Faolaín asserted that ‘the priest and the writer ought to be fighting side by side if for nothing else than the rebuttal of the vulgarity that is pouring daily into the vacuum left in the popular mind by the dying out of the old traditional life’.