THIS past Christmas Eve, as befits some people who come under the banner of that cringe-inducing phrase 'a la carte Catholics', I attended a Gospel Mass in St Francis Xavier's Church in Dublin's Gardiner Street.
I had never been there before. But a friend spoke fervently about its gospel choir. "We always go there at Christmas. For some reason the church can be very atmospheric and spiritual at that time of year. But you have to arrive early so as to get a seat. It's normally packed on Christmas Eve,'' he warned.
And so, we arrived in plenty of time, and got a spot near the choir in one of the front pews, when the building was still quite empty. Then slowly and steadily came the soft footfall of people arriving out of the December night. Sure enough, almost without warning, the church was indeed "packed''.
As I looked around at this varied mix of humanity – the young, the old, the married, the single, the healthy, the infirm, the happy, the depressed, the believers and the non-believers – I could not but contemplate the embrace 2,000 years of Roman Catholicism has had on the very soul of Ireland.
It was also a reminder of the church's hold on the deeper emotions stirred by events such as Christmas; those times of linkage between what is past and what is to come.
And so the Mass began in this Jesuit-run place of refuge and prayer where people have worshipped for the past 180 years. In fact, the building's first stone was laid in 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation, which set in train an epoch, when the Irish church would resurrect itself to unprecedented levels of pomp and power. Driven by powerful personalities such as Cardinal Paul Cullen in the 19th Century, and continuing with the redoubtable Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in relatively recent times, a symbiotic bond with the Vatican would become its most distinguishing feature.
And so the priest in St Xavier's began his seasonal sermon in that suspended time of animation which is the closing hours of a Christmas Eve; all round the candlelight flickered against the aura of Italianite paintings and murals.
He would have known he had those in his congregation who may not come to his church again until next Christmas, or only on those occasions tied in with the great rituals of birth, marriage and death. And there may be some who, for whatever reason, might never return.
It was to those of fleeting faith, or perhaps none, that he primarily directed his words. To make his point, he relied on possibly the most powerful of all human qualities: non-judgmental tolerance. He wanted to assure those on the edges that they were always welcome to this place of solace, whatever they perceived their failings to be.
The priest used some very grounded and worldly examples as he tried to connect with the disaffected. He wanted to reach out to those in second or even third relationships and to those whose sexual orientation is judged to be apart from the norm.
Those who may be in or out of prison should not perceive themselves as being outside the fold. All should feel welcome if they visit St Xavier's.
I could not but recall that Christmas experience as the controversy surrounding Fr Tony Flannery unfolded over the past few days. One could not but wonder at how many – okay, let's call them a la carte Catholics – would despair at this latest bout of heavy handedness by the Vatican. In essence, Fr Flannery is threatened with excommunication because of his perceived liberal views on topics such as women priests and artificial birth control.
Now of course, there are those who take a rigid view on such matters, as is their right. They will say there can be absolutely no deviation from core beliefs within the Catholic Church. Its Magisterium – or teaching authority – as interpreted by the Vatican cannot be questioned. Yet Fr Flannery has made it clear he does not wish to leave his church, even though both his head and his heart sometimes insist on pursuing their own quest for the eternal truth.
There has surely been too much of an unforgiving strain in Irish Catholicism over the generations. This over-zealousness with ultra-orthodoxy is the least appealing dimension of all the great world religions. The extremes of Islam and Judaism, and hardline Roman Catholicism, alienate many, and fuel so much unnecessary discord.
Maybe it's time to concentrate on some of the positives, and those priestly foot-soldiers on the ground, fighting the good fight as they see it, in an age of raging secularism.
Time to indulge, at least a little, the simple belief that if there is a Higher Power, he will take the wider view when judging mankind's often indeterminate foibles.
Time to allow a certain indulgence to those priests who see their mission as trying to ease the human spirit – for however fleeting the moment.