Monday 23 October 2017

What happened to Easter rituals?

Michael Redmond as 'Jesus' in the passion play of the Stations of the Cross held in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Tom Burke.
Michael Redmond as 'Jesus' in the passion play of the Stations of the Cross held in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin. Photo: Tom Burke.
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

There is a theory - suggested by the historian Roy Foster - that Irish Catholic culture gradually became more Protestant as the 20th century wore on. Simplicity of religious services replaced formerly exquisite ritual.

The Marian processions of yore, accompanied by a litany so poetic James Joyce reproduced it in his writing - "Mystical Rose, Tower of Ivory, Morning Star… ora pro nobis" - faded from practice.

Benediction, Vespers, Compline, where are they now? Only in monasteries.

Partly in response to Vatican II in the 1960s, and partly, perhaps, as a process of modernisation, what had once been a distinctive flavour of Irish Catholicism - the manifest public devotions and processions - faded away.

And then the State made its contribution by breaking the link between public and religious holidays. Where is Pentecost, also called Whitsun, now? It has been recast as yet another undifferentiated 'Bank Holiday'. Scarcely one younger person in 100 could point to Whitsun on the calendar, and only churchgoers would know what it signifies.

Ascension Thursday is now transferred to another neutralised 'Monday Bank Holiday'. Corpus Christi? Feast of the Assumption? All Saints' Day? Gone, gone with the wind.

Easter? Good Friday's last significance is the continuing closure of pubs, which now meets with an annual protest that the practice is archaic. And in a secularised state, indeed it is. It is just the last remains of what was once a historical fact: that an entire society observed a day of withdrawing from the clamour of the world, dedicating that day to the Stations of the Cross.

As for Easter itself, it means Easter eggs, and the onset of the household shopping season for the do-it-yourself aficionado and the gardening fan. In contrast, in continental Catholic countries - even where the constitution of the state is secular - religious Easter rituals are still richly celebrated. In Spain, Italy, Malta, Christ's passion of Easter week is re-enacted in public rituals, and it would be difficult to miss the religious roots and significance of the Easter weekend. Spain is seldom without a procession elevating an elaborate statue of Our Lady, and Italian culture remains embedded in Catholic rite, though it is a republic where church and state are separated.

In France, secularism is strictly observed by the state; laicite is a big issue. And yet, the modern French state has never uncoupled the religious feast from the public holidays. Ascension Day is still Ascension Day. All Saints is still All Saints (le Toussaint) in the secular calendar. Pentecost remains Pentecost, observed by church and state. It seems that when the continental Catholic countries become secular in their constitutions, they nonetheless retain the cultural traditions of Catholicism. Whereas the Irish have indeed become more culturally Protestant - faith practice is something private - and publicly secular.

In truth, the situation is a little more complex. Irish Christianity, be it Catholic or Protestant, was always somewhat austere. The Irish always liked monasticism with its craggy locations and stoical privations. Irish Catholicism was Calvinistic in flavour, but the public devotions that were introduced by Archbishop Paul Cullen in the 19th century brought an element of community and colourful ceremonial. And the high period of Catholic public ritual -the 1940s and 50s - was as a kind of compensation for the simplicity and poverty that marked most people's lives.

The local, devotional aspect of Irish Catholicism hasn't vanished. There was always a Marian element to Irish Catholic culture and that endures: pilgrimages to Knock thrive, and the numbers who attend the basilica are remarkable. The Galway Novena and the climbing of Croagh Patrick continue.

A country funeral still fills a country church, and with a sincere religious sensibility too. But the cloth-of-gold, elaborate public manifestation of religious tradition for a significant feast like Easter is rarely seen in Ireland.

There are two areas where, regretfully, Irish Catholicism has not become at all Protestant. It has seldom taken up the Protestant practice of singing in church: hymns are rare enough and even then, sung without much brio.

And you will not see, in an Irish Catholic church, much attempt at formal dress for Easter that you'll often find among the Reformed brethren.

If you want to enjoy the sight of a fetching Easter bonnet, you'll have to take yourself off to Ballymena where the Free Presbyterians do it in style.


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