Monday 23 September 2019

Emily Hourican: I found true spirit of Christmas in the church of a brave priest


Fr Tony Coote
Fr Tony Coote

Emily Hourican

It's been a weird run-up to Christmas this year. Or so it seems to me. I blame the weather - cold is fine, we expect that; non-stop wind, rain and grey skies is not. It's grim.

I also blame the retailers - you cannot start Christmas in mid-November and expect any of us to last the distance. I've been so busy pacing myself, I must have missed the window of enthusiasm, so that now, when it would be entirely appropriate to get excited, it's like the window has closed, with me on the wrong side. I can see the enthusiasm building around me, but I am not really feeling it.

The worse-even-than-expected news on the environment and the damage we've done, and continue to do, doesn't help. Suddenly all that wrapping paper and tinsel looks not gay and charming - but like filthy oceans and yet more CO2 emissions.

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Then there's Brexit, waiting in the wings like a drunk uncle who may be about to turn nasty. In fact, Brexit reminds me of a line from Auden's As I Walked Out One Evening:

"Time watches from the shadow / and coughs when you would kiss."

That's Brexit, hovering, watching, coughing any time we look like we might kiss.

Four thousand homeless children is the most dampening knowledge of all. I defy anyone to throw themselves into the festive spirit knowing that 4,000 children don't have a bed of their own to wake up in on Christmas morning; that they have to rely on ''magical miniature fireplaces'' to let Santa know where they are (although bravo to whoever came up with that clever idea).

Christmas, more than any other time of year, relies on nearly all of us kicking our worries down the road. ''I'll think about that in January,'' we decide, about our credit card bills, the excessive drinking and eating, the work left undone, the family rows fallen into. Sometimes, it seems to me that this is where Christmas gets its energy - the collective effort of denial: several million people throwing caution to the wind, going, ''I'll deal with that later.''

And I've always liked that about it. There is a reckless quality to Christmas that is appealing, a consequences-be-damned kind of vibe that is fun, in isolated doses anyway. But this year, it is just not kicking in. The stakes seem too high.

In fact, for me, the one place I have been able to find any real Christmas spirit, is in my local church.

I have to admit - it is not there I would usually go looking for it. My Christmas obeisance has been sketchy for a long time. We go to mass on Christmas morning, largely because I don't want my children to entirely run away with the idea that it's all about presents and pudding. We go to the mid-morning children's mass, a riot of kids in their new clothes, with their new toys. Noisy, chaotic, immensely friendly, but not particularly spiritual. Not for me anyway.

Other than that, there isn't much mass-going. Except this year is a Communion year in our house, which means more regular attendance.

And so I have found that my local church - St Therese in Mount Merrion, Dublin - is, these days, the scene of something that maybe feels like a kind of miracle. I don't know what a miracle looks like or feels like. I always imagined it might be a big explosion of a thing - someone raised from the dead, cured of a fatal illness, that sort of thing. But actually, here, it's a steadily growing feeling of togetherness, appreciation and a funny kind of connection. And it's all coming from one man, the parish priest, Fr Tony Coote.

By now, lots of you will have heard about him, seen him on The Late Late Show or on Claire Byrne Live, or watched the documentary Walking the Walk that was on RTE earlier this month. You will know he has Motor Neurone Disease, that he committed to raising €250,000 for research and support, and has now doubled this amount - over €500,000 raised, and more on the way.

You may know that his particular form of the disease is moving rapidly, and has already greatly hampered him, confining him to a wheelchair and now disrupting his voice so that his speech is more laboured, less clear than it was. And yet he is saying mass, and making the entire congregation laugh, and reflect, with his completely unique blend of scripture, humour, common sense and a profound tolerance that is based on kindness.

He so clearly sees beyond the Church, to the simplest, most profound teachings of Jesus, and he is very good at showing the rest of us.

Adversity bravely borne is always impressive, but to watch someone embrace and then almost ignore the things that afflict them - to move past the physical impediments and continue living with the spirit with which they have always lived, is quite astonishing.

To watch Fr Tony refuse to be belittled by the limits of what he can now do, to see him hang on to his dignity with humour and both hands, even while the disease is trying to rob him of it, to watch him ask for help, and allow the many who want to offer it to do so, is something remarkable.

To stand or sit in the church and hear him say mass and know that the entire congregation are hanging on his every word and willing him on, even when the words are hard to understand, is amazing. To get to the shaking hands bit, for the sign of peace, and find it isn't a bunch of strangers or casual acquaintances saluting each other any more, it really is a moment in which we wish each other the best - it's like mass as it was meant to be but so rarely is.

For years, maybe always, I thought the meaning of Christmas was excitement, and I looked for that under trees, in gifts, in food, drink, the children, family, friends. How strange to discover that it is something else entirely, and to find it in a church.

I feel like one of the shepherds of old, wandering tiny roads and paths, guided by a star, with no real idea where they were headed, only to end up in a stable, with a newborn baby, going, 'Really? This?' And then, 'OK.'

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