I popped into my parish church today. I haven’t been there in quite some time; nearly a decade in fact.
The church has a specific meaning to me; it’s where my family are buried, it’s where I was baptized and received the sacraments. Above the door stands a stone commemorating my great, great, great grandfather who, in 1818 paid for its construction; the first church where we could worship after the two centuries-long persecution of the Reformation.
Family tradition says that he was awarded the honour of ringing the Angelus bell for the first time, the first time the Angelus had been heard over our little fields in centuries. I like to imagine him doing that, what love and pride he must have felt for the humble, but neat, little chapel that would finally shield our people from the rain and wind as they attended Mass. The old Mass Rock was carted to the chapel, attended by every man in the parish. For two long centuries, it had been the only altar the people had known, no roof had shielded it from the rain, no marble adorned it, and the vestments and plate that served it must have grown all the more battered as the decades passed by.
The parish history book tells us that when the procession passed the ruined medieval chapel that overlooks the village, they stopped at the gate and recited the rosary. Fourteen centuries beforehand, their fathers had received, at that spot, the faith from the metalworker of Saint Patrick, the little monk who made all the chalices and patens for the first Masses to be celebrated in Ireland. For a Millenium, they had attended Mass in that little church, until it was burnt and spoiled by the Reformers who outlawed the practice of their faith. Now, they carried the mark of their persecution to the monument of their emancipation, but they made sure to stop and venerate the place where the faith was first planted in their little kingdom.
When the great slab of stone had reached the chancel of the new church, the bishop himself, a native of the parish, mortared the encasing marble chest of the new altar over the old Mass rock. There is no record of what sermon he preached to them, but I like to think he reminded them of this day of resurrection for their faith. Desolate, despoiled, abandoned for so many years, the faith reduced to the mutterings of superstitious peasants and hunted priests and the broken ruin of the church that stood above their village all these years almost taunting them as a beloved symbol of their enslavement, all of that was now over and the old hardships became their pride and joy as the old world passed away, and the tidy house of God they had raised and adorned with their pennies shot up the minute they had a chance to erect her.
I can only describe the Ireland I was born into with the cliché that the past is a different country. As a baby of the nineties, I caught the last breaths of “Catholic Ireland.” I remember the dread and spite at being awakened each Sunday for Mass. You had to arrive half an hour before Mass to hope to get a seat and then endure the boredom of “Shine Jesus Shine” and corny jokes from Father Trendy in the pulpit. I made my First Holy Communion for the money and I laughed with my friends and cousins that I didn’t believe in any of it. And I didn’t. Looking back at it, few of us did. The forced repetition of the responses to the priest as people flicked through the parish notices at the back of the missalette. The men made jokes at the back of the chapel, the women judged each other’s shoes and children at the front. I remember my cousin asking my aunt why we had to go to church each week to talk to the priest, she said we weren’t talking but praying, which was a revelation to me as I thought praying meant to speak to yourself.
When I was nine, something strange happened. My aunt and her family were not at Mass. I remember my grandmother red in the face and lying about feigned illness when people asked where she was. I hadn’t noticed it but she had joined the others who had stopped bothering with Mass, there were a few of them but the church remained full. Within the same year, my own delight was realised when one Sunday I appeared in the kitchen dressed for Mass only to be told to change and go outside and play. I cannot express the joy I had at that moment. It was like a snow day off school and I quickly joined about half my friends whose families had also stopped going to church. I would have sang halleluias to God for getting out of that despised rite if I had believed in him.
I remember my father suggesting to the priest that he should put up a large screen in the church and show pictures and videos of the things that happened in the parish the week before as a means of enticing the lost sheep in. It wasn’t so much the revelations that the clergy had been so implicated in the mass rape of children that had caused the great apostasy, that was merely the final blow, rather, it was the boredom and hypocrisy of the whole thing. The priest had come to apologise to my mother for the Church’s failings in protecting her as a child. I only understand now what that actually meant. She politely thanked him but told him that she wasn’t sure if he could tell her anything more about God than she could tell herself. He laughed and told her of course he couldn’t! She merely responded, “Then what good are you?”
On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception 2002, we went to Dublin, as we always did, to do our Christmas Shopping. A lot of people did that then because all the kids had the day off school. I hated, and continue to hate, shopping with such zealotry that my Mother would allow me to wander the city’s museums and churches unattended knowing me to be wary and sensible, while she got to shopping in nearby shops. Whilst she browsed the stalls, I popped into an old, run-down, church. I always lit a candle on Immaculate Conception for my grandmother since it was her birthday and, as an 11-year-old boy, playing with fire was really only acceptable if you were lighting candles for your granny.
I walked in and there I saw my first traditional Mass.
I had no idea what was going on, I had no inkling that it was even a Mass but I was in complete enchantment. Somehow, in the midst of the dust and the damp, and the spattering of grannies with headscarves and lace doilies, and the elderly man who croaked Latin chant alone in the loft above me, I knew God existed and was there in that spotless host that the old priest touched with such awe, such respect and love.
What began thereafter is the first great love affair of my life. My family believed I had been somehow inducted into a cult, how could they not? It resulted in the bizarre situation in my teenage years that where my friends snuck out to go drinking at night, I snuck out on Sunday mornings to travel 70 miles with absolute “weirdo” strangers to attend Mass in an industrial estate. My friends got new mobile phones, I got statues of saints. To be honest, when I went out clandestine drinking, my family were relieved since at least it was normal.
I saw in the people who were now my congregation an absolute love and fire for the faith that I have never witnessed outside the Trad world. People who would kneel in the rain and sleet battered carpark of an industrial estate as the priest offered the Sacrifice. And, even weirder than we were, people would keep arriving, newcomers, returned souls.
Over the twenty years that I have attended the TLM, I’ve seen the beginnings of a mini resurrection, a new fire that has been lit. It burns slowly but it only ever gets brighter. I remember the joy and pride I felt when we bought a disused Protestant church and carried the statue of Our Lady in. We started with nothing, with only a few isolated chapels and altars, and now we are booming. From a few scattered congregations of no more than a few dozen each, to churches of hundreds.
I stepped today into the parish church that had been raised up by my ancestor’s hands. I hadn’t realised it when I entered but aged Father Trendy was preparing for Mass. A camera stood in the centre of the aisle and he wheeled out a COVID-proof plastic screen. He saw me as I genuflected and immediately came down from the altar, passing the six or seven congregants.
“I didn’t expect you to come to Mass here?” he said almost in joy. I politely answered in the negative, I was only here to visit the graves and light a candle since I had been to Mass already.
“Is this all there is for Mass, Father?” I asked.
“Oh, there’ll be a few others watching on the livestream” he answered.
I looked around at the pathetic ruin of the faith that I had once known. Reduced now to an aging priest and a handful of pensioners, supplemented by a camera in the aisle. There was no choir now, that had died even before COVID. It’s place had been taken up by a CD Player. Even the statue of Our Lady is gone now, replaced by a collage of mental health pamphlets. What a contrast to the Mass earlier today that boomed out the chants and hymns, the lines for confession, the stream of little boys in cassocks and rochets readying the altar, the flow of people young and old around the crib and shrines lighting candles and whispering prayers, coins rang in the collection box for the Seminarians fund to help our boys ready themselves for the priesthood. Two of my school friends attend Mass with me now, each with their own growing families to augment the hoards of babies and children. I watched them and thought of the second great love of my life and looked forward to us further increasing their squalling ranks if it be the will of God.
Comparing the two churches, I couldn’t help but think of the utter uselessness of Traditiones Custodes. It seemed to have all the force and fury of Khrushchev’s “we will bury you.” The only response now is “Ok, Boomer.” You couldn’t do it when we had nothing and you won’t be able to now. The genie is finally out.
“You know, you could always come to Mass here,” Father Trendy said as I opened the door.
“Father, I have no doubt that one day, I will,” I answered.
We smiled at each other and said our goodbyes. I asked him to remember me in his Mass, and assured him of my prayers. He stepped back into the church and pressed a button on the remote control to start the CD. I entrusted him to the care of Our Lady on the spot, and whispered a prayer that my wish might one day be possible and this crisis of the Church be forgotten. On that day, I will kiss the doorpost of my parish church such will be my joy.
Maria, Mater Dei, Mater Ecclesia, Ora pro nobis.
Seán Dartraighe lives in Ireland.