Our Irish caravan pushed on to the very edge of Europe, Valentia Island, where we will be staying in Knightstown for awhile. Our accommodations are right down the street from the Catholic Church, so we attended the 6:15 PM Mass on Saturday night at Immaculate Conception Church, built in 1914. At least 100 folks gathered for Mass, possibly more, in a structure that has seen good days and is still quite serviceable. The entire wall behind the altar is a stained glass series of depictions of the mystery of Mary, resulting in a liturgical curiosity of a giant crucifix handing on a side wall of the sanctuary.
The liturgy was, in a word, highly eccentric, and by this I definitely do not mean "Irish." I had been warned that Masses in Ireland are brief. I set my Fit Bit timer and determined a span tonight of 0:37. In fairness we added some minutes when the celebrant ran out of communion hosts and went off to find the tabernacle key for the folks still in line. There was no music. Participants received what looked like a bulletin at the door as they entered, but in actually this was the actual Mass text for following, a standardized syndicated product from Shanway Press. The lector read both readings from the bulletin.
The homily was extremely brief, read from a sheet of paper. But it was other features of the Mass that caught my attention. Next to the chalice on the altar was a giant bell, which the celebrant rang himself at the appropriate times. The Doxology and Our Father were prayed in Gaelic. The English Mass text itself varied from that of the U.S. There was no Kiss of Peace. After the celebrant received communion, he leisurely cleaned the chalice and covered it with the veil and burse as in days of old and transported it to the side. Then he distributed communion--naturally under one form only, until he ran out and had to scout up the tabernacle key.
When Mass was over, my astute wife pointed out to me that the Easter or Paschal candle had never been lit. The wick was as pristine as the day the box was opened. Do they have a catechumenate here, I wondered? Do they celebrate the Triduum? Do they have any events that mark a common life of faith outside of the half hour of fractured and impersonal breaking of the bread?
If things are as I suspect they are, then in some way this community is living as its sixth century counterparts, tended sporadically by priests and bishops but otherwise left to fend for themselves. In last night's congregation there were a fair number of families, some coming to Mass at considerable difficulty (bringing elderly parents or members with disabilities), and one has to respect the faith and the effort. While not at all diminishing the sacramental reality of the local Mass, one wonders if a local community carries on its faith identity because of or in spite of its weekly celebration of the Eucharist.
The historical setting of Ireland does come into play here as we reflect upon this question. Some years ago a chancery administrator in the U.S. admitted to me that he was seriously questioning the much quoted Vatican II dictum that the liturgy is the source and summit of all Catholic life. We had been talking about catechetics/religious education and the reality of a substratum, if you will, of belief, imagination, stories and actions that convey the Catholic Christian experience at a very personal and yet deeply shared level.
The Irish experience of Church teaches a great deal. Often described as the land of saints and scholars, its archaeological history alone points to centuries of a primitive and gritty religious experience where worship took place in cleverly constructed caves. We can probably surmise that early liturgies were quite brief and to the point, that conditions made the weekly guarantee of a priest or bishop unpredictable, and that motivation was complicated. A large amount of Dark Age literature from Ireland (known as Irish penitentiaries) would suggest that fear of hell and the Sacrament of Penance played as significant a role as Eucharist in Irish Catholic life. It is Ireland, after all, that gave the Church the practice of individual and repeatable sacramental Penance.
A half-century after Vatican II the Sunday Eucharist is still celebrated in many places with only the haziest links to the power of preaching and the efficacious impact of sign and symbol (a hearty communion bread hasn't been discussed in decades, and many churches do not proffer the cup for reasons of convenience as much as anything.)
So what are the core subconscious experiences of faith that shape my experience of and vision for the Church? I have been asking myself that question for years, but I have a feeling that tasting the life of another culture may give me some clues.
Oh yes, in my socializing on the island today I learned that the celebrant of last night's Mass is being reassigned, and that for the first time in Christian history Sunday Mass will no longer be offered on Valentia Island. I guess we will find out about the mysteries of personal Faith sustenance sooner than later.