During my visit home this week, I found myself in a surreal situation when I was shoulder-twisted into an extended family social occasion and ended up being cornered (literally) by a subgroup of religious zealots.
Just for context, you probably need to understand that religion in Ireland has suffered a huge decline over the past thirty years. Most of the seminaries where new young priests used to enter the order are now pretty much empty. Schools and colleges that used to be run and staffed by Christian Brothers or Presbeterian Brothers are now staffed almost entirely by lay people. There are very few convents still in operation and I personally haven’t seen a nun in years.
In parishes (Church defined territories) where four or five priests used to live in a church residence you now often find single priests living in a huge residence by themselves. Like their congregations, the remaining priests are getting quite elderly and the Catholic Church in Ireland is struggling to deal with empty churches, large property banks and the support and maintenance of their own aging membership. Dwindling church attendance is also an issue and some startling, if ineffective, innovations have been trialled. One ingenious solution used locally was when the priest’s mass service was transmitted out over the open radio for people like my elderly aunt who couldn’t attend due to a disability.
Unfortunately, the church hadn’t done its research properly and was forced to close the service down when they started receiving complaints from Cork airport. Apparently, the priests were using the same wireless frequency as the airline pilots communicating with the airport’s control tower. Planes dropping the gears and lining up for an approach to the landing strip on a Saturday night or Sunday morning were occasionally assaulted by a furious homily from the local priest just as they were preparing to land.
In another recent innovation, one or two priests have also been passing the Eucharist onto regular attendees who haven’t been able to make the mass. Generally, a trusted member of the congregation is given the blessed Eucharist and instructed to bring it to the home of the missing individual. This approach is outside Church policy so only the ‘in’ few get this particular service. Needless to say, it’s all very hush-hush but of course there are plenty of braggers and, as a result, everyone in the parish knows about it. Local wags are now calling them “Church take-aways”.
The Church’s cause hasn’t really been helped by its poor acknowledgement of the enormous hurt and damaged caused by abuse of children in their care, the Magdalen Laundries and of course the recent scandal of the children’s burial ground in Tuam. Neither is it helped by the members of the church itself. In the local parish for example, there are three priests, known as the Gambling Priest (who likes a bit of a flutter), the Drinking Priest (an alcoholic) and the Shagging Priest. The latter is currently shacked up with a woman and her child (but it’s not his child so “that’s all right”!). Church attendance there is pretty slim and, again, the church is struggling to pay for and maintain the priests in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. Recently, there was uproar when a letter arrived into the mailbox of all parish households, seeking contributions towards the petrol bill of the main parish priest (The Gambling Priest). Given that most people know most of that money would end up at the bookies, the proposal was, understandably, greeted with substantial scorn.
At a family event, I was sitting at a corner table where I was joined by an elderly relative and two of her friends and finally by the Gambling Priest himself. The Gambling Priest is a bit of a pompous ass, to be honest. A family “friend”, I’ve never actually liked him as he’s always exuded a sense of self-entitlement and led a life of luxury and privilege due to his status in the community. I’ve put up with him due to family connections but otherwise I’ve generally avoided him.
On this particular occasion, the Gambling Priest started pontificating about a local derelict hospital (The Red Brick) that had recently been burned down and he was convinced it’d been put to flame by young people “on the instigation of” one of the new political parties out to make way for housing for the homeless. When K pointed out that this might actually have been a good thing, it quickly became clear he was actually against the homeless (people who were too lazy to get a job and fend for themselves – a bit like, well, priests I suppose), immigrants (including refugees), black people liberals and socialists.
Oh, and anyone who didn’t vote for Fianna Fáil.
While the Gambling Priest was talking, the other three elderly people were nodding servilely in agreement. From their subsequent comments it became obvious they were simply regurgitating the Gambling Priest’s opinions and hadn’t a brain cell of independent thought to share between the lot of them.
Having pretty much avoided religion of any kind since childhood, I was totally gobsmacked to find myself in a situation of such … almost caricature-like grotesqueness. I’d always heard the stories of course, seen snippets of the behaviour and laughed at the Father Ted mocking but I’d never personally experienced the true extent of zealot-like fanaticism that pervades certain sections of the Irish Church.
In the end, I managed to excuse myself without getting too angry but the whole incident genuinely left a bad taste in my mouth. If this is what the Irish Church is truly like, then the sooner it fades away, the better.