By Gwendolen Webb-Peploe
0 H N SHERIDAN'S latest novel "The Rest is Silence" contains an enchanting anecdote of
an Irish American priest who at the age of 90 flew to Rome to make his Holy Year Jubilee. On his way he stopped at Shannon and visited Skibbereen where he
was born. On his return to America he declared that "the' only two places worth seeing in Europe are Rome and Skibbereen."
On reading these words one smiles, remembering the stupid old joke concerning the Skibbereen Eagle, and in my own case remembering also the Cork taxi-driver who, on hearing my destination, exclaimed; "Skibbereen, God help usis Sure no one ever goes to Skibbereen" (for this smelt and pleasant town would seem to hold the place in Irish humour which is reserved for Wigan in our own). But amusement was followed by the realisation : "How right he was."
For if, as Belloc told us, "Europe is the Faith," then what would a Catholic more desire to see in Europe than the full flowering of the Faith? And—it seems to me who have the good fortune to know both Rome and Skibbereen—in these two places one sees the two most
triumphant aspects of the Church which is not yet integrally "triumphant" but only "militant."
Glory of Rome
IN Rome one has the glory I.—mixed with alloy as it must be while this world lasts— yet shown more plainly there than anywhere else on earth. The enduring passion of the martyrs, the Church of Silence speaking almost audibly in the Catacombs, the enchanted fairy-tale--for children of all ages —of Ara Cocli, where the blessed Bambino dispenses earthly favours in the midst of Fra Angelico's evocations of the spring time of the world, while the feet of countless pilgrims pass over the happy dead who lie beneath its ancient floor.
One has the magnificence of St. Peter's, the "Confession" where it is borne in on one that all roads do indeed lead not merely to Rome but to that exact spot, which—like the Sacratissima nox of Easter—unites in charity all those who believe.
One has the concentrated spirituality of the Gesu, with the ancient professed house alongside containing the bare cell where Ignatius died alone without the sacraments, "choosing rather" to be accounted nothing as Christ his Lord had been.
One has the splendid pageant of the Church's history in the Lateran, the vivid grace of Our Lady in her "special" church, Santa Maria Maggiore. (Was that enchanting picture of her really painted "from the life" by St. Luke? Looking at it, the conviction grows on one that it was.) One has the Coliseum drenched in the blood of the martyrs, and in San Clemente the one remaining bone of that great lover of Christ, Ignatius of Antioch—the only bone because all the rest had been "ground by the teeth of beasts to make the blameless bread of Christ," as he himself desired, and 'the little incorrupt Capuchin lay-brother sleeping peacefully beneath an altar in the Via Venento.
In Rome one has the chains which hound St. Peter, the print of Our Lord's foot at the meeting place, Quo Vadis, and the house of St. Cecilia; one has canonisations and beatifications, the silver trumpets and the singing of the Sistine Choir, the medieval pageantry of Swiss and Noble Guards, Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and Chamberlains of the Cape and Sword.
One has the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ Himself, for whom "Holiness" seems the only possible appellation as he stands with arms outstretched in an embrace, which includes not only all his children, even of the least-known nations— Latvians, Estonians and the rest whose names arc upon the confessionals—but the whole world if they will have it so.
DOME has all these things
AN-and thousands more beside—and what in comparison has Skibbereen?
It has no beauty that one could desire it, no "many-splendoured things," no riches, no pomp, no magnificence. Then how could it conceivably be E u r o pe's other worth-while place?
I think because there—as in all the West of Ireland which is not yet spoiled by English values—we see the Faith, and heroic devotion to the Faith, in barest nakedness; the bare bones of it are clearly visible.
Just as in death the hone structure of a face is shown more clearly than when that face was filled with colour and animation, so in the complete stripping and bareness of the Irish presentation of the Faith its "bone structure" is most clearly shown, For here "it is the Mass that matters" and everything else—even what is most helpful, as the chant and ceremonial and the riches of the Liturgy—has had to go by the board in the heroic struggle to keep the one essential (for one ought never to forget that Ireland kept the Mass when, under the same persecution, England abandoned it save in a few isolated outposts of the Faith).
In Ireland the tradition is not of beautiful ceremony but of Mass said on bare rocks by hunted priests for a congregation who had risked their lives to be present. with as "reredos" a living man with a crucifix suspended round his neck.
And this tradition remains strong even in these unpersecuted times; the "bone structure" is still visible, stripped of all the lovely inessentials.
IT was my privilege some
A-years ago to spend Holy Week in Skibbereen. (Actually I had hoped to spend it at Mount Melleray, but the Cistercian rules for female visitors were so restrictive as to leave practically nothing at which 1 would be allowed to "assist," so in disappointment I "fell back on" Skibbereen.) And how glad I was subsequently to have had that experience of the prayer of a typical or rather archetypal. since Skibbereen is a cathedral towns— Western Irish community.
I think it was the office of Tenebrae which impressed me most—the more so because I had always tried to arrange to spend Holy Week where I could be sure that the ceremonies would he beautifully carried out. in a sense they were so in Skibbereen, since all was done with great dignity and holy reverence. But the singing — so much a "feature" of Tenebrae—was not beautiful. And no member of the congregation—so far as I could see—had'a Holy Week book in which to follow what was being sung. And since they were almost all Irish peasants, presumably none of them understood the Latin.
Yet (and surety this is a powerful argument against the desire which exists in some quarters to introduce "the vernacular" into the Liturgyl during all those lengthy ceremonies the great crowd remained hushed in a stillness of devotion which could be felt—which couldn't, in fact, not be felt except by the utterly in, sensitive.
Many people held "the heads" in their hands, some told them, but the majority sat immovable— listening, yes, but more obviously praying. And since they knew that what was being sung celebrated the Passion of Christ, and since they were quite obviously uniting themselves to that with a most passionate devotion (quite a different thing from the sentimental devotion which is so easy), I for one believe that they received the grace for which the Lady Julian so touchingly prayed "to have a mind of His Passion," to a degree not often reached by those of us who betake ourselves for Holy Week to some "special" church, armed with Holy Week hooks and plainsong manuals, with perhaps A Is b o t Gtrellinger for betweenwhiles—all undeniable helps; but do we not tend, in our care for the setting, to miss the heirt of the matter to which the Irish have held so tightly through the centuries of persecution?
THAVE myself always a-longed to experience Holy Week in Seville; yet should that wish be by some unlikely chance fulfilled, I doubt if even there, in what was once the land of the most Catholic kings, and is now, 1 suppose, the land of the most Catholic people (since Poland is occupied by the enemy and Italy has many Communists, and even Ireland has many more Protestants than Spain). I doubt if even there I shall find the faithful "assisting at" the Passion of Christ with greater love or more intense devotion than in the little grey town by the river in the heart of the persecution countrySkibbereen.