NChronide no Mass I, said in this high place of Irish Catholicism.
Of course, this unromantic ituitude is wholely right. But I fear they practice it for the wrong reasons.
Holy Cross — a gorgeous place
THERE is an exception to this dismissal of the past. This is the Abbey of the Holy Cross, It was founded by the King of Munster, Donal O'Brien, in 1168. It 'began as Benedictine but was soon given over to the Cistercians.
It was suppressed in theory in 1563, hut because it was the property of the almost royal Earls of Ormonde the monks stayed on there for another hundred years and then it fell desolate and the locals used its pavements as a burial place.
But alter being roofless for 200 years, it was restored as part of the European Heritage Year of 1975. This was Ireland's contribution. I cannot recall what England did.
It is close to Cashel and to Thurle.s, in rich, flat country where the houses are small and the trees vast and the fields, just now. the expected and dazzling green. There are also ruined castles and public houses and towns where the names over the shops are still painted in elaborate Victorian script.
The Abbey hardk has a village hut exists now in its own right. It is quite small but astonishing. It is utterly different from anything iii C011liileillai or British Europe.
They have put back a roof of graduated slates. It must have cost a packet. It is a huge expanse of silvery blackness that reaches almost to the ground. Everything about it seems curiously eccentric, exaggerated. exciting.
Around it arc the ruins of the Abbey buildings. There is a complicated little cloister, or a bit of it and then the door into the church, If the outside is carefully restrained and merely quietly magnificent, inside it is all that once could wish for Ireland. It is almost gorgeous and very slightly mad and it has been restored and converted to the new rites or the Mass with real splendour.
It is unexpectedly large. Most of the windows have a wild sort of tracery filled now with plain glass through which you can see the clouds race and the rain beat down and the sun dazzle.
The walls are plain and rough and whitewashed. The arches are of some precious grey stone. The roof is an elaborate exercise in groin* and you just sit there and look as if you had found some quite new form of architecture. It is built in the form of a cross, with rich trancepts, each with side chapels. In one there is a curious pillared shrine, like the tomb of a great man. It stands free, like a bed in a state room and it was here, they think, that the relic ol the Cross was kept. It made this place one of the holiest in Ireland.
There are seats for the clergy, sedilia. set into the sanctuary wall. elaborately carved and with the old royal arms of England above it. The quarterings that bore the leopards have been scraped almost bare. Those with the fleurs de lis are pristine. One can guess why. When this place was,a sturdy ruin, it did not belong to the Church of Ireland and the Irish did with it what they willed.
I do not know quite how to convey the excitement and eccentricity or this place. The arches are wildly dramatic. The floor is paved with the dead. The window N almost writhe in their stone tr.teery. The restoration is a triumph ,tnd the modern altar at
the centre of it all is downright noble. The tabernacle is a free standing casket in a side chapel as rich as any jewel box.
And all of it is used, not for monks, but for the people. I went to Sunday Mass there and got the old delight of seeing something splendid. not in ruins or in a museum. but used for its proper purpose. It would be foolish to go to Ireland and not try to see it. And any:'. there is Cashel close by.
. . . but a
THE MASS itself was an experience and here I cannot be kind. The liturgy is not theatre and should not be treated us a critic treats a play. But this was sad in such a setting.
They have three Masses each Sunday and the attendance is about 2000 all told. One moment I was sitting and gawping almost alone and then with a great' clatter, the place filled. The people stood in the aisles, packed the benches. The whole world. old and young. seemed to he there.
Long ago, I remember, when the vernacular Mass exploded over Catholic England like a firework, one expected the worst. At least the language then disguised the holy simplicity of some of the priests and they could pick their way across the quagmire of I.atin without embarrassment and without anyone complaining. I remember dreading what would happen when the same people would have to appear in the nakedness of English. I think the result has been remarkable and the Mass in England is usually short and noble and intelligible.
But the Mass in Ireland seems to me, as a stranger there, to be more like a Tibetan prayer wheel. It is the supreme expression of their national consciousness. It is the source of the survival of their identity. All society bends them towards attendance. It has become not a privilege or a fearful thing. but an essential routine. There is a huge church in Dublin beside Trinity College where I went some years ago. It sounded like the concourse of Waterloo. People poured in and out and certainly did a great deal more praying than a journalist on the religious prowl. But, goodness, how routine. The priest finished Mass, in Irish, and then came down to the root or the altar and started another. And all the liturgiciens in the world could not have changed it. Simply. God and the people had to be served and where everyone goes to church the line theories go out of the window.
But I thought Holy Cross was a little sad. It was an appalling routine affair. The good priest had a microphone, but though I sat close to the front. was inaudible and I simply do not know what the sermon, in that most moving temple, was about.
Then the Irish themselves, at prayer. are intolerable. Mention the words Hail Mary and they are off like a pack of beagles after some sacred hare. Again, it's the Tibetal prayer wheel. There is nothing measured or considered about it. It is a natural part of life. like good bread and clean water. But that fearful gabble in which ito one unitesand there is neither dignity nor stateliness, brings out the Englishry in me. And, possibly, we really are the pompous show offs that most of the world takes us for.
But the surprise was Communion. 1 recall that. just as in Poland, very few went to Communion, The Jansenist tradition persisted and you did not take the Sacrament unless you had been to Confession the night before and even that was pretty perilous. .
At Holy Cross they poured up. Two priests gave It to their people. I think that I alone held out my hand for the Host and the curate did a double take but did not refuse me.
It is odd and healthy that an universal Church should take so many forms. Perhaps the Irish dislike the English decorum as much as I was disturbed by their apparent carelessness. But I was close to tears of pleasure when I went up to that altar.
Utterly wise and honest
AN ABBOT of Ampleforth, Herbert Byrne, once wrote to me, starting thus: "Dear Patrick, You won't remember who I am." Cor!
He was one or the great advertisements for the priesthood and died a curate in Leyland at a great age in 1978, absolutely lapped in love. He used to have a fearful bad temper — many monks have — and he conquered it. But he was an utterly sensible and wise man.
If I have seemed unkind about Holy Cross let me quote what he wrote about the faithful when he worked "on the mission" in Liverpool before he became Abbot. (He preceded Cardinal Ilume.) He was an utterly honest man.
"In an average congregation ten per cent use books, twenty have beads in their hands; of the rest, the small people wriggle unhappily, the larger ones lean heavily on the bench-rail. Are they praying? It would he rash to say that they are not. and yet the daily difficulty of mental prayers after years of practice suggests a doubt. Certainly most of them do not seem to be praying. What they seem. misleadingly or not, to show is vacancy, weariness and a great patience: vacancy, because their minds do not easily form thoughts, nor does the Mass stimulate a flow of thoughts in them; weariness, because having nothing to think about they also have nothing to do: patience. because, apart from other reasons, they are wonderful people."
One does not mourn such men. One is happy that they ever existed. And a blinding honesty is the best answer to the vulgarity of life. And try to recall that this was pre-Vatican II.