Saturday, October 5, 2013

Hanging with the Old Folks

This morning, I attended Mass in a North Dublin church I've only attended once before-- I won't say which. It was one of those modern, squat, angular, concrete churches that everyone hates except for me.

Whenever I attend Mass in a church I don't usually attend (in fact, most of the time I attend Mass anywhere), I find myself scanning the congregation to see how many people have turned up, whether they're alone or with others, and-- most of all-- how old they are.

Today, as on the previous occasion I attended this church, I saw that the overwhelming majority of the worshippers were white-haired. There were only a handful of people there who seemed to be under the age of sixty.

Now, whenever I find myself regretting the advanced age of a church congregation, I do try to put this in the proper perspective. I do try to avoid the trap of valuing young people, or middle-aged people, more than oldies. It's not that I think that having a free bus pass or a knowledge of pounds, shillings and pence makes you somehow less important. I know that when we are "lifting up our hearts" during Mass, our minds should be upon the things of Eternity rather than the things of this world, and that Our Lord explicitly tells us to take no thought for the morrow, and to seek first the kingdom of God.

But I find it hard to help myself. I am anxious for the future of the Church in Ireland. And when I attend Mass and see that the preponderance of people there are in their twilight years, I can't help wondering who is going stand in those pews in decades to come.

Observing Oldies at Worship

I do wonder what the old people themselves must feel. Churches that were full all their lives are suddenly three-quarters empty. The faith that was a cornerstone of their own lives is, most probably, either neglected or outright spurned by their own children and grandchildren. What do they think about this? Does it depress them? If it does, I never see any sign of it. The old folks who make up the majority of Mass-goers always seem cheerful enough to me.

When I attend a Mass where most of the other worshippers are old-- and that is most of the Masses I attend-- I am conscious of the difference between them and me. I think of them as belonging to a very different generation.

In some ways, there is a rather observable difference between elderly people and younger people at Mass. Elderly people (it seems to me) tend to be rather more casual in their attitude-- more likely to stroll in late, more likely to leave after Communion, more likely to talk out loud, more likely to join the priest in speaking the Eucharistic doxology ("Through him, with him, in him..."), more likely to light candles at shrines during the liturgy. In fact, I find that younger people tend to be more ostentatiously reverential at Mass.

This has been a source of temptation towards spiritual pride for me, I must admit. It is easy to fall into the assumption that many elderly people simply go to Mass out of long-engrained habit, whereas Catholics of my generation have had to make a conscious choice to go-- one rather against the tide, at that-- and that our faith is somehow purer and more authentic for that reason.

Even writing those words makes me feel ashamed and embarrassed, and whenever I find myself thinking like this, I do rebuke myself. I remind myself that these elderly people have been going to Mass all their lives, and if some habits of laxity have crept into their devotions, it is much more excusable in them than it would be in me-- it's the ease that arises from long familiarity. How on Earth can I know what is in their souls?

But I don't think I am alone in all this. I think there is a tendency amongst Catholics (and amongst Christians in general) to put such an emphasis upon "reaching the young people" that old people are either taken for granted, or treated as somehow less important.

A De Luxe Rosary

Well, today's Mass was something of a salutary rebuke to me in this regard. Actually, it wasn't so much the Mass as its immediate aftermath.

I have to admit that, though going to Mass gives me a great satisfaction, and I do my best to go every day (I am lucky to work in UCD, with its daily Mass during term-time), my mind does often wander during the liturgy. I often get bored. I often (I won't deny it, though I'm ashamed of it) feel relieved when the Mass is over. And I rarely, rarely stay on if a rosary is being recited afterwards.

Today, I did stay on. It was the first Saturday of the month, and the rosary was being said in accordance with the request of Our Lady of Fatima. And it wasn't just a no-frills rosary, either-- it was a de luxe rosary, with Scriptural excerpts before each mystery, a Fatima litany, a prayer for the Pope's intentions, an Act of Reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and (as the K-tel ads say) many, many more.

I used to say the Rosary. A few years ago, when I started to practice my faith, I said it every day. Then my list of intentions after the Rosary began to grow and grow, until-- to quote the traditional Irish poem, The Trimmin's on the Rosary-- "the rosary was but trimmin's to the trimmin's I would say". So I dropped the rosary itself. I still say one now and then, but it is not a regular part of my prayer life.

Looking around me, I spotted a lady who looked to be in her thirties or forties on the other side of the church, kneeling and looking at the tabernacle. I don't know if she was joining in the Rosary or lost in her own private prayers. Apart from that it was just me and the oldies. I'd say there was about twenty of us.

As we drifted into the hypnotic, lulling rhythms of the Rosary, I found myself also drifting into a different state of mind, too.

The Deep End

The best analogy I can make is with getting into the swimming pool. When you first get into the pool, you do so with reluctance and trepidation, since the water feels so chilly. But after a splashing around for a while, you warm to it, and eventually it's getting out of the water, still wet, that is difficult and chilly.

That is how I often feel when I become absorbed in the Rosary, or indeed in the Mass. (The principle applies to secular pursuits, too.) Something that seemed-- if I was to be honest with myself-- like a drag, suddenly seems utterly absorbing and comfortable. I become like St. Peter on the mountain the Transfiguration, reluctant to descend back to the workaday world.

And, from this different perspective, I began to see the older people around me very differently. They seemed so much more at home here than me-- here, in the mysteries of the Rosary. They rattled off the additional prayers, which I mostly didn't know, fluently and familiarly. They had probably been saying these devotions their entire lives.

But it wasn't just that. It seemed to me that they were more at home than I was in the whole mental world of devotions, sacramentals, indulgences, apparitions, medals, and all those other aspects of traditional Catholicism that were almost jettisoned after Vatican II.

Now, it's true that the more assertively orthodox of younger Catholics are returning to these practices-- but the return itself seems self-conscious, wilful, almost defiant. We are not to the manner born, to say the least.

I find it hard to imagine ever having the matter-of-fact, almost business-like familiarity with the supernatural order that I feel around me, when I am praying the Rosary with older Catholics.

The Gifts Reserved for Age

It reminds me of my first year in secondary school, when a dotty and loveable old nun called Sister Aquinas taught us all about the apparitions at Lourdes and Fatima as straightforwardly, and as unapologetically, as though she was teaching us home economics. After that year, religious education class (in my Catholic school) was mostly pop psychology and inspiring feature films.

I feel the same when traditional hymns are sung at Mass. I know "Hail Queen of Heaven" by now. But many of the others are unknown to me, and I rather ruefully stay quiet as they are sung around me. I feel, at such moments, that I am learning a language that I may master, but in which I will never be a native speaker.

As you'll guess, I left the church today feeling more than a little humbled. And chastened.

I think the elderly generation of Irish Catholics bring something extremely precious to the Church. (I mean, apart from all the unique gifts that each individual brings anyway.) They are bearers of a devotional tradition that is living, breathing, lively and robust -- one that is both wide and deep, that is rooted in the supernatural, and is pregnant with all the folklore, custom and spontaneity-- the "muscle memory", so to speak-- that is all-but-impossible outside such a vibrant tradition.

The generations of Irish Catholics that seek to re-evangelize this nation will never know anything quite like it. We should be as reverential and as attentive towards these elders as the enthusiasts of the Gaelic Revival, who sought to revive Irish national traditions at the dawn of the last century, were towards the seanchai story-tellers they found in Connemara cottages, or the old women telling fairy stories on rocky islands off the Western coast.


  1. First of all, I like your metaphor for getting into a swimming pool. I have found this to be true in spiritual matters and also everyday matters.

    Second, the elderly are (in most cases) practically keepers of traditional Catholicism. Maybe they are slightly liberal in their own ways, but they also know a lot that people like myself do not. Still though, I don't think there is any shame in being curious as to how many young people attend Mass. Time won't stop, and the next generation of Catholics need to come from somewhere if the Church is to survive in Ireland.

  2. I'm glad you liked my metaphor! I was pleased with it.

    I think the elderly ARE keepers of traditional Catholicism. Where would it be without them?