Saturday, June 25, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 6: St. Patrick's Day, Comely Maidens, Pope Francis, Modern Drama

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl

Last week I went to see a theatrical adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, directed by Jimmy Fay, in the Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire. I am not much of a theatre-goer, being much more a partisan of the cinema. A notice that I saw in the theatre’s bathroom might help to explain my aversion. It read: “Our wonderful housekeeping staff clean these toilets daily. However, if they are not to your satisfaction…” Extending the luvviness to the cleaning staff is rather sweet, but it’s the luvviness itself that tends to make me break out in a rash whenever I breathe the same air as theatre folk—players and punters alike. Silly? Perhaps, but there it is.

James Joyce
However, A Portrait of the Artist is a terrific novel, and one that made a huge impression on me when I first read it. That was when I was about the same age as Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s fictionalised version of himself. Stephen’s climactic epiphany on Dollymount Strand electrified me, and I still consider it one of the most brilliant flights of lyricism ever written.
Disheartened, he raised his eyes towards the slow-drifting clouds, dappled and seaborne. They were voyaging across the deserts of the sky, a host of nomads on the march, voyaging high over Ireland, westward bound. The Europe they had come from lay out there beyond the Irish Sea, Europe of strange tongues and valleyed and woodbegirt and citadelled and of entrenched and marshalled races. He heard a confused music within him as of memories and names which he was almost conscious of but could not capture even for an instant; then the music seemed to recede, to recede, to recede, and from each receding trail of nebulous music there fell always one longdrawn calling note, piercing like a star the dusk of silence. Again! Again! Again! A voice from beyond the world was calling. 

Given my admiration for the source material, I decided I would give the play a try. And Joyce’s prose and dialogue are so good that I guessed there was only so much damage that even the most perverse dramatisation could wreak upon it. However, this production really did its best—or rather, its worst.

The young man is a young girl. How clever!
Nobody will be surprised that Stephen Dedalus was played by a girl. This kind of gender bending seems to be par for the course these days, when idiotic gimmicks like an all-male production of The Importance of Being Earnest are routine.

Give Up Yer Auld Sins

But this wasn’t the only daft stunt that the director pulled. Joyce’s novel, though it certainly has comic and ironic aspects, is at heart a very serious and even solemn portrait of a writer discovering his vocation. It’s also a very vivid picture of Ireland at a crucial moment in its history.

However, the New Theatre company seemed intent upon playing it as a kind of bawdy farce.

The legendary Christmas dinner scene, where an argument breaks out in the Dedalus household on the subject of Parnell’s fall and the Catholic Church’s role in it, was played entirely for laughs. When the Director of Vocations at Belvedere College is advising Stephen on the possibility of a priestly vocation, Stephen is frolicking with a dominatrix in the background. And when Stephen goes to confession to confess his liaisons with prostitutes—a dramatic highlight of the story—he is simultaneously entangled with a devilish lady of the night. Most bizarrely, the priests on stage carry a plastic, near-life-size skeleton around with them—presumably to symbolize the ‘dead hand’ of the Church.

Now, nobody is going to argue that A Portrait of the Artist paints a rosy picture of Catholicism. The entire book hinges on Stephen’s escape from the ‘nets’ of language, nationality and religion in order to devote himself to the life of a writer. But Joyce was too much of an artist to go in for caricatures. He never denied the debt he owed to Catholicism. A Portrait certainly doesn’t present the Catholic faith as being something silly and tawdry, as this production did. It takes it very seriously indeed.

It seems that contemporary Ireland is both obsessed with Catholicism and incapable of taking it seriously. It needs the Church as a villain, but it will only accept it as a comic opera villain.

The night wasn’t a complete disappointment, though. The bathroom was indeed very clean.

Eamon De Valera, symbol of everything modern Ireland hates
 Those Comely Maidens

By the time this column appears, St. Patrick’s Day will have come and gone. There will be the usual complaints about paddywhackery, gay activists looking to politicise parades, and alcohol. Discussion of the saint who converted the Irish to Christianity will, of course, be minimal.

St. Patrick’s Day, of course, was the occasion of √Čamon De Valera’s infamous ‘comely maidens’ radio speech, the speech where he never actually used the words ‘comely maidens’. (This phrase comes from a misreporting of his words in The Irish Press.)

I remember the first time I actually read the text of this speech. (I had already encountered a highly critical discussion of it in my history text-book, but it only quoted snippets.) It was, strangely enough, on a bus-shelter advertisement in Ballymun. There was no indication of who had paid for the advertisement, if it could be even described as an advertisement. It was simply a photograph of the Ballymun flats, looking suitably grim, juxtaposed with De Valera’s words. I suppose some individual or group had commissioned it to make a political point.

At this time, I was a teenager, a socialist, and a confirmed anti-nationalist. Patriotism seemed pointless to me, a mere distraction from the all-important matter of working conditions and standard of living. But, in spite of all that, I was touched by De Valera’s words, and baffled by the ridicule they inspired.

"...whose firesteads would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age..."
What’s Wrong with this Picture?

What is objectionable about the following? “The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.”

In an era of rocketing childhood obesity, surely “the romping of sturdy children” could only be welcomed. We have endless campaigns against ageism, so why should a reference to ‘the wisdom of serene old age’ be laughed at? And, when everybody and his second cousin is now condemning the greed of the Celtic Tiger era, why should it be ridiculous to hope for a people who were ‘satisfied with frugal comfort’ and who ‘devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit?’. Granted, the ‘happy maidens’ might want to have their own athletic contests (incidentally, there was no reference to ‘dancing at the cross-roads’ in the speech, either). But Dev was hardly implying that they should be barred from them.

I won’t pretend that, after seeing this bus shelter ad, I boarded the bus to school as a convert to De Valera’s social vision. But it certainly stuck in my mind, and started to tug at the threads of my teenage self-assuredness.

In the Ireland of 2014, the agrarian idyll evoked in this St. Patrick’s Day speech is no longer a runner, whatever might have been its viability in 1943. Still, it’s a noble ideal. So the next time someone makes a smarmy comment about ‘comely maidens’, why not ask them what the speech actually says and what exactly they object to in it?

Il Papa

Christ, Not Charisma 
A survey of the Pew Forum has found that there is not much evidence of a ‘Francis effect’, at least in America. The number of Americans identifying as Catholics has remained more or less the same since last year, as has the number of American Catholics attending Mass.

I think this finding is, in a strange way, rather heartening. It would be terrible to think that religious commitment was decided by something as superficial as Time magazine’s Man of the Year award, or the good opinion of television pundits.

This finding should (but won’t) be a discouragement to those who obsess about the public image of the Church. Christianity is not, thank God, advanced through marketing campaigns. It is, instead, the seed that grows as the sower sleeps.

I have no doubt that Pope Francis is doing wonderful work for the propagation of the Faith, just as Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II did. But the fruits of that work will not be measurable by surveys and short-term increases in congregation size. The life of the Church is measured in centuries, not by statistics. How many of the mega-churches that have sprung up in America and Korea, with their thousands-strong congregations and their snazzy worship styles, will still be going strong twenty or thirty years from now? 
David Tencer, current bishop of Reykjavick

Good News from Iceland
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano recently reported a Catholic resurgence in a surprising corner of the world. Apparently, the number of Catholics in Iceland has doubled in the last ten years, now standing at eleven thousand. As one website pointed out, this actually represents more than three per cent of the population. There are eight priests and forty religious, many of whom are young, and new churches are being bought and built.

The numbers might seem small, but what is important is that the tide seems to be going in the right direction.

I sometimes think that the Catholic world spends too much time concentrating upon traditionally Catholic societies like Poland, Ireland and Brazil, or young but vibrant Churches like those in China and Africa. Surely the entire world is our mission field, and the tiny churches in countries where Catholicism is a vanishingly small minority should be especially dear to our hearts, and present in our prayers.

Furthermore, Iceland is one of the most secularised countries in the world, and we should take a very special interest in the fortunes of Catholicism and Christianity in such countries. Secularisation is a wave that seems to be passing over the entire developed world, and while there is no reason to assume that the same pattern will be repeated everywhere, it does suggest the very important question—will there be such a thing as post-secularism?

Less exciting to Norwegians than the Bible. Probably old hat to them.
Signs of Hope

I believe there is reason to believe that the answer to that question is ‘yes’.

One remarkable phenomenon that may be relevant is the popularity of a new translation of the Bible in Norway. It became the country’s best-selling book of 2013, outselling Fifty Shades of Grey. A play based upon the Bible also became a huge hit. All this in a country with one of the lowest rates of church attendance in the world. (The percentage of Catholics in Norway, however, has been climbing steadily.)

The Catholic Church in England, which is also one of the most secularised nations in the world, is enjoying something of a quiet renaissance. Vocations to the priesthood are rising, as are the numbers of women joining religious orders. Some years ago the numbers of English Catholics attending Mass surpassed the number of Anglicans attending Sunday service. Meanwhile, in America, there was a sixteen per cent increase in seminarians from 1995 to 2013.

The Catholic Church in Sweden is one of the fastest growing in Europe, and while this growth mostly comes from immigration, the bishop of Stockholm (whose diocese covers the entire country) said in an interview with the Australian Catholic Weekly in 2013 that there “seems to be a growing interest among young people for vocations, especially for the religious life.”

George Weigel
 Are these small signs? Of course. But remember what Our Lord said about the mustard seed. And since the Catholic writer George Weigel described Ireland, not implausibly, as “the epicentre of European anti-Catholicism”, we may inspire ourselves with the thought that we are in the very front line of the confrontation with secularisation..

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