Here is an account of a parish mission from the book "Half in Earnest" by John D. Sheridan, a collection of articles which was published in 1948. The author thanks the editors of The Irish Independent and the Massachussets Teachers' Journal for allowing him to reproduce material. I imagine this article appeared in the former, rather than the latter.
I have written about John D. Sheridan on this blog before. I am an admirer of his work of Catholic apologetics, The Hungry Sheep, which among other things is an early condemnation of post-Vatican II madness. Some years ago, when I had fewer expenses than I do now, I went through a phase of buying the various collections of his articles on Amazon. They are a good size for sticking in a pocket, so I still find myself doing that when I'm expecting to be standing in a queue-- I was reading this article in a pharmacy this morning.
My fondness for his "funny" writings, which wasn't all that high to begin with, has diminished still further recently. I've grown more and more fastidious about prose style as I've got older. Anything too mannered bothers me. And few things bother me more than the tone of sustained flippancy which so many humorous writers adopt. Along with this, I detest the knowing, sardonic, man-of-the-world tone in which Sheridan, along with many others, constantly indulges.
But what I find most irritating in this author's work is something that he shares with many (supposedly) comic writers; a conviction that hilarity is to be found in disappointment, indignation, frustration, boredom, and so on. The stubbed toe, the angry wife, the bus that you just miss (and that splashes you with water from a puddle as it drives away), the old guy dancing badly at the wedding, etc. etc. Somehow, such writers think that multiplying allusions like these adds up to a comic vision. But it's not comic. It's depressing. Chesterton is a rare example of a comic writer who seeks to convey wonder, rather than weariness.
All the same, I doubt I have to explain why I've gone to the trouble of typing out this particular article. To me, for all Sheridan's disenchanted style, it's an enchanting window onto Catholic Ireland. How things have changed, from the time that an article such as this might appear in a national daily newspaper! The author seems to simply assume that his readers are Catholic and that most would have attended a parish mission.
I've never attended a mission. I attended the first and final Mass of a parish mission, given by the Jesuits, a few years ago. (I met the priest who gave me First Communion at this, and I was very disappointed.) I didn't have time to attend the rest of it. I've attended one retreat. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and one that still lingers with me.
Anyway, here is the article.
It might be no harm if hte regular clergy, who give missions, and the seculars, who commission them, were told the lay point of view on this salutary annual discipline; for the laity seldom gets a chance of expressing itself on such matters, except when it stands up in a body on the first night of the mission and, through the medium of the most doleful of hymns, announces that, once again, it is resolved "to turn away from crime."
First and foremost, we don't like missions, any more than we like quinine and cascara. We know that they are good for us, but you can take my word for it that the chillest Sunday of the year is the Sunday on which the priest announces that the ecclesiastical auditors are on their wway and that the reclamation of the senile delinquent is at hand.
In our parish, and, I should think, in all parishes big enough to justify a fortnight's retreat, Mother Church, in her wisdom and charity, allocates the first week to the women. This is because long experience has taught her that women, having fought their way through winter winds on seven consecutive nights and on seven chilly mornings, will hunt out the menfolk, when their times comes, with a fervour that is not wholly spiritual in origin.
The men are glad of the week's remand, and they make the most of it. They pile on the fire, put their feet on the mantelpiece, and think of everything but the life to come.
When the women come home from the mission we make room for them at the hearth, warn them-- fruitlessly-- not to make a mess of a perfectly good fire, and get a preview of the mission and the missioners. The clergy should know, I think, that though we sit quietly during the sermon, our critical faculties are not asleep. In one sense we are in the dock, but in another we are in the jury-box, and we have no difficulty at all in coming to a verdict. The old missioner is a good preacher, or a bad preacher, or a middling preacher; the young one is too severe,or not severe enough, or he keeps us too long.There are also comparisons with the great men of last year or the year before ("they were divils on the drink"), and if the vintage is a bit thin we shake our heads in memory of the fine preachers who were with us in the year of the big snow.
Sometimes a few friends come in before bedtime, and then the discussion widens a little. It moves from individuals to regiments, and the Church's missionary army is reviewed in a spirit that is anything but impartial. One swears by the Redemptorists, another by the Vincentians, and you have only to praise the Dominicans to hear the virtues of the Jesuits. But there is a limit to our bigoted partisanship-- we speak of them all as "missioners", and not, after the manner of our country cousins, as "Holy Fathers"-- a libellous phrase which seems to imply that the "Holy" would be altogether inappropriate if it were applied to the local secular clergy In our parish, I am glad to say, we are above such innuendo.
As the first week of the mission goes by, and it passes all too quickly for the guardians of the hearth, the women become more and more self-righteous and the men more and more apprehensive. Some of the lazier ones practice spells of coughing and onwder if the night air would be bad for their bronchitis. But they are only wasting their time, for a woman at the close of a week's mission is as formidable as Peter the Hermit, and will not listen to excuses from anyone who is not permanently bed-ridden. Having formally renounced the devil, she forgets that Eve was his first client, acts as if he only purpose in making the mission were to show good example to the men, and becomes a missioner in her own right.
There is something cold and austere-looking about a missioner when he appears above the edge of the pulpit on the first night of a mission-- he has the cut of a regimental sergeant-major giving his first talk to a bunch of prisoners who have been sentenced on a charge of being drunk and disorderly. We are anything but drunk and disorderly, and we know it. We know that the sum total of our misdemeanours would not make material for one good shocker, but we know too that each one of us can say, with literal truth, that it is high time he turned away from crime. We are not the great sinners who God loves and pursues; we are the lukewarm yea-and-nay people who are rated so low in Holy Writ, the people who have to be coaxed, reminded, and exhorted, who have little spurts of piety every now and again and always mean to do better the week after next. We don't beat our wives (even when they deserve it), we don't rob banks, we are on the side of law and order-- we are chock-full of tiny, respectable, negative virtues.
We feel very sorry for ourselves, and very ashamed of ourselves, and the missioner-- who knows just how much penitence we can stand--breaks the tension when we have had enough. He breaks it by means of that dialectical device which (this is pure supposition) all young missioners are taught in the novitiate. He says: "I remember once giving a mission in a little village in the west" and immediately we all sit back and relax. Once a missioner tells a story, especially a humorous story, the discipline of the class is gone for good. And there it may be remarked that a missioner who rates his stories according to the laughter they will win for him is making the biggest mistake of his life. All a missioner has to do to get a laugh is to make it clear he expects one.
When the laugh dies down we begin to cough in relays-- a seat at a time. You cough at a mission, but for sheer joy at discovering that you are only one sinner amongst many, and to break the loneliness that comes to a man when he looks into his own soul.
As you walk home from the church afterwards, this feeling of kinship, of belonging to the big family that is the parish, and of having cousins the world over, strengthens perceptibly. You walk home from the cinema with the man next door, but you walk home from the mission with your blood brother.
There is something symbolic about the lighting of candles on the last night of a mission. it dims the great lights overhead, and makes the church not just a citadel against the darkness but a citadel against the powers of darkness. Our annual mission begins rather timidly, but it finishes up in a blaze of glory. I think that our feelings on the last night might be summed up in the story of the man who-- when the missioner, not being satisfied with the volume of the first renunciation of the devil, cried "louder"-- shouted out long before his fellow had responded, and in a voice which must have been heard in regions beyond this visible world-- "louser!". The phrase is a little vulgar, perhaps even a little abusive, but it is a perfect ending to the annual mission.