The car thermometer said thirteen degrees, it seemed odd for 22nd December. The soft drizzle had ceased and the car park was well filled. The great bell of the church clock told the town that it was seven o’clock.
Walking through the church door no more than thirty seconds after the last stroke still meant missing the opening words of the Mass. A small knot of men stood near the door, the rear sections of pews were well filled. Congregational prayers provided cover for walking up the nave to an unobtrusive spot and slipping into a pew.
A Saturday evening Mass three days before Christmas, it did not seem likely to be an occasion that would draw a large crowd. Looking around, it was hard to estimate the capacity of the vast 19th Century church. The pews in the main aisle would easily sit six people, possibly eight, and there were twenty such pews in each block and were there four or six blocks? That could be seating for close on a thousand before one started counting the seats in the side aisles. Would this church seat 1,500? Maybe. If so, it could accommodate the entire population of the town.
To provide an exact estimate of the number present would not have been easy, the vastness of the church made the number look small, there were probably 300-400 present. In an Ireland where the church was said to be in terminal decline, one quarter of the population of the town was there for Mass on a damp Saturday when the television schedules were filled with alternative attractions.
There was nothing special, not even any music, the choir attending Masses on Sunday mornings. The congregation was mostly either middle aged or older or teenagers, families with young children must attend the Sunday morning Mass. There was no suggestion that anything separate was needed in order to attract the significant number of young people who stood with family or with friends.
In forty-eight hours, those who stood there would be back again for the first Mass of Christmas, but that was obviously no reason for not being present this evening. Christmas attendance will be at least 1,500, some attending evening and morning.
Dublin commentators have spent the last decade telling us that the Catholic Church is finished. Drive through rural Ireland on any Saturday evening or Sunday morning, and the claim is rubbished by the evidence of one’s own eyes. The challenge is how to minister to a large population with a declining number of priests; it will demand adaptation, but the church has always adapted.
Turning on the radio at nine o’clock, a voice announced that it was time for ‘Ceili House’; the sound of traditional music filled the car. It evoked images of flat capped men on black bicycles riding to the pub for pints of stout; of kitchens where kettles stood on the range and where pictures of the Pope and John F.Kennedy adorned the walls, along with the inevitable image of the Sacred Heart; of women in floral dresses and children in knitted jumpers. It evoked a world of which nothing remains; well, almost nothing remains: the people still go to Mass.