‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’. John 13:35
Walking through the church door on the Saturday before Christmas, no more than thirty seconds after the last stroke of seven 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. The prayers said by the whole congregation provided cover for walking up the nave to an unobtrusive spot and slipping into a pew.
Looking around, it was hard to estimate the capacity of the vast 19th Century church. 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 1,500 people of the town was there for Mass on a damp Saturday when the television schedules were filled with the Christmas schedules.
There was nothing special, not even any music, the choir attend the Mass on Sunday mornings. The congregation was mostly either middle aged or older, or teenagers; families with young children tend to attend the Sunday morning Mass. There was no suggestion that evening that anything separate was needed in order to attract the significant number of young people who stood there with their family or with their friends.
Forty-eight hours later, those who stood there would be back again for the first Mass of Christmas, but that did not prevent them being present that evening.
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.
I think we need to ask what’s going on, and what I think is going on is that the Church has derived strength from being counter-cultural. The Church, when it is at its best, offers, firstly, an encounter with the sacred, (and the sacred has no place in the thinking of a liberal, secular mind), and, secondly, a true sense of community, (and community obligations are alien to individual, consumerist thinking).
If we want to engage in mission, then I think we have to look at how we can best do now what we did well in the past, building up community in our parishes. Being a church is about being a community and that if there is no feeling of community, if there is no sense that when we gather on a Sunday we are met with warmth and love, then all the other things that we do are pointless.
Saint Paul understood how important was a sense of community, a sense that we are loved, when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians; we all know his words about love in chapter 13. We might have majestic buildings and fine preachers and great musicians and the best that can possibly imagined in every sphere of church life, we might have the most up to date thinking and ideas, but Saint Paul would tell us that without love we are nothing.
The strength of the church in Ireland has never been in doing anything particularly well.The strength of the church, especially as anyone who has worked in small rural parishes will testify, has been in the bonds of love and community between our people.
The church’s mission for me is about lives touched by God. Lives are touched by the warmth and the welcome and the friendship of the people they meet.
Maybe the church is not about doing, but instead it’s about being. It’s about countering the individualism and the consumerism that are rampant and being a community for everyone.
I think we have to be confident in ourselves, do the things we have done well, ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’, says Jesus. In being the best community we can be, we are being his disciples.