When the Mayo footballers ran out on Croke Park last Sunday for the league semifinal, no one expected any of them to bless themselves. We don’t go there anymore. Even though in the English Premiership soccer players regularly bless themselves and even on scoring a goal raise their arms to the heavens to acknowledge their faith in God, a similar gesture by an Irish player would be greeted now with discomfort and embarrassment.
It wasn’t that way. Blessing yourself in public was part of the way we were. The golfer, Christy O’Connor Jr, a decade or so ago, half blessed himself when he holed the putt that won the Ryder Cup for Europe some years ago. In the dark years of Sligo Gaelic football, a footballer used to bless himself before taking frees, leading to a sideline wag suggesting that even if Sligo were to lose the match they were in no danger of losing the faith. But now if Mayo footballers were to bless themselves they would be presented as religious fanatics from the unsophisticated West.
Even the universities, those bastions of institutional respect for difference, are getting queasy about the religion thing. Trinity College in Dublin has updated its crest. Whereas, heretofore, an open bible was prominently displayed now an open book represents a tradition of scholarship ‘which is open to all’. The Bible, it seems, was out of sync with the modern, non-sectarian, inclusive image Trinity College now seeks to portray.
Interestingly Trinity didn’t go the whole hog and jettison its name which represents belief in a three-personed God. Consistency would seem to demand that such a sectarian, non-inclusive term would be dispensed with but it seems Trinity’s need to project what it called ‘a crisp new image’ didn’t extend to losing its market-brand.
A matter of appearances, then. Something that, as the advertising gurus would say, resonates with the burgeoning culture of unbelief. Like those slightly patronising letters that appear regularly in the Irish Times, taking pot-shots at the presence of religion in Irish life and demanding a secular refuge from its malign influence.
A growing politically-correct attitude to religion in Ireland is now part of the weather of our times. It’s being fuelled by an antipathy to Catholicism that is, in many ways, understandable in view of the scandals uncovered in the recent past and the ethos of control and oppression that Catholicism fostered for so long.
The problem is that we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In rejecting a version of Catholicism that diminished human freedom, led to outrageous scandal and that in retrospect is now seen to have diminished people and Church, Irish society seems intent on categorising religion and spirituality as unacceptable, irrelevant, even dangerous in a civilised society. So anything that smacks of religion is interpreted as subverting the rights of citizens.
Leaving aside the important dividend of social cohesion that religion has produced, as well as the obvious contributions to education, health, social services etc resulting from the work of individuals and religious congregations, the loss of a spiritual sense will be the more problematic.
While it’s easy to vilify religion – and some of its more vocal adherents actually help that process – a sense of the spiritual is at the very core of who we are and its loss will be incalculable.
Once Irish society refuses to countenance any kind of Catholicism and by extension any version of Christianity, a sense of the spiritual slips from view. Because no matter how we regard organised religion, it is clear that we need religious ritual to sustain a spiritual sense.
Devising some new formula to give substance to thought and feeling while rejecting rituals that have been honed for centuries is a fruitless exercise. To put it plainly, burying the dead, for example, through the rituals of Christian death – in Catholic terms with a funeral Mass and its associated rubrics – clearly trumps whatever rubric some new-fangled quasi-anti-religious group invents on the hoof – no matter how many doves are released at a graveside. There’s no context, no perspective, no belief to give substance to the words and the actions.
What’s happening at present is that religion and spirituality are gradually, almost imperceptibly being diminished. Because religion, particularly Catholicism, is now deemed by the ‘movers and shakers’ of Irish society to be old-fashioned, irrational, unacceptable. A culture of embarrassment has ensured that few would want to be cast in public as ‘religious’. What Irish sports-person would want to stand out against the flow? Even if he/she was a Catholic and 99.9% of the spectators were Catholic?
What’s happening is that religion is being banished into a private corner, out of sight and out of mind. It’s no longer, as the authorities in Trinity College have discovered, a popular wheeze. Science and sophistication (and the unpopularity of the ‘Catholic’ brand) have conspired to push it to the margins.
So, as a sense of the spiritual and the transcendent diminishes, we lose touch with it. Who besides grandparents now say ‘with God’s help’ or ‘Please, God’? As space for God and the things of God diminishes, who could be surprised that adult children don’t know when to stand up or sit down at their mother’s funeral Mass?
In the new prevailing culture in Ireland, we’ve losing our sense of wonder, our sense of that incomprehensible mystery we call God, a sense that beyond this material world, there is a divine reality that gives depth and richness to the experience of a lived life.
In our brave, new, modern Ireland, we didn’t expect Mayo footballers to give any indication that they might believe in or need God. (Maybe they should).
In our brave new world, it’s instructive that Trinity College forked out €100,000 for a new crest. Anyone standing at a street corner, knowing what way the wind was blowing, would have come up with the idea of replacing the Bible with an open book for the price of a pint. All you have to do is add the dots.