'The priest began to face us during Mass, which was now in English'
WHEN HE LAUNCHED the Dublin archdiocese’s new policy on First Communion on Monday, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said there had been “enormous change in the Irish church” since Vatican II. Those of us whose childhoods coincided with the late 1950s and early 1960s can agree, although much remains the same.
Ireland was changed utterly by two events in those years, the Lemass-Whitaker First Programme for Economic Expansion, from 1958 to 1963, and the Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965.
But in October 1962 all eyes in Ireland, as elsewhere, were on Cuba, not Rome. The end of the world seemed nigh. A Catholic Irish-American, John F Kennedy, had become leader of the most powerful country in the world 22 months beforehand, and life as we knew it seemed on the brink of mutually assured destruction.
Catholicism in those days seemed to be all about suffering, punishment and investment in eternity. My teacher at Mullen school, near Frenchpark, Co Roscommon, was Mrs Ford. A devout woman, she had immense influence on me. I saw her cry just once. It was the morning after her daughter entered a convent. She had “died” to the family, who did not know when they might see her again.
It was a cruel religion, particularly to women. My devout grandmother buried her son, Matthew, in a field near our house in Mullen. He died after birth, before he could be baptised, so he could not be buried in consecrated ground and would never see heaven. He was in limbo, which was “abolished” by Pope Benedict in 2007.
At Sunday Mass in Frenchpark, women sat on their own side of the church, with their heads covered. They rarely went outside the home beyond attending confession and Mass.
In October 1962 I was being trained to be an altar boy by Mrs Ford. A Sunday previously there was no altar boy to serve Mass, and Fr Donnellan berated the congregation in a deep rage from the altar.
In our house there were intimations of changes to come. My father had stopped going to Mass. Early in 1961 the Vatican announced that St Philomena was being removed from the calendar of saints. To my father that meant she never existed. He was stunned.
His mother was devoted to St Philomena. She wore a St Philomena scapular around her neck as she endured a slow death from stomach cancer in the 1930s. When she died, in 1939, she left the St Philomena scapular to my father, her youngest child.
I never finished training to be an altar boy with Mrs Ford. In December 1962 we moved from Mullen, a townland where my ancestors had lived, to Ballaghaderreen, about 10km away.
Ballaghaderreen was full of priests, brothers and nuns. At the time Ireland was producing so many clergy that between a third and half went on the missions. In 1961 it moved Pope John to say, “Any Christian country will produce a greater or lesser number of priests. But Ireland, that beloved country, is the most fruitful of mothers in this respect.” He might have been talking about Ballaghaderreen.