‘Babette’s Feast’ shows us value and future of the Eucharist

Fall in Mass attendance indicates inclusivity, a foundation stone of Christianity, is waning

When Pope Francis recently arranged for a number of Rome's homeless people to be given the best seats at his weekly Mass it was no doubt to remind us that inclusivity, as well as being a social and political imperative, is also a foundation stone of Christianity.

It reminded me of the practice, not that long ago (if we can so describe the middle years of the last century), of dividing congregations at some parish Masses by the size of their contributions to the collection, and the public blackmail involved in reading out the names of subscribers, and the amount each contributed to parochial funds, from the altar.

This long-gone practice is the topic of a wonderful, indignant poem by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.

If the Eucharist is non-inclusive, it falls at the first fence. And part of its strength is, or at least used to be, that it was the place where rich and poor, the well and the maimed, the frequent and (like myself) very infrequent attenders could come under the same roof without being divided or categorised, and were all invited to the same table.


House Masses

The fall in Mass attendances, particularly in our urban areas, suggests that inclusiveness, generally, is on the wane, although parish life can also demonstrate a heart-warming rejection of the individualised social and economic perspectives that underpin neo-liberal policies. Still, something is not quite right, and it’s as difficult to put a name to it as to suggest a remedy for it.

Over the decades, there have been many different responses. Sometimes they were oratorical. Nobody who ever attended them (as I did once or twice) will forget the mesmeric – because so unusual – tirades delivered by the late Michael Cleary from the pulpit in Adam and Eve's on the Dublin quays.

Then there were the folk Masses, as Catholicism tried to hitch its wagon to a musical star that shone somewhat briefly in the firmament.

I do not know the extent to which the estimable rural custom of house Masses, known as the “stations”, still exists. I attended a few in West Kerry in my childhood, fascinated by the swish of ecclesiastical garments and sonorous rituals in such domestic surroundings, but unaware of the healing of communal or familial rifts that was quietly going on behind the scenes.

The phenomenon has been replicated in urban areas where more intimate celebrations, despite their apparently exclusive or family centred nature, could recharge Christian batteries in extraordinary ways.

Hills of Bethlehem

Two such events still illuminate personal memories. In an upstairs room in a house in Bethlehem, members of the American religious order which had founded a university for mainly Arab students in the town, celebrated Mass before dinner. Through the open windows the hills where Jesus had walked could be seen, darkening in the twilight.

And the occasion when, in a modest semi-detached house in Glasnevin, the irrepressible Herbert McCabe OP celebrated a family eucharist in the Cluskey household to mark a special occasion, with a loaf of brown bread from the local supermarket and an above-average bottle of plonk.

These events sat comfortably enough with their grander, almost operatic counterparts: Pope Paul VI celebrating an open-air Mass at a huge, teeming gypsy camp in Pomezia outside Rome in the late 1960s, presenting a tableau that seemed to come straight from the New Testament; or two dozen Jesuit priests and bishops concelebrating multilingually before a huge congregation in the terraced garden of a monastery near the Vatican during Vatican II.

One of the most telling expositions of the nature of the Eucharist, however, is not explicitly religious, but cinematic. This is the 1987 Danish film Babette's Feast about the selfless generosity and redemptive power of a young French woman in a 19th century rural community who uses an unexpected lottery win to prepare and serve a sumptuous feast to the quarrelsome, religiously narrow-minded villagers.

The cathartic, liberating dénouement of this marvellous film says almost everything that needs to be said on the topic.

Two versions are available, one with subtitles, and another in which the Danish actors’ voices have been overdubbed with wildly inappropriate American accents. Get the subtitled version for church, parish or school: enjoy, and discuss.

Former senator, TD and MEP, Dr John Horgan was Ireland's first press ombudsman and retired as professor of journalism at DCU in 2014. He was also this newspaper's first Religious Affairs Correspondent , from 1964 to 1973.