When future historians write the history of Irish Catholicism in the 21st century, the year 2020 will likely serve as a marker of profound religious change. It will take its place alongside events such as the 1850 Synod of Thurles (shorthand for the "Devotional Revolution") which led to over 90 per cent Mass attendance by 1900; and the 1932 Eucharistic Congress, which triumphantly celebrated the fledgling State's Catholic identity on the world stage.
There was Pope John Paul II's visit in 1979, which, in hindsight, many now regard as Catholic Ireland's swansong; the breaking of the Bishop Eamon Casey story in 1992, which precipitated a tidal wave of revelations of double-standards, abuse and cover-up in the decades following; then taoiseach Enda Kenny's speech in 2011, which denounced the "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism" of the Vatican; and the papal visit of 2018 which, despite Pope Francis's personal popularity, largely failed to ignite the enthusiasm of Irish Catholics.
However, 2020 may very well be the most defining date of them all, with the most far-reaching consequences for religious practice in Ireland. And yet I believe its roots can be found in certain developments since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), not least in the area of popular piety.
For all its deficiencies (and there were many), pre-conciliar Irish Catholicism was not confined to the experience of the Sunday liturgy.
Instead, the everyday lives of most Catholics were punctuated by religious ritual: morning and night prayers; the Angelus; Grace before meals; the rosary; the wearing of religious medals or scapulars; the use of holy water; the ubiquity of religious iconography.
Was God really that bothered about these rituals that people often performed mechanically?
The variegated tapestry of popular devotions afforded the laity a degree of agency in their spiritual lives at a time when they were largely excluded from full and active participation in the liturgy.
Vatican II’s liturgical reforms provided a necessary corrective to what was now dismissed as an overly privatised piety of the past, practised by a people largely alienated from the richness of the church’s liturgical life.
This (along with other societal factors) unwittingly created a perfect storm of suspicion and denigration of many elements of popular piety, now grudgingly tolerated by some, and regarded as risible relics of a theologically impoverished past by others.
Reaction against an excessive scrupulosity of the past would lead to an inevitable loosening of devotional belts. Was God really that bothered about these rituals that people often performed mechanically? Was it not better to fully devote one’s attention to these matters in their proper place; their designated devotional area?
And, as the decades wore on, that designated devotional area increasingly became a designated liturgical one: attendance at Sunday Mass. This, at least, was the one time in the week into which a Catholic could plough his or her pious energies.
For many, when Covid-19 hit in 2020, Sunday Mass was the last vestige of their religious practice. With that gone, what was left?
If Vatican II called the Eucharist “the fount and apex of the Christian life”, surely this was a case of choosing the better part? And yet very soon it became the only part.
Despite the widespread caricature of a clerically dominated pre-conciliar church, and a largely mute laity who were required to “pray, pay, and obey”, it could be argued that it’s actually post-Vatican-II Catholicism that has witnessed a silencing of the laity, especially in the domestic setting, although this was hardly intended.
And its corollary is the idea that it’s primarily the priest’s role to lead people in communal prayer.
If, in the decades following Vatican II, for all sorts of sociocultural and religious reasons, Catholics had experienced a religious rupture, a jettisoning of devotional practice in the home, and a much-reduced menu of communal extra-liturgical practices, then the Sunday Mass inevitably became that which many still clung to, even if, in the midst of a flood of clerical scandals, it was by their very fingernails.
For many, when Covid-19 hit in 2020, Sunday Mass was the last vestige of their religious practice. With that gone, what was left? Might the year 2020 mark the final rupture in the history of Irish Catholicism?
Could a global pandemic finally do for some, especially those still barely clinging on, what almost three decades of scandalous revelations failed to do, like a swift December breeze sweeping away the last of the autumnal leaves?
Although recent weeks have seen limited numbers back in churches on Sundays, it’s far too early to say how many will eventually return when restrictions fully lift.
What’s for sure is that the first rupture has not helped in our coping with the prospect of a possible second. A healthy Christian life cannot sustain itself by simply leap-frogging from Sunday to Sunday without anything in between. By doing that, it is simply bone without cartilage.
In this time of Covid, Irish Catholics may need to sift through the site of that first rupture to find the necessary clues to avoid a second.