By Peter Vandermeersch
Ireland, still a Catholic society? I have been visiting this country since 1990 and maybe there is no region in the world where the massive power of the church disappeared so abruptly. One of the main reasons for this is the way it became clear that the Catholic church was responsible for one of the biggest scandals in the history of this country. As the ‘Report of the Commission into Child Abuse in 216 childcare institutions run by the Catholic Church’ sadly stated: “Sexual abuse was endemic in boys institutions…”
The dwindling influence of the church is tangible everywhere. Fortunately since 2015 same-sex marriage, and since 2018 abortion, are legally possible in the Republic. Since January 2020, same-sex marriage is legal even in Northern Ireland and a couple of months earlier abortion was decriminalised.
Yet every day one is reminded how important the Catholic church and its traditions still are in Ireland. At six o’clock, immediately before the main evening television news on the public service broadcaster, RTE, there is a minute’s pause while The Angelus is broadcast. On radio the same thing happens at 12 noon.
The first time I heard it, I didn’t understand what was happening… Waiting for the news the radio went silent and the only thing I heard was the sound of bells (recorded, I learned later, at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Marlborough street in Dublin), calling the people in this country to pause for a prayer. Every single day at 12pm and at 6pm. The same bells. Asking me and all the people who just want to hear the news… to pray.
On television there is more than only the sound of bells. There, just a minute before the news, one sees what should be ‘poetic’ images… A woman feeding swans; an old man washing potatoes; a fisherman out at sea in his trawler. These visual reflections, I read, ‘aim to encourage viewers to take time out from the weariness, the fever and the fret of contemporary life’, according to RTE, which says that the Angelus is valued by many people as a moment of grace and peace.
Obviously, over the years, there have been fierce debates and controversies about this Angelus. Is it excluding non-Catholics in this country? Or is it only a sign of a century-long Catholic tradition? I hesitate. Each time I hear the bells, or watch the poetic images, I think about all the people who have been hurt so badly by the church in this country. Maybe that’s why the Angelus must stay. Forever.